Ultra trail runners go above and beyond

I've just had the good fortune to ski with Aspen-based husband and wife team Ted and Christy Mahon, and Chris Davenport. By May they hope to enter the record books as the first people to ski down each of the "Centennials", the 100 highest peaks in Colorado.

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Yes, ski. All of the peaks are more than 13,000 feet (3690 metres) high. The trio has so far scaled 96, and the first 53 were the highest, all exceeding 14,000 feet (4260m). Christy Mahon was the the first woman to achieve this feat.

Davenport, a world extreme and freestyle skiing champion, is the only person in the world to ski Mount Everest; having climbed it, he strapped on his skis at the 26,000-foot (7925m) mark and skied for 7000 feet non-stop down. When he got back home to Aspen he was feeling so fit, he ran up and down one of Colorado's 14,000-foot mountains in 3.5 hours and told me "it felt so easy".

Davenport and the Mahons live at 8000 feet (2440m) altitude. The mountains of Aspen are up to 14,200 feet high and are their playground for summer hiking, running, road- and mountain biking.

Given that ski-mountaineering a summit can take up to 12 hours, their bodies are primed for ultra running events in the summer months. They compete in the toughest events going. Ted Mahon has placed top 10 five times in five years in the epic Hardrock 100, a race that has the most vertical gain (33,992 feet, 10,360m) and is at the highest altitude of any 100-miler in the world. His best time is 28 hours 19 minutes.

Curious for challenges

The sport of ultra trail running has exploded in the past decade, says Mahon; a consequence, he thinks, of people being curious for challenges, which is pretty much why he, his wife and Davenport got into ski mountaineering.

Mahon says living at altitude gives them a racing advantage over anyone training at sea level. And the nature of race courses in the US, at least, is that they tend to be held in mountainous locations.

"If, as a runner, you were to come from sea level and run here you'd breath hard but your legs would be OK," says Ted, who has also scaled Mount Everest in the summer. "When I first did the New York City Marathon in 1996 I thought I'd smash it, but that wasn't the case. I was able have a conversation even running as fast as I could, but my legs didn't care what altitude I was at.

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"Altitude is not going to make you faster. Your legs run as fast as they're used to. The difference is that in New York, I didn't feel I was breathing. Some big shots come here to run races, especially the long ones, and even if they move here for three weeks beforehand, they're still going to be off the back .You can try any pill or altitude tent, but unless you're here all year long, it's not going to help much."

With age comes weariness

Ted, 42, says age has granted him psychological maturity and experience, which is an advantage for ultra events, but the physical downside is he needs more time to recover.

"You need more rest and that means less training in a relative sense, but I keep insisting I don't run that much to do well in a 100-mile race. I told myself I'd stop if I began getting slower, but I try and be smarter about it now and so far at least I'm improving my times."

Ted says 60 miles' running training a week (96.5km) is a lot for him, compared with up to 100 miles (161km) that his competitors are logging. But he also reckons a lot of them are overdoing it.

"I insist it's mind over matter. I see 20-somethings drop out of these races, they can't do it. For me, it's all about planning and splits. Even in hundred milers, minutes count."

Ted shaves up to an hour off his time by paring back his 12 aid station stops by five minutes each. He also runs his own race. "I start out slower than the leaders and then I slow down less than everybody. The battle of the race is who can slow down the least," he says.

"A lot of people can go out fast and then their pace just falls apart. I let the leaders take off and I often see them later.

"It's not about being fast and doing your intervals. It's about eating and drinking and not letting a small problem turn into a big problem. There's a lot of management. Running is a part of it, but it's not the whole part."

'You can't eat enough'

Ted says during training he sheds up to 10 pounds (4.5kg). "It's hard to keep up the eating, you're just shedding, you can't eat enough."  During races he takes water, sugar and salt in liquid form. He takes up to 40 gels, putting five in each drop bag with a maximum of two caffeinated gels in each. He also has salt tablets and flat Coke. "I keep it simple and deal with the consequences later," he says. "I've been blessed with an iron stomach, whereas Christy hates gels. Her latest favourite in ultra events is sunflower seeds or zucchini cakes, but the body uses up a lot of energy digesting those. The key thing is to find what works for you."

Once Ted summits all of the Centennials, there's a summer full of ultra running events and mountain climbing ahead. But for anyone heading to Aspen, his favourite run is the four pass route. "It's a trail run around the Maroon Bells [mountains]. It's 25 miles (40km) and goes over four passes and it's a classic bucket list run for a trail runner. People come from far away to do this; it's a really gorgeous course. It's just a link-up of trails and passes. I'd highly recommend it."

Do you do trail runs? What have you learned?

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