WeRunFar Profile: Ben Holmes

An in-depth interview with ultrarunner and race director Ben Holmes.

By on September 20, 2016 | Comments

Trail Nerds (noun): Persons (or mammals) living within the Kansas City metropolitan area and environs who avoid roads of all kinds. They run throughout the woods, up and down hilly, rocky trails day and night, winter through summer. They run everyday, including weekends, volunteer when they can, and drink beer after every finish line.

They are of the ultrarunning species and their population is growing each year.

The Trail Nerds make up one of the largest trail running groups in the U.S., with more than 4,000 people on their Facebook site. The group originates in 2001, when Bad Ben Holmes trekked into town.

“Back in 2000, I decided to try to get some of my buddies to run trails with me,” Ben said. With a Yahoo site already set up for road running groups, called KC Running, Ben realized he needed one for those interested in the trails.

“Some other people said, ‘Why don’t we call ourselves the Kansas City Metro Area Trail and Ultrarunning Association?’”

“Nah,” Ben shot down quickly. “We are the Trail Nerds.”

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Ben Holmes and Jeff Browning after Jeff set a new course record at the April, 2016 Free State Trail Runs 100k. Photo: Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

Because Ben was calling the shots, gathering the nerds up for each run, building the Trail Nerds website, and organizing races, he won out on the name. Since then, thousands of runners follow the Trail Nerds group, hundreds run the 20 races put on by the group every year, and a handful of dedicated runners come out for the weekly group runs. The Trail Nerds lead group runs 52 weeks of the year and continuously schedule spur-of-the-moment fat-ass races and long runs, Ben said.

Mud Babe Mondays, the female Trail Nerds version, where women can run together and new runners can be introduced to the sport without any outside pressure, claim Mondays. Occasionally, Tuesday night runners will group together for an unofficial hilly run and Wednesdays, the designated 2.5-, 4.5-, and 9-mile runs meet at the Shawnee Mission Park at 6 p.m. for a well-attended event, Ben said. Pace groups split off so that everyone has people to run with, he added.

Thursday is the popular, never-miss beer appreciation run at Wyandotte County (WyCo) Lake Park at 6:00 p.m. “Matty Mullins heads that up,” Ben said. “There are always 10 or 20 people who show up year round. I went to one once. It was only 15 degrees out so I thought, Eh, there will only be like three to four people. Fifteen people showed up! And two of them showed up on motorcycles. Yeah, Trail Nerds are tough.”

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Ben and Coco Tieghi directing a run for the Global Orphan Project in Haiti. They directed the run in 2013 and 2014. Photo: I.V. Whitman

The week, Monday through Sunday, is full of Trail Nerds running for Ben. Three to four days of leading running groups, weekends of fat-ass races, and the directing of official Trail Nerds races.

“That’s a lot of running,” Ben said, whose official titles are founder of the Trail Nerds group and race director of the events. His girlfriend Coco Tieghi is co-director.

“It is a lot of work,” he said, but the two have the race protocol down to a science.

At each race, the large U-Haul truck, wrapped and decorated in Trail Nerds paraphernalia, is stationed at every finish line. Jammed full with every race-related necessity inside, it acts as both a large organizer and storage unit.

“Once the race is over, I put everything back in it for the next race,” he said. “It’s a labor of love and a lot of work, but I enjoy doing it and we get the most awesome volunteers to help with the races.”

As founder and race director, the biggest duties lay on Ben shoulders. Prior to the start of the new year, about $25,000 is handed to the state parks and other trail officials for permits, port-a-potties, and a weekly shelter fee.

Membership fees are required on a yearly basis or lifetime level, and for those generous types, one can pay an amount when signing up for the year to help with some of the fees, Ben said.

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Ben saying a few last-minute words to the runners of the Rock on Lake Perry 50k at Lake Perry in Kansas. Photo: Rick Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

The fees though, go toward annual costs, rather than race dues.

For instance, Ben describes some recent, late August races, “The Rock Away Night & Day [which consists of a Friday night half marathon and an a Saturday day 50 miler] had a $20 entry fee and you got a really nice trucker hat, free downloadable pictures, beer at the end, and a sticker with the distance on it,” Ben said. “A lot of the races barely cover costs.”

The money instead helps with trail maintenance, another race-director responsibility.

The Kansas City area trails are tread upon by trail shoes and paws, sharing the pack from one trail to the next. The group takes over the parks within the Kansas City Metro area, Lawrence and Topeka, Kansas and everything in between.

The races operate on each trail as well, with the most well-known Trail Nerds race using the WyCo Park for the February Psycho WyCo Run Toto Run, a 50k, 20 miler, and 10 miler, and its summer sister event, the Psycho Psummer Trail Run, which hosts the same distance races.

“We have singletrack trails that are very rocky,” he said. “We help build and maintain trails in the area, like weed whacking. When a storm comes and trees come down, we go out there with chainsaws.”

Ben personally weed whacks 30 miles of trail per year, which equates to about four hours per mile.

The first few days of September were spent hiking the WyCo loop with a few other Trail Nerds with chainsaws, cutting down and clearing the 15 felled trees after a big storm went through, he said.

The Trail Nerds have a great relationship with the county parks and trail managers because of the multitude of races, which bring in revenue to the area.

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Ben clearing trails in the spring of 2015. Photo: Keith Dowell

“We will have 500 people show up for the Psycho WyCo race in February and people will spend like $200 a day when they stay the night,” he said. “The county sees that. Everyone appreciates the work we do. They see how their bread is buttered and they see us and thank us.”

Many people have Ben to thank when it comes to the sport of ultrarunning. Each year, the Trail Nerds group introduces about 5,000 people to the trails, Ben said, these people are a mixture of young 20-somethings who just started their running career to veteran road runners looking for something new and discovering it on the trails.

Self-proclaimed trail rookie, Dan Savage, said he has Ben and the Trail Nerds to thank for getting him off the roads and onto the trails.

He had two weeks to get ready for his first ultra, the Frisco Railroad Run in Willard, Missouri in April 2016, when Savage said he was getting nervous.

Needing some inspiration, he turned to the Trail Nerds, whose races are just 15 minutes from his front door, he said.

“I initially went out to volunteer with the Trail Nerds to get inspiration from the ultrarunners running that race, which I did in a big way,” Savage said. A big help, he claimed, was the finish of a 73-year-old in the 100k distance.

“As an unexpected side benefit from volunteering, I was able to spend some time with this guy named Ben, [who he learned later was Bad Ben, the race director]. He was giving me little nuggets of advice on running that ultra that helped me greatly.”

Savage has since volunteered at five Trail Nerds events and ran the 10k at Psych Night Trail Run this past August. Each time, he learns a little bit more about ultrarunning, and now knows the importance of owning several headlamps.

The Trail Nerds cover all their bases: Night running with flashlights and headlamps, all-distance races, all-terrain routes, and all-season weather.

The group starts off with a 2.8-mile race for someone’s first introduction to the trails. The distances then climb from there, offering marathons and 50 milers. The longest is the 100k distance during the Free State Trail Runs, also a 40-mile, marathon and half-marathon, all of which takes place at the Clinton State Park in Lawrence, Kansas.

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Ben congratulating long-term Trail Nerds member Greg Burger on his 40-mile run during the Free State Trail Runs. Photo: Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

Ben decided from the beginning he did not want to offer a 100-mile distance, in respect of his own time and efforts and those of his faithful volunteers.

“There are too many damn 100 milers out there. There really are,” he said. “When I started running 100 milers, 1,500 attempted a 100 miler per year and there were only 15 100’s offered. Now, there’s 158 in North America and there’s 4,000 people who enter them.”

It zaps the energy of the volunteers, he added, who man the aid stations and finish lines for races which usually draw up to 50 people in the longer distances. But, he said, if you really want a 100-mile race in the central Midwest, there are six races within a short driving distance of Kansas City.

Instead of the 100 miler, Ben likes to put his energy into perfecting his unique races.

He offers low-key races of all distances, making a family event for every ‘runner’ in the house. When I say runner, I don’t mean those with just two legs. “Most races, except for the hotter summer ones, I allow dogs,” he said. “They get a bib, chip time, and there’s a separate canine division for awards.” For the entry fee, the Dirt Dawgs receive a collapsible doggie bowl, with the only rule being the dog must be able to run efficiently without a leash, and not go bounding off through the woods chasing every deer and turkey they smell. “Dogs love to run on trails and they really get into it,” Ben said. “After a while they get comfortable and really enjoy running on trails. It is a kind of a tribal thing, a really cool thing to see.”

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Dan Savage running the 2016 Pysch Night 10k with his running pup, Sydney. Photo: Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

“Most of our races are 35 to 40% women, 10% kids, and the rest men,” Ben guessed. “Plus dogs! It really is a family affair.”

Savage ran a 10k with his trail dog Sydney, which was her second official trail run ever. “I absolutely love taking Sydney on the trail runs with me, and she loves it too,” he added. “We both have a blast.”

The family running trend relates back to Ben’s own family, how he got started in running, and how he now runs with his own grandson. Before moving to Kansas in 1996, Ben lived in the Pacific Northwest, running in high school until losing the love of the sport for the next few years. He graduated from Eastern Washington University with a degree in mathematics, landing the next few jobs in the labs of pharmaceutical companies.

At age 23, he picked up the sport again. During the years he wasn’t running, Ben would still enter the Spokane, Washington Lilac Bloomsday Run race, which his grandfather, a runner who logged miles till he was 96 years old, ran in every year.

“I usually trained a week before, which did not do much good, show up, run the 7.4 miles, throw up at the end, and then call it good for another year,” he said, laughing at his former teenage self. “One year, I looked at my time from previous years and looked at his [his grandfather’s] time and I realized I was getting slower and at this rate mathematically, I’m going to be finishing after him in a few years.”

Ben started training more and the next year finished with a decent time, good enough to start training for a spot on his company’s corporate team. Then in 1990, he announced to his team he was going to run a marathon. “A gal at the head of our corporate team said “Uhh, you kinda’ have to train for one,” he remembered. He decided a 15 miler the week before would suffice. “So, I did that and thought, Well, I can do it.” He came in 26 miles later in 3 hours and 46 minutes, saying the one phrase every destined to-be runner says, “I will never do that again.” Of course, six months later, he was in Seattle, Washington running his second one.

He finished 38 road marathons throughout the ‘90s before finally entering a 50k. “I did okay there, about four and a half hours, then decided to do a 50 miler in Texas and I did okay there in 9:07 and I said, “Okay, but I will never run a 100 miler,” he said.

In 2003, Ben ran his first 100 miler, the Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile, finishing under 24 hours. At age 59, he has since run the Texas race six times, among other low-key events. His eyes though are now set on the Cascade Crest 100 Mile Endurance Run, after two unsuccessful attempts before.

His training, running about four times a week plus any long runs, is done on his own or with friends and family. Most of his races are unofficial fat-ass events. Every once in awhile, he will call up his high-school-freshman-aged grandson, asking to run the 10-mile WyCo loop. “I call him up during the summer and say, ‘Hey, want to go run a loop?’” Ben said. “Sure, can I grab a couple of soccer buddies?” the young one answers. “They take water and we do a run in the 90-degree heat,” he said, laughing.

Like grandfather, like grandson.

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Ben running through the Colorado Front Range’s foothills with friend, David Wakefield, in early September, 2016. Photo: Ben Holmes

His nickname, Bad Ben, was earned for having a similar running-focused mindset. Years ago after just moving to Kansas, Ben was taking martial arts, working 60 hours a week, and running ultra after ultra. “A man in his late twenties, a little overweight, worked with me,” Ben said. “I used to go to his house for parties, these 20-something parties that lasted till 3 a.m. and I would get ready to go at 1 a.m.” Ben was asked why he always leaving before the party ended, he recalled.

“Oh, I’ve got a marathon or a 50 miler to run,” he would respond.

“When?” the friend would ask.

“Oh, about five hours till it starts,” Ben told him. “He started calling me Bad Ben.”

Now, the friend is an ultrarunner living in North Carolina and has run a marathon on every continent.

“It feels good to have inspired him to do that,” Ben said.

Inspiration, motivation, and a lot of tough love are what makes Ben a great race director and a great crew member for his friends’ ultras. Though he has never run Western States or Leadville Trail 100 Mile, he has been there through it all, pacing and crewing friends, all with a ‘suck it up and run’ approach. “I really like pacing, but I have never had a pacer for myself,” he said. “I like seeing people develop and pushing people through their first 100 or first sub-24 100 miler is a lot of fun.” He may see it as fun, but his runner may not. “I am pretty tough,” he admitted.

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Ben with Grant Holmes and Baylie Jabben on the Chuckanut Mountain trails near Bellingham, Washington. Photo: Ben Holmes

During one Western States at the Rucky Chucky aid station, Ben was trying to get his runner, who was complaining of stomach issues, back to the trail. “I said, ‘We have been here for nine minutes, either you put your fingers down your throat and throw up or I will put your fingers down your throat!’” he said. “He finally did throw up and said, ‘Hey, I feel better.’”

Ben doesn’t mind if pacing leads him to more than 50 miles on his feet or directing keeps him up till 2 a.m. “I love seeing people get inspired on the trails and start doing ultras,” he said.

The 2016 Western States winner, Kaci Lickteig’s first ultra was the Psycho Wyco in 2012, he said, and she just returned this past summer to win the hot version of the psycho race, the Psycho Psummer 50k.

“My experience was fantastic and one I will never forget,” Lickteig said, remembering her first-ever trail run. “I remember meeting Ben and he welcomed me and made me feel like I belonged.”

Coming back in 2016, she knew another good, crazy time with Ben and the Trail Nerds was in the works.

“The atmosphere of the Trail Nerds events is one of the biggest reasons I love to run them,” she said. “It makes me feel so honored to be a distant part of the Trail Nerds by having that race as my first and by coming back and feeling so welcomed. Ben always goes above and beyond to make me feel special, but he does that with everyone.”

As a race director, pacer, or just fellow group runner, helping people in their own journey of running is his biggest joy, he said. “That is probably why I love to crew and pace and put on races. I love seeing people get into it,” he added.

Lickteig is just one of the runners who honor Ben for helping them take their first step into the trails. “I have to thank Ben for being the one who hooked me to trail running. If my experience had been elsewhere, I may not have fallen in love with trails and never found the passion for them as I do today. He makes it a point to provide everyone something to love about the trails,” Lickteig said. “Thank you Ben for being a great race director and more importantly a great person!”

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Ben talking with the 2016 Psycho Psummer 50k champion Kaci Lickteig at the Wyandotte County Lake Park in Kansas. Photo: Kristi Mayo/Mile 90 Photography

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

Calling all Trail Nerds! It’s time to offer up stories of Bad Ben Holmes. You got ’em, we want ’em. Stories of time running the trails with Ben, running a race he directed, and more., leave a comment to roast and toast Ben!

Jessica Campbell
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.