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Champion ultrarunner Hal Koerner looks back on some of the weirdest, dangerous and most valuable lessons he’s learned from almost 20 years on the trail.
Last summer, ultrarunner and two-time Western States champion Hal Koerner released his first book, Hal Koerner’s Field Guide To Ultrarunning. The guide covers everything from choosing your first ultra race to becoming a backwoods, bathroom-using pro. With more than 100 ultramarathons under his belt, Koerner draws his experiences to convey valuable tips and advice. We caught up with the Rogue Valley Runner store owner from Ashland, Ore., and asked him to share a few of his adventures from the trail.
What’s the best beginner’s advice you received from a fellow ultrarunner?
Going into racing, some people come to it with all these intentions. You hope to do something in a certain amount of time or you hope to place at a certain level. It’s hard to dedicate so much time and effort—maybe years’ worth—going into a race and not have it turn out the best way you think it will. One of the best pieces of advice someone once told me was to have an open mind about what can happen to you during an ultra race.
It really comes down to being prepared for the unexpected out there. Be ready to make changes on the fly. Be prepared for things you can’t really be prepared for, which is a funny way of putting it. For me, it’s also about being happy with the accomplishment in general. Preparing for that race, getting it done, crossing the finish line—you’ve done an unbelievable thing, and I always have to remind myself that.
When you first started participating in ultra races, what is the most embarrassing ultra-noob move you pulled?
I used to get lost all the time. I still get lost, and people get lost at every race. When you are pushing the limits of nutrition and trying to get enough energy, not a whole lot is going to your brain as far as where focus is concerned. I’ve had so many races where I’m running down the trail fast in first place thinking, Oh my god, I’m killing this race. Only to find out miles later that I’m not even on the right course!
The other ultra-noob thing you never want to do—never eat M&M’s at an aid station. Because you never know where an ultrarunner’s hands have been after 14 hours of running on a trail.”
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve seen or encountered on the trail?
When I was running Western States 100 for numerous years, it was always run by the Hash House Harriers [a running club that describes itself as “drinkers with a running problem”] and I was never too familiar with that. I would get to mile 90 tired and out of it at night and there was a bunch of guys in red dresses. I’ve never seen anything like it. You could smell the alcohol from 20 yards away when you got there and tons of bottles of booze were out on the tables. It’s just one of those things where you go, “Did I really just see what I just saw?” It eventually became something to look forward to and raised your spirits.
Have you ever found yourself in a dangerous situation during a trail run or race?
One of the scariest things I’ve actually done is run right up on a porcupine at night. It was at the Hardrock 100 just a couple years ago and I was worn out and watching the trail at my feet with the headlamp. Next thing you know there’s a backend of a spiky porcupine. That seemed like it could have ended up being very dangerous. Luckily, you can move faster than a porcupine, which is one of the more dangerous things you could outrun.
If you could only take one technical (non-fuel) item with you on a run what would it be?
I usually tend to run with my music. So taking my Nano or my iPhone would really be a key thing for me. Just because the events are so long and sometimes music can help take your mind off the pain. It can also be a little more comforting and feel like you have a companion when times get lonely out there too, especially at night.
How has the ultrarunning scene for women grown since you first started?
We have a 100-mile race we put on here in Ashland and the numbers are actually quite good for women participating in 100-milers. As far as finishers are concerned, the women’s and men’s numbers are almost equal—based off of the last statistic I saw. So you’re beginning to see women become better finishers than all the men that enter the races. That’s the testament to women being able to tolerate pain a little better, their ability to focus for extended periods of time, to pace themselves better and sometimes be more logical about how to approach 100-milers.
And finally, what’s the secret to running a successful ultra race?
You have to go into these events very confident with your training and in the right head space. You also have to understand what your pace is going to be about on the day. If you know you can’t go out extremely hard, then obviously don’t go out too fast, but that doesn’t mean go out slow. You have to go out smart. The better you can be at pacing yourself and creating a cadence, the better everything will turn out.