The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner
"I'm not sure I've ever considered myself athletic. Just determined. The emphasis is obviously personal and about the challenge."
interview by Matt Christenson
Ultras are any run longer than the marathon (a marathon is 26.2 miles). The typical distances are 50k, 50 miles, 100k, and 100 miles. Most ultras are run on trails and forest roads," says Robert Towne, BLM Spokane District Manager and ultramarathoner.
Robert recently spoke with Northwest Passage to share his experiences about training, the outdoors, and how winning is sometimes just finishing the race.
Northwest Passage (NWP): At what age did you complete your first marathon? Where was it?
Robert Towne (RT): I ran my first marathon in 1990. I was 38 years old and I ran the Portland Marathon with Russ Buswell. We both worked at the (BLM) Salem District.
NWP: What inspired you to become an ultramarathoner? Did you know other people who were doing them? Or do you think you might have a bit of a wild/crazy streak?
RT: I've enjoyed running for almost 20 years and ultras provide a challenge that is very different from the marathon. It's been said that ultras are all about eating and drinking with a little scenery thrown in. For me, a marathon is a long race where you attempt a fast finish. An ultra is an adventure that you hope you can finish. Due to the duration of the event you need to learn to eat without getting sick, drink appropriately, maintain your electrolyte balance, deal with weather extremes and elevation, learn to run alone at night in unfamiliar territory, and try not to trip on every root and boulder. Plus the community of ultra runners is very welcoming. What's not inspiring about that!?
NWP: At what age did you complete your first ultramarathon? What, how long, and where was it?
RT: I ran my first ultra in July of 2006 in Spokane. I was a few days shy of my 54th birthday. The race was called Let's Climb a Mountain and is 34 miles long. The race boasts only one hill ‐ the entire race. You run from downtown Spokane to the top of Mt. Spokane. (2000' to 5600')
NWP: After that first one, did you think you'd ever do another one?
RT: Two weeks after completing “Climb a Mt." I ran the Mt. Hood 50 miler. I got lost during the race and added a couple of extra miles. So there I was at Timberline Lodge having run 27 miles with 25 more to go and wondering what I'd gotten myself into. Nine hours after starting, I finished.
NWP: What does your body feel like after you finish an ultra? What about your brain/mind?
RT: My mind usually feels great – that endorphin high times 10. The body? It depends on how hard I ran but usually not so great.
NWP: What inspires you to continue these ultramarathons?
RT: I'm inspired by the continual lessons in living such as dealing with disappointment, perseverance, developing relationships, trust, hope, and discipline. Plus you get to run in really special places. I've completed long distance runs in fifteen states and three countries.
NWP: If you could be a professional at any other sport, which would it be?
RT: A drummer in a rock‐n‐roll band. I know that is not a recognized sport but it should be.
NWP: Do you think there will ever come a day when you might stop competing in ultras?
RT: In the last year, I was the overall winner at four ultras. I am the USA Track & Field age group National 50 Mile Trail Champion. In 2008, I had the 63rd fastest 100 mile time and the 53rd fastest 100k time in the United States. I hope to keep running and keep the wheels on. I'll be 60 in 3 years and hope to set some course records for the over 60 age group.
NWP: Have you ever had a favorite running partner?
RT: My favorite partner was no one at all. It was nighttime in the Black Hills of South Dakota and I turned off my light and ran by a blood moon and starlight with the mantra of footfalls interlaced by the rhythm of my breathing. It really doesn't get any better.
To chat more with Robert Towne (and learn his favorite racing foods...), check out Robert's extended online interview.
Also, the original photo of Robert on the cover of this issue was graciously provided by photographer Scobel Wiggins.