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Alyson Venti: East Coast Ultrarunning Standout

An in-depth interview with ultrarunner Alyson Venti.

By on June 11, 2015 | 1 comment

In 2011 an on the hunt for a new pair of running shoes, Alyson Venti walked into the local running store in Miami, Florida. She walked out with her mind set on her first ultramarathon. Originally from Newton, Massachusetts, she has lived the last the six years in Miami, Florida, spending her time running every morning before 8 a.m., again every evening after 6 p.m., and then studying and working for a job in oceanography in between. Now, being slightly chilly while living in New York while her boyfriend and crew chief Teddy Allen pursues a post-doctorate at Columbia University, Aly is clocking in runs and races before she defends last year’s win at the Badwater 135 this coming July. I spoke with the holder of one of the fastest 100-mile finish times by a North American to find out more about this speedy, heat-loving, road-running ultrarunner.

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Alyson Venti. All photos: Teddy Allen

iRunFar: When did you start running and how did you get into ultrarunning?

Alyson Venti: I ran in high school and college. I was not bad, not good, just a Division III average athlete. After college, I never stopped running. I went to Fiji for three years with the Peace Corps, then to South Africa for an internship with the national park in Cape Town. I just like to start my day off with running. I used to be stuck in the lab all day, so it’s a good way to get out and explore. I moved to Miami in 2009 for graduate school at the University of Miami to study oceanography. Running is my outlet for stress. When school gets tough, it is a good coping technique.

[In 2011,] I was buying new shoes at the running store and the woman working told me to look into the Keys Ultramarathon Races 50 Mile because I was running so many miles. I instead did the 100 mile and did horrible. I didn’t finish. I didn’t eat or drink anything, went out too fast, and just didn’t think I needed anything. It was a suicide mission, but I wanted to go back in 2012.

iRunFar: Wow, no nutrition the entire race? But, you came back and won the Keys Ultramarathon Races 100 Mile (Keys 100) in 2012. What did you change for the race the second time?

Venti: I kept a water bottle with me the whole time. It was like a security blanket. I wouldn’t even let my boyfriend take it at the finish. For that race, I just wanted to finish. I was second overall and the first female.

iRunFar: Then you came back in 2013 and ran the 50-mile race. Why ‘just’ the 50 that time?

Venti: I wanted to try something new. I was happy with my 100-mile time too. For the 50 miler, I was more concerned with time and speed. I kept asking, “Am I running too slowly?” I usually don’t wear a watch when I run, so I didn’t know my splits, but it was fun to run faster and be done with the sun still up.

iRunFar: And, then you ran the 100 miler again in 2014 and won the race outright. How was the 2014 race different than the others?

Venti: For the race I introduced more fast workouts into my routine. Traci Falbo, Katalin Nagy, and Grant Maughan[, who were also competing,] are phenomenal runners, so I knew the times from the 2012 race would be broken. It was a really scary and intimidating honor to run with such fast [people]. I wanted to win, but it was not my major goal. I just wanted to beat my 2012 time.

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Aly finishing the Icarus Florida UltraFest in 2014.

iRunFar: So three years of the Keys 100. Can you talk about what the race is like? What do you recommend to runners looking at the race?

Venti: The Keys are gorgeous, and I love every aspect of the race. The race director, Bob Becker, is great. The cars [driving on the run route] are made aware of the runners and it is a well-run race. I think it is actually harder for the crew than it is for the runner, because they have to get across traffic to reach us.

For most ultras you end up all alone, which can be demoralizing, but because there is a relay along with the 100 miler and 50 miler, there are runners everywhere who are faster and slower than you. People are always cheering and yelling.

The entire race is on the roads next to cars. My advice would be to train on the roads. Some runners have a mental block against roads, but you just can’t let it get to your head. For the heat, you just have to train in the heat during the day. Practice slowly and consistently drinking water and electrolytes on long runs, and wear sunglasses and sunscreen if you’re prone to sunburn!

iRunFar: You moved to Miami in 2009. Was it difficult acclimating to the heat? How do you cope with it now?

Venti: In high school and college I was awful at running in the heat, and the first summer I was here was pretty bad. But your body gets used to the climate. I usually run twice a day, before 8 a.m. and after 6 p.m., to beat the hottest part of the day. It was a gradual process, but your body learns to adjust. I don’t really burn, and wear a sports bra and shorts to help keep cool.

Actually though, right now I am living in New York for the year. My boyfriend is in his post-doctoral position for meteorology, and then we are moving back to Florida.

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Aly in Everglades National Park in 2013.

iRunFar: Oh, really? How have you liked the last couple of months up there?

Venti: I miss the sun and the heat. I have been running in Central Park. The other day it was 55 degrees [Fahrenheit]. Guys were passing me shirtless and I had running tights and three thermal shirts on!

But, I was in Torino, Italy this Spring for the International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) 24-Hour World Championships. It is not that warm there, so I was looking at this time in NYC as a good opportunity to get used to it. There are also hills to run which is nice for training, since Miami is so flat.

iRunFar: Can you talk about the world championship this past April?

Venti: The U.S. had a really strong team, with Traci [Falbo], Maggie Guterl, and Katalin [Nagy as scoring team performers].  As for the race itself, I am pretty disappointed in my own performance and I think there were a lot of factors that contributed to my performance, some were in my control and some outside.

[Author’s Note: Also, on the team were Jennifer Hoffman, Connie Gardner, and Sky Canaves. Individually, Nagy was the overall female winner with 244.495 kilometers. Falbo was second in 239.740k. Guterl was fourth with 235.811k.  The women’s team won gold in the team competition. Venti finished out of contention with 165.650k.]

Despite my frustration with my personal performance I am truly honored to have been a part of the USA gold-medal team. Though I wish my contribution had been different, I am proud of the amazing athletes and women on the team and grateful for the experience to represent the USA at the world stage.

iRunFar: What are your plans for the rest of the year? How’s training going, and how is it different while you’re in New York and not Miami?

Venti: I am training for Badwater now, or at least trying to. And, I was accepted to run the Spartathlon in Greece, but haven’t paid my registration fee yet.

To be honest it’s been pretty hard running here. It’s a big adjustment from Miami, both physically and emotionally, and it’s taken me a while to make the change. I don’t have the heat here to train in, but I’ve been trying to take advantage of the hills to train on.

I had some injuries after worlds, which I’ve been struggling to overcome. But, I’m not very good at taking time off…

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Participating in the 2014 IAU 24-Hour World Championships in Italy.

iRunFar: Your training consists of a lot of speed and long distance. How do you balance that out in your training runs? What does a typical week look like for you?

Venti: I run twice a day, usually before and after work and school. I was recently in graduate school, so I had a pretty flexible schedule. And, now I am here in New York while Teddy is doing his post-doc, so again pretty flexible.

If I am just running and not training for anything, I usually run 150 to 180 miles a week. If I am training, the mileage averages closer to 200 miles and can peak at close to 240 to 250 miles. Miami does not have trails, so all of my runs are on the roads.

Monday and Wednesdays are mini ‘workouts.’ I don’t do them on a track, but try to go at race pace, which is about 8:30. I also do mile hill repeats during the week. I do a long run on Saturday, usually 25 to 32 miles. If training for an ultra, I’ll do a couple of weeks with a long run at 40 miles, then 50, then up to 60 miles. On Sundays, I do an 11-mile recovery run to the local lighthouse and back.

iRunFar: Sixty-mile long runs? Are you worried about the roads or injuries?

Venti: I know a lot of people fight against road running and prefer trails, but I have never had a problem with roads or the long mileage. But, again I don’t know anything different!

iRunFar: Some people dislike the roads because they get bored. Do you ever feel that way?

Venti: Not getting bored… I don’t know how to describe it. I mean why don’t people get bored on trails? There is always something to look at and something to think about. Central Park is a 10k loop of endless entertainment! Whether it’s running out to Key Biscayne or running along the Hudson, there is always something different to see no matter how many times you run there.

iRunFar: What about group runs or listening to music?

Venti: No, I don’t like to distract myself with music. And, normally I can’t find people who will run with me for that long. In Miami the iRun group, a running club hosted by the iRun Running and Walking Store in Miami, is always out there, so I’ll do a couple of miles with them sometimes. Sometimes, my boyfriend will bike alongside me too.

iRunFar: Any cross training? How do you just keep going for so long?

Venti: No, no cross training. I like to run. People ask me what I’m training for, and I just say, “Nothing…”

When I am not training it is just running. It is just a chance to be outside, meet people, and enjoy the sunshine. I usually don’t wear a watch so I don’t care what my splits are.

We had to go to Palm Beach if we wanted to surf, because surfing was not good in Miami. We also scuba dive a lot, but obviously here, in New York, the water is too cold. Teddy and I walk our dog Vusu together a lot too.

iRunFar: You said in your first race you didn’t take in any nutrition. Have you discovered what works for you during these long runs and races?

Venti: I used to never take anything with me unless I was going over 40 miles, and then it would be just water or electrolytes and a GU. I’ll take about three GU packets for a 50-mile run, and four for 60- to 65-mile runs. My favorite flavors are plain or salted caramel, but I also like the berry flavors. In a 100-mile race, I don’t usually take in solid food. I mean you’re done in 15 hours, so you’re good. I would take a GU an hour for these races. But, when I was training for Badwater, I knew I had to eat food. In that race I had a couple of rice cakes with almond butter.

During a 24-hour race I did last November [Icarus Florida UltraFest], I practiced incorporating solid food to see what will and will not work. I found that I like the almond-butter packets, and anything salty that can help an unhappy stomach, like when you were sick as a kid and your mom would give you saltines.

At some point, the body needs to digest something. You need comfort food. My favorite food is sushi, so I started to incorporate that into my long runs. I am not good at running and eating, but I am still learning.

iRunFar: You mentioned running Badwater. What made you want to run this race? Any interest in other ultras, maybe trail?

Venti: I was watching the 2013 Badwater race online with my boyfriend. I had a friend running it. My boyfriend actually turned to me and said, “It is not fair that these athletes are running and one of the best athletes is siting here on the couch.” And, I said, “Really? You think I’m one of the best athletes?”

The regulations for Badwater–three 100-mile races are required. I had to run two more hundred milers by February of 2014. I looked at races that I could run around here because of money and traveling limits. I went to a wedding in New Hampshire and then did a race there [Ghost Train Rail Trail Races]. Then did the Long Haul 100 Ultramarathon in January. Both of them were trail races, and I am not great on trails. I am not against trail races though. I could do the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile Endurance Run where the trails are manicured and comfy, but not H.U.R.T. Trail 100, where you’re dodging tree roots. When I run, I enjoy the rhythm of running and technical trails break that up. And roads are easier to run at night.

I applied to Badwater and they let me in. It was the main goal all [last] summer so running Keys 100 again [last spring] was just a good training run. I decided to run Keys 100 just a couple of months before so it was pretty last minute.

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Aly during the 2014 Badwater 135.

iRunFar: How did Badwater go?

Venti: I was the first woman, but it was not really a good race. It was the first time I ran over 100 miles. My slowest 100-mile race was 19 hours. There is a big difference between 19 and 28 hours. I was tired, but not muscle tired. More like, I-wanted-to-go-to-bed tired. There were some good parts, but I can definitely do better. It was a big learning race. [Author’s Note: She finished the race in 28 hours and 37 minutes, as the first woman and eighth overall.]

iRunFar: Your time of 14:42:45 from the 2014 Keys 100 places you as one of the fastest female 100 milers in North America. Did you know you were going that fast? Has this helped your running career in the way of sponsorships?

Venti: I had no idea when I ran it. I knew Ann Trason ran a 100-mile race in 13 hours, so I assumed a bunch of people could run in 14 hours. Traci [Falbo] ran 14:45, and Nicole Studer just did 14:22. I mean records are meant to be broken. Once one person does it, a bunch will. I hope to be faster but it depends on the course and weather. I was happy at the race, and if I want to run faster I think I have the opportunity to do that.

I am sponsored by DII Computers, a company in Pennsylvania, whose president is an ultrarunner I met at the Keys 100. Pearl Izumi also sponsors me. They help with wardrobe and shoes, and gave me a great wardrobe for the winter here in New York. iRun, the running store in Miami, has always helped with registration and discount shoes, and there is a female cycling team called the Pink Sirens that sponsor runners too.

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Running through Central Park in New York this spring.

Jessica Campbell

began her iRunFar career as an intern. A former 'swammer,' Jessica turned her passion of endurance sports to marathon and ultrarunning. She lives on the shores of Lake Michigan and works as a journalist for a small-town Indiana newspaper.