“It’s not about ‘how FAST can I do this?’, it’s ‘CAN I do this?’, even if you have already done it before.”
Today’s post is an exciting one and something I feel very privileged to share. It’s an interview with ultramarathon runner Koby Nelson, who has experience running races from half marathons to 50 milers. Not only has he run countless races, he’s managed to win some! When it comes to long distance running and trail running, Koby knows his stuff. And while he admits that he didn’t exactly have the smoothest entrance into long distance racing, he’s open to sharing the barriers that took him by surprise so that you know what to expect.
Thinking about running an ultramarathon or just running longer distance? From food to gear, Koby provides helpful insights to help novices and even seasoned long distance runners get prepared to have the best run of their lives.
Let’s dive in!
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Tell me a little about your background, Koby. How did you get into long distance running?
K: I got into long distance running through hiking. I did run cross country in high school, and I loved it, but I was never very competitive. Even though I worked my butt off, I was still mid-pack. That was really discouraging and caused me to pretty much drop running completely when I started college. I think I ran a total of 3 times in those 4 college years.
What I did do during college was hike. Accompanied by my dad, I went on a few backpacking trips and did some local hikes around my college. I became pretty obsessed with getting out in nature and exploring new places. There were a lot of mountaineering daydreams, and fantasies of living off the land ‘Into the Wild’ style during that time. Then on one hike in the white mountains in NH, my dad and I got passed on a tough climb by three guys in running clothes and hydration vests who seemed to be effortlessly flying up the mountain. We were on the second day of a 2 and a half day trip around the 32 mile Eastern Pemigewasset Loop, and those trail runner guys were covering the actual Pemi Loop (to the west, but also around 31 miles with even more mountain peaks) in one day. That blew my mind, and I decided right then that trail running was the best way to see the most stuff in the mountains.
Flash forward a year, and I was out of college and working 15 hours a day, 6 days a week at a recording studio in NJ with no windows. I was going a little crazy still dreaming about mountains. In the morning before I went to the studio, I would drive up to Bear Mountain in NY to run up and down the two mile trail up to the top as hill repeats. It wasn’t the smartest training tactic for somebody just starting out, but luckily I didn’t get hurt. Soon after, I ran my first half marathon, marathon, and trail 50K.
Do you have any running goals you’re working towards?
K: That’s a loaded question. I would love to run a 100 miler in 2019… I’m also getting married in July so it could be tricky to dedicate that much time to high-volume training in the first half of the year. We shall see. I would also really like to win a race at the 50K or 50 mile distance. I’ve won a few shorter races and had some success at the 50 Kilometer/mile distances. For those I’ve finished on the podium multiple times or at least in the top 10, but I haven’t taken home the big W yet. So that might be a focus coming up.
What’s been one of the toughest running barriers you’ve had to overcome?
K: Time and motivation is a tough barrier for anybody in an endurance sport. In order to train for an ultra, you have to put in a lot of weekly miles, which translates to a lot of weekly hours. In every training block, I struggle to get past the 75 mile-per-week barrier. Once I get there, it just feels like I don’t have time to do more, especially during the non-summer seasons when it gets dark earlier. I’ve managed to make it work by relying more on doubles during the workweek (one run in the morning, and another after work), but it is mentally difficult to do that more than maybe twice a week.
Mental barriers are also something I struggle with. Training for a 50 mile race is tough to wrap your head around. In training, I never even get close to doing 50 miles in a single run. I may get close to 28 or 30 miles on a Saturday, and then 15 or 18 on Sunday and that’s STILL falling short of 50 miles over two days. It’s really hard to make the mental leap to doing 50 miles in one day, or really, 8 hours of one day. I’ve done it already and it still is tough to believe in myself enough to think I can do it again. I imagine if I ever do 100 miles, that will be a whole ‘nother level of self doubt. Those barriers are part of what make this sport interesting and exciting to me though. Unlike a 5K, or a half marathon, or even a marathon, it’s not about ‘how FAST can I do this?’, it’s ‘CAN I do this?’, even if you have already done it before.
Are there any barriers you faced that you didn’t expect?
K: There are less unexpected barriers now that I have done this for a couple years, but starting out there were a lot. One in particular involves eating on the run. I knew that I needed to take in calories during long training runs and races, but I didn’t expect that to be such a hard thing to execute, especially in a race. For example, leading up to my first 50K I trained eating boiled potatoes with salt, and fig cookies. I read all over the internet that you need to use the same nutrition in your training that you plan to use on race day. This nutrition plan seemed to work great for me. I never bonked/hit the wall on a training run.
Come race day, the stress of being in a competition totally screwed that eating plan up for me. I was nervous, which made my mouth so dry that I couldn’t swallow any of that stuff. Everything just turned to glue in my mouth. I only took in about half the calories I planned over the course of the race. It was pretty terrible, and I ended up bonking HARD and walking almost 4 miles near the end. That was such a surprise to me because I had done everything right! I picked foods, tested them in training, didn’t try anything new on race day, and it still didn’t give me the race I wanted. It turns out, racing and training are not the same thing, and although the conventional wisdom on nutrition does hold true, some things are just tough to simulate outside the real situation. Lesson learned.
Any food advice?
K: I will be very cautious with my answer here because everybody will need to find out for themselves what works best. I’ll tell you what I use now that has helped me have really good races this year. Almost all of my calories in a race come in liquid form. I use Gu Roctane powder mixed with water. That goes in my handheld bottle that I carry throughout. I don’t take in calories on any sort of schedule (100 calories every 20 minutes, etc). I just drink when I’m thirsty, and the calories come along with it.
That said, I do supplement with real food a little bit at aid stations. There are a few go-to things that I reach for, and what I pick is completely dependent on what I’m craving at the time (I think there is something to be said for listening to your cravings). The aid station food is usually watermelon (almost always), bananas, boiled potatoes dipped in salt (what can I say, it still works sometimes), and rarely a small piece of a pb&j sandwich.
On a side note, how has being vegan impacted your running?
K: I don’t preach veganism for running or even health in general. For me, I think it has had a pretty significant impact on my running and my overall sense of well-being, but I know it isn’t for everybody. I stumbled upon a vegan diet through a search for a happy stomach. In that same recording studio I mentioned earlier, I used to feel sick all the time. I tried gluten free, I tried cutting out just dairy, and I tried just eating tums like candy, but it didn’t help.
Then I worked with this band from Australia that had a few vegan members. They cooked for me, showed me a bunch of new foods and ways to think about eating, and I felt better. It was as simple as that, so I stuck with it. This also happened to be the same time I was first starting to build up to running long distances; in fact I ran my first marathon while they were around.
So for me, being vegan and running went together really naturally. I didn’t feel like I had to shoehorn my vegan diet into my training. Everything developed in parallel. Because of that, being vegan has had a big impact for ME, but you are you, and I don’t necessarily think you should force a switch unless you feel like your current diet isn’t working, or if you have a moral motivation for switching. If you want to switch for moral or health reasons, but are scared it will hurt your running, don’t be. It’s worked for me, and it works for a lot of other people to.
What advice do you have for those with sensitive stomachs while running?
K: Unfortunately I don’t have a magic cure for all types of sensitive stomach. It is still good advice to train with the nutrition you plan on using during a race, even though that backfired on me the first time. You may need to adjust as you learn more about your body and how you react to certain foods and certain situations.
One thing I can say is that WHEN you take in calories and HOW MUCH you take in at a time can have just as much of an effect on your race as WHAT you eat. While gels work great for some people, for others a 100 calorie gel is just too much sugar at one time. For those people, sport gummy blocks (33 calories a block) might work better because they can be spaced out more over a longer time. For some (like me) even that is too much and a liquid calorie source is best. That way you get a small hit of calories every time you take a sip, but not enough to overload. I use this method as a slow, steady trickle of calories. So for a sensitive stomach, I would say the more you can be really slow and really steady with your calorie intake, the better.
Shoes are crucial to any runner. Any go-to brands?
K: I run almost exclusively in Altra. For the trail, I use the Altra Superior, and for the road I use the Altra Torin Mesh. Like nutrition though, shoe choices are very personal to a runner. I like Altra because all of their shoes are zero drop (which reminds me to keep my running form up), and have really wide toe-boxes (which makes it so I never get blisters). Both of those things make them perfect for me for long distance running.
Any other gear you’d recommend?
K: I love wool socks for running (even in the summer). Smartwool is my favorite. I also highly recommend carrying a handheld water bottle for longer runs. I use 21 oz Nathan handhelds. Finally, a trucker hat is part of my essential gear. It serves many more purposes than just looking good. It keeps the sun out of my face, acts as a sweatband on my forehead (evaporating sweat away through the brim and cooling my head), and shields my face from any low hanging branches on the trail (more important than you might think).
Ultra Light Socks:
Any other advice for people just starting out/with ultramarathon aspirations?
“My advice is just start. Get out in your favorite place to run and just go. Don’t worry about pace, or if you have to walk (I walk on hills all the time, even in races) or even how far you go. If you are consistent, you will eventually develop a solid base even without specifically “training.” Long runs, speed work, hill work and all that “training” type of stuff can come later when you feel like you want more. My dad ran his first 50K at 60 years old with no training other than fast hiking, building up to 50 miles a week. While that is an extreme example and he may be a little nuts, there are lots of ways you can get started that are totally manageable and less stressing on the body. Just get out there.”
Disclaimer: The interviewee in this post, Koby Nelson, is my brother. My relationship to him has in no way altered the contents of this post. All information regarding his achievements is factual and can be found online via official race results.