ultrarunning

Following Hardrock Dreams: an Interview with Ryan Meulemans, a Local Chattanooga Ultra Trail Runner

Hardrock 100 mile race is notoriously known as one of the hardest ultra-marathons in the United States. It attracts running legends like Kilian Jornet to race across the Colorado mountains. Runners can only enter Hardrock through a lottery. This year, one of our own Chattanooga Fast Breakers made it in and placed 33rd overall. We sat down with Ryan Meulemans to hear about his race.

HOW DID YOU GET INTO RUNNING?

I've always been into the outdoors and have enjoyed the outdoors in many ways, shapes, and forms. I originally started with hiking and backpacking. And then was really into fly fishing for a few years. It was an evolution of enjoying the outdoors. In my early 20’s, I smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, ate like #&^%, weighed 200 pounds. I got into exercising. I was like, I have to go to the gym and like bla, bla, blah. I quit smoking and all that. But the gym wasn't for me. It wasn't fun. So I started running on the road 2-3 miles, cause that's all I could do. But then a couple of buddies were like, "We go out and run trails." I hadn't been doing it much, but I liked hiking and backpacking in the Smokies. So that's just how I got into it. I wasn't really a runner until I became a trail runner. That was probably a little over 10 years ago.

Everything in my life is to the frickin extreme. It's just how I live, it's my personality. Everything is to the max. Running for me isn't any different. I got into it. I enjoyed the trails and it was one of those things, where I was having a conversation with some guys, and they were like, "Stump Jump is coming up." And I was like, "What's Stump Jump?" At that point I was really only comfortable with 10-12 miles. I thought about it for a few weeks, and decided that I was going to do it. I had 1 year to train for it. I did it and finished and liked it. And that was my first ultra.

I want to be in the woods. I want to be out there on the trails, and the cliffs and the streams and bluffs. That's why I do it. So I did Stump Jump a couple of years in a row. Then I started adding other races and 50ks became not that big of deal so I started doing 50 milers then 100’s.

Photo contributed by Ryan Meulemans

WHEN DID YOU START DREAMING OF HARDROCK?

I kind of like those more mountainy races. I had always had it in my head that Hardrock was the pinnacle. If you look at the race course, you can make an argument that it's the hardest thing in North America and definitely one of the hardest things in the world.

I put my name into Hardrock for about 5 years. There is a short list of races that the Hardrock race directors deem worthing or hard enough to do Hardrock. The list used to be bigger but it has shrunk down. I would get a qualifier every other year, put my name into Hardrock every year, and wait and see. And I wouldn't get in. But last December, luck of the draw, I finally got in for 2017.

I was ecstatic. You find out over Twitter. You're sitting there watching the lottery hitting refresh, refresh, refresh. I was picked in the second batch of names. It was like a band-aid had been ripped off. The lottery started and 5 minutes later I was in! But I didn't have any fear. I knew what I was getting into. I definitely wanted the opportunity to do it. So my name got pulled and I was all in.

 

WHAT WAS YOUR TRAINING LIKE?

My last 3 years of running have been FatDog 120 [in British Columbia], Western States, and getting ready for Hardrock. So I went back and looked at FatDog, which was great, and looked at what I had done. Even though FatDog is longer, I knew I probably needed to dial it up for Hardrock. So I just went about my plan with a nice build up. Every other Saturday as [a race] gets closer is the really long run. I’ll go do a 45-50 mile run, then the next Saturday 12 miles, then the next Saturday 45-50. So for these types of races, like a Hardrock or FatDog, the only chance you have is to go to some place like the Smokies to find 5-6 mile climbs. With a race like HardRock, you have these really long climbs and descents to train for. And there's nothing like that around here. So I'd go up to the Smokies around Friday afternoon and camp and run.

 

HOW DID YOU HANDLE THE ELEVATION?

I went out 2 weeks in advance. My sister lives in Denver, so I drove out. Got to Denver on Friday afternoon, camped in my truck. Got up Saturday morning, put in 18 miles up and down some 14ers. And I was beat. Elevation kicked me bad! I was like, “Ok, this isn't good. I'm really fit and I don't know how I could run 5 more miles.” So I was a little nervous. I went out again the next day for a shorter 15 miles or so. Took Monday off. Then my sister and I went out on July 4 and did 4 14ers in 1 day. It was up and down, up and down. It was pretty good. That day I felt better. That was Tuesday and I could feel it coming together.

I drove to Silverton on Wednesday. I went out on Thursday for a 20 miler, and I felt good. I went out again 1 week before the race and still felt good, elevation was good. I knew when I was going up 12 to 13 thousand feet and I was talking that things were going to be ok.


WALK US THROUGH RACE DAY.

Photo contributed by Ryan Meulemans

I slept like a baby the night before. Not sure why. The race starts at 6am on Friday morning. I felt good. The race starts and everybody is in a group. You run through town and a couple miles in, the first thing you do is run through a creek crossing. So your feet are wet the entire time after that. That was probably one of my biggest fears, that my feet would be wet the entire time and, knowing how technical the course is, I was wondering if I'd just wear my feet out with blisters. Luckily, feet were solid. I changed my shoes and socks one time at the half way point and was good to go. I didn't glide my feet, bandaid my feet, nothing. I rarely have foot problems, so if I do, I don't understand why cause I rarely do. But feet were wet the entire time.

So you go up the big climb and everyone's together and all strung out in a huge train. And the day gets started. The thing about Hardrock is that you have to remember the whole entire time A) how hard you worked to be there and B) how long it took for you to get in. I would come to the top of climbs and look around and be like, 'Oh my god, this is awesome.' It's truly the most beautiful running course I've been on. I was totally engaged the entire time. Any hundred mile I've ever run, you get into these stretches where you're just like, “This stretch sucks. I can't wait for this to be over.” But at Hardrock, that never happened.

Photo contributed by Ryan Meulemans

 A friend of mine had introduced me to my friend Joel whom I had never met before Hardrock training. My friend said we ran the same style and pace and we might want to run together, so we did. We did some training runs in Tennessee together and really hit it off. We had talked about it at the beginning that we should share some miles together since we're a similar pace, with the complete understanding that if either one of us hits a low point the other one is leaving and that's the end of that. There's not going to be any "we got to stay together type deal." So I caught up to Joel at about 12ish miles into the race. Him and I started rolling together. Just enjoying the day, just a beautiful Friday morning, just having a great time. And as with any Colorado afternoon, it starts to get dark, and the skies go black, and we look over at this mountain range, and we're like, "Oh $%*&! That doesn't look good!" So the temperature drops and a huge hail storm comes in, pea-sized hail. I have a hood on but it's killing my ears where it's hitting. Of course I had my Fast Break trucker on, but regardless, we were getting pummeled. I looked back and Joel's legs were bleeding. I finally yelled, ”Dude, we need to take cover." It started thundering and lightning. So we got into the willows and hunkered down for probably 10 minutes. It seemed to be moving out, and I was getting really cold, so we had to start running again just for that purpose. Fortunately, the storm was moving out, but the streams were now all flooded. It was intense, but that's part of the Hardrock deal! Joel and I rolled together through the night from 12 miles to the town of Telluride, which is at mile 72.

A great part of the race is an aid station section called Kroger’s Canteen. It's a very famous aid station. It's up on the top of a mountain in a nook. They built platforms there. Scott Jurek’s up there serving something to eat. We knew going into it, that one side of it was still completely snowed in. So in pitch blackness, we start up these snow pitches that was just like climbing a ladder. You put your feet in and use your trekking poles, and you've got your head lamp and you're just climbing into nothing. Straight up. It would go and pitch out, and then keep going. There's 3 pitches to the top, then you can see the aid station, and they're all yelling at you to climb. I was like, "Dude, don't fall. It's not going to be good." So super cool, but definitely one of the sketchier things I've done in my running, and I've done some pretty crazy spots.
 
In the middle of the night, we started down to the next descent and got into the town of Telluride, and grabbed what we needed at the aid station. It's 4:30 in the morning. It's getting close to sun up but not quite there yet. It's mile 70 and everything feels good. So we start out of Telluride, me, Joel and his pacer. And I don't know what happened, but I could not get out of first gear. They were leaving me in the dust. I lost all my momentum. I was really struggling to keep up with them. So finally I said, "This is it. It's that spot. You've got to go. I can't keep up."

Photo contributed by Ryan Meulemans

Looking back, I think I got a little low on calories. There's definitely something with altitude. I don't think I ate that much for 100 miles. I never had a gel. I don't like gels. I ate Shot Bloks. I'd ate quesadillas and burritos at aid stations. I think Joel was at a really good pace for probably 20 miles prior and it burned me just a little bit, so it hit later. It probably would have been better to back off, but I didn't. But there's no regrets. It was all still fine. It was a very difficult climb. It was a section of the course I had not seen. And looking at the profile, I think mentally I thought it wasn't going to be that bad, and then it was really bad. It was one of those ones where you're just going and there's 3-4 false summits and you think you're there, and it's not the top, and you get to another peak, and it’s still not the top. And I had all that going on mentally of my buddy leaving me and my pacer not keeping up (that’s another story). It was a lot. I think if you run 100 miles and don't have one low energy spot, you're really good. I felt low for a couple of hours, but once I got to the top of the climb, the sun was up, I was good. I bombed down into an aid station. I ate, had a cup of coffee, had a breakfast burrito and it was golden after that.

So I finally got to the top of that climb. The sun came up, and that's always a boost. That's a thing about 100 milers. There's always that time around 4:30-5:30 in the morning where you're tired and then the sun comes up, and I always get a huge boost. So after that, it was good. It was still a grind and very difficult. I was on my own all the way to the finish. Joel was always just ahead of me. He ended up finishing nearly an hour ahead of me.

I had seen the final 20 something miles of the course. We had done the final 20 miles the week before. So I knew after that low moment, everything else I had seen. I knew exactly where I was. I knew every climb that I had to do, which is both a blessing and a curse, to get the finish.

I got to the top of another climb, which is super hard, straight up. I'm digging, climbing, rocks are sliding right under me. When I got to the top of that climb which I knew would be really hard, I was like, "Ok I got this. Lets finish." I was at 85, had 15 to go. It was 10 in the morning on Saturday. I was golden. I had waited a long time for this. And the race had been great. I was in and out of the last couple of aid stations and then on to the finish. When you get to the finish at Hardrock, you kiss the rock. It felt great. I didn't feel destroyed at all. I felt really, really good about it.

Photo contributed by Ryan Meulemans

 YOU'VE FINISHED YOUR DREAM RACE. WHAT’S NEXT?

Hardrock is definitely a race I could see myself doing multiple times. I've done it one direction, now I have to do it the other way, since they reverse it every other year. I will probably put in every year. There's so much about it. Silverton shuts down the week before the race. It's a serene atmosphere leading up to such a big event.

 

Photo contributed by Ryan Meulemans

WHAT WAS YOUR BIGGEST TAKE AWAY FROM YOUR FIRST HARDROCK?

I think one of the biggest things that hit me at Hardrock was during the pre-race briefing, the race director, Dale Garland, announced who has done this five times, ten times, etc.  One guy had done it twenty-five times. Then he said that only 700 something individual people have only finished this race in the whole world. When tomorrow's race is done, there will be 780 or whatever. But only 750 or so people in the world have completed Hardrock. And I was like, I have to be one. I have to be 1 of those 750, that's why I'm here.

Athlete Profile: Patrick Reagan

For this month’s athlete profile, we talked with Patrick Reagan who represented Team USA in the IAU 100k Championships in November and finished third overall. But Pat’s win did not come out of thin air. In college, he was a two time NCAA Division II Cross Country All-American and five time NCAA Cross Country and Track/Field National Qualifier. This past year, Pat finished second with a time of 6:35.56 in the USATF 100K Road National Championships and qualified for the Olympic trials in the marathon.

Needless to say, we were pretty stoked about talking to Patrick.

Photo credit:  Adrienne Berkland

Photo credit: Adrienne Berkland

You recently won third place in the world's 100k Championships. Tell me about that experience.

I had a chance to represent Team USA in the 100k World Championships which is organized by the IAU (International Association of Ultrarunners). That's technically one of the majors of ultra running so it was really cool to compete it [and] I just had a really good day. In most races I do, I run as even as possible and this was a race that was very similar to that [strategy] with some negative splits. So I was really happy with the race's performance.

I came through the 50k in about 30th place and ended up third in the race. I cut down a lot of guys in the last 50k, especially in the last 30. I think it was maybe at 70k I was still in 13th, so I caught 10 additional guys in the last 30% of the race. To be podium was so cool. And that didn't happen until 94K which was when I pulled into third place. And that was awesome! I ran my last 5k hard, as hard as I possibly could!

You train mostly on road. How does that translate over to racing on trails?

Well, it doesn't necessarily translate so far, since I haven't competed in a lot of trail races. I've mostly stuck with flatter trails so far since this is my first year of trail running. Up until February of this year, I was focusing on just road marathoning and road half-marathoning.

The whole year was essentially built on road ultras, but that's not necessarily my plan for every year. I did Ultravasan 90k this year and that experience was so cool: running from Salen to Mora in Sweden. It was beautiful. There's only 3,000 feet of elevation gain, so it was very flat, almost negligible. But there was a nice bit of technical trail around the 9k mark to the 25k mark and then the last 60k was just non-technical dirt roads and doubletrack trail.

I like fast terrain as much as I like more challenging elevation gain and technical terrain. I'm just not as practiced on that type of racing yet. There will be a time when I get more used to a lot more elevation gain and technical trail, but this year was very focused on the skill set I currently have and the environment I'm currently training in.

Leading the Ultravasan 90K @ 24K. Photo Credit: Bryon Powell of   IRunFar.com

Leading the Ultravasan 90K @ 24K. Photo Credit: Bryon Powell of IRunFar.com

How did you get into running initially?

I had been in team sports most of my life, but up until high school, I had never run a mile consistently. But my father was a pretty avid runner and race director in his 30's for about seven years. So the exposure from my father and walking away from team sports early on in high school, pushed me to running. Like a lot of high school runners, I ran a gym-class mile. I ran 4:57, keying off the senior best cross country runner in the school. I was a pretty fit individual because I was an avid skateboarder and basketball player. I remember the way my gym teacher looked at me when I crossed the finish line in the mile. He was like, "You need to try track and field." So that year I tried track and I became relatively obsessed with it before cross country.

Collegiately, I went to a school in West Virginia for a year, before transferring to Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania where my career took off. There, I was couple time All American in cross country in the NCAA. I ended up being 12th in the NCAA Division II in 2007. I had a relatively successful career there in track. I ran 14:20's for the 5k and 30:00 for the 10k. I developed that love for the 5k and 10k. If there had been a half marathon in college, I probably would have run it.

Now you coach at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), plus post-collegiate runners on the side. Tell me a little about your coaching philosophy.

I guess from a collegiate perspective, the way I coach is way more individually-based. Some of my best women are running 60-70 miles a week and some of my best women are running 20-30 miles a week and doing a lot more cross training. My goal is to keep the runner happy and healthy so that when they get to the end of their collegiate career they will still want to compete post-collegiately.

It's so much about the mind. Even for collegiate cross country, if you are physically and mentally committed to your training program… that’s the hardest and first step in being able to build a successful team. Once you have a group of individuals who are on board who feel like a family, who act like a family, it's so much easier to get everyone to grasp performing at championships, performing as a team when it counts.

For someone who is running post-collegiate, motivation has to be more intrinsic because you no longer have the team aspect. It's really cool to work with an athlete to develop that athlete-coach relationship. The coach learns so much from the athlete as the athlete learns from the coach. And I think once you learn how to work together on a personal level then you're able to craft a training program that works, both in terms of motivation for an individual but also how to get them even more passionate about the sport.

But even the most motivated athletes go through waves of motivation, right? Where sometimes you're just having a down time mentally, physically, spiritually in life and you're not connecting what the running like you feel on most days. Then it's time for some little down time. As important as training everyday is, time away from the sport is important as well, so you can get a little more perspective on how involved you are and is your involvement healthy? Can I better balance my life so that I am actually running fast, running better, accomplishing more, completing all the events that I registered for, rather than keep on grinding and not develop a good rest and hard work balance.

How did you transition from cross country 5ks to the 100k?

I took off four years [after college]. I didn't run seriously for three of that four. I toured around the country a little bit with a small band and had the chance to go to about forty-five different states. I loved that and did that for a few years before moving to Savannah.

When I moved here, it was three years into my no-running between college and now. I volunteered with the track and field program at SCAD while I was a Pedicab driver in Savannah, and I became interested in running again. I had a really great mentor here at SCAD and at the end of the year he stepped down, so I applied. And that's when I say my running started taking off again. I got my first couple of recruiting classes at SCAD that motivated me I think as much as I motivated them. So at that juncture I started doing road halves and 10ks.

I guess I wasn't feeling extremely passionate about [running] in the half marathon to marathon perspective like I am in the ultras. I ran a 50k trail race last fall and I just loved it. I love being out there for three hours. There was something about it that I felt like, “Man, I kind of want to go further." There's something so invigorating about these long races that take you to a different place emotionally, physically, spiritually, that a 10k and half just don't do for me. Not that I don't love running those races. I love going as hard as I can for 30 minutes or an hour. And that's fun in a different way, but now that the spectrum’s open, I can run a hard four mile road race or I can go run a controlled pace for six and a half hours at a world championship in the 100k.

It’s so enticing to be able to experiment with that entire spectrum. I think that's what keeps me motivated. It gives you time to say, "Now for six months I'm going to concentrate on my leg speed and I want to do some fun cross country races, and when I come back to ultras it's going to be fun. I'm not going to be worn out. I'm going to have a different skill set from the last time around. It'll be interesting to see how I perform a 100k at better leg speed at 8k, 10k.” That's my personal approach to running. I don't want to limit myself to one speciality.

Team USA @ 100K World Champs.  Photo Credit: Traci Falbo

Team USA @ 100K World Champs.  Photo Credit: Traci Falbo

What are your goals for 2017?

I want to do my first hundred, but I don't want to do a big, technical mountain hundred really. The focus on the first half of my year, for right now, is Comrade's Marathon in South Africa on June 4. It's in Pietermaritzburg which will be a big challenge for me, given it'll be 6,000 feet of gain uphill as opposed to the downhill here. Then the back half of the year I'm going to focus on Ultravasan 90k in August and Javelina Jundred in October in Arizona. Those are the three I really want to focus on. I have a couple along the way. Next up is Black Canyon 100k in February in Arizona.