Dave Johnston, Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-Mile Champion, Interview
March 5, 2014 by Meghan Hicks · 14 Comments
On February 27, 43-year-old Alaskan Dave Johnston won the Iditarod Trail Invitational’s (ITI) 350-mile foot division in a record time of 4 days, 1 hour, and 38 minutes, a race he’s now participated in and finished three times. This improved the previous course record by an almost unimaginable 13 hours and 22 minutes, which was set in 2005 by Steve Reifenstuhl. If this isn’t enough, just a week before beginning ITI, Dave also won and set a 3 hour, 21 minute course record at the Susitna 100 Mile, also in Alaska, by running those 100 miles in 18 hours, 22 minutes. Dave sat on his couch for our phone interview last weekend, understandable given these circumstances. His interview is some 7,500 words long, and we guarantee that every word is a good story.
iRunFar: How’s it going?
Dave Johnston: Oh, a little rough. The last couple days, I think, have been harder than the race. I’ll tell you, all the aches and things now.
iRunFar: You’re feeling a little bit older now than before you started the race?
Johnston: Definitely. I can feel the things coming back to life that got numb out there. They’re not coming back to life very happy.
iRunFar: Is this numb from cold or numb from the mechanical effort?
Johnston: Oh yeah, just from pushing it too hard, pushing without stopping. The muscles are just… everywhere muscle damage.
iRunFar: Big picture—how is your body? A lot worse than last year?
Johnston: Maybe a little more beat up than last year because last year I didn’t do the Susitna 100 the week before the race. So my feet hadn’t recovered from that in that week’s span. So then they’re a little more numb than last year. The toes are a little blacker. I’ve got a few more blisters. I think my muscles (quads and calves) seem a little more tortured this year.
iRunFar: What do you mean your toes are black?
Johnston: All the toenails and everything just turned black, you know, like they normally do in a marathon.
iRunFar: We’re not talking about frostbite; we’re talking about the normal pressure build-up-type stuff.
Johnston: Yeah. It’s weird, the tops of my feet are bruised. I think it’s just from having the laces tied so tight for so long. Things that normally wouldn’t happen over 100 miles, over 350 miles it really starts to bruise you.
iRunFar: And the muscle damage, is your family serving you dinner on the couch and are you’re hobbling around the house?
Johnston: Yeah, just hobbling around. My wife has been great, though, she fed me a nice, big plate of pancakes this morning and I didn’t have to get up off the couch. I’ve been on a three-mile walk every day very slowly, just trying to get circulation back in my legs because they’re kind of like Vienna sausages now. I want to get that nasty blood out of them. But it’s not pretty out there hobbling around.
iRunFar: You said in a previous email that you’ve been having some nightmares about the trail.
Johnston: Yeah, you know, it’s so weird. The first time I did this race two years ago with my wife, for a week after the race, we both suffered PTSD. We were in our dreams stuck on the trail. I remember that first morning I woke up and I said, ‘Babe, I had nightmares all night.’ She said, ‘Me, too.’ Last year, the same thing. This year, I’m stuck on the trail, too, in my dreams. Luckily, I’m stuck on the last 50 miles of the trail, so hopefully it’s going to finish itself up here soon. I don’t think I can deal with a week of it. And I always get the night sweats after events like this. For several days I just sweat in my sleep. I think it’s my body trying to detoxify itself.
iRunFar: Are your dreams like you really want to walk off the trail and you really want to finish, but you can’t?
Johnston: Yeah, you really want to finish, but you can’t. You don’t know where you are. You’re disoriented. You don’t know why you can’t move any faster than you’re moving. Last night it was that one. I knew where I was on the trail, but I couldn’t gain any traction. It just means when you get up in the morning you’re exhausted already. I’m like, ‘Come on, now. I did this last week. I don’t want to do it again at home.’
iRunFar: Mental recovery in addition to physical recovery.
Johnston: It is. I think what happens is I just ran as hard as I could for 21 hours every day. I think it really just, psychologically, puts some wear and tear on you.
iRunFar: I want to start this interview with some background on you. You live in Willow, Alaska, which is a little village near the Iditarod Trail itself?
Johnston: Yeah, it’s a couple hours north of the big city of Anchorage. We have about 1,000 residents. It’s just a small, dog-mushing community. Willow is where the start of the real Iditarod is.
iRunFar: Paint a picture if you can, of what your daily life there in Willow is like? What you do for work? What kind of trails do you train on? The darkness factor of winter?
Johnston: We live on a nice, 40-acre piece of property up here, just white-snow trails heading out in every direction for as many miles as you want to go—50 or 100 miles without crossing roads. We’re real lucky as far as a training venue. I don’t have to drive to a trailhead. I just head out the door. Monday through Friday I commute to work into Wasilla which is Sarah Palin’s old hometown. I work for a medical company there 40 hours a week. It’s about an hour commute each way. When we’re home, we usually don’t go too far because if you want to go anywhere, it’s an hour commute. We’re kind of home bodies. It’s just beautiful. The air is clean and the snow is nice and white and the trees are pretty. It’s a great place to live.
iRunFar: Sounds like you and your wife have at least one child that I hear in the background there.
Johnston: Yeah, we have a nine-month-old baby. He has a fitting name, Miles, and then a 12-year-old boy, David, Jr.
iRunFar: A 12 year old and a nine month old.
Johnston: Yeah, a pretty big difference, but those two are great brothers to each other. I think it’s pretty neat.
iRunFar: What’s your wife’s name?
Johnston: My wife is Andrea Hambach. She’s a veterinarian at a local clinic, so we have a lot of animals. They keep us entertained.
iRunFar: You have a menagerie?
Johnston: Yeah, cats and dogs.
iRunFar: Is your job a desk job?
Johnston: It’s not. I do marketing and sales. Basically, I have a really fun job where I get to go around and talk to people for a living. I’m on my feet most of my job which I think benefits training. I couldn’t do this at this level with a desk job. It’s really fun. When you come home you’re worn out from talking to people, but you don’t have computer strain or stuff like that.
iRunFar: Are you Alaskan or when did you move there?
Johnston: Moved to Alaska about 20 years ago.
iRunFar: You’re a long-time Alaskan.
Johnston: Long time. Yeah, I’d come up a couple times on a vacation in college. ‘Man, this is an interesting place.’ So when I graduated I just moved up here on a whim. The first year it was pretty tough. ‘Wow, I hate this place.’ It was cold and… but then it just grows on you. I started doing the outside winter sports and stuff and then you really get addicted.
iRunFar: You embraced that?
Johnston: Oh yeah, you have to. I don’t know how people live up here if they don’t. You know, you have two different types of Alaskans. You have the really thin Alaskans and then the really fat Alaskans. Those are the two. If you don’t enjoy the outdoors… the conditions are never really nice, so you’ve got to really make yourself go do it. If you don’t, you just hole up in your house your whole life up here.
iRunFar: It looks like you started embracing trail and ultrarunning somewhere around 2007. How did that all come about for you?
Johnston: I think a lot of people don’t know that I’ve been racing since I was eight years old. So for 35 years I’ve been competitively racing. Even when I was 15, I was 25th in the national cross country championships. I’ve been running cross country my whole life. I ran track in high school. I’ve run over 60 marathons. It wasn’t until the 2000s that I started getting into distances over a marathon. I just got bored going and doing another marathon. So, yeah, I guess that’s true, but a lot of people think I just started. For probably the last 30 years, I’ve averaged at least 50 miles per week of running.
iRunFar: There’s a lot of base there.
Johnston: Oh, yeah. I mean, it really takes a lot of time… and then you have to get the confidence to work off the base. I’ve been gambling a lot more than I used to with runs… especially like with these runs. Always before I was a little conservative because I didn’t know when I was going to break down. I have a high track record of DNF’s in 100 milers. I go out too fast and then when everything falls apart; I don’t know how to fix it. When those happen, I usually bounce back pretty strong the next race. I don’t know if it’s a blessing or whatever, but it sure makes me angry.
iRunFar: Makes you angry enough to retaliate against your own body.
Johnston: Oh my word, it does. I tell ya’, you work them right off your shoulder.
iRunFar: It seems like it was a big gamble for you to run basically back-to-back 450 miles on Alaska snow-machine trails.
Johnston: Between the 100 and the 350? Yeah. You know, I had done the Susitna and the 350 back-to-back and I actually raced Susitna against Joe Grant that year. It was his first winter ultra. Then I ran ITI the following week. I’ve done this before. Not in course-record times, but I’ve definitely pulled off the feat before. I would have done it last year, but Susitna was cancelled so I got a reprieve. This year… I love the Susitna race. It’s been going on forever and it’s kind of one of those, ‘Why miss it if you don’t have to?’ I’d planned on it all this year. I hadn’t planned on running that fast. I knew I wanted to go win it, but I didn’t know I was going to go for broke and see how fast I could go. A lot of people, when I got done with it, said, ‘You’ve done it now. Your ITI is over with.’ I was thinking in my mind, Yeah, you’re probably right. But I had no choice but to go for it again.
iRunFar: Tell me about what you did in that week between races. What did you do to recover? Something specific or did you go on with normal life?
Johnston: You know, I had to really think about it. I started right back with two days of three miles of walking each day just to work the crap out of my legs. Then the following three days, I ran five miles pulling a sled because I had just worn my body, but I knew it was going to have to be ready to pull a sled. I’d already done four months of sled training never missing a day. I knew that if I just rested, it wouldn’t be beneficial. I just got right back on the horse. It was not pretty. My five-mile runs were very humorous to say the least, but I did them. All the way up ‘til even Saturday the day before the race, I ran five miles pulling a sled and then showed up Sunday morning hopefully ready to go.
iRunFar: Take me to the ITI starting line. Where was your mind at? Where were you physically at? Were you, ‘I’m going to put Susitna out of my mind?’ Were you feeling Susitna still?
Johnston: Yeah, I knew that I was going to feel it in the legs, and I was hoping that that feeling would go away in the extreme of the race. But Susitna was out of my mind by the time I started ITI. A couple of the smaller hills at the beginning I could tell there was absolutely no power. That was because I’d used it all the week before. I had to learn how to be conservative but quick. All the places I could be quick without expending energy, I did; and then the places where I was going to need energy to go quickly, I went really slow to save that little bit left that I had.
iRunFar: Are you talking about where it was flat and the course was rocket fast, you’d take advantage of that and then the climbs, you’d be more conservative?
Johnston: Definitely. So when the course was flat and fast, I would run really hard. A lot of sections out there, I’m running sub-10:00-mile pace, pulling a sled for mile after mile after mile. Then when the course gets hilly or the snow gets sloppy, I’ll walk a little bit. But maybe 5% of the 350 miles last week was walking. The rest was running, and a lot of it was really hard running. People are like, ‘Well, how do you get from here to here?’ ‘You just put your head down and you run as hard as you can.’ [laughs]
iRunFar: You have to run. [laughs]
Johnston: That’s what people are always saying that kind of ticks me off, because people call the foot people in this sport ‘walkers.’ You can’t walk this course that fast. You just can’t do it. You can walk the course in two days slower than that—six days and something—you can fast walk the course, but you have to run to break five days, definitely. I think you have to run to break six days unless you’re some incredible walker.
iRunFar: Talk about your global strategy. When I was watching your splits, I was thinking your strategy was to move fast when you’re moving and then take your time in the checkpoints to get proper rest and real food. Was that how you approached it?
Johnston: Yes, move as long and as fast as you can and then when you stop, just totally try to decompress. That’s what I did every time. Out on the course when I was out there with the bikers–there’s not many of them. Maybe during the day when I was out there running a section, I’d see three our four bikers max, so I’d always take the opportunity to tell jokes and tell them my latest invention I just came up with. When you’d get to the checkpoints, it’s this… during the day if you get into checkpoints you can usually socialize a little bit and find out if there’s beer around or actually have a steeped tea with somebody… so those are the times when you try to lighten up. This year, I pretty much got into checkpoints and went straight to bed for two hours straight—I didn’t want to sleep less than that or more than that. After two hours, I’d get up and try to shovel as much food in my mouth as I could and then get going. I can’t eat enough [in the checkpoints] as I can’t eat on the run. So the last thing I eat is leaving the checkpoint whether I’ve got to go a 90-mile stretch or a 35-mile stretch between checkpoints. I just can’t eat anything or it comes back up. I guess it’s a weakness, but in a way it might not be.
iRunFar: Do you know about how much sleep you got the entire race?
Johnston: I slept about 6.5 hours in the four days—pretty minimal, but it was pretty well planned out.
iRunFar: Some people who do these extended efforts talk about the difficulty of falling asleep during them. It sounds like you don’t have that problem—you just fall right asleep?
Johnston: Oh, I fall asleep. I have these wonderful down mittens my wife got me for Christmas and they work good as boxing gloves to stay awake. They definitely help. If you do it enough, you finally wake up. Cold creek water in the face if you can find some open water works really well to wake up. Just different things you say to yourself… telling yourself to stay awake… but it’s definitely not fun. Sometimes if the trail is really flat and not wind-y, I can actually sleep and run for a little ways. I nod off for a minute and then look around, ‘Oh yeah, I’m still going straight,’ and then nod off for another minute. So you get a little bit that way. There was not much trail like that this year. So the sleeping is definitely a gamble—a huge gamble. That’s why when I lay down to sleep, I put ear plugs in and a map over my eyes. I went right to sleep.
iRunFar: Like a baby.
Johnston: Well, the last time I tried I didn’t and I was a little restless and I just got up and left the checkpoint. ‘I’m not going to waste time here fidgeting.’ But at least the first three times I did—I slept like a baby for two hours each time. I went to go down for a fourth time in [the] Rohn [checkpoint] to sleep but I just couldn’t. So luckily, earlier in the race I had banked it, I think.
iRunFar: I want to know about food in the checkpoints. If you can’t eat while you’re out on the course, what are you eating in the checkpoints and how much of it are you eating?
Johnston: What saved me this year are those Mountain House beef stroganoff meals. Those things were the bomb. They’re high in protein and sodium. I’d try to get down two of those before I headed out. That was my goal. Two Mountain Houses can last me a long time. A couple of the lodges you hit earlier are open lodges to the public. They’ll sell beer there, and usually I’ll have a couple cans of beer if they do. That’s just more to take your mind off racing.
iRunFar: Try to keep it casual?
Johnston: Yeah, keep it more pleasurable. You knew you were going to be out there for hours and hours and hours with nothing pleasurable, so that was kind of fun. I’m sure they’re not bad for you. Then the places that didn’t have a beer, it seemed like this year that white soda worked (Sprite, 7-Up) and I’d down three or four cans before I’d head out.
iRunFar: You’re known far and wide for your ability to consume beer on the run. Were you doing this at regular intervals? Were there no repercussions in your belly? It just goes down?
Johnston: Yeah, it just goes down. It’s nice. At the finish, when I could start to smell the finish line, I’d see a biker that I knew was going to finish way before I was, I’d say, ‘Man, is there any way you can make sure they have some beer for me?’ When I crossed the finish line, there were two cold Budweisers waiting for me. I downed those suckers. They were so good. But it’s just the light beer. I couldn’t have a porter out there; it’d probably kill me.
iRunFar: Something on the lighter, more refreshing end of things? Talk about your sled. There are people who approach their sled by gram counting. Do you use one of the hyperlight sleds? What is your sled and what do you have in it?
Johnston: This is a big thing. This is the first year that I had sled trouble. I’ve done Susitna five times with a sled and two previous ITI’s with a sled and 400 miles/month running with a sled. This is the first time I’ve ever had sled trouble. It was kind of disheartening. My wife told me, she’s a dog musher and she usually knows about the trail, she told me the trail was going to be notoriously rough this year and that I needed to reinforce my sled. It broke in half about 220 miles into the race. The front end broke completely off—two separate pieces. I sat there on the trail—I could either cry or… I just sat there in the middle of nowhere with all my gear. So what I did, I attached the front end to the back end and pulled the sled backwards the rest of the way with my gear in it. It didn’t have a back end on it. So when I went through overflow water it would get in the sled, but at least it hauled my stuff. The stuff that I absolutely couldn’t have wet I tied around my waist. I pretty much carried half my gear around my waist the rest of the way. The rest was in the broken sled. That was not too good.
But at least this year I went a little bit lighter. I think I had around 25 pounds in it versus last year I had about 35 pounds. I just eliminated stuff from last year that I didn’t think I’d use or didn’t think I’d need. That’s the hardest part of this whole race. You know you’re going to be out there. You know your help is a day away probably sometimes, at the soonest. You want to feel secure. You’re in the middle of nowhere in the freezing cold. I know people with the minimalist approach that think you can go do that thing with just the jacket on your back. You might be able to pull it off, but if you got into trouble, you’re going to die. This year I went lighter and you can tell a difference. It made me faster.
iRunFar: I want to know more about that remoteness factor. It’s probably totally normalized for you now because you’ve lived in Alaska so long. But the degree of remoteness that you experience on that trail is probably unlike anything you can find down here in the Lower 48. Can you share how that feels to be out there in that?
Johnston: Yeah, it’s real scary. I think that’s one thing that keeps me moving so fast. When I’m cooking along and every now and then I’ll just stop just to listen and you hear nothing. And you look around and you see just mountains and vastness. It gets really spooky, so you just move on again. For somebody flying up from the Lower 48 to do it their first time, unless they’re a hardened adventurer, they’ll be petrified. I know the first time I went out there, I was pretty darn scared. You try to put it out of your mind, but you’re literally… there’s nobody out there. The occasional small plane flies over, so I guess if you can figure out how to flag them down, but other than that, there aren’t roving snow-machine patrols or anything like that. I guess you’d rely on your fellow racers to notify somebody. It’s pretty scary. A lot of times you get multiple trails, and that gets really scary for me even though I’ve done the race three times. You just can’t recall 350 miles of trail, where to turn every turn. When I hit junctions in the trail, I stop, I study, I re-study, then when I’m confident which way to go, I go. I don’t want to just fly through a junction thinking I know it and then five miles later, ‘Did I take the wrong turn back there?’ That’s one thing I tell new people to the race: pretend they’re a tracker.
iRunFar: Have you ever had navigation issues?
Johnston: It’s so funny. This is the first time I’ve ever had navigation issues, too, and it happened at about mile 13 of the race. My own backyard almost—I don’t know, the race starts in Knik which is an hour drive from here and I don’t train on those trails ever. I took a wrong turn on the historic Iditarod Trail. Luckily I only went about a mile off course, but the snow… nobody travels that trail. The snow got deep and it was a chore to go through. I was just wearing myself out early in the race. Unfortunately all the racers behind me followed me. I felt bad for that. A lot of them were veterans and had done the race way more than I had.
iRunFar: They were following your tracks?
Johnston: I was following a biker’s tracks that had taken the wrong way. I eventually caught up to them. I was so mad. When I eventually got down to the Susitna River, I knew that I had turned wrong. I kind of had an idea where I was, and I was just so ticked. ‘Here I am going after this unbreakable record and I am off trail in ankle-deep snow. This is not a good start.’
iRunFar: So early on, too.
Johnston: Oh, yeah. I was moving at five miles/hour, so I was 2.5 hours in and I turned off on the wrong trail. I caught the two bikers that led me off and they were Italians and didn’t speak English, but I was like, ‘GPS! GPS!’ So they gave me their GPS and I looked at it and I could see on there where I needed to be. Luckily when I caught them and saw them it was only a little ways up and I could hook back onto the trail I was supposed to be on. So after a half hour off trail I was back on my normal trail. It took me a half day to get over that. I finally just told myself that this was just the first of many things that were going to go wrong.
iRunFar: It is what it is, as they say.
Johnston: Yeah, and one of the other things that happened—you’d think you’d go through this flawlessly—somehow I wore—this is a sport that people don’t make good shoes for. I’ll just put that out there. You need great shoes that are wide with built-in gaiters that are waterproof. The whole shoe is waterproof. I don’t know any company that makes those. Some of them try to make them but they’re so narrow that when your feet swell to 1.5 times their normal size, your feet don’t fit in them anymore. So I had an old pair that I’d been saving—Saucony used to make the Razors—they were the best shoe ever made for this sport. The Razors that I used—this was their third ITI. Yeah. So they made it about three quarters of the way through this race and then a big, gaping hole popped through the toe. Yeah. The last 70 or 80 miles of the race, I had air conditioning in the front end of my shoes.
iRunFar: You’re saying to shoe companies that there’s a very small niche awaiting an appropriate pair of shoes up there in Alaska?
Johnston: Yeah. I’m sure the demand is not there, but it’s so frustrating. So that was awful. That’s their last year. I’ve searched the Internet for two years trying to buy up every pair they had; there’s no more… no more size 12.5.
iRunFar: I hope something comes around for you for next year. It sounds like you’re committed to this race.
Johnston: Oh definitely, I’ll be back. I think I could go under four days on this course. That will be interesting to see.
iRunFar: I want to know about your mental approach to that record. Did you go out of the gate this year saying, ‘I want to set a record at both Susitna and ITI?’
Johnston: No, ITI was the only one I was focused on for the record. I thought about it daily. That’s all I wanted out of my whole running year. I probably ran 20 races this year, but this was the race. The Susitna [record] wasn’t the plan at all. But when I toe the line at Susitna, I just don’t want to get beat on my home course. That’s all I wanted to do on that one. For ITI, I had it calculated out what I wanted to do. I knew I could get the record if I ran 80 miles a day every day. So when I hit the start line on Sunday, I said, ‘You’re going to run 80 miles at least this first day.’ The first day is difficult because you’re going to run more than that the way the checkpoints are set up unless you want to sleep in the snow, which sometimes is not too bad. The second checkpoint is mile 165, so it’s easy to determine where you are. So when I left that checkpoint—and I determine it not by when you get in the checkpoint but when you leave the checkpoint, that you’ve completed that time/distance goal—so when I left mile 165, I was at 48 hours and like a half hour. I was right at 80 miles a day. I was really happy with that. The next day, I could kind of tell where 240 miles was because it’s out in the middle of nowhere and there’s no mile marker out there or anything, and I hit it at exactly three days. So I knew I was on it. That would put me just under record place. What I did after mile 240… then I just never stopped. That’s how I hit 13 hours. I wasn’t going to chance it.
iRunFar: I have to ask, if setting the record at ITI has been basically on your mind every day for the last year, it sounds brazen to the average person to say, ‘Oh, I’m just going to run 100 miles at Susitna the weekend before.’ What was the mentality there?
Johnston: Yeah, I know it wasn’t the brightest thing to do. I knew that just running Susitna the week before was going to make things generally tougher… I mean way tougher. The pain that you go through at the ITI is unbelievable and it just doesn’t stop. It’s day after day after day after day. It almost drives you mad it hurts so bad. I knew that running Susitna the week before was going to make me mentally prepared. I knew it wasn’t going to hurt me mentally. I had a feeling it wasn’t going to hurt me physically until the week before the race when the conditions were unheard of packed snow. Usually you run Susitna wallowing through ankle-plus-deep snow for 50 miles. Ask Joe Grant what the conditions were like. Sometimes you can’t even run—just a death march.
This year it was like the track that Apolo Ohno skates on… literally. [laughs] When I got there that morning, I laced up in Icebug spikes–which I shouldn’t have had on–and I took off at 9:00 miles. The reason I did it is that I knew I only had one opportunity [with the course conditions] to do this course in 18 hours. I had to take it. Because who knows what will happen—it could have snowed all week and the ITI could have been two feet of snow like it was two years ago with no chance of a record. Here it was sitting on a silver platter for me. I would have been stupid not to take that opportunity. Now it’s going to be really, really hard for somebody to lay down a time faster than that on that Susitna course.
I got called a lot of names and head shaking… People the week before the race were saying, ‘Well, you’re going to have a good run anyway. You’re probably going to win it, but you’re not going to get the [ITI] record.’ When I showed up on Sunday for the ITI, I knew I was going to give it everything I had to get the record. I figured I had to go for it. In hindsight, other than being banged up from the week before, mentally I was way tougher. I ran so much of the 350 at the same course-record pace I did the Susitna in. I’d just get out there and lean with that sled and just haul. Especially after about 250 miles into the race where I was kind of past the point of no return where you just gotta’ go do it… and most of the race is your mind then, it really… I think it was a benefit.
iRunFar: I want to know about pain. When does it start to hurt? Were there moments of euphoria where you were enjoying yourself? Tell me about pain.
Johnston: With the ITI and usually with most of my races if I can make it through them, the pain is always at the beginning. With the ITI, the first 2.5 days were awful. When I came into the mile 60 checkpoint, I was already nauseated. The poor checkers there—I was trying to figure out how to get my headlamp off and my hat off and I kept pulling at it; I didn’t know I had my hood over my head holding my hat and headlamp on. This is how out of it I was. I was running 9:00 miles the whole way on snow. It doesn’t sound fast, but it’s probably like running 8:00 miles in a regular 100 miler on trail. I was hauling as fast as I could. I was just putting myself so far in debt that my normal stomach functions shut down really early. So yeah, the first quarter of the race was just no fun at all. I’d hop in a checkpoint, especially ones I knew I was going to sleep at—mile 90, I knew I was going to sleep—I just went right up to the bunk. People are like, ‘Hey Dave, we’ve got a beer for you.’ I’d look at them and say, ‘I’m going to bed.’ They were like, ‘Whoa.’ That’s how bad it was. Then once I slept, I could eat and socialize. Then I’d go do it again.
So the first part of the race is so painful. I just wanted to quit every step of the way. It took until about mile 230 into the race—so well over half way—where I started getting into a groove. My stomach finally gave up hurting. ‘Yes.’ I’m finally running along and, ‘Wait a minute, I’m running and I’m not nauseated.’ It was so great. From there out, you have pain and things hurt, but all of it starts to go a little numb because there are so many pain receptors going off. Then the last day was just beautiful. The last 50 miles, I was just on cloud nine. I could run as fast as I wanted. I could have easily taken a couple of hours off that last 50-mile stretch because I was just feeling so good and so strong. It’s just a neat experiment. That’s what this whole thing is—an experiment to see what your body can do. That’s why I dig it so much. Yeah, the points where I was going to quit—mile 90, mile 135 definitely—all those places I’d have to make myself get out of those checkpoints.
iRunFar: It sounds like your issues are issues that take many people out of 100 milers or 100k’s: debilitating nausea, physical discomfort. How do you literally make yourself get out of the checkpoint and keep going?
Johnston: What makes it a little easier here is that there’s nobody waiting in a car to pick you up. Usually if you want to quit in a spot, you’ll get out of there 24 hours later. But that’s going to stink because by the time you get out of there you’re going to be healed up and you’re going to hate yourself double. My wife says the minimum to fly out of one of these checkpoints is $800. Crazy.
iRunFar: So you’ve got to really need to quit then.
Johnston: Yeah. I’ve been talking about the record all year and just wanting it. People had been telling me I couldn’t do it and it was too fast. I had such a burden on my shoulders. I thought about all those people who’d say, ‘We knew you couldn’t do it. We knew it was too much. We knew you shouldn’t have done Susitna last week.’ That stuff was just keeping me burning. I was like, ‘I’m going to show you.’
iRunFar: You were fueled a bit by the naysayers, too.
Johnston: Definitely. Like I said, this summer or in this last year I had two 100-mile races that I DNF’d in. You’d hear the banter going, ‘Does this dude ever finish a race?’ I knew these people were probably kidding, but this sport is my hobby. It’s something I take pride in. It’s a lot of fun for me. To hear stuff like that, it really makes me upset. I had that on my shoulders for 350 miles last week and I was going to show them.
iRunFar: You did show them.
Johnston: I don’t count any of the blessings until it’s done. Even 10 miles out, I was like, ‘Dave, don’t you get cocky. There are holes all over the place and you could break your leg right now. You pay attention to what you’re doing. When you cross that finish line you can celebrate.’ I had to really try to keep myself calm until the actual finish line. I wanted to celebrate so bad. When I crossed that finish line I was so happy and proud. I just love running and that’s just what I do. I don’t get too ecstatic over my individual accomplishments but this was the first time I think I ever had been. So it was a weird feeling, too. I felt kind of like a schmuck.
iRunFar: I spoke with Geoff Roes who is one of iRunFar’s columnists and who has spent time up there running some of these races in Alaska. He told me he thought the split you ran between the Rohn and Nikolai checkpoints—is that 90 miles?—he thought the speed you had in that section wasn’t humanly possible for a rested individual, let alone you having raced so many miles before it. What happened out there? Did you know how fast you were going? Was it an out-of-body experience? Were you just tooling along, oblivious to your pace?
Johnston: That was when I told you I started finally feeling good. The nausea had ended. I just never stopped. I stuck my head down. I didn’t eat that whole 90 miles. I guess people would call it almost an out-of-body experience. I was definitely in an euphoric state. That part has several sections of lakes over a mile long. There’s absolutely no snow on them. They’re glare ice and they’re very scary. When you hit those things, I guarantee I get across those things in five minutes.
People don’t think I’m fast, but I can still probably run a mile in the 4:30’s, I would say. Pretty fast 5k times and stuff. I don’t run those races anymore, so people don’t get to see that. But in high school I always ran 4:30 miles. So these are things that people who don’t know me are like, ‘How does this guy do this?’ Just like going out in that last 50-mile section, I did it in under 12 hours for 50 miles on snow which is fast on snow. But like I said, I could have done it three hours faster. I could have run an eight-something on the last 50 miles. I don’t know. You just do it. You don’t think about it. Geoff could do it. He’d have to get out there and not overthink it.
iRunFar: Geoff will probably be reading this.
Johnston: I know Geoff could get out there and do that. You don’t stop and start your stove and melt water and stuff to run times like that out there. You don’t even stop for water. You just go. I stopped for water once at a creek in that 90-mile section.
iRunFar: What was going through your head when you crossed the finish line? You didn’t have to worry about falling in a hole anymore. You didn’t have to worry about somehow the record getting away from you. Somebody was probably handing you a beer.
Johnston: It was great. The one thing missing with the new baby–last year my wife flew out to the finish line because we didn’t have the new baby yet. So I broke down sobbing when I saw her. This year we didn’t want her to fly to a remote Alaska town with a new, little baby. So that part was the part that was missing. It was great, but nobody got to see tears or anything. I was happy. I was tickled that the race director, Bill Merchant, who is just the craziest Alaska codger you’ve met, he waited for me at the finish. Usually he heads out across the course to Rohn on a snow machine. But he waited there and it was neat to see him. He basically said that it was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement and he wanted to be there for it.
It was neat that all of the bikers came out of the house. What’s cool is that so many of those bikers traveled with me the whole way. If you want real accounts of what happened out there, you talk to them. They hate me because they would stop to do something and I would catch them and they’d try like mad and they’d think they were miles ahead of me. They’d be stopping to eat a candy bar and I’d catch them. They were getting so frustrated. You know, they’re on a bike on a hard-packed course, but they’re good about it. So you get to be friends with a different group of people. Runners and bikers, they generally don’t mix. They’re just two different mindsets and two different types of individuals. They’ve kind of accepted me.
iRunFar: They say in ultrarunning that guys get worried about getting chicked by a girl. These bikers were worried about being Johnston-ed. [laughs]
Johnston: [laughs] They finally succumbed to the fact, I think. It was neat, at the finish line one of the bikers—we’d gone back and forth 20 times on the course—he’s a well-known exercise physiologist and you should have heard the questions he was asking me. He said, ‘You do everything opposite. All your stuff was opposite of what Tim Noakes and everybody tells you to do.’ He wants me to come up for tests. He was funny.
iRunFar: You seem compelled to keep doing this race. You said you want to do it again and try to get under four days. What’s the attraction to this experience for you?
Johnston: It’s so unique. This course is going to give you everything you want and more. It’s so remote. When you get done with it, the sense of accomplishment is beyond unreal. For years and years I went to the start of this race to go watch the racers start. I would follow it the best I could with the tools they had online before I even thought about entering it because I was too petrified. I’d recommend it to anybody who has put in their dues in. I definitely wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who hasn’t. I’ve seen what it can do to people and even what it can do to experienced people. I’d love for it to get more competitive because I just think it would bring that level up there. That’s one of the differences with the bike race in the ITI as it’s so competitive. It’s a top-notch bike race. So I think for the racers and the times to keep coming down, we just need to get more competition up here for it. It would bring it to a whole new level. People would get to really see that it’s an event that’s going to make you push yourself like you’ve never pushed yourself before.
iRunFar: Did you hear that, world? Dave Johnston wants some fast ultra vets to come up and try this. Congrats, again, Dave.