Danelle Ballengee and the Art of Suffering
If I tried listing all of Danelle Ballengee’s achievements, I would be here a long while. Heck, even listing just all of her trail running achievements would give me writer’s cramp. Instead I will say this: she is, without a shadow of doubt, one of mountain running’s all-time legends. But the problem is that even that does not do her justice insomuch as it’s just one feather in her ridiculously feathery cap. Danelle’s talents and influence have graced almost all disciplines of sports classed as endurance sports; she is, as she puts it herself, the ‘Jane of All Trades.’ I caught up with Danelle to talk about her past, present, and future career; her return to Skyrunning and Pikes Peak; and whether her thirst for suffering was well and truly quenched during her almost 60 hours stranded with a smashed pelvis in a canyon in Moab.
iRunFar: So, Danelle, you grew up in Evergreen outside Denver, Colarado. Was there plenty of hiking and outdoor activities for you as a kid there?
Danelle Ballengee: Yes, I spent a lot of time playing outside. We’d build forts on the mountain behind our house and hike or bike over to the ponds to catch salamanders and frogs. I liked to set up obstacle courses in the woods around our house.
iRF: Cool. Did you always enjoy sports growing up? You played soccer in school, right? Was there a certain aspect of it that you liked, competitiveness maybe? Or did you think it was just a fun thing to do?
Ballengee: Yes, I enjoyed soccer. I liked the challenge of trying to do well. I enjoyed the running, too. Getting the juice flowing made me feel good, even as a kid. I didn’t become as competitive until I started running. Soccer was more of a fun, social thing to do.
iRF: Getting the juice flowing, I like it! So when did you first start running? Can you tell us a little of your first memorable running experience or race?
Ballengee: My first year of middle school, my dad was training for the local 10k. I decided to join him. I did the race and loved it even though I threw up at the finish. I joined track in middle school and had fun with that, although my coach made me run the sprints even though I wanted to run the mile. (There was another girl on the team who was pretty good, and she got to run the distance events. Coach needed me to score on the sprints.)
iRF: Okay, so that was middle school. Then moving on to high school, you try out for the volleyball team, get shot down for not being tall enough and find solace in the cross-country team instead, right? Tell us a little of those early times on the cross-country team?
Ballengee: That mean volleyball coach was one of the best things that could have happened to me! Yes, I quit volleyball when the coach told me not-so-nicely that I was too short. So I joined cross country where size or shape or color or personality didn’t matter… just your finishing time mattered! My high-school coaches were super! They made me love running and competing. They pushed me hard enough that I challenged myself but not so hard that I got injured or didn’t like it. I did okay at the state championships, but not great. I knew I wanted to keep running.
iRF: And did you much success in races in those days, Danelle, or did that come later?
Ballengee: I did well enough that I wanted to continue, but I wasn’t a star. I was one or two on the high-school team and finished okay at state. (I can’t remember where I finished.) I then ran on the CU Boulder cross-country team for a year. It was a big step up in my run training. I did okay, but not great. It was during this time I entered a 10-mile trail race and won. That’s when I realized the long stuff might be better for me. So I quit the cross-country team to pursue longer-distance running on my own. It was also at this time that I discovered the benefits of cross training and started getting into cycling and swimming.
iRF: So let’s talk trail running. When did this first appear on your radar as an alternative to cross country? Were you attracted to the longer distances that it offered?
Ballengee: Growing up running and hiking off-road, it never really crossed my mind that trail running was any different than road running. I really just liked the scenery better on the trail and didn’t have to worry about cars. Our high school cross-country team always ran on the local trails and I had a friend up the street who I’d run the trails around our house with. I did a few road races because they were there to do, but the trails have always called me!
iRF: You started college in Boulder around this time right? Was there a local crew that you were you running with back then?
Ballengee: I ran on the CU cross-country team for one year. That was a huge jump in my training volume and was a good experience although I never bonded with the girls on the team. Then I got into triathlon and was part of the first-ever CU triathlon team. We trained together a lot and developed good friendships. I won collegiate national triathlon championships that year. But, mostly, like now, I run alone.
iRF: So why do you think you didn’t bond with the girls on the team, Danelle? Was it a competitive thing or something else, do you think?
Ballengee: Definitely not a competitive thing, rather an intimidation thing. They were older than me and had been on the team for at least a couple years. I was a couple years younger—still naïve—and shy. And the training level was a huge jump from high school. I could barely keep up, let alone chat enough to make friends. And I was busy with school work, ROTC scholarship duties (I quit ROTC after one year), and had friends in my dorm that I bonded well with instead.
iRF: I gotta ask about Pikes Peak. You are a multiple Pikes Peak Marathon winner, four years straight from 1994 to 1997. When did you first hear about the race?
Ballengee: I don’t think I learned about the race until college. And when I found out about it I knew I had to do it. That first race there was the best. It was competitive running against Michelle Blessing and I really pushed hard and felt good. I knew I wanted more good suffering like that!
iRF: Ha ha, tell us more about the battle with Michelle in that first Pikes Peak race. Blow-by-blow, please!
Ballengee: She was ahead of me at the beginning, in fact I was third or fourth for the first several miles. I was just trying to hang on to the top five. Then as we got higher elevation I was able to keep my speed and pass a couple girls. I can’t remember exactly where I passed Michelle and in fact we might have gone back and forth once in those high-altitude miles. But I do remember running my butt off all the way down to hold her off. I set the downhill record! And I could keep seeing and hearing her the whole way down, so it was intense. I couldn’t believe I was winning since it was still in my early days of running and my first marathon of that type. The hard effort and excitement made it a special victory for me.
iRF: You have said that Pikes Peak suited you as it was ‘brutal.’ I love that. When did you realise you had a gift for really tough races?
Ballengee: I think it was my first Pikes Peak. That’s when I discovered how much I liked to suffer and that I could do pretty good at that kind of stuff.
iRF: Did it come as a surprise that you liked to suffer, though? Surprised how much you could push it?
Ballengee: Actually, this was something I learned when I look back in retrospect. At the time it was just what I did and who I was. I didn’t realize that perhaps this was a quality that would help me in sport until long after. In fact after I stopped competing as much.
iRF: So after your fourth win in 1997, you took a hiatus from Pikes Peak for eight years before coming back in 2005 and 2006. Why the break?
Ballengee: I wasn’t on a break! I was trying to make a living doing endurance sports. I got into adventure racing, which I love (still to this day) and was on circuit traveling around the world to compete with my team. There was prize money and sponsorship money in adventure racing at that time (much thanks to Mark Burnett and the Eco-Challenge) so I went where the money was. I competed in snowshoe racing in the winter and won several North American championships and also did winter triathlon where I won nationals. I never lost sight of trail racing. I just couldn’t fit in races like Pikes Peak because of the timing. I was also running several of the Skyraces during this time.
iRF: Yeah, so you were heavily into adventure racing, on the GoLite and Spyder teams, is that right? What was your favourite-ever adventure race and why?
Ballengee: I raced on several teams as they ‘morphed’ over the years. Most of my ‘career’ I was on the Nike ACG/Balance Bar team. Spyder was in the last couple years before my accident and GoLite sponsored our Primal Quest team one year. I don’t know if I can pick one favorite. They were all pretty amazing and each was unique, but one does not stick out over another. Patagonia was really cool. So was Newfoundland. Those were both Adventure Racing World Championships. Also the Primal Quests—Telluride, Tahoe, and San Juan Islands were all memorable. And of course Eco-Challenge—Fiji, Morocco, and Borneo were all unique and memorable.
iRF: Coming back to Pikes Peak, you finished second in both 2005 and 2006 with ’06 being your second-fastest time ever there, only a little over minute off your PB from 12 years earlier. That rocks! You must have been pretty happy about your return?
Ballengee: Yeah… you’re the first to notice that my second wasn’t too too bad. I was happy with my races there although another 100 meters would have been nice so I could have snuck into first position…. My first Pikes Peak in 1994 was still my favorite. When I came back in 2005 and 2006, I fit Pikes Peak into my busy racing schedule, so didn’t feel I was as prepared as I could have been and I was a bit overtrained at the time. Still those were good races and oh-so-close… close enough that I wish I was just a bit more prepared.
iRF: Any thoughts on doing Pikes Peak again? Next year, 2014, will be the 20th anniversary since your first race there. Just sayin’. ;)
Ballengee: Hmmm… yeah, sure. I’d love my kids to be able to see that race. And to come back with metal plates in my back and finish it after almost dying would be cool, too. My husband grew up near Pikes Peak so he wants to run it now. The altitude is going to be tough now that I live low!
iRF: Lets talk about Skyrunning, Danelle. Marino Giacometti called you ‘one of the all-time greats’ of the sport. Tell us about how you became a member of the ‘Dream Team?’
Ballengee: That’s nice of him! I think I was one of the few gals crazy enough to try that stuff at the time. I really, really enjoyed all the Skyrunning I’ve done over the years. Lauri van Houten and Marino provided a wonderful opportunity for me at the time and I’ll always appreciate and respect them for it! I think I was part of the team because of my passion and commitment to running trails at altitude. I trained hard and was willing to suffer. I learned a lot through experience. With that I was able to do have some success, although I don’t have the raw talent that some of the kids these days have.
iRF: So who are the women and men that you see running the sky races now and think ‘wow, they are good; I wish I could go toe-to-toe with them!’
Ballengee: I’ve gotten a bit of distance from the sport as I’m busy with my two boys and our business, so I watch the sport but don’t really ‘know’ the players. I just know there’s a new generation of budding Skyrunners who are really strong and they will take it to the next level. I still see some of us forty-something-year-olds in the results every now and again and that’s really cool! Once my kids are a little older and our business is more stable I hope to get more involved with the sport at some level.
iRF: Wow, great. The locations of the Skyrunning races you competed in were amazing. What was it like to compete in those races and places?
Ballengee: It was great. Definitely some of the highlights of my life when I look back. The races were fast and competitive and the terrain was rugged and spectacular. You can’t get much better than that! I love the travel aspect of it. The scenery most of all, but I also love seeing other cultures and meeting new people and eating their foods. Tibet was probably my favorite. Italy, Mexico, and Malaysia were really cool, too.
iRF: And you guys were traveling a lot together. Was there a real sense of camaraderie amongst you all?
Ballengee: Yes. Very much so. We connected well as we had a similar mindset and enjoyed this very unique sport and the suffering and spectacular terrain that came with it. I’m still in contact with these athletes and we’re still ‘close’ even though we don’t hang out very often. We developed a bond that will last forever.
iRF: You spent pretty much ten years competing with Skyrunning and had incredible success over many disciplines, SkyMarathon, Vertical Kilometer, SkyBike (duathlon). Have you any favourite memories that stand out?
Ballengee: The SkyGames in 2000 was my favorite. I liked how they combined the times for the various events/distances to determine the champion. Since I was the ‘Jane of All Trades’ for endurance sports, this suited me. It was fun racing in four tough races in two days. I have good memories of all the races, though.
iRF: Skyrunning is really a hot topic right now, Danelle, and this year apart from Pikes Peak and Speedgoat, the season-ending UROC is taking place in Vail, one of your old hunting grounds. What are your feelings on the growth of the sport?
Ballengee: This is wonderful! There was a bit of a slump and now it seems it’s making a huge comeback. We’re seeing more money in the sport which will make the races more competitive and motivate the top runners to participate. More people are looking for a good challenge and Skyrunning is just that. I hear more and more countries are getting on board. Because of the scenic and rugged locations spectators are interested, too. I’m signed up for Speedgoat this year. Should be fun! And yes, I’ve spent many of miles and hours on the UROC course. It great to see those trails as the championship! I don’t think I’ll be ready to race a 100k, but I plan to be at UROC to cheer on the new generation of Skyrunners!
iRF: Wow cool that you are running Speedgoat. The course is described as ‘brutal,’ should be right up your alley, ha ha! Is it a race that you have had your eye on a while?
Ballengee: Actually, I just recently read about it in a magazine and it sounded really cool. Plus it’s close to home so I can get a sitter for the kids while I race for a few hours. I decided to check out the website and I saw it was full, so I thought I’d put my name on the waitlist… not actually thinking I’d get in. But soon thereafter I got an email from the race director saying it looks like I’ll get in. So I better start training!
iRF: So your women’s speed record for the 54 14ers (summiting the 54 peaks in Colorado over 14,000 feet altitude), 14 days 14 hours 49 seconds, is another jaw-dropper in your running achievements. You said then that the record took 14-plus days but the journey took 29 years. (Your age at the time) How do you look on it now twelve years later?
Ballengee: I look back on that and still think it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s pretty cool. Someday someone will break that record as it could be done faster. (I faced some adverse weather and could have planned better… but I was too busy racing!) But for now I’ll enjoy the record! During those 14 days I learned a lot about survival and persistence and keeping positive through pain and fatigue and about not giving up despite unforeseen ‘challenges.’ If it wasn’t for these lessons I might not have survived my accident in 2006.
iRF: Wow, so that is still the hardest thing! Can you tell us a little more about the challenges you faced?
Ballengee: The weather was the biggest challenge. Also the physical challenges and some challenges with my crew and having to change logistics while I was out there.
iRF: You also said at the time that, ‘It takes a lot of training, a lot of discipline, a lot of risk-taking, a true love for the mountains, a true love for suffering, and a bit of craziness to take on a task like this…’ Fine words. Tell us a bit more about this attraction to suffering?
Ballengee: Yeah. There is a small, strange breed of us who love that kind of suffering. The more suffering we get the more we want. I can’t really explain it. Perhaps it’s that the feeling of achievement is greater the more we suffer. As I grow older I’ve lost a lot of that. Now I’m okay with the level just below suffering—when the endorphins kick in and it feels good. Now I slow down or stop when I start to suffer. I guess I’ve had enough in my 40 years?
iRF: I don’t know, Danelle, sounds to me like you are still one tough cookie. Although I’m guessing you had your love of suffering severely tested during the wait for rescue after your accident in 2006? Did you find yourself drawing on the well of experiences built up over decades of running, adventure races, and Ironmans or was it a more primal level of survival?
Ballengee: Yes. It was both. At the primal level, I was just trying to stay alive. But when I look back on it I realize that my years of experiences kicked in to help me survive without me knowing it at the time. There are so many little things that played a role in me being alive. Luck and coincidence for sure. But being in shape was necessary, too. If I wasn’t in top shape at the time I wouldn’t have made it. I had to do sit up for 50-some hours, for example…
iRF: Crazy, do you still like sit-ups now? But I want to ask, you have become world famous for the accident and rescue that followed. A lot of people seem to associate you with that event. Does it ever annoy you? I mean, you are an incredible athlete, with unbelievable records and victories before the accident. Do you feel like that ever gets overshadowed by your fall?
Ballengee: Well… I like sit-ups in the sense that they helped save my life, but I don’t actually ‘like’ them. I need to do more, especially now. I haven’t been doing them as I’m busy with the kids and work and I forget or get too tired. (Heard that excuse before?) Yes, it sometimes bugs me that people have no idea or no concept of what I did before ‘the fall.’ When I think about it, it’s kind of sad that the world of endurance sport is so small. And it’s crazy to me that the real-life ‘Lassie’ story is so big. On the other hand, I think my story has helped to expose the endurance-sport world a bit. And if people can be inspired by my story, that makes me happy.
iRF: So then you compete 150 days later, crushing it in a solo adventure race (finishing 5th). What was the rush? Was it a case of just having to get back out there as soon as possible?
Ballengee: I was alive. So, why not? That race proved I was alive. I wanted to get back to being me and I wanted to live life like I thought it should be lived—to the fullest. Now I have two kids and my priorities have shifted. I’m much mellower now and love hanging out with my kids more than anything. They’re what I live for now! Of course I still hit the trail at least a few times a week to keep me smiling!
iRF: The next few years saw you buying the diner, Milts, in Moab, getting married, having a couple kids, and putting down some roots as well as competing of course. Looking back now do you think your mindset changed after the accident?
Ballengee: It’s been a different kind of race since the accident! It’s wonderful! Kids are so much fun! When I was lying out there dying I thought about having a family and how sad it was that I would never get to experience that. So when I didn’t die I had the opportunity to enjoy another part of my life—family. The business is fun, too. It’s a different kind of challenge. My mindset has changed, but in general I’m the same. It’s just that due to the physical injuries and time restraints I have new challenges now.
iRF: So you are still running pretty much everyday, right? How much have you been competing and what have you planned in the near future?
Ballengee: I love running and [my dog] Taz still gets me out most everyday. With the kids I’m lucky to get an hour a day for a workout, so I’m not really ‘training,’ just keeping healthy and the running keeps me mentally somewhat sane. I’ve been competing in four to six races each year—mostly local but some travel. Once the kids are in school I hope to have more time to train and race. I still love racing, and even with my injuries I feel like I can do okay… and for sure have fun. I’ll be looking for races with cool scenery! I like the people, too. It’s a great crowd!
iRF: You are also the race director for the Moab Trail Marathon and Half Marathon. Is it enjoyable to be organising the race or would you prefer to just turn up on race day and hammer it?
Ballengee: I’d much prefer to be racing it! But I do really enjoy organizing it. I feel like it’s a small way to give back to the racing community. And it’s kept me in the sport as I grow older and adapt to changes such as injuries and motherhood. I really like the community of athletes and as a race director I feel like I’m able to connect and contribute.