The 2024 Hardrock 100 is history! Check out our in-depth results article for the full race story, as well as our interviews with champions Courtney Dauwalter and Ludovic Pommeret.

How Ultrarunning Has Made Me A Better Ski Guide

Alli Hartz examines lessons that have crossed over between ultrarunning, ski guiding, and life.

By on July 10, 2024 | Comments

I like to say that I’ve cut my teeth in ultrarunning by biting off more than I can chew.

Since signing up for my first 50-kilometer race in 2013, I’ve made every mistake in the book and gotten through many of my early races and adventure runs purely on grit. While this involved some disappointing results and the occasional sport cry, it also came with countless enriching experiences and profound lessons. As a result, I’ve become a better runner and athlete.

Alli Hartz

Alli Hartz, ultrarunner and ski guide, in her natural element. Photo: Alli Hartz

Over the past six years, I’ve also been training to become a ski guide. This journey has had its own learning curve, but I’ve been able to draw upon my years of ultrarunning and apply those lessons to guiding. Strategies for pacing, fueling, and recovery easily transfer to ski touring — after all, it’s just another long day in the mountains.

But recently, as I’ve gained more experience with running 100 milers and ski guiding in bigger and more complex terrain, I’ve discovered a few themes that I’ve been able to apply to both disciplines — and to life in general.

Below are four lessons that served me at the Western States 100 in 2023 and my American Mountain Guides Association (AMGA) Advanced Ski Guide Course in 2024. In short, they involve making a detailed plan, adapting that plan as needed, not panicking when shit hits the fan — or the liner of your running shorts — and trusting yourself.

Lesson 1: Study, Prepare, Make a Plan

Western States 100, Starting Line, June 2023

The 2023 Western States 100 followed a historic snow year in California’s Sierra Nevada, and in June, most of the course’s first 30 miles were still under snow. To prepare for this challenge, I spent the weeks leading up to the race visualizing the snow-covered landscape and reminding myself that I love snow. I also put a positive spin on the conditions by theorizing that the snow would force a slow pace early on, and this would help me conserve energy for the second half of the race.

Finally, I planned my gear around the snow. I opted for my Hoka Speedgoat 5 shoes for the first 30 miles because I trust them to grip well on snow and planned to switch to the lightweight and nimble Hoka Tecton X 2 at Robinson Flat for the remaining snow-free and non-technical 70 miles.

Ultrarunning and Ski Guiding - Alli Hartz Getting ready to leave Foresthill with a pacer_Dani Reese Photo

Alli Hartz (blue hat, in back) and her crew, with a plan. Photo: Dani Reese

On race day, everything goes according to plan through Robinson Flat. I remain relaxed through the snow-covered sections and focus on fueling rather than paying attention to my watch. When I see my crew at Robinson Flat, I am behind pace for my 24-hour time goal, but we expected this. Feeling happy and relaxed, I change shoes, restock my hydration pack, load up on ice, and continue down the trail.

Asulkan Valley, British Columbia, March 2024

I swing my ski pack off my shoulders as my touring group circles up for a short break. We’re a few miles up the Asulkan Valley in Rogers Pass, British Columbia, heading toward the Illecillewaet Glacier and today’s ski objective: a steep, 2,000-foot couloir called Forever Young.

Before digging into my pack for my water and snacks, I pull my field book out of my pocket and check my handwritten plan for today’s tour. The chart lays out distance, elevation, estimated travel time, and other navigational notes for each segment of the tour. I’m updating the plan as I go with a time record and other important notes.

Ultrarunning and Ski Guiding - Alli Hartz Touring up the Asulkan Valley to the Illecillewaet Glacier_Alli Hartz

Touring up the Asulkan Valley to the Illecillewaet Glacier in British Columbia. Photo: Alli Hartz

“How are we doing, Alli?” one of my touring partners asks. Our five-person group is part of an AMGA Advanced Ski Guide Course.

We’re on day seven of the 10-day course, and it’s exam day for two of us. We’ll take turns being out front and managing everything from navigation to avalanche and crevasse hazards to finding the best snow for the descent. We’re also responsible for the day’s overall pace and ensuring we get back to the trailhead at a reasonable time and with enough energy to do it all again tomorrow.

At the start of the course, I developed a reputation among my peers for keeping an exceptionally nerdy level of plans and notes. The group exchanges smiles and fist bumps as I jot the time in my field book and report that we’re perfectly on pace.

Lesson 2: Control the Controllables, and Adapt as Needed

Western States 100, Mile 32, June 2023

After leaving Robinson Flat, the middle toe on my right foot starts to hurt almost immediately. I pause and loosen my laces, but my toe continues to protest. I’ve never experienced toe issues, nor any discomfort with the Tecton X model. Troubled, I weigh my options — but I don’t have any. I’ll see my crew in another 25 miles at Michigan Bluff. There’s nothing to do but keep going and try not to dwell on the pain.

When I arrive at Michigan Bluff, I’m moving well and have made up time on my sub-24-hour goal, but each step brings a scream of protest from my toe. Both ecstatic and relieved to see my crew, the first thing I request is my Speedgoats. “The Tectons did me dirty!” I tell them with a smile.

Ultrarunning and Ski Guiding - Alli Hartz Opting for a sock change at the Michigan Bluff aid station _ Western States 2023 _ Dani Reese Photo- feature

Alli Hartz during her 2023 Western States 100 run, at the Michigan Bluff aid station, adapting and adjusting her plan. Photo: Dani Reese

My crew, exchanging uncomfortable looks, tells me they’ve left my Speedgoats in the car, which is parked far away. I’ll have to wait until I see them again at Foresthill, another 5.5 miles up the trail.

I’m hot and tired, only about halfway through the race, and in pain. It would be easy to have a meltdown right now, and for a split second, I’m tempted. But I’ve learned the hard way at other ultras and endurance events that getting upset about things I can’t control is a waste of energy. I’ve already decided that Western States is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me, and I’m determined to make the most of it, no matter what. I’ve done everything I can think of to prepare for this day, but I know that doesn’t come with any guarantees for how the race will go.

Furthermore, I don’t want to get upset with my crew of friends who’ve been out here all day and will be supporting me through the next 12 hours, or longer. Shoving negative thoughts down before they can take root, I take a deep breath and repeat, “Everything is fine,” to myself several times. I mean it when I tell my crew I can deal with the pain for a few more miles. For now, we opt for a sock change and a round of hugs, and I head back onto the trail.

Illecillewaet Glacier, March 2024

It’s my turn to take the lead — and begin my exam. I step to the front of the group and navigate through a network of moraines below the Illecillewaet Glacier. As we reach the glacier, I call for a break and have everyone put on their harnesses while I pull a rope out of my pack. We’ve just finished tying into the rope and are ready to move again when the clouds, which have been swirling overhead all morning, descend and fully engulf us in a whiteout.

“Shit, shit, shit,” I think. Navigating in a whiteout is among the skills we’re expected to master, but that doesn’t mean it’s fun. I edge forward on my skis. It’s like walking inside a ping-pong ball. The sky and the snow under my skis have become one, and I’ve lost all depth perception and sense of direction.

Ultrarunning and Ski Guiding - Alli Hartz In a whiteout on the Illecillewaet Glacier_Max Bond Photo

Alli Hartz guiding a group during a whiteout on the Illecillewaet Glacier. Photo: Max Bond

I tie a long piece of cord to my ski pole and toss it in front of me like a fly fishing line as I cautiously slide forward onto the glacier. Watching the cord land and observing how it slides across the snow surface is the only way for me to read the terrain. Within minutes, the cord starts sliding downhill at a sharp angle, and it becomes apparent that I’m leading us onto a steep side hill. I can’t tell what’s below me. I check the topographical map on my phone but it doesn’t show the nuanced detail I need for this particular piece of terrain.

Frustrated, I inch forward, flinging my length of cord. My stomach turns into a knot of nerves, and my eyes strain to make out any detail in the white abyss. My imagination runs rampant with hazards that might be lurking in the fog — the most likely being a cliff below us. I take another deep breath and scoot forward, choosing to trust both my footing and memory of the landscape, which tells me that we should be off this steep side hill very soon.

Breathe, step. Breathe, step.

Lesson 3: Everything’s Okay

Western States 100, Mile 63, June 2023

“What if I poop my pants?” I ask my pacer, Yung Hae Cho, as we trot down a steep double track that’s sending my stomach into somersaults.

Moments ago, we left the crew at Foresthill. Back in my Hoka Speedgoats, my toe pain already feels like a distant memory. However, in the miles before the aid station, I started experiencing gastrointestinal distress and had a couple of close calls. In the excitement of seeing my crew, I forgot to ask them for antidiarrheal medicine. I won’t see them for another 16 miles, and my weary brain is trying to reconcile the small time margin on my sub-24-hour goal with a stomach that’s currently feeling very, very delicate.

To say nothing of the discomfort of soiled running shorts, I know that every minute will count in these final 38 miles.

Ultrarunning and Ski Guiding - Alli Hartz Changing shoes at Foresthill aid station, Western States 2023_Dani Reese Photo

Adjusting the plan and getting back into Hoka Speedgoats at Foresthill aid station. Photo: Dani Reese

“It’ll be okay, we’ll deal with it,” Yung Hae replies with a breezy nonchalance that brings my rising anxiety back down to Earth. It is exactly what I need to hear.

As if in agreement, the descending trail eases to a more gradual, rolling grade, giving my poor insides a break from the unrelenting pull of gravity. I take a deep breath and settle into a proven strategy of taking it one step at time. We’re still moving well and chipping time off my overall pace. “Everything is fine,” I remind myself.

Illecillewaet Glacier, March 2024

For more than 3.5 hours, I lead our group up the glacier by flinging my length of cord ahead of me and following it. I occasionally check my map to make sure we’re on track, but I’ve stopped monitoring our time plan. Traveling in the whiteout has slowed us down and we’ve fallen off pace, but there’s nothing to do but keep going. My eyes search for the slightest distinction between the ground and the sky. The group’s cheerful banter becomes quiet as the day wears on, and I’m consumed with the focus it takes to lead the way.

When we reach the couloir entrance — nearly 7.5 hours after departing from the trailhead — I drop to a kneeling position and begin pulling my goggles and extra layers out of my pack. I’m mentally exhausted, and my eyes ache from peering into nothingness for the last several hours.

As we transition, a snow squall moves in, bringing a biting wind and swirling snow that finds its way into our packs and any open zippers. My mind wanders to the scene on the Pass of Caradhras in “The Lord of the Rings,” and this makes me smile. It’s just snow — I love snow! — and today, at least, Saruman isn’t bringing the entire mountain down upon us.

Ultrarunning and Ski Guiding- Alli Hartz - A break in the clouds above Forever Young before the squall moved in_Max Bond Photo

A break in the clouds above the Forever Young couloir before the squall moved in. Photo: Max Bond

Lesson 4: Don’t Forget to Trust

Western States 100, Mile 78, June 2023

I pick up my second pacer, Grace Perkins, at mile 78, and we cross the river 20 minutes ahead of my goal. Yet, my stomach still feels delicate, and I worry that with more than 20 miles to go, it’ll be too easy to lose the cushion of time I so carefully built. After spending several miles fretting to Grace, who is completely unfazed, I finally give up and decide to trust. I trust myself, my training, and my capability, and I trust Grace to track paces and numbers that I’m too tired to calculate.

Gradually, my worry shifts to belief, and as we exit the Pointed Rocks aid station at mile 94, I am smiling again. Crossing No Hands Bridge, I look at Grace through sleepy, half-closed eyes and say, “We’re doing it!” Soon, the rest of the crew joins us at Robie Point for the final mile, and when my feet hit the track, I feel a surge of energy that propels me across the finish line in 23:39. I’m in awe that Grace and I didn’t lose a single minute in those last 22 miles, and at the same time, I realize that I never should have doubted us.

Ultrarunning and Ski Guiding - Alli Hartz Hugging it out at Michigan Bluff, Western States 2023_Dani Reese Photo

Hugging it out at the Michigan Bluff aid station. Photo: Dani Reese

Forever Young Couloir, March 2024

The 50-degree entrance into the Forever Young couloir appears so dark and ominous that it’s almost comical. With the gusting wind and sideways blowing snow hastening our transition, we’re soon dropping into the couloir one at a time. As we hop-turn down Forever Young, the squall moves out, and we finally dip below the impermeable cloud layer. We’re all smiles and cheers as we exit the couloir onto a powdery apron and the sun breaks through the clouds. Although we’re behind schedule, the favorable conditions renew our energy, and we enjoy the glide out of the Asulkan Valley, arriving at the trailhead with plenty of stoke left for tomorrow’s outing.

Certainly, one of the biggest themes that draws me to ultrarunning and ski guiding is that both activities come with lifelong learning. The lessons above are a glimpse into a journey of self-discovery that’s possible when you take on big challenges.

As I continue pursuing things that bring me joy and trade experiences and lessons with my peers, I know that I will continue to grow as an athlete, guide, and person — and this is the most rewarding part of all.

Call for Comments

  • What life lessons have you brought away from your running?
  • Can you draw parallels between running and other important activities in your life?
Alli Hartz

Alli Hartz is a member of the gear review team at iRunFar. She’s been writing about outdoor gear, outdoor adventure, and adventure travel for 10 years. Aside from iRunFar, Alli contributes gear reviews and adventure stories to Switchback Travel, Travel Oregon, and other outlets. She also works as a ski guide during the winter season and has dabbled in run-skiing on the Cascade volcanoes. Alli is based in Bend, Oregon, where she loves to run from her front door up into the Three Sisters Wilderness.