After her first ultra in 2006, Cassie Scallon vowed never to do it again even though that experience finished with a win. Her self-imposed sabbatical lasted four years, after which a sequence of events led her to take a road trip that ended with a breakthrough win, a sponsorship, and recognition as one of the leading trail runners in the US. I chatted with Cassie about her somewhat reluctant rise through the trail running ranks.
iRunFar: Cassie, you grew up in Wisconsin, right? Tell me a little about that.
Cassie Scallon: I grew up in an unincorporated town of 50 people in Wisconsin. My parents ran a business that was the town hall, hosted wedding parties on the weekends, had a bar and restaurant, and also organized baseball tournaments. So it was an interesting childhood being surrounded by adult parties, but my brother and I were put to work early on setting tables on our roller skates. My parents closed the business and both went back to school when I was in elementary school, teaching me a lot about hard work. Our house was surrounded by farms and on especially fun days we got thrown into the mix with the farm kids to play in the barns and fields.
iRF: It sounds like it was a tiny, tiny place. What’s it called?
Scallon: It’s called Richwood.
iRF: Was it a fun place to grow up?
Scallon: Well, I didn’t know any different, so it was great! I wouldn’t want to live there anymore – I miss my family and my friends, but I don’t miss the culture of the area too much.
iRF: What adventures were you into as a kid?
Scallon: I was a very shy kid and didn’t want to go out for sports because I didn’t want to miss Saturday morning cartoons. I wish now that I’d gone out for gymnastics, because I have dreams of doing acrobatics and flips when I’m flying down a trail. My dad, brother, and I did lots of exploring outside, collecting creepy crawlies, building forts, and playing backyard games. We spent summers at the family cabin on a lake with extended family pontooning, water skiing, and recovering from ear infections. During the winter, we did a lot of sledding and I once earned a trip on the Flight for Life helicopter with a good run down Dead Man’s Hill.
In middle school, I started coming out of my shell and going to summer camps and getting into soccer. I went out for cross country in high school to train for soccer. Junior year of high school my coaches had me make the switch from soccer to track. I never liked track as much as soccer. My favorite subject was always gym class. I think I was the only kid in my class to like annual fitness testing I got to see how I was improving and earn a patch!
iRF: So how long did you stay there?
Scallon: I moved right after high school. I went to college across the state. After that I lived in northern Italy on and off for three years and, then, when I came back, I went out to the Pacific Northwest before wandering around a bunch. I found that I liked moving around a lot.
iRF: So when you started running, was it an immediate love for it?
Scallon: I ran in a couple track meets in middle school and went out for cross country in high school because I heard the team had more fun than any other sport. It was true and we developed strong camaraderie through spaghetti dinners, sleepovers, and midnight TP-ing escapades.
At my first high-school meet, I remember not knowing anything about the color codes of the flags in cross country and the coaches running around trying to point me the way. I have the same feeling now as I did then – I was scared to be in the front but even more scared to be passed once I was leading. I loved running, but what I loved the most was being around that group of people – it was a fun crowd to be with!
iRF: Were you a good runner straight off the bat?
Scallon: I guess so. In high school I was good in my high school, but only went to States once, which is the big goal. I got good results running cross country and at the end of high school I felt that I hadn’t reached my full potential yet so that’s why I wanted to go onto college to run.
iRF: So where did you go to college? Is that when you studied to be a nurse?
Scallon: I went to UW-La Crosse, the D3 school that several of my high-school coaches went to on the beautiful Mississippi River. Nursing was my second degree. My first degree was sports management, but that didn’t turn out to be very useful. I was very indecisive and changed my major six different times officially. I ended up with that degree and it was fun – it’s what I was interested in at the time but I never really used it.
iRF: So you ran for the cross-country team at university, as well?
Scallon: Yeah I did, but not very seriously. I think I was more serious about running in high school than I was in college. I wasn’t as good at it in college and I figured out that I was better at the longer-distance stuff. I started trying marathons and adventure racing and found out that they suited me better.
iRF: With adventure racing, were you competing a lot?
Scallon: I’ve done about a dozen adventure races and they were all kinda’ small ones. I competed all over the country with different teams, so that was fun.
iRF: What was it about adventure races that you were attracted, too?
Scallon: Every race was a crazy adventure. A lot of times I was on teams with people I didn’t know well and we got lost and eaten by bugs. Everything that could go wrong went wrong, it seemed like. It was always fun though!
iRF: Tell me a little about your London adventure?
Scallon: Yeah, it was something I did for one semester, but dragged it out for a little while. I kinda’ had a hard time coming back home – I only came back two days before school started again, I had no place to live. I ended up just moving into a friend’s basement. London was too much fun!
iRF: So why London? Did it just sound like a cool place to visit?
Scallon: Yeah, it sounded like a cool place. I don’t know any other language so well, so it wasn’t so easy to go to another country even though it might have been a good learning experience. I also knew some friends that were going there, too, so I decided on that. That was my first big adventure outside the States.
iRF: So did you get to run over there, too, or did you put that away because you were too busy with other things!?
Scallon: Yeah, I definitely put that away when I was there. I mean I did a little bit of running around the city, but mostly I went out clubbing! [laughs]
iRF: Did you travel much more in Europe, too, at that time?
Scallon: I travelled around a little bit, but then I came home and finished school. Then a friend that I had met in London wanted to meet up in New York City and he brought a friend. That friend and I fell in love and that’s how I ended up over in Italy for a few years. I lived 20 minutes from both Austria and Switzerland.
iRF: So how do you think that little European adventure changed you, Cassie? Was it an eye opener to live outside the US for a while?
Scallon: It definitely was. That was 2006. It really put the travel bug in me and, now, I never want to stay in the one spot too long – I just want to go and explore a lot of different places.
iRF: So when you came back you were focusing on adventure racing and triathlon, right? How did you go from that to being getting involved with the Lapham Peak Trail runners?
Scallon: I was training for the Ironman and one of my friends, Brad, was running with the Lapham Peak Trail Runners. I started to run with him in that group and that’s how I got introduced to them. I always liked being around the crowd that runs on trails. I’m inspired by the stories they tell – I can’t believe how tough some people are! So they, The Lapham Peak Trail Runners, got me into ultras by talking down the Ironman I was about to do, calling it “wimpy.”
iRF: So was that when you started focusing completely on running trails?
Scallon: I wasn’t so focused on it. I liked running roads and trails.
iRF: Cool. Can you tell me a little about your first ultra/trail race?
Scallon: My first ultra was the Ice Age 50k in 2006. My cousin told me that I didn’t need to bring any food or water because there would be plenty of aid stations. I bonked terribly and swore that I’d never run that far again even though I won. That promise lasted four years until I forgot how hard it was and jumped into another ultra.
iRF: So tell me about the four-year break after your first ultra. That’s a long time, Cassie!
Scallon: Yeah, I guess I was in ‘never-again’ mode. I was still hanging out with the Lapham Peak Trail Runners, but I was just doing shorter runs. I really wasn’t thinking about running that much at that time. It just wasn’t that important.
iRF: So how did it go from being not important to you being one of the top women trail runners in the US? How did that happen?
Scallon: Well, I guess it was an accident. I was living in Denver and there were big cuts at the hospital where I was working and I lost my job. I though, ‘Oh, well now’s my chance – I can go and do whatever I want!’ So I got rid of my apartment and packed up everything in my car and went on a big road trip. I guess I wasn’t really thinking about trying to improve my running or anything like that at the time. I just wanted to have some adventures and go off and do things by myself. So I started doing some big runs by myself – I stopped up in the Tetons and gained some confidence there and just continued my road trip and ran a couple of races. It just turned into being something bigger and I realized that it was something that I was pretty good at.
iRF: So where did this road trip to take you? Did you get to see a lot of the states?
Scallon: Yeah. I think I saw pretty much everything! I did all up into the Northwest and had some time with old friends there and then down the California coast. Then, in through Utah. I saw a lot of the national parks and then I went back home to the Midwest for a little while. Then went out East a couple of times that fall. The original idea was just me in my car, but amount a month into it I picked up a boy and he decided to come with me!
iRF: Even better!
Scallon: [laughs] Yeah, it was fun…
iRF: So can you tell me a little about the races you ran during the road trip?
Scallon: The first was the Tahoe Midnight Express, which is a tiny race, but I thought it sounded interesting. I wanted to check out Tahoe and it was all run in the dark and on roads. Going into that, I hadn’t run much at all and I was pretty nervous about it. My crew person told me the day before the race she wasn’t going to make it and there were no aid stations, so I made plans to stop in gas stations or casinos if I needed more water. It was a big adventure and I had no real expectations. I tried to run it quickly so I didn’t run out of food and liquids and it turned out that I ran pretty quick. It gave me a lot of confidence.
iRF: I’m sure it did! You won that outright didn’t you?
Scallon: Yeah! Afterwards I though that I could, if I wanted to, race more at that distance and not be scared.
iRF: So how did your racing progress after that experience?
Scallon: Well that boy that I mentioned, that I picked up early on the trip, was an ultrarunner. So it was his idea to stop and do a bunch of races. So the big one I guess was winning the JFK 50 (in 2011). That was a big surprise, too. I wasn’t planning on really racing it at all, so at the start I was just hanging out at the back and there was a really long walk to the start line. I was walking with this old man and he was telling me how many times he had done the race and other funny stories about it. I was feeling really relaxed, then I heard the announcement that there was one minute to the start and I turned to him and said, ‘Oh, I gotta get going…’ He was like, ‘Don’t worry about it. Unless you’re going to win you might as well just stay back here with me.’ I said, ‘Okay, then,’ that was until the gun went off and I was like, ‘Oh God, I gotta’ go!’ So I ran up and I found Meghan Arbogast and we were chatting away. She was all nervous because she had forgotten her water bottle. It was really funny because of what the old man had said to me and I ended up winning it.
iRF: So after that race, which was at the end of November 2011, you really got a roll and won pretty much every race you entered early in 2012. You then got injured at missed the rest of the year. Can you tell us about that?
Scallon: I was with Salomon over at their Advanced Week in Greece. I don’t know exactly what happened except that I was running up some hard terrain and all of a sudden I just got really, really sick. Nauseous, throwing up, bloody nose… all at once. I didn’t know what was wrong. Looking back, that’s probably where I put a crack in my bone, at that moment, and my body was telling me something but I didn’t know what was wrong. So I kept running on it for a long time.
iRF: So, when did you actually find out what was actually the problem?
Scallon: Yeah, it was when I was given my race number for Western States. The injury happened in April 2012 and I was at Western States getting my stuff in June when I found out. So I didn’t run at all after that for the rest of 2012.
iRF: Was that your first serious injury that you had to deal with?
Scallon: Yeah that was my first injury ever. I’d never been taken out from running before. It was hard. I kinda’ wish I would have had an injury when I was younger so I could have known how to deal with it.
iRF: So you found it tough to handle the mental side of being injured as well as the physical recuperation needed?
Scallon: Yeah, it was really tough. I guess because I had just been given all these big opportunities and I was really excited by them and then, as fast as they came, they all just went away. I had just joined the Salomon team at the beginning of the year, just before Bandera 100k. Right before that race I had moved to Portland and took a nursing job there. Before that I had been in Boulder visiting my brother and I met with Adam Chase, the Salomon Team Manager, and we sat down and had a coffee and he asked me to be on the team. Now, I’m renting a room from him in Boulder! It all worked out. [laughs]
When I got the sponsorship it was totally exciting, but I think I didn’t really know what it meant at the time. I knew very little about ultrarunning, I was excited, and I knew it was a great opportunity, but I didn’t even realize how great of an opportunity it was…
iRF: And do you realize now?
Scallon: [laugh] Yeah after having it taken away from me for a year and missing all that great stuff I wanted to do. Just getting to know the team better and what’s it all about – absolutely! I feel very fortunate.
iRF: So I guess you now have the opportunity to race wherever you want, have you any aspirations to race in Europe or other places outside the US?
Scallon: Yeah, I’d like to race in Europe, but I’m really happy to be doing a lot of stuff near home this year. Kinda’ rebuilding and figuring out more about what the sport is really about and learning. There are so many good races here that I am interested in and I don’t know a whole lot about the races in Europe yet. I hope to have the opportunity to go over and do some more racing over there, not just Europe but South America and other places, too.
iRF: Have you got any goals for this year?
Scallon: I really want to run a 100 miler this year. That’s my big goal. Since Western States didn’t go how I wanted it to, I’m going to give Run Rabbit Run a shot in September. That’s one of the reasons I’m going up there this weekend – to check out the course! I’m really excited to try a 100 miler. I realize I still have a lot of work to do on it, but I’ve finished a 100k a couple of times now and felt really good. So I feel like I can go longer and I feel like I can do well with it. It’s kinda like a 100 miler is a glory event and it’s really exciting.
iRF: You work as a nurse, too, right? Does that suit your training? I guess you work nights and some other crazy hours, so does that give you some flexibility for getting out running more?
Scallon: Yeah, well I just signed up for a bunch of hours at work recently, because I’ve been injured and it gives me something to do when I’m not running. I guess the way that nursing especially helps me with ultrarunning is that I see people that are really suffering and I help them out in their situations. I know that when I’m out and I’m hurting when I’m running, that it’s nothing compared to what some other people are going through. We choose to put ourselves in that kind of pain, other people don’t have the choice. Also, the long hours on my feet and staying up for days on end… I guess that could be good ultra training!
iRF: For sure. So your mom is a nurse, too, right? Are your parents still living back in Wisconsin?
Scallon: Yeah, they still live there. My mom’s been a nurse since they went back to school and my dad fixes up houses. He’s an ultrarunner, too! When I raced the Ice Age 50 Mile this spring, he ran the 50k. It was his goal to beat me with his 50k time against my 50-mile time – he didn’t! I still beat him on that!
iRF: [laughs] So did you get him into running ultras?
Scallon: Yeah, I got him into it. He did some marathons when I was younger and he did a lot triathlons so I saw him doing sports. I never thought he would do ultras but he got into that in the last couple of years.
iRF: Did you do what your Lapham Park Trail Runner buddies did to you and tell him that triathlons were for wimps?
Scallon: [laughs] It might have been more the Lapham Peak Trail Runners again actually. My dad came along to some of those runs and they kinda talked him into it…
iRF: They sound like a persuasive bunch… [laughs]
Scallon: Oh, they are! [laughs]