When I get to thinking about it—really applying the gray matter inside my noggin’ and pondering—I can’t conjure a single, logical reason why Emily Harrison is toeing the line at the Western States 100 this Saturday morning. I mean, it’ll be her fourth ultramarathon race, like, ever. Her first one, the JFK 50 Mile, was just a smidge more than six months ago.
Before that, she was training with the McMillan Elite crew out of Flagstaff, Arizona, and already in possession of a 2:32:55 marathon PR. (I can’t go on without qualifying this PR. She’s only finished three marathons, which I think makes these numbers all the more stout.) And before that, she ran to sixth at the 2007 NCAA Division I Cross Country Championships, her crowning glory to a wildly successful college career with the University of Virginia. And before that, she was a standout runner on the Warren County High School track and cross-country teams in her hometown of Front Royal, Virginia, where she brought home one individual state cross country championship and two more at 3,200 m on the track. It seems like all signs would be pointing Emily toward the Shalane Flanagan and Kara Goucher trajectories of post-collegiate racing on the pro track and road circuits. Something of that ilk, no?
But then these three sentences squeak out of her during our early June phone conversation that changes my whole perspective: “My mom’s an ultrarunner. She’s run JFK twice. I’d watch her run down on the canal when I was younger.”
Okay, now, I’m beginning to understand. Emily’s stood on the sidelines of an ultra, witnessed the joy and camaraderie and quirk and mud. She’s seen the glint in ultrarunners’ eyes after a race that tells the story of the things they’ve seen in a day. She’s watched her own mother run an ultra, then go run the same one again, even after all of the pain. That does change things, right?
“I was feeling a little rebellious, maybe,” says Emily when I ask her what sealed the deal on her running JFK late last fall. “I was looking to break the cycle of all the road races I was doing. Also, Ian runs it every year. So there was this tie of both my mom and Ian to the race.” She’s speaking of Ian Torrence, the ultramarathon coach at McMillan Running who has more than 150 ultras under his belt and who has brought alive many an ultra champion via his coaching forte. Ian is Emily’s boyfriend.
She continues, “The course is part trail, part towpath. I thought I might be able to do well because it’s a fast, runnable course. I’m good at locking into a rhythm and sticking with it for a while. So I thought my skills and the course could match up well. Plus, it was the 50th annual race, and I thought it would be really cool to run in the 50th edition.” She asked race director Mike Spinnler for a late, elite entry, and I can only guess that he was glad he let her in because what unfolded between Ellie Greenwood and Emily was a spectacular show. In the end, the ultra experience of Ellie likely contributed to her five-plus-minute victory, but Ellie and Emily pushed each other to a respective 17-plus and 12-plus minutes under the old course record.
“I’m so pleased with the way the race turned out, but it’s a personal goal for me to go back and do it right. I didn’t get my nutrition right. Already I know so much more now than I did then. I think I can do better.” That’s Emily’s answer as to whether she’s got any newbie demons to chase down on that course. She continues, “It’s a long way off, but my plan is to race JFK again this fall.” I can’t help but think, yep, the ultra bug has caught her good.
There’s still a bit more to the story on how Emily decided to venture down the ultramarathoning avenue. Her running of the 2012 JFK 50 Mile approximately aligned with her leaving the McMillan Elite team, with whom she had been running since 2009.
“During my time in Flagstaff, I had so many injuries. They were probably related to my diet, maybe a gluten intolerance or some variation of it. I’d never had injuries before. My races were just not coming together. Certain times made sense on paper, but I couldn’t pull them out on race day. Finally, a massage therapist told me one day, ‘Everything’s inflamed, and it’s not just training inflammation. It’s systemic.’ Soon after that, I started doing elimination diets to figure things out. It took a while, but I started having huge improvements.”
But, still, Emily needed something different, a break, a change. So she left Flagstaff, moved back home to Virginia, and began training independently with Ian as her coach. The JFK carrot must have been dangled in front of her at precisely the right time.
It’s a Grand Canyon of a leap, though, from running a 50-mile race on a course with a 6:11 course record—we’re talking about a dang-fast and not-so-technical course—to running a 100-mile mountain race with a 16:47 course record. That’s 10.5 more hours out there, running, eating, putting one foot in front of the other, not having any of the meltdowns that are so common in races of this length and distance. When I interviewed Emily a couple days after JFK last fall, she hedged on what ultras might be next on her plate, even though she’d just won entrance to the revered Western States 100 via the Montrail Ultra Cup. That is, if she wanted it.
“You don’t have a lot of time to decide whether you’re going to accept the entry, not a lot of time to ponder. So when I hit ‘send’ on my acceptance email, I was like, ‘Oh no. That’s a long way to run! What did I just do?’ But when I thought about it some more, I realized that JFK kind of came out of the blue for me. Yeah, I put a lot into the race, but it hadn’t been my goal all year or anything. Why shouldn’t I take advantage of another random opportunity that comes my way?”
Since hitting that ‘send’ button, it seems that Emily has gone as close to all-in as she could with her Western States preparations. First, she moved west again, back to Flagstaff, back to equitable altitudes and terrains to the WS100 course. “I love the Flagstaff trails. When I trained here before, we rarely went very far out, maybe three miles before we’d turn around and go back. I guess you could call us road runners a little trail wimpy! Now I’m seeing everything and finding my favorite places.”
She’s taken an appropriate training path between there and here via some recovery after JFK, a chunk of non-purposed running, and, most recently, several months of high-volume work on the trails. She’s mixed in some training races, too, a win and a course record at the Moab Red Hot 55k in February, a win at a fat-ass event called the Mormon Fat Ass 50 Mile in May, and a win and course record at the Gaspin’ in the Aspen 15k a couple weekends ago on her home trails in Flagstaff. “My number of hours running each week is up, even if my mileage isn’t. It takes much longer to run X miles on the trails than the road. You know, five hours instead of three! I feel strong, but not necessarily ‘pop-y.’ I’m also learning to run on fatigued legs.” She pauses then continues, as if the she’s making sense of things as she speaks. “Actually, that’s an amazing revelation. To go out running on tired legs and find that you can still run well. That’s such an important thing to learn for States, I think. I have to remember that.”
She participated in the Western States Training Camp on Memorial Day Weekend and put in about 80 miles on the course. “I understand now when people say, ‘Just get to mile 60 feeling good so you can keep running.’ Having seen the course, I now understand how it’s easy to get carried away so early. The trails around Robinson Flat are so runnable. And there’s a lot of downhill, so much downhill.”
She’s been dialing in her nutrition, focusing on what she thinks are the crucial bits for her, enough calories and enough electrolytes. She’s even been puttering with handheld-water bottles and hydration packs, trying to figure out how to carry the stuff required for racing 100 miles. “It’s true. Road runners would never think of carrying all of the stuff that we have to carry on the trails. My mom used to try to talk me into carrying one water bottle for a long run in high school. I’d say, ‘No way!’ Now, I’ll probably race Western States with a hydration pack.”
Emily has acquired new sponsors who are backing her ultra endeavors, the adiUltra Team and Injinji. “Also, Nathan sponsors adiUltra, so that means they sponsor me, too,” she says.
She has found herself a super crew of Ian, her mom, and two dogs for the race itself. Well, Emily’s dog, Super Bee, and Ian’s dog, Zoroaster, will be there, probably for more emotional than logistical support, I would think. “My mom is stoked that I’m racing Western States. I asked her before if she wanted to travel abroad with me to one of my road races, and she said, ‘No thanks.’ But when I told her I was going to race Western States, she immediately said she’d be my crew. Naturally, she loves that I’m getting into ultras.” Ian will be crewing first and then pacing Emily in from Foresthill.
It’s hard not to approach Emily’s run without some skepticism. I think, so talented but such a puppy. She’s not a puppy when it comes to maturity. She, in fact, speaks in a way that belies her age. What I mean by this is that sticking Emily in the Western States 100 is a little like adding a newborn, whining puppy to a dog fight. On Saturday, Emily will run twice as far as she’s ever run.
But there’s much more to this leggy, powerful, long-and-dirty-blonde-haired woman than the ultra world has seen in the last six months. And she’s not really a puppy; and Western States is no dog fight. We’re talking about a woman who has been running with high-level success since before high school and race that’s really just a run through some beautiful landscapes with a lot of freaking fast and friendly people.
“Running came to me in middle school, when sports started happening. Some of my friends were going out for volleyball and basketball, but those sports didn’t interest me. A couple other friends went out for the track team and that did. I showed up to track practice on the first day and the coach had us run two miles. I ran faster than the older girls. Running basically found me.” Emily says that it didn’t take long for her to feel hooked, and it was winning races that did it. “I enjoyed the personal challenge of trying to do better than I did the race before.”
The 27 year old is talking about the racing that she did something like 13 or 14 years ago, half her whole life ago. We already know that she’s experienced just one bout of health issues, but I wonder how she’s avoided burnout over all those formidable years. “The knowledge of my coaches and the support of my parents, no question. When I was in high school, we ran 40, 50 miles a week. And that was toward the end of high school. That’s pretty low mileage, compared to college and now. And my parents came to every meet, no matter how far away it was. They showed up to cheer, but they never pressured. Whatever achievements I sought came from me, but still you don’t ever do these things alone.”
And when she got to college at UVA, she only further bloomed in the hands of more experience and support. “I got my summer workout from the coach between my senior year of high school and freshman year of college. I followed it perfectly. It was a slight increase in mileage over what I was doing in high school. Then I got to college and started training with girls who were faster than me, doing workouts, taking ice baths, stumbling to get up the three flights of stairs to my dorm room afterward. Soon my body started responding to the work and I was #1 on my team.” Emily says that, after her freshman year of success, her coach pulled her aside to tell her that he wanted to take her down a long-term path of not only helping her find success in college but in post-collegiate running as well. “He’s a large part of who I’ve become today.”
But let’s get back to the task that’s at hand for Emily, the 2013 Western States 100. “Of course I’m nervous. The other night I had a dream that involved not passing the medical checks. Not a medical check during the race, but the one before. My pulse wasn’t where it was supposed to be. I woke up, rolled over, and couldn’t believe I was having a Western States nightmare.”
I ask her how she’s going to tackle these 100 miles. “You know what,” she says. It’s a statement, though, not a question. There is confidence in her voice. “I’m just going to run my own race. There are so many other fast girls who are going to be there. I can’t think about them. I have to think about my own pace, my own fueling, my own hydration. If I’m going to repeat any mantra out there, it’s going to be, ‘Race your own race.'”
As much as I’m inclined to be a skeptic, I’m also inclined to buy into what Emily’s selling. I mean, it sounds like Emily is about as close to set as she can be at this point, right? All the t’s crossed, the i’s dotted, the hydration pack packed. And being a rookie works out just fine for some athletes, history tells us. Remember that guy, Wilt Chamberlain?* If there’s any 100-mile rookie who can pull this off—and by ‘this’ I mean not just finishing the darn Western States 100 but finishing at the front—it could be Emily. One hundred miles is a long way to run, yep, but the more your mind and body are ready, the shorter the distance seems to be.
* In the 1959-60 NBA, rookie Wilt Chamberlain was the Rookie of the Year and MVP while setting the single season scoring and rebound records.