Catching Up With Geoff Roes

Geoff Roes steps away from his 13-year-old daughter’s Zoom remote learning to take my call. He was checking in to make sure that the technology was working–an experience we can all relate with now. Roes doesn’t volunteer it, but I quickly learn that the day we speak–April 14–is his 44th birthday and thank him for taking my call on this day. “Well, you can’t do a whole lot right now anyway,” he countered, referring to Alaska’s current shelter-in-place order. That’s not entirely true. Like most of the rest of America, Roes just finished the ‘Tiger King” docu-series, and he’s still got to watch the after show.

It’s been about eight years since he was a competitive ultrarunner, and it’s been almost four years since he retired his longtime iRunFar column. Roes was both the 2009 and 2010 Ultrarunning Magazine (North America) Ultrarunner of the Year, and just last year Andy Jones-Wilkins revisited his memorable 18-month stretch of racing over that period. In 2013, Roes wrote about overtraining syndrome (OTS), and in 2016 he signed off from iRunFar with a final column titled “Nothing More To Say.”

Geoff Roes running at the 2010 The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships where he took second behind Miguel Heras. Photo: Krissy Moehl

It’s an innocent but huge question, and I just wanted to know what he’d been up to since then, and we go to overtraining syndrome right away. “It still impacts me,” he starts, and I’m immediately surprised and saddened. I hadn’t anticipated that OTS could be so long-lasting, and Roes surely didn’t either. “It seems like I take two steps forward and one step back. I can’t really do what I want physically, I still get pretty fatigued.”

Roes still endures “bad patches,” and has been managing the current one for about the last six months. He gets more specific, that OTS impacts what he chooses to do, because while he could do some things, they just wouldn’t be enjoyable. Just like it was before, OTS symptoms are still varied and somewhat hard to describe. “I’ll feel headachy, weak, just icky. I’ll almost feel like I’m getting sick. My muscles will ache, headaches, like I’m coming down with a sickness for a month or two in a row,” he says, in attempting to put words to the general malaise, though immediately pointing out that the symptoms were much more acute at the front end of his illness.

On a backpacking trip with his daughter, Elle, last summer. All photos courtesy of Geoff Roes unless otherwise noted.

If the symptoms are hard to nail down, the diagnosis is too. Roes was exhaustive in his search for answers and weathered extensive blood work, brain scans, and other tests, before ultimately settling on the loose OTS diagnosis. He and his doctor both think that OTS triggered some other response in his body too though. “It’s day to day. Really good sleep is the best (medicine), eight to nine hours a night for several nights in a row. That’s usually enough to snap me out of (a bad patch), but one shitty night of sleep or two nights might take 10 days to snap out of,” Roes said, sounding like something he’d repeated too often.

Roes won Alaska’s Iditarod Trail Invitational 350-mile race in February of 2012, and in stepping back shortly thereafter because of OTS, he admits he wasn’t that far off his planned-for timeline. “The hardest part was that it wasn’t on my terms. Maybe going into 2011, but definitely into 2012, I had already made up my mind that I’d do (only) another year. My timeline wasn’t hugely different than what I envisioned, but it was definitely pretty frustrating. I was never one of those guys who wanted to do it for as long as they could,” he said, before talking about one regret. “The Hardrock 100, I always had my eye on wanting to run that.” Call it the one that got away, but Roes has certainly kept busy in the years since he stopped ultrarunning, and he can still run 50 to 60 miles per week, without training, on a good week.

Sea kayaking in 2018.

He’s worked a hodgepodge of jobs over the years, and helps coach a middle and high-school cross-country team and coaches a youth group in snowshoe racing for the Arctic Winter Games. “It’s basically the youth Olympics for Arctic nations,” he explains. This potpourri of adventures and life keep coming over our hour-long call.

Roes co-directs the second-year Juneau Ridge Race and though this year’s race might be postponed, he’s proud that it is included in the 2020 Alaska Mountain Runner Grand Prix series. He’s still excited about the course–a 15-mile single loop with 5,000 feet of climbing–and still amazed by Allan Spangler‘s 2:18 winning time last year.

And then this year marks the 10th anniversary of his Alaska Mountain Ultrarunning Camp, and Roes says it’ll be the last. There’s a single session scheduled for July, and if the COVID-19 pandemic forces a postponement of that too, Roes pledges to make up for it next year. I press on why he’s set to stop the successful adventure runs and Roes boomerangs back to OTS.

The Alaska Mountain Running Camp in 2019.

“It would have to come to an end at some point. Probably the first four years I still had leftover fitness from years of training, it was pretty easy. I could just do it on momentum. But it’s five to six hours a day in the mountains, for five to six days in a row. It’s a lot of physical stress and not a lot of sleep. I can’t do that indefinitely all summer. Just talking about it though, it’s super fun and I’m like, ‘do I really want to stop?’ I’ll miss it for sure.”

Those camps have been Roes’s best connection to the sport, and to old racing friends too. Dakota Jones, Joe GrantRickey Gates, and Jenn Shelton have all made guest appearances to give an assist over the years.

The Alaska Mountain Running Camp.

Roes reminds me that it rains a lot in Juneau, Alaska, all year long, but in the summer he and his family sea kayak and spend a lot of time together on slower-paced trips. He still has a soft spot for Utah and every spring break the trio jets to Utah for some desert solitaire, usually absent the rain. But we get back to Alaska. He’s lived there–in the state’s far southeast–for 15 years now. “Springtime is really nice here. One thousand feet up [in the mountains,] there might be six feet of snowpack, but it’s close to 50 degrees Fahrenheit here today.” It’s his birthday and he’s going to take advantage of the conditions with a daytime snowshoe run and a nighttime beach fire. Other locals will be there too, keeping a social distance, and although I didn’t, I hope they sang “Happy Birthday.”

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

It’s Geoff Roes story time! Leave a comment to share a story of adventuring and racing with Geoff Roes over the years.

Snowshoeing in the spring of 2020. Photo: Cecile Elliott

Justin Mock

is a family man, finance man, and former competitive runner. He gave his 20s to running, and ran as fast as 2:29 for the marathon and finished as high as fourth at the Pikes Peak Marathon. His running is now most happy with his two dogs on the trails and peaks near his home west of Denver.

There are 20 comments

  1. AJW

    My Geoff Roes story dates back to the 2008 Wasatch Front 100. This was two years before his course record win at Western States and Geoff was still relatively new to the sport. The race started out and a lead pack of four quickly got some distance on everyone else. In that group was Geoff, Jack Pilla, Larry O’Neill, and myself. From Francis Peak to the last descent into Lamb’s Canyon the four of us ran together stride for stride, swapping stories and enjoying a beautiful early fall day. On the descent into Lamb’s Geoff started to push the pace and I hung to his heels. The others dropped back a bit. We got quickly in and out of the aid station and headed up the pavement toward Bear Ass Pass together. After talking for the past 7 hours it appeared that Geoff had switched into race mode and he gradually pulled away from my. By the time I got to Upper Big Water he was just leaving the aid station and by the time I got to Brighton he had a six minute gap. What happened from there just blew my mind. By the next aid station his lead was 12 minutes and after that one by Pole Line it was 26 minutes. Craig Thornley was pacing me and he said we were really moving and yet Geoff was pulling away dramatically. Finally, at Mile 93, after Craig went over to the clipboard guy to ask about the gap he came back to me and said “you don’t even wanna know.” Geoff ended up beating me by 90 minutes getting a gap of 84 minutes on me over the final 25 miles. Geoff was a lotta things but perhaps what I’ll know him best as is a totally dominant closer.

  2. Mary G

    I don’t personally know Geoff Roes, but he wrote a column in 2013 about run commuting that had a profound impact on my daily life. I was riding a bike daily for transpo, but had not given running the same consideration. As a result of that column, I began exploring transportation running. In addition to running as a way to maintain and build fitness and test my personal limits, it feels great to apply it in this very practical everyday way. I still run to do errands and go to work, and am grateful to Geoff and that column for opening my mind to running not only as sport, but transportation too.

  3. Matt Olsen

    Dont have a story, I dont “know” Geoff personally, but just want to say we love you Geoff. I truly hope one day you can feel “normal” again, I sympathize with the undiagnosed medical issues. Glad to see you still making the best of life. You’re a great father and a great human beings. Wishing you all the best.

  4. Jim

    Geoff got me into the Ultra scene. I was lucky enough to attend his first camp and many others! I owe much to my take on trail running to Geoff. He showed me that quality was much better than quantity. I met those in the community, from Corle and John to the Smokin’ Old Geezers! This camp and quality of life let my heart and my mind decide what I want to do, to share with, and be with. Thanks Geoff!

  5. Ellie G

    So much respect for Geoff and his humble nature to go chase goals and just enjoy being outside. Before ‘Unbreakable’ movie came out, I watched a shaky YouTube video of Geoff closing in on his CR win at WSER in 2010. I’d just got my got my own spot to run WSER in 2011 and was so inspired by watching those magical few minutes of his win. Geoff is forever one of my inspirations in this sport – so glad he is featured in this series.

  6. Pete

    It’s hard to believe that we’ll ever see another 100-miler winning streak like Geoff put together. When he was temporarily living in the hills above Boulder in early 2011, he appeared in a now legendary panel discussion with Mackey, Krupicka, and Jurek, and you could already hear then that he needed a rest: video from Joe Grant here: https://vimeo.com/18902157 (sometimes poor lighting for Geoff) and story here: https://www.irunfar.com/2011/01/video-qa-with-jurek-krupicka-roes-mackey.html

    I believe he first started bringing up the “burnout” word after his 2011 UTMB DNF but he’ll always be remembered as a tough-as-nails but gracious and humble competitor.

      1. Jamin

        Wow, simply, wow.

        This is an article about Goeff. Way to jump in off your high horse and grab some attention. Sad, but not surprising. Haha.

        I was so psyched to see Goeff absolutely crush the 2009 Wasatch 100. His run that year is one of the the most underrated performances on one of the harder 100 mile courses. His course record still stands and no one has come close.

        Good luck with your health and take care.

        1. speedgoat

          Haha Jamin. If you knew me well, you’d realize my “high horse” is not so high. I know Geoff well, and he’d chuckle at my comment. Don’t take things so seriously. I really wish Geoff would come back and race some of the younger guys, because more than likely, he’d be right in the mix with em’. His record at Wasatch will never go down. I was the guy that chased him that day and his close was awesome. Noone will come close to that Wasatch record because the Wasatch 100 race does not care about faster athletes. Geoff’s time was also on the toughest course by far. Even if the time gets beaten, it’ll always be the record at Wasatch in my eyes.

    1. Evan Kimber

      Pete – what’s further eerie about this panel discussion was listening to Dave Mackey, who joked that he (at the time) runs half the mileage that Tony (Krupicka) does and hopes Tony doesn’t get injured (and will be running/racing into his 40’s). Dave also said he was super fortunate to not have any injuries in so many years of running apart from turning an ankle. Their lives have changed so dramatically since this panel.

  7. Peter Riebling

    I never knew Geoff, but he remains an inspiration. Whenever I am down I watch Unbreakable. So humble, kind, spoke softly and let his grit and resolve do the talking. That is not your average bear. Thank you Geoff for being so great! #Finish strong!

  8. Gary Howell

    I don’t know Geoff personally, but I ran against him in the Crow Pass Crossing one year. I finished 5th, well behind Geoff, and was pretty beat up. The only thing I remember is that he crushed everyone, ate a snack… and then ran BACK to his truck – 24 miles through the mountains. It was pretty humbling and motivating at the same time.

  9. Matias Saari

    Geoff’s accomplishments in Alaska’s Crow Pass Crossing are legendary. The race travels 22.5 miles through the backcountry with a 3.5-mile climb to start, followed by snowfields, chest-high brush with chunky rocks underfoot, a 100-yard deep glacial river crossing, no aid stations and an unmarked trail that is easy to lose. Geoff knocked 8 minutes off the record in a tight battle with Eric Strabel in 2009 and was the first to break the 3-hour barrier in 2:57. The next year he chased down Strabel and lowered the record to 2:54:44. Beyond his laurels, Geoff is a kind and humble champion and running ambassador.

  10. Brando

    As this sport grows in popularity and the years go on, it would be interesting, as in other sports, to imagine a race of all the best athletes in their prime and who might have the advantage- Geoff was one of the most amazing endurance athletes I’ve ever witnessed and Unbreakable still has its place among the best sport movies ever- I also Love how down to Earth he is- Best of Luck in overcoming OTS and may you enjoy Alaska and beyond with your family for decades to come! PS- My favorite Geoff video clip is when he talks about Porcupines being more dangerous than bears- Epic!

  11. Rick

    Fondly remember when he burst on the ultra scene. Dude was training like 40,000′ of vertical a week in Alaska and came down and just cleaned house for a few years. I picked him over a strong Krupika at WS in 2010 and he delivered. Followed the Iditarod in 2012, with him and Hewitt throwing down and thought maybe it was all too much. Great to see him thriving!

  12. Thomas

    Geoff you are still one of my Idols, you and Kilian got me into trailrrunning in 2010, and after 10 years running I still love it, thanks therefore !

  13. Evan Kimber

    I first saw Geoff at WS 2010 (I was also a finisher of the race that year). Being well aware of his legendary race acumen in a short time, I of course wanted to meet him. When I did, first thing I noticed was that he was such a humble low key guy that did not need, want, or care for publicity and attention. While I had a miserable race that year, I was simultaneously rooting for him to win and he did, setting a new CR.

    Fast forward to 3 years later, I was running the UROC 100K in Colorado (the one and only year it was raced there amongst very elite competition). Geoff was no longer racing, but was volunteering. I took a photo with him before the start, and eagerly introduced him to my wife (she commented immediately on how humble and nice he was, my exact impression meeting him at WS 2010). Later that day, just before Vail Pass (halfway into the race) I rolled into the aid station and Geoff was there, helping out a severely dehydrated runner. He remembered my name instantly and asked what I needed. It was eerie; this was my running idol and he was now taking care of me?! It felt very symbolic as to the type of human being Geoff is, a total class act and genuinely good man.

    If you read this Geoff, I hope you find your full health soon, and thank you for inspiring me and so many others.

  14. Jill Colangelo

    I don’t know Geoff personally, but his name is all over my graduate school thesis. Four years ago, I suffered from major OTS and eventually had to stop training for ultras. I was so frustrated that I went back to school to study endurance exercise, mental health, and the psychological/physiological impact of what we do. I reference Geoff in my work often and though I am sad to hear that he continues to suffer the effects of OTS (as I do), I am not surprised at all based on my research. Now my goal is to help others not make mistakes like mine. It’s not defeat to accept that the human body DOES have limits…it is foolish to believe that it doesn’t.

  15. E.H.

    The most fascinating part of Geoff’s story to me is his role of trail blazer. Had Geoff entered ultrarunning in 2015 or 2018, he would have a good chance at being ranked top 10 by Ultrarunning Mag but he would have never been the ultrarunner of the year and certainly wouldn’t have been considered much of trail blazer. Because he entered in 2008ish, he was rewarded with Ultrarunner of the year as he pushed the sport to the next level. And that crown carries surprising weight amongst the general population. The crown provided interesting benefits and costs. A benefit was that he developed a huge following which certainly helped his sponsorships but it also gave him a voice. I remember reading his blog and tons of people were commenting and discussing this posts. I recall a discussion on electrical energy consumption in the US. On the one hand it was cool that he was encouraging this discourse on this topic. On the other hand it was like, why are people caring what Geoff thinks about this issue? He isn’t an energy expert, he’s a runner! It was that role of trail blazer that gave him a voice and allowed him to bring issues forward that he felt were socially important. Generally speaking, I really respect that use of his standing within the community. The big downfall of his trailblazer role was lack of data around OTS around 2010ish. He was one of the many Guinea pigs for the sport. It’s sad that he is still struggling with the fallout from these health issues. He doesn’t say in this article, but I wonder if he’d give all those awards and records back to have better health now.

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