Running a marathon is an incredible feat, no doubt. How about running 4 of them. In a row.
I had a chance to interview Eric Hadtrath, a local ultrarunner. He attends my church and his story was played last year as a preview for one of the messages, and I was instantly fascinated by his mindset. I wanted to know a little bit more about what it takes to accomplish such a race. He recently completed the Superior 100 for the second time, a 100-mile race held in Lutsen, Minnesota, and not only would an undisturbed 100 miles still be a challenge but just take a look at this warning from the Superior Trail Race website:
The Superior Trail Race takes place on a very rugged, single-track hiking trail, running on such a trail comes with inherent risks that runners accept upon entering the event. In addition to trail conditions other potential dangers include but are not limited to of note to; Wet / slippery trail conditions (mud, roots and rocks), wet / slippery boardwalks and bridges, bees / bee stings, road crossings (use caution when crossing just as you would if you were a regular hiker on the trail or like you do on your training runs) and steep drops / cliffs.
So, you’re not only running 100 miles, but you’re doing so in some unhelpful conditions. Not to mention, there are cut-off times. If you don’t hit an aid station in a certain amount of time, you can be pulled from the race.
Despite the sheer distance of 100-miles, the rough terrain, and the pressure of making cut-off times, Eric Hadtrath has completed the Superior 100 twice. In this Q&A, I asked him what the biggest contributor to his success was, the biggest lesson he learned, what advice he would give to the world, and more! If you’re interested, you can read his answers below.
What prompted you to start running?
I started running in the spring of 2011, a couple of my relatives (My Step Dad & my Sister-in-law) starting running a year or two before I did, I never expected either of them to become runners, but they did and they seemed to be enjoying it, not to mention they both, through running had great success with weight loss, losing over 70 pounds each! Around the time that these two started running, I weighed about 230 pounds and was not feeling good about it. When I graduated high school in ’99, I weighed 180 pounds and was in pretty good shape and took plenty of pride in being one of the strongest among my friends (This is more easily accomplished when you chose to hang around with the band geeks instead of the jocks). In the spring of 2003, I went out for a motorcycle ride and ended up losing control of my bike and crashing into a guardrail at considerable speed, as a result of this accident I fractured two of my vertebrae and broke my left collar bone in two places, both my bike and I were wrecks, I suddenly was experiencing pain like I never had before, I spent a few days in the hospital and when I got home I spent a lot of time laying around (Dr.’s orders) and quickly my weight jumped to 200 pounds and then over the next several years it slowly crept up to the 230 pound mark, I was starting to feel the need to buy size 40 pants, and something about that number combined with the success I had seen my relatives have with weight loss through running inspired me to try lacing up my shoes and hitting the streets. I don’t know why it took so many years for me to finally get motivated as I had enjoyed being fit when I was younger, for some reason I just didn’t fight to get it back after my motorcycle accident. So in 2010 my Sister-in-law ran the Garry Bjorklund half marathon and in 2011 my Step Dad ran Grandma’s marathon, my wife and I were there to cheer them both on, my eyes were suddenly opened to what these races were (I had heard of them before, but never truly comprehended the challenge or interest of running these distances before), I was hooked, immediately after my Step Dad finished the marathon, I decided I was going to do it the next year (2012). The training was brutal and I had a few naysayers who didn’t think I could do it, but thanks to support from my wife and a lot of training help from my Step Dad, I was able to finish my first marathon. (by the way I swore after finishing that one that I would never run those long distances again)
In the video that was played at River of Life, you mentioned that you had run the Superior 100 three times before finally successfully completing it. What was different the third time?
In a race of this distance there are many logistics, you have to be ready to tackle all of them, such as nutrition, hydration, friction (aka chafing), changes in the weather/temperature, trail conditions, pace (making the cutoffs). During my first attempt I had a solid first day, but then going into the night I continued to run in the same shirt and shorts I had been wearing all day. The temperature got down to 40 degrees, and my pace slowed, as my pace slowed I was no longer creating enough body heat to stay warm with the way I was dressed, I had ignored the advice of the race director to carry an extra layer during the night, and had passed the offer from my wife at the previous aid station to put on more clothes, I thought I would be able to maintain enough warmth to continue on dressed as I was at least until I would see her again 12 miles later. I never made it that far, only a few miles later, I slowed to a walk, partly because of exhaustion from running all day and partly because I was cold, and the colder I got, the harder it was to get moving again, and pretty quick I started getting hypothermia, I started getting pretty freaked out as I stumbled through the woods asking each passing runner if they knew how far it was to get to the next aid station, unfortunately none of them knew. I decided my race was over long before I reached that aid station, but I still had to actually get there, and this was an agonizing process of continuing to put one foot in front of the other, hoping that around the next bend I would see the aid station and over and over again being disappointed that it wasn’t there. I finally made it there and they directed me to sit next to the fire, they brought me some hot soup, with in a few minutes I realized that I was still getting colder even though I was practically leaning over the fire, I alerted one of the aid station workers, and he put me in a sleeping bag and in the cab of his truck and cranked the heat to 80°. There is a little more to this story, but essentially this is how my first attempt ended at 58 miles.
The story of my second attempt is a little grosser if you are not a runner, but simpler to tell. I had been using Vaseline to protect my body from chafing all through my training and it had done its job, so I used it in the race, for some reason it failed me during the race, by mile 20 I was starting to chaff, with the encouragement of my pacer I made it past the aid station I had dropped at the previous year, but only by one more aid station, 4 more miles down the trail. My race ended at 62 miles on the second attempt when I could barely stand the pain to take another step due to the chafing.
I tell you those two stories because for the most part I believe I didn’t make it the first two tries because I didn’t manage the logistics correctly. My third attempt was successful for a few reasons, we made sure to correct the issues from the first two attempts, I did a lot of strength training to make sure that I had what it would take to make it the full 100 miles, and I had a great crew supporting me during the race.
When you failed the first two times, what was your self-talk like? (In other words, what did you say to yourself after you didn’t achieve your goal)
After the first attempt. I was bummed, but not completely crushed, I mostly believed I just wasn’t cut out to be a 100 miler, I mean after all I barely made it past halfway, how in the world would I make it the full 100 miles. I was feeling pretty content with the idea of not trying again, but my wife encouraged me, telling me she was sure I was strong enough to make it, pretty soon I was feeling the need to try again.
After the second attempt, we almost instantly knew we were coming back for a third attempt, we started to realize the issues I was having weren’t strength issues or mental issues, the were logistics issues and we were sure we could fix those and then I would be able to make it.
You wrote “Embrace The Pain” on your arm – why did you write that and how did it help you?
I wrote that for a few reasons, all runners are going to experience some degree of pain, and many are going to experience a high amount of pain during and especially toward the end of a 100 miler, what you do with that pain determines whether or not you finish, you can allow the pain to break you down and end your race prematurely or you can embrace the pain and accept it as part of the journey and push yourself through it. There is a fun documentary on Netflix called The Barkley Marathons, in this documentary a runner named Julian Jamison says “I think most people would be better off with more pain in their lives, honestly. I think that, if nothing else, they would appreciate the pain-free times more. But I think also there’s this self-induced aspect of, You’ve struggled, you’ve overcome, you’ve gotten through, then you’re confident and you both enjoy the rest of your life more, but also you feel like you can do things and you take on challenges that you wouldn’t otherwise try, and you get to points that you wouldn’t otherwise reach.” In searching to make sure I gave the credit to the right runner and quoted him correctly, I found a blog where Julian further explains the comment and I feel it drives the point home even more, he said “Some filmmakers made a documentary about the 2012 Barkley, and in it I said something like “Most people could use alittle more pain in their lives.” Obviously this falls under #firstworldproblems, but I don’t think it’s a minor point. We fall into the trap of wanting life to be easy, but that is amazingly unsatisfying; consider the poor humans in the imaginary future of the movie WALL-E. To struggle, uncertainly, and to occasionally overcome is one of life’s greatest feelings, perhaps the greatest, and it cannot be replicated any other way. No drug or money or fame can make it happen; you have to do it yourself.”
The last reason I wrote that on my arm was to be funny, to laugh at the fact that me and 200 some other runners were purposely taking on a task that was almost definitely going to hurt.
Also in the River of Life video, you said that the mind plays a big part. Can you go more in depth on that topic?
When taking on any challenging task whether it be running a 100 miles or studying to get your master’s degree, you will likely have many thoughts along the way about giving up and settling for a lesser goal, in order to achieve the original goal you need to learn to silence those thoughts or laugh them off as soon as they pop into your head and remind yourself that yes this is hard but I wanted this challenge.
Did you use any mantras or sayings that helped you get through the toughest parts of the run?
I have completed the Superior 100 twice now, the time I wrote Embrace the Pain on my arm, I really did repeat that to myself many times during the event. This year when I did it, the mantra wasn’t as necessary, though I did actually experience more pain this year, I had an extra degree of confidence because I had finished the year before that helped me push through.
What is the biggest lesson you learned from your running journey?
I learned that God has made me capable of more than I ever dreamed. If ten years ago you had asked me if I would ever run a marathon let alone a 100 miler, I’m pretty sure I would have said NO. Back when I was just toying with the idea of becoming a runner, feeling sick and disgusted with how out of shape I had allowed myself to become, I prayed that God would restore me to the health that I had before my motorcycle accident. God has answered that prayer and gone beyond, I would say that I am in the best shape of my life so far and I think I am still improving.
People may think you’re crazy for running a 100-mile race – so why did you choose to do it?
Mostly to test what I am capable of, physically and mentally. I liked the idea that a 100 miler would require me to push on for more than a day, in fact the first completion for me took just over 34 1/2 hours and this year it took me just over 36 hours. I have found that being able to train myself to the point that I can push through to the finish of such a hard task, has made other challenges seem smaller. If something comes up at work or at home that would have seemed challenging before, I realize now that most challenges won’t measure up to the amount of pain or length of time being in pain that I have been able to endure during the 100 miler, so now I usually feel more relaxed taking on these challenges that life is going to bring whether or not I train myself to deal with them.
How do you stay motivated/disciplined?
My wife has been a huge help in keeping me motivated, she almost literally pushes me out the door some days to go run. I am enjoying my improved health and abilities and don’t want to see them go back to the poor condition they were in before, and also I find that having a race on my schedule keeps me motivated.
Is there anything that you would say was the biggest contributor to your success when it came to completing the 100-mile race?
Not so much a thing but a who, my wife was there encouraging me during training (pushing me out the door some days), she has been on my race crew every year (the first year I finished, she hit the trail and hiked the last 20 miles with me and this year she signed up and I met her at the start of the marathon (which is the last 26 miles of the 100 miler and starts a full 24 hours after the 100 miler) and she stayed with me to the finish even though I was slowing her down. Each of the two years I failed to finish, she was there encouraging me to try again. I can’t honestly say if I think I could have done it without her, I’m not sure I could have.
If you could give one piece of advice to the world, what would it be?
Believe that God has made you capable of more than you think and pray that he will open doors to prove it to you and accept that his answer may include pushing through some pain, but that it will be worth it.
I want to say thank you to Eric for allowing me to ask you some questions and for your very insightful answers! If you want to see the opening video I saw at my church last year where you can visually see Eric explain some of his thoughts, I’ll include it below. The intro is the first three minutes. Hopefully, I’ll be able to conduct more interviews with inspiring people like this in the future, so stay tuned. 🙂
River of Life Church