Last weekend, Nick Coury won the Whiskey Basin 91k in Arizona as part of building to competing in two 24-hour races in 2021, the Alexander County 24 Hour in May and the IAU 24-Hour World Championships in October. In this interview, Nick explains his long history with ultrarunning, how different kinds of races appeal to him in different ways, what it was like to be featured on NPR’s Radiolab in 2019, and much more.
Catching Up With Nick Coury Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Nick Coury after your win last weekend at the Whiskey Basin 91k. This is the second interview in our Catching Up With video-interview series. Hey, Nick. How are you?
Nick Coury: Good. How are you?
iRunFar: Good. I’m in Silverton, Colorado. Where are you right now?
Coury: I’m in Scottsdale, Arizona in my house.
iRunFar: Awesome. How are the legs feeling after last weekend?
Coury: They’re starting to come back around. Up until yesterday it was, “I definitely just raced an ultra and I don’t like running right now.” Today there’s no pep but at least I can enjoy a slow pace again.
iRunFar: When I think of you as an ultrarunner, I feel like you intentionally try to stay under the radar, and then come blazing saddles at the end of races. So maybe because of that or maybe because I have failed as a journalist, this is our first time interviewing you on iRunFar. I can’t believe that, because you’ve been an ultrarunner a long time.
Coury: Yes I have. And I suppose that’s completely true. I try to slide under the radar. I mostly stay off social media. I guess I’m a little more on it these days. I’d rather just get out there and enjoy my run and not make a big deal about it.
iRunFar: But “enjoying your run” also means performing really well.
Coury: A lot of the appeal is the competitive side. Obviously I do a lot of 24-hour races and I even do a lot of road races, so I’m really into the analytical. You can compare your performance against everyone from all time so that things are consistent. The course doesn’t matter. But if I had to choose enjoyment-wise between a track 24-hour race and the Hardrock 100, I would be out in the mountains every day.
iRunFar: Let’s rewind to the beginning of running for you. You and I basically got into ultrarunning around the same time, mid-2000s. You were a teenager. Was it because your family was all runners, or how did you become an ultrarunner so young?
Coury: Yeah. Jamil [Coury], my older brother, got cut from the soccer team, or he didn’t make tryouts in high school. He ended up going out for track at our high school. I was two years behind him. Of course I did the same thing he did and jumped in when I got to high school into cross country and track and did that for all four years. My senior year of high school, our younger brother Nathan [Coury] also got into running, so all three of us were. None of us were fast enough for Arizona State’s team, Division I. We just weren’t quite there. So when Jamil graduated, he got into the local road-racing scene and hooked up with the—underground, at the time—trail running community. It was only a couple dozen runners in Phoenix who were really into trail ultras.
Coury: We started running with them. They had the Wednesday morning running club. It was one of those, you really only can find out it exists by talking to the right person. There was no record of it anywhere. There was this 12-hour night run that was a training run for Across the Years. Jamil was like, “Let’s do this.” We were thinking, “We’re high schoolers. It’s kind of a sleepover and it’s running, so that sounds awesome.” All three of us went. We dragged two of our friends from the cross-country team. I’d run a 5k in Flagstaff, a high-school race invitational that morning, so I definitely had no idea what I was doing.
We went out there, it was at Nardini Manor, the 100-meter dirt loop that Across the Years used to be at. We sprinted the first two hours and then got tired so walked and jogged some more and then got energy again. Then sprinted again, then ate some pretzels and Gatorade and sat around a bit. And then midnight hit and we yelled, “Midnight madness!” And we sprinted some more. There was this super old timer there, and there was some runner leading the race wearing nothing but Napoleon Dynamite boxers and rattling off movie quotes the whole time. It was bizarre and we were hooked. We all ran about 50 miles and that was the introduction to ultrarunning. I was 17.
We tried to go to Across the Years thinking we ran 50 miles in 12 hours so we can totally run 100 in 24:00, and we’d get some cool belt buckle as a result. So of course I made the biggest improvement over my 12-hour performance and I made 20 additional miles. So we learned that hard lesson pretty quick. But that’s how all of us got into it, right at the same time.
iRunFar: At age 17 you run 53 miles in 12 hours and you love it.
Coury: It was painful, but some part of me was addicted. I think I loved the idea. I don’t think I enjoyed it that much in terms of pain. I did not know how to train at that point.
iRunFar: When I look at the races you choose, you mentioned this before, you do a diversity of stuff. Track races that go on for a day, mountain races that go on for a day, 20ks, 12 milers, short stuff, long stuff. Is it like, any surface anytime anywhere you’ll run? Why do you choose the races you do?
Coury: I really do love it all but for different reasons. The short stuff is where I started. It makes me a faster runner, and the turnover is thrilling. So those short races are very enjoyable for a certain reason. The long ones are enjoyable for an opposite reason. I’ve just found that I enjoy all of it for what it is, and so mixing it up keeps it pretty fresh, keeps me engaged. If you looked at the sum of it, there were six years where I didn’t do a 24-hour race because I got burned out on them. Now I’ve done almost exclusively faster stuff in the last couple years and less of the super-tough mountain stuff. So I cycle it, try to keep it interesting to me. I don’t worry too much one way or the other.
iRunFar: You mentioned before that you like the analysis part of the sport. Do you do that at all distances and all the different terrains?
Coury: I do. I don’t think I’m the most data-heavy person, if you looked at my spreadsheets compared to other people. I do a particular kind of analysis that I think helps me figure out hopefully novel things that have brought me success. I don’t run the most data. I don’t analyze it more than anyone else but I try to figure out insights and I try to think about the things that no one’s thought of before. The cool thing about ultrarunning is it’s not a distilled science where we know exactly the best way to do it yet. So I like to understand it enough that I can try new things that fewer or no people have tried before and see if they work, to see if I can discover something new.
iRunFar: Around this time last year, during the COVID-19 quarantine, I was out running and listening to podcasts. I downloaded a Radiolab podcast. Lo and behold, this guy called Nick Coury is the subject of an entire Radiolab podcast.
Coury: That was a pretty cool experience. For those not familiar, the Man Against Horse Race happens near Prescott, Arizona every year and it’s one of my favorite races of all time. It’s one of those super old-school races. Where you get to an aid station and there’s probably a Tupperware bin that no one’s opened because the radio guys don’t really understand that they can take it out for runners. The race itself is very novel in that it’s called Man Against Horse because it’s literally people running against horses. It’s a 50-mile mountain course and you start on the same start line next to horses. The race director—the official clock is this hour-and-minute-hand wall clock, no second hand even—he looks at it and he’s like, “Alright, get going.” And that’s the start. The horses take off in a cloud of dust and you’re coughing on it a little bit.
The first 10 miles are kind of flat so they put a ton of time on you but then you start getting up in the mountains and it gets rocky and steep. The people are better at some things, the horses are better at other things, and you start trading back and forth with them. The horses have three mandatory veterinary checks. A horse could literally run itself to death, so there’s a big emphasis is on the safety and health of the horses. So you’ll often pass the horses in there, and then they’ll pass you back.
For whatever reason, NPR’s Radiolab decided to come out to the race that year. That happened to be the year I was getting in really good shape. One of the interesting things about the race is you’re trying to beat the horses to the finish line and cross the finish line first. There have been a couple of runners who have done it in the past. James Bonnett and Dennis Poolheco are some local runners who have. But the horses ultimately in the final result get to subtract out the mandatory hold times which is 75 minutes.
No one had ever beat them in the final results by time. I was able to do that, and I was more than an hour and 15 minutes ahead of the lead horse crossing the finish line. I was able to win outright and NPR was there to cover the story which was pretty cool.
iRunFar: Pretty amazing. We’re all a bunch of nerds and we kind of get each other and we have similar brain waves. But what’s it like to try to tell a story like that to a mainstream audience and journalists covering a niche sport but for the mainstream?
Coury: It was interesting working with the reporters. NPR is awesome. I listen to a ton of their podcasts and everything else. I assume a lot of people do. Anyone who hasn’t listened to it, I’d encourage it. Not because of me, but because they do a great job telling the story, make it really engaging, keep it lighthearted.
I remember being in the studio with them after the fact. They pulled me through the story and they’d stopped me on this, and they’d asked me about that. And I feel like they really did a good job teasing out that relatable side of things. Both that and then the unique things that are in an ultrarunner’s head at the same time. The thing that really stands out was they were trying to get my mindset late in the race. You know, I’m maybe 10 miles from the finish and it’s a point where you’re terrified if you’re trying to beat the horses because you’re ahead of them because you’ve passed the third mandatory hold. The last seven miles are all fast, and I can’t run 20 miles per hour but they can. And so you’re running terrified hoping that the horse isn’t close enough to catch you. Actually, the first time I ran that race, Jamil and I were both ahead with three miles to go. I got passed. Jamil was just barely on the horizon, he was a little blip, and I’m just yelling, “Go! Go! Go!” The horse is just thrashing after him, and he got caught less than a mile to the finish.
Coury: A lot of that was kind of on my mind when I was running in 2019 and as the Radiolab interviewers walked me through it, they were pulling out all these emotions that I experienced during the race. It’s something that’s hard to articulate otherwise. They were doing it in this remarkable way where I could actually express those emotions that draw a lot of us to ultras. It’s something that we don’t know exactly how to describe, but they were able to get that out of me. I thought that was really cool how they could facilitate that communication to any person.
iRunFar: Stories of ultrarunning are easy sells for me because I’m on the inside, but the Radiolab episode was super compelling. You’re a great storyteller and they’re a great team of storytellers, too. It seems like there has been a little bit more focus in the last couple of years for you and 24-hour running. You said on social media that Whiskey Basin last weekend was a tuneup for 24-hour race coming up in about a week and a half. Can you tell us what’s about to happen?
Coury: It’s the Alexander County 24 Hour in North Carolina, and it’s the last-chance qualifier for the U.S. 24-Hour Team to compete at the IAU 24-Hour World Championships in Romania in October. And two years ago, I guess it was 2018, I qualified for the 2019 world team as the fifth of six members at Desert Solstice. And then the world championships got pushed back six months so they pushed back the qualification period, and I got bumped at the very last second and the last day of qualifying at a race.
This time in 2020, I ran Desert Solstice again. I again qualified with the fifth of six spots and said I will be at that last-chance qualifier. You know COVID-19 pushed it back, same exact story. I don’t care what happens, I will be there this time. If I have to defend it, I will. I’m feeling good and healthy but it doesn’t look like I’m going to have to do that kind of performance. I’m looking to do a training run, play with some variables that have been a struggle for me before and see if I’ve worked out those kinks. But hopefully not completely destroying myself. Take a little recovery and then do a final build to worlds.
iRunFar: The window for qualifying for the US 24-Hour Team closes essentially after this race in a week and a half, right?
iRunFar: So the six men who have the top qualifying times from within the window go to the team and go on. You’re currently carrying the fifth top time. Was it 155 miles at Desert Solstice?
iRunFar: Okay. We talked before this interview started about the challenges of practicing for 24-hour races and how you’re wanting to use this as retooling things. What are you working on? What are the kinds of things that you can’t actually practice for 24-hour racing? What do you have to actually do in a race to learn?
Coury: One of the specific issues that took me down the last two 24-hour races I’ve run is my quads just started feeling this deep ache and burn and thrash. At the last worlds, I still went and ran as an alternate, I just couldn’t score points. It started at three hours in, and then it just was there but not slowing me down until 15 or 16 hours. And then it completely changed me. I was reduced to a sad walk, and that was that.
And at Desert Solstice this past time, it was the exact same thing. It just started at eight hours and then took till 20. And then same thing, I literally stopped Desert Solstice because it felt like I was doing permanent damage. I’ve had a long ultrarunning career already, and I’m very aware of how quickly people burn out, and so I’m wary to push 100% through bad times very often, because that can easily shorten my career.
I had the lead by a good bit, and I backed off. Ryan Montgomery, who was in second, started chasing me down. So I had to get back out there again. But, I was on edge, my quads felt so bad, like the muscles weren’t firing at all.
For the first time I’ve come to terms with it’s time to start doing non-running work. Some bodyweight exercises, some more strengthening and flexibility, all that kind of thing. I’ve been doing that basically this whole year now so I’m hopeful that that was a big part of the issue. I’ve addressed some form issues as well. That’s hard to simulate when it may not start till eight hours. It seems super dependent on the relentlessness of a 24-hour race. Those things don’t pop up if you get change of terrain, if you get trails and mountains.
iRunFar: What you described is a process of a lot of ultrarunners experience. They realize that maybe you do have to do strength and mobility work to try to lengthen your career or create more durability. Can you talk about the specific exercises you’re trying?
Coury: I have a coach, James Bonnett, right now and he’s with McMillan Running, their ultrarunning coaching. They have some programs that he’s having me do and it’s twice a week, maybe 15 to 20 minutes, and it’s a varying rotation of basic bodyweight stuff or a few of them use some dumbbells. So everything from pushups to stuff with exercise balls. Just very light, because when you’re coming from zero that makes a huge difference already.
And because I’ve had perpetual issues with my plantar and tight calves, I’ve finally realized my hamstrings are super tight. Which is one of those that seems obvious in hindsight. I’ve been hammering on my calves because they’re always tight but they’re connected to hamstrings so as much as I got the calves loose, I wasn’t working the whole chain. And so I’ve been doing air squats. I do them once or twice a day when I’m getting up in the morning before a run, or if I’m unwinding at night, and really pay attention to the form and stretching through them. It gets a little strength on top of it. Once in a while I’ll throw a kettlebell to mix up how it’s stressing it. I think it’s made a huge difference. We’ll find out.
iRunFar: You’ll have to either make a comment to this interview or post on social media if it works out because we’re all going through that process and trying to figure out how to be more durable ultrarunners. It was super interesting to talk to you. I can’t believe this is the first time iRunFar has interviewed you, but congratulations on your win at Whiskey Basin and good luck at Alexander County in two weekends. Thanks so much, Nick.
Coury: Thanks, Meghan.