Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Interview with Ultramarathon Guru Kelly Agnew

My friend Kelly Agnew is a ultramarathon running beast. Not only does he run a ton of races, but he runs them fast. Just a few weeks ago he won the 48 hour race at Across The Years running more than 200 miles! He is a great resource for information and writes at the blog Slipping Slowly Into Pain.

I wanted to tap into his expertise to share here on the blog. Here is our interview:
First of all how many 100 milers have you run?

Not counting my run at Across The Years, I’ve completed sixteen 100-mile trail races. My first 100 miler was the Leadville Trail 100 in August of 2011.

Do you have a favorite or two, and why?

I’m a big fan of the Bear 100 because the scenery is stunning. It’s a September mountain race and the fall colors are at their peak. The course is very challenging so I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment when I crossed the finish line. I ran this race for the first time in 2013 and I’m sure it will be an annual event for me. It’s just amazing.

I also really love the Javelina Jundred, but for totally different reasons. Javelina is just a fun event with a lighthearted and festive atmosphere. It embodies everything I love about the trail running community. I’ve finished it three times and will be back again this year for sure.

Your speed continues to increase so obviously you're optimizing your training. What does your training look like building up to a 100 miler?

I run about 35 races every year, so my training isn’t specific to a certain race, or even a certain distance. I focus on a few key events each year and prepare my race schedule to isolate, or protect those events. This means I reduce my total mileage in advance so I can be rested on race day. A lot of my races leading to these key events are intended to be training runs, but I still run those events in a competitive manner. For me, the key is maintaining a reasonably high weekly mileage while mixing in a lot of vertical gain and a bit of speedwork.

Something that is sometimes overlooked is nutrition. A lot of runners fade so much in the late miles because they’re not fueling properly in the earlier miles. I’ve got much better at managing that process and it has paid dividends in my ability to maintain strength and speed late in a race.

 In ultras you experience the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. What helps keep you going when every cell of your body is begging to quit?

You help keep me going, and so do all the other athletes in the race. I try to remember that we’re all suffering together and that helps me stay focused because I don’t want to be the guy that takes the easy way out while so many others are courageous enough to stay in the race and get it done. I have a lot of deep conversations with myself on the trail and the topic usually revolves around trying to be strong. It’s not easy, as you’re well aware, but I would feel guilty taking the easy way out.

I’m a HUGE fan of the back of the pack guys that finish just before the 100-mile cutoff. Those guys inspire me so much and I sometimes try to draw strength from them, reminding myself of how strong they have to be. These days, my most emotional race experiences come from being at the finish line to watch the last runners cross the line. It’s powerful to me.

Any tricks of the trade when the stomach goes south and just the thought of eating anything makes you want to barf?

That’s one of the worst things that can happen in a race because without the ability to take on fuel, you’ll eventually grind to a halt. It’s important to remember that you have time to work through almost any issue in a 100-mile race. When I have this problem, I slow down to an easy walking pace and take in fluids for a while until my stomach feels a bit better. Once I feel somewhat stable, I eat SLOWLY. Just tiny bites at first and I focus on something bland, totally avoiding sweets. I wash all my food down with more fluids. I eventually pull myself out of it and begin running again. Slowly at first, while I focus on getting calories in my belly.

How do you work through times when your feet or knees or muscles are completely shot?

Those types of pains are inevitable. You have two choices. You either muscle through it or you call it quits. If I don’t feel like I’m doing real damage, I’ll just keep at it and endure the pain. Sometimes I can alleviate it by walking more or performing some stretching or massage. Running 100 miles hurts. It’s unavoidable.

Your wife is awesome. I've never seen a more efficient husband/wife, runner/crew team. That's not a question. I'm just sayin'.

She is absolutely the best in the business and I couldn’t do it without her. Thanks for noticing!

(This picture is with Kelly and his wife Jo before the Javelina Jundred.)

You won the 48-hour race at Across The Years running 200 miles. Up until this time, was 100 miles the farthest that you had run?

I had never gone beyond 100 miles and had no idea what to expect. I hit 130 miles in 23:15 and felt like I had a good race going and took 45 minutes to eat and I napped for 10 minutes. When I reached 201.5 miles in 40:57, I was far enough ahead that I was able to quit with the win and not worry about being caught by any of the other runners. I could have gone another 7 hours, but I definitely didn’t want to. It was a brutal experience for me.

How was your training different in preparing to run 200 miles?

The training wasn’t different, mostly because I had no idea what I was doing. I allowed for more rest before ATY, but otherwise, everything was normal. If I had to do it again, I would find a way to get more time on my feet. My feet really suffered in that race.

Sleep deprivation and sheer exhaustion are huge issues for me in 100 miles. How in the world did you address this in running 200?

Not well. As I said, I only slept for about 10 minutes but it felt great. I had never run for more than 28 hours and once I got to 32 hours, I started to have some serious issues with my mind. There were a lot of very odd things happening in my brain in those late hours. In retrospect, I probably should have slept more, but I was focused on the win and afraid to lose the time. I’m grateful for pictures because I don’t have a lot of recollection beyond 160 miles.

I'm intrigued by short loop races like Across The Years. I'm doing a 100-mile race next month on a 2-mile loop. Talk about the added mental challenge of doing a short loop course.

You have to get mentally prepared well in advance. Don’t allow the monotony to be a surprise. One of my tricks is to stockpile thoughts before a long race. When I need to work something out in my brain, I set it aside for my race. Training ideas, blog topics, long-term life goals…whatever! When it comes to me before I race, I set it aside and decide to work it out on race day when I can use it to occupy my mind. It’s easy for me to get lost in my thoughts and tune out the actual race. Running becomes automated while my mind is somewhere else. I don’t know if you can train for that.

What training preparations would you recommend going into a short loop race?

Get your iPod loaded with a lot of fresh music. Have several fun topics to discuss with your fellow runners so you can keep plenty of conversation going. Mentally drafting you memoir during your race is also a great idea. Outside of that, it’s tough to be fully prepared for that type of race.

What suggestions do you have for people wanting to get into running ultramarathons?

Don’t get too eager. Make friends with some experienced ultra runners and spend time running with them. Listen to them when they talk about running long, but don’t assume their strategies will work for you. Personal experimentation is the key to success. Log a lot of miles, but also play around with your nutrition. Even if you have a huge weekly mileage, you’ll never finish a 100 miler without proper nutrition. Experiment, track the results and refine. It’s a constant process and should be focused on during your entire running career. That’s the #1 piece of advice I give to aspiring ultra runners. 

Again, to read race reports on his blog and see more pictures you can visit his website HERE. Huge thanks to Kelly for all these insights.


  1. Oh, i really like Meeting new folks today! Characterization is that the most significant factor to me furthermore.job interview And extremely get to Stephanie Perkins' books presently, they are superb :) loved the interview!

  2. I had the pleasure of running a few miles with Kelly at ATY's...He was always focused on his goal and had words of inspiration for me (back of the packer). I saw him at some of his low points, and he always had "the eye of the Tiger" attitude. Great job Kelly, and great interview.

  3. Loved this! I love getting to know ultra runners (yourself included) you all are just so amazing! I especially liked his advice about the loop course races- that will come in handy when I do my first 24 hour race in March on a one mile track. I also love that the ultra world is kind of small and everyone knows and roots for everyone. Side note- congrats on becoming an Altra ambassador! Exciting. I just got a pair of Torins. They are like delicious pillow awesomeness on my feet.

  4. Thanks, this was a great read and had great info. This guy is a beast! I am running my first ultra in April, I can't wait!