As Dylan Bowman prepares to wrap up his 2013 racing season this weekend by stretching his legs in his backyard race, The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-Mile Championships, I caught up with DBo to reflect on his journey into the sport and how swapping Colorado for California is opening his mind to new possibilities and adventures in ultrarunning.
iRunFar: So, you went to France in August to focus on UTMB. I guess it was one of your first big adventures in Europe? It must have really sucked to have gotten injured almost immediately after arriving. How did you cope?
Dylan Bowman: Oh, it was miserable. I arrived in France 15 days early and was completely focused on that race throughout the year. I had done Western States in June but, if I’m being honest, I was basically looking forward to UTMB ever since I had committed to running it. I arrived in really great shape, really well recovered from Western States–I was in a really focused and enthusiastic mindset. Unfortunately this injury happened on the first run when I was there, so I spent the next 10 days seeing if it was going to go. It became clear that it wouldn’t be wise to start the race.
iRunFar: Did you know straightaway when you rolled your ankle that it was a bad sprain or were you optimistic about racing afterward?
Bowman: I knew immediately. I have a tendency to roll my ankles and I get two or three good ones a year. I knew this one was bad. I didn’t fall down or anything. Basically, I just walked it off. I was about 4,000 feet up the Brévent there in Chamonix and I figured I might as well get to the top because then I could catch a ride back down on the cable car, if I needed to. When I got to the top about 10 minutes later, my sock looked like a balloon. My ankle had already swelled up massively in 10 minutes. That had never happened before, even though I roll my ankles all the time. Then the next day, I was black and blue from mid-shin all the way down to my toes–it was a really nasty sprain. But being in the mindset that, hey, I’m in France to race–I’ve come all the way out here to race–I was very impatient with it and wasn’t thinking too clearly about what the best course of action would be. Even when I was seeing doctors and they were like, “You’re not racing. It would be the stupidest thing to do!” I was still in the mindset that I was going to race in 10 days.
Then it sort of became clear during race week that it wasn’t going to work. I went for a short, test run up the first climb of the course and had to walk all the way back home. It was clear that it wasn’t going to happen and I came to peace with it and ended up having a good trip anyway. I hung out with Joe [Grant] and Anna Frost and rode around the course crewing for Tony [Krupicka]. So I got to see a lot of the race from that perspective which was really cool and only raised my enthusiasm for returning next year.
iRunFar: Sounds like you’re itching to get back and put those demons to rest.
Bowman: No doubt! That race is special and I really, really want to get there next year.
iRunFar: Cool. You speaking reminds me about you mentioning that you were really obsessive about things, Dylan. Have you always been like that or has it only been since you started focusing on ultras?
Bowman: I guess I’ve always been like that, at least when it comes to physical activity. I’ve always had an outlet like that. When I was a little kid, I was obsessed with tackle football. That’s all I wanted to do; that’s all I read about. Later on, I moved on and started playing lacrosse. That was the same thing–it was my life for several years. I played lacrosse throughout college. It was a great time and I had a ton of friends. Your lacrosse team kinda’ becomes like a traveling brotherhood so all my best friends are still the guys that I played lacrosse with in college, so it was fantastic.
But once that was over, I felt ready to move on and found running. It’s been a very obsessive relationship I guess. It’s interesting, with this injury, it’s the first time in my athletic career that I have dealt with something that has prevented me from competing. It’s been interesting to have that experience and contrast it with the obsessiveness. To have those feelings of being lost, you know? When you don’t have that outlet. So, yeah, it’s definitely something that I’m very committed to–I quit my job in Aspen and moved out here to California to focus on it and obviously it’s a deep passion of mine and something that I hope to be doing for many more years.
iRunFar: Did the obsessiveness extend to your rehabilitation from the injury, too?
Bowman: [laughing] I think I’m out of the woods with the injury. It’s been three and half months since the incident. It’s definitely not 100%, but it’s to the point where I can train as much as I need to and I am going to race the TNF EC 50 here soon. So I was really focused on rehabilitation. I did go through sort of a period where I didn’t do anything and was just moping around feeling sorry for myself. I spent three weeks in Europe doing pretty much nothing because I couldn’t train or race. Once I got back, I started seeing some people and have been diligent about it since then.
iRunFar: You mentioned Aspen. You moved there after college, but where were you living when you were growing up?
Bowman: I actually spent my summers when I was in school in Aspen as well. I had a history there and a bunch of friends there before I moved there full time. I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, which is the endurance-sport mecca. I never ran growing up and was never into endurance sports as a kid. I went to college in Fort Collins, which is about an hour north of Boulder and after that I moved to Aspen.
iRunFar: Team sports were your thing when you were younger. Did you not like running at all? Was it not on the radar?
Bowman: Not really. I always enjoyed running. In fact, when I played lacrosse, my role on the team was always to be the guy who ran the field. I was always the rabbit on the team who tired out the opposition defence, who hustled for ground balls, and who made plays in transitions. So running has always been a love of mine and a strength of mine but I never really had a serious interest in running until college when I did a little bit of it just to keep in shape. But I remember doing a three-mile run and coming home and going, holy cow, that was amazing!
In college, I actually thought about walking onto our cross-country team at Colorado State but thought better of it when a guy on the team told me they were running 70-mile weeks and I thought that was just insane. Impossible. But I remember as a kid, watching the Ironman on TV and being completely enthralled with it. That’s always been something that’s spoken to me–just these intense endeavours–but never had I really thought serious about it until I was done with playing lacrosse.
iRunFar: So, Dylan, what advantages do you think you brought to your running from your days playing lacrosse? I know you mentioned that you ran a lot on the field but were there other things that you learned about mentality or psychology that you brought over?
Bowman: Well, I think just having a lifetime of competitive athletics has helped. I definitely think that having experienced competing at a high level, and having a daily regime of, ‘hey this is what you need to do to prepare for the goal’–even though the goals are completely different–there is a huge parallel there and it’s something that helped me a lot. Like I said, my lacrosse involved a lot of running so it was a fairly easy transition once I got my fitness to a level where I could sustain it to several hours compared to a three-hour game of short bursts.
iRunFar: That transition resulted in your first marathon in 2008. It happened to be a trail marathon, too, but that wasn’t a conscious decision to run off-road, was it? More a luck of the draw?
Bowman: Yeah, I guess so. I had graduated college in May of that year. I was in Aspen and I was a little bit antsy. A friend of mine and I were going to be traveling through Asia that coming fall, so I was looking for something to do beforehand ’cause I was a bit bored. I just heard about this race and I signed up with just a couple of weeks notice with hardly any real training. But it was a really cool trail race that they put on at Breckenridge that’s been around for a while and I had a great time. I had a pretty good race; I think I finished in the top seven or eight or something. I was in complete awe about what it took to cover that type of distance in the mountains and remember being completely miserable but also being completely euphoric upon finishing! I then heard about ultrarunning later on, after I had returned [from Asia], and it was a very quick process of becoming very serious about that.
iRunFar: After the race, you said you had a trip to Asia planned. Was that just a let-your-hair-down type of trip?
Bowman: Yeah, I went with my best friend from childhood that I went to school with all the way through to college. We’re really close. We just decided to go for a trip. We had both just graduated and had nothing to do and had a bit of cash so we went the Philippines for two months and just bounced around throughout the islands there. We then went to Thailand for a month. We just had a ball, just great fun.
iRunFar: There was no running at all then?
Bowman: There actually was. I ran a little bit. I’d go out here and there on four- or five-mile runs when it was easy for me to do so but I was getting chased around by lots of stray dogs and getting really weird looks. It wasn’t a training-focused trip. [laughing]
iRunFar: It was when you returned from that trip that you stumbled upon an article about the Leadville 100, wasn’t it? Was that your first real realisation that ultrarunning existed or had you some idea that there were people running 100 miles in the mountains?
Bowman: No, I really didn’t know anything about it. I read this article about a now-friend of mine named Zeke [Tiernan] who had finished third at the Leadville 100 on his first go at that distance. I actually went running with him yesterday, too, and we were reminiscing! So I had just heard about Leadville and there was just an immediate attraction–it was something that I immediately knew I wanted to do–and from then it became, like I mentioned earlier, an obsession. It was something that I really thought about a lot and something deep down in my soul that I just really focused on and had a serious attraction for me.
iRunFar: Can you explain what is was about the race that was so attractive for you? Was it the pure challenge and difficulty of it or was it something else that got the juices flowing?
Bowman: Yeah, I guess it was just the challenge, the curiosity of whether or not I could do it. At the same time, I always sort of had a confidence that I could do it–otherwise you’re stuck in a place that’s like, “Wow, that’s crazy!” For me it was never like that, it was more like, “I know I can do this, I really want to prove to myself that I can do this.” It was in my backyard, too. I knew Leadville and I had started to run on trails a little bit. It also gave me something to focus on which is what I needed at that point. After college, when you don’t have a very serious job and you’ve got the temptation to party a lot, it helped me a lot in terms of being consistent and staying healthy. It gave me something that I do everyday to get me closer to an end goal.
iRunFar: Cool. From becoming focused on it to actually running the race for the first time in 2010, how did your trail running progress?
Bowman: I read the article, I think, in late 2008 and I didn’t run the race until 2010, so I gave myself a year and a half, or whatever it was, to get ready for it. I took it really seriously–it wasn’t something that I jumped in and thought, hey, what the heck! I knew that if I wanted to do it then I would give myself the best chance I could to finish. From talking to a few people, I figured out that’s it’s probably smart to do a couple of 50-mile races beforehand and that’s what I did. My training was all completely ignorant training–I had no idea what I was doing. I was having a blast doing it but there was zero structure and I was just trying to figure it out on the fly. It worked fairly well and look back on those early days and just smile because I’ve come so far since then and really, that first race in 2010 and the training that led up to it, are special memories now for me.
iRunFar: You finished third in that first Leadville, Dylan. How did you feel about it? I mean, you went into it quite confident, you mentioned. Were you delighted to get a spot on the podium or were you thinking that you could have won? A hint of disappointment, maybe?
Bowman: There was not a drop of disappointment. There was complete elation! Of course, I was completely shattered–it was my first 100, my first time going beyond 50 miles. It was a fantastic, wonderful experience–I always sort of had confidence that I could do decent. I didn’t go into the race thinking that I wanted to be on the podium at all. It was more like I thought that I was going to finish the race no matter what it takes. So, I had a decent day and circumstances played out that I ended up in third place with not too many miles to go. At that point, when you’re in third place and you start to think that you can finish in third–that’s when the competitive aspirations about finishing on the podium kicked in. But I think I definitely surprised my family who was there! I surprised myself and impressed myself, too, by doing that in my first 100. I felt great about it but wasn’t satisfied–I wanted more!
iRunFar: Cool. From that first 100, you are now deep into the world of ultrarunning, Dylan. Not only are you a sponsored runner on the the Pearl Izumi team but you also have a job with Hypoxico. Did you ever think that you would become so immersed in the sport?
Bowman: No, I never thought it would happen. It’s interesting because I was having this conversation with some friends not so long ago. We were taking about, as kids, what we envisioned our lives would look like as adults. Whenever I was a kid thinking about the future, I always envisioned myself as an athlete. I guess in that sense, you know, I’m where I want to be. I have this fantastic opportunity where I can compete and train and treat it as if it’s a job and yet I also have another job that’s my main source of income that allows me to have a comfortable lifestyle. It is a really fortunate place. I never thought it would come to fruition but I’m really happy where I am now. I am very fortunate to have the support from Pearl Izumi and Hypoxico is a fantastic work opportunity for me as well. Like you said, it helps me to stay connected to sports in general, not just ultrarunning. When I’m done training and start work for the day, it’s great to be able to work with athletes. To be able to help people toward their goals and stay connected with the sporting community is something that makes me genuinely satisfied everyday. It’s a good situation for me.
iRunFar: How did the job with Hypoxico happen? Was it a product that you were using yourself and it progressed from there or what’s the story behind that?
Bowman: It’s a product that I knew about. I had known the CEO for a little while, his name is Brian Oestrike. He’s a fantastic athlete himself, a mountaineer who summited Everest among many other peaks. He just did the Leadman series in Leadville this summer. So, I had known him through a friend of mine in Aspen. They had gone to school together back home in Ohio. Basically what happened was that I had made the decision that I was going to be leaving Colorado and would be moving out west here. I emailed him and said, “Hey I’m going to be moving out west and am curious about what sponsorship opportunities there might be, because I’m worried about leaving Aspen, living at 8,000 feet.”
iRunFar: Why did you decide to move, Dylan?
Bowman: I decided to move because my girlfriend had decided to move. She had actually already moved out and it was at a point for me that when she moved, I hadn’t the flexibility to leave my job. So she came out here, got established and found a job. I stayed for one more season in Aspen but knew all along that I would be moving the next season. When I left and got in touch with Brian at Hypoxico, we had a chat about sponsorship and that turned into, “Hey, we’re actually looking to bring on another person and it’d be good to have someone on the West Coast.” It just evolved from there and it’s such a great company to work for–a bunch of great guys and a really good environment.
iRunFar: There have been some debates about the use of altitude tents for training. Whether it’s ethically correct to do so. As someone who uses one and works for the company, what’s your take?
Bowman: Yeah, there is that debate. Obviously, as someone who works for the company, my opinion on it is that it’s a 100% fair product. I mean, you see it in all different sports. Just last weekend the University of Colorado won the national cross country championships again so I think a big part of that is obviously their talent, but also that they train at altitude year-round. I think that’s a major reason why that program is so successful. You see it in the ultra world as well. The guys who come from Boulder or come from from Flagstaff, for instance, they come down to these sea-level race like the TNF EC 50 with a distinct advantage. They frequently have a lot of success doing it.
So what Hypoxico does is that, people like me who live in San Francisco and have aspirations to do high-level races, it not only gives me that opportunity but it also allows us the same advantage as the athletes living at high altitude have when they come down to sea-level races. I can see both sides of the argument but it comes down to the point that it’s just a training tool. It’s still a sport where you have to put in the work. You can’t just get in an altitude tent and think that you’re going to win races. It’s a real fun company to work for and we get great satisfaction from hearing people’s success stories. I really love it and believe in the product.
iRunFar: You were speaking of living at altitude there, Dylan. You moved from Aspen down to San Francisco. It must have been a big change for you both with regards to the environment and lifestyle?
Bowman: Yes and no. San Francisco is a major metropolitan area but we actually live up north in Marin County now–where one of the greatest trail systems in the world exists. From my door I can go out on six- or seven-hour runs, easy. That being said, it was definitely a little bit of a learning curve, especially when it came to traffic and just the stress level that comes with an enormous population. But I really, really love it–it’s such a cool environment. I’ve never been in a place that has such fantastic outdoor athletic opportunity combined with such enormous professional opportunity. It’s a great place for athletes to come and train and it’s also one of the most progressive, forward-thinking, inventive, and creative environments in the world. There is a lot of excitement in the air, between athletes and entrepreneurs. It’s a really cool environment to be in.
iRunFar: Sounds great. You mentioned that San Francisco is quite a progressive place but as far as trail and ultrarunning goes. There has been massive progression since you first ran that trail marathon in 2008. How would you like to see the sport progress in the near future?
Bowman: Well, I’d like to see a lot of what’s happening now–to see that continue on a sustained path. I like seeing more talented athletes coming into the sport. I think that’s going to continue to happen. I think every year there’s going to be two to three new guys and girls that pop up where we think, Wow, where did that person come from? There’s going to be a lot more races popping up all over the world, really. That’s going to give people more opportunity to travel, more opportunity to see different running communities. What it comes down to is that it’s going to make our ultrarunning community more international. I mean, it’s really cool that you and I can sit here from a world away and talk about it and sort of have the same feelings.
It’s going to be a really interesting and exciting several years ahead for the sport–I just hope to be able continue to be a part of it for a long time. It’s going to be tough to be competitive with the really talented runners coming into the sport–but that’s a good thing. It forces everybody to re-evaluate their training and find different ways to get the most out of themselves and that’s a challenge I really welcome.
iRunFar: Do you feel, Dylan, that you still have a lot to improve upon when it comes to your running?
Bowman: Absolutely. I think I did come to a place where I plateaued for a long period of time simply because I did the same thing over and over. In the early stages of my running career, I just kept getting better simply because I was getting fitter and fitter. At a certain stage, you get to a point where you have to get more creative to get faster. So that’s what I have been doing. I have started to work with a coach, Jason Koop out of Colorado Springs, who writes my program for me because I simply don’t know–I don’t come from a running background. I don’t know how to get the most out of myself or how to stress different systems at different times and he’s a professional.
That’s something I think we’ll see more of in the future as well–people getting a lot more specific in their training and a lot more specific in their racing. I think it’ll be a lot more specialised between the distances and overall people will probably race a little bit less. But, for me, I’ve come to a point where I’m definitely much more creative in my training as a result of having a coach and it’s really fun for me. I have a new stimulus after basically just jogging around. Now I have different workouts on different days and I’m keeping it fresh. It’s added another dimension and a new thing to look forward to throughout the week.
iRunFar: Great, so looking forward to 2014–you’re itching to get back to UTMB obviously. Is that going to be your main focus race, along with Western States again?
Bowman: Yeah, so those are the two focus races. Western States in June–you know, I have two finishes there now and it’s a race that still speaks to me and a race that I feel like I still have a better day in me that I can produce on that course. I’m pretty sure I’ll continue returning there until I feel satisfied with my race. Hopefully, I can do that this year. After Western States, it’ll be UTMB again. So basically the same schedule in 2014 as 2013. I’m not quite sure what I’ll do in the spring yet but prepare me for the summer 100’s. Those will be the two goals. They are the two most prestigious races on the planet and those are the races that I want to participate in the most.