Against the backdrop of an increasingly professionalized sport, there are still some ultra-trail athletes who are managing to compete at the highest level while also managing the demands of a busy day job. One such athlete is coach, lawyer, and lifelong runner Nicole Bitter.
At age 41, Bitter is currently preparing for her eighth Western States 100 start, having qualified with a Golden Ticket from Bandera 100k earlier this year, which is part of the Hoka Golden Ticket Races that doles out entries to top finishers of the series’s races. I caught up with her to unearth the secrets to longevity in running, and how to balance an elite level running career alongside a busy professional career and home life.
Nicole Bitter grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, and first found her way into sport at the age of five, in the form of figure skating. This was just one of many active pursuits in her childhood and she said, “My mom worked, so I think just as a way to be out of the house and doing things we were signed up for all sorts of sports camps. We did pretty much everything under the sun — tennis lessons, diving, swimming, soccer.”
Sport quickly became a way of life for Bitter. In seventh grade, while wishing to hone in on a sport for middle school, she tried out for the basketball team. But along the way a gym teacher spotted her aptitude for running and encouraged her in the direction of cross country instead.
She said, “I did quite well in seventh and eighth grade and the coach of the high-school varsity team was actually my math teacher in eighth grade, so he had me start training with the high-school team in eighth grade. At that point, I was starting to do workouts and things. I competed all throughout high school in cross country and ran the 1,600 meters and the 3,200 meters in track. Then I went to Northwestern University [in Illinois] and ran cross country there.”
With years of competitive running and training already under her belt, Bitter first discovered trail running upon moving to Texas after graduating, where she attended law school at Baylor University.
She said, “There was a bunch of nice trail systems all around the university … I’d seen something called trail running so I decided to check it out. I went out and did some trail runs before or after classes and I was hooked.”
Although running on trails became part of Bitter’s regular training and recreational running, it wasn’t until she moved to Dallas, Texas, five years later and found a group to run with that her competitive trail running career began. She said, “There was a group called the White Rock Co-op and there were a few members of the team who were doing ultramarathons, and I thought, I could do that! So I signed up and did some local Texas races. That was back in 2012. I started out with a night race, a 60-kilometer event. After that I started ramping up the distance and doing more of the local Texas races.”
At the time Bitter didn’t have a coach — but already experienced in other disciplines of training and racing, she figured out the nuances of trail running as she went along.
She quickly climbed up to the 100-mile distance, taking on the Rocky Racoon 100 Mile in 2013, where she took first place and found a comfort zone in long, runnable ultramarathons. She said, “I didn’t really have a lot of challenges. Maybe it was beginner’s luck, but I just naturally was able to do the 100 miles. Especially on that kind of runnable terrain.”
Following on from her 100-mile debut, Bitter had a knee issue, which took some time to resolve, but said: “After that race I found that I was able to recover pretty quickly. I think being younger definitely made it easier. These days I don’t race as frequently as I used to. I probably was running at least 100 miles per week religiously, and also I think it was just building up after so many years.”
Later the same year, Bitter headed to the Leadville 100 Mile, where she placed ninth, and said: “I really struggled at that race. I had come off another injury at some point and I was doing well until the last 10 miles and then it was just really challenging. I think it showed the distinction between doing a mountain race versus a flat race.”
With experience, she has learned where her greatest strengths lie and said: “I love running more mountainous races, but in terms of where I’m going to perform better, I definitely have an easier time at the flatter, faster stuff.”
The following year, in February 2014, Bitter returned to Rocky Raccoon — winning again and taking more than an hour off her previous time. On her third attempt at the race in 2015, she again won — this time setting what was then the American trail 100-mile record in a time of 14:22.
While continuing to rack up wins, a second-place finish at the 2015 Bandera 100k earned Bitter her place at her first Western States 100, where she finished sixth — beginning a great love affair with this iconic race.
Taking a bold step outside of her comfort zone, in 2015 Bitter also headed to Chamonix, France, to complete UTMB — the pinnacle of mountain ultrarunning. She had a strong run, finishing 13th, and said: “It was beautiful, I felt like I was in ‘The Sound of Music!’ Just running through the mountains and having that whole experience, it was truly awesome. That’s one of those races I’ll never forget … Honestly, I was proud to just complete that race.”
This year Bitter will return to the Western States 100, a race she has a long history and affinity with, having raced it seven times — including three top-10 finishes. When asked what it is about this event that keeps drawing her back, she said: “I think it’s the competition, the challenge, and the experience. But also, continuing to push myself and see what I can do. At 41 it gets a little more like, I can’t believe I’m still doing this!”
Living in Austin, Texas, and having always lived in hot places, Bitter finds that she copes with the heat at the Western States 100 better than many. About the difference between running now as a master, versus in her youth, she says: “I do find that I generally don’t run as much volume, and I just listen to my body.”
Her quest to stand on the start line at this year’s Western States 100 began in October 2022, when she placed third in the Javelina 100 Mile, narrowly missing out on a Golden Ticket. Despite the near miss, she said, “I felt great to do as well as I did and have a good performance. With that stacked of a field, that was a win in my book.”
Then in a bizarre twist of fate, Bitter ended up having a second chance at a Golden Ticket in the winter of 2022/2023. She recounted, “I was supposed to do a race in South Africa, Ultra-Trail Cape Town, right around Thanksgiving. And the day I got off the plane, I sprained my ankle and so I couldn’t do the race! It almost felt like fate. I was able to heal very quickly, I was fit, and the Bandera 100k was in my backyard. It seemed like a good one to jump into.”
Bitter placed second behind Courtney Dauwalter in the January 2023 Bandera 100k in a time of 10:03 — beating her previous best on the familiar course, and earning her ticket into the 2023 Western States 100.
As the sport continues to professionalize, Bitter is now perhaps in the minority of athletes competing at her level to still have a busy day job — working full time as a lawyer. When asked about how she manages this tricky balancing act, she said, “I think the concept of balance is so hard. I would say that I do my best and focus on the task at hand. I try to give my all when I’m running, and when I’m being a lawyer, and I try to do my best when I’m coaching … There are definitely times when I am spending all of my energy on my career and that’s the top priority. But I do love having running in my life because it gives me a chance to be off my work chair and to see the world.”
Bitter admits that there are tipping points, saying: “I do find that there are points where the work stress gets to be too much. I know in 2021 there was a lot going on in my day job and it resulted in me being overwhelmed getting to the Western States 100. I didn’t even realize it until I started racing. It’s this fine line that you have to walk on. But at the end of the day, I wouldn’t change it because I would rather have both aspects to my life than just try to do one at a higher level.”
Bitter is now coached by her husband — fellow elite runner, Zach Bitter — who is a great support and helps her with balancing work and training. These days the two operate on different schedules and don’t always run together. Nicole does her runs early in the morning with the group she coaches, Team Rogue, while Zach heads out a little later. To add to their busy household, the Bitters have recently adopted a new four-legged training partner, Minnie, and along with their older dog, Stella, they often head out for family runs and adventures.
Nicole says: “Minnie demands getting out every day and is probably my number-one training partner in the family at the minute!” Recently, the couple headed to the 2023 Hell Hills 50k, just an hour from their home, where they each took first place.
Next up Bitter will head to the annual Western States 100 Memorial Weekend Training Runs, for a refresher on the course she is already so familiar with. She said “I’m going to go out early with Altra and do a training camp, and then stay for the broader Western States 100 training camp. It’s always fun to run with all the other athletes.”
Bitter has learned a lot from the highs and lows of previous Western States 100 runs and said: “I think just making sure to stay iced off is critical. It’s a fine balance to make sure you get enough fluids and salt.”
As she has demonstrated in her stellar performances this year and last, Bitter’s years of accumulated training — and a natural ability to run far — can more than compensate for the other demands life places on her. We can’t wait to see her lace up on June 24.
Call for Comments
- Have you seen Nicole Bitter in action?
- What are your predictions for her 2023 Western States 100?!