The Younger Ultrarunner: 100-Mile Record-Setter Jenn Shelton

1

by Tony Krupicka

Jenn Shelton is sitting on her Super 8 Motel bed in Huntsville, Texas, wielding a cell phone. This is notable for at least two reasons. First, Jenn doesn’t own a cell phone. In fact, she despises them. She once claimed, “I’m the last person on earth that refuses to get a cellular.” Second, it’s 9:30 p.m. the night before the 2007 Rocky Raccoon 100 Mile. Jenn and I have yet to confirm any sort of crew or pacer for our races the next morning. We both have designs on assaulting the course records on the Huntsville State Park trail (15:57 for the women and 13:16 for the men), so what she says into the phone next is interesting to me. “I plan on running the first loop in…um…2:40 to 2:45, and Tarzan will be coming through at about 2:40.”

After she finishes making arrangements with our fantastic crew member/pacer for the weekend—Hill Country Trail Runners Vice President Meredith Terranova—I question Jenn regarding her planncd-on pace for the first of Rocky’s five 20-mile loops. “Jenn, do you really think it’s a good idea to run the first lap at eight-minute pace when the women’s course record pace is over 9:30 per mile?” She replies, “I don’t think I can physically run that slowly (9:30s) for the first 20 miles…it wouldn’t even be fun. If I’m going to race I want to have some fun!” I fire back, “Yeah, dying miserably the last couple of laps sure sounds like a lot of fun, Jenn.” She got the last word, saying, “Whatever, dude; I should have told Meredith, ‘Tarzan will be coming through in 2:40, but I’ll be there in 2:39!’” Such is the audacity and ultrarunning talent of Jenn Shelton.

In the end, Jenn got the last laugh, too. The next day, I blazed through my own folly-filled and fear-fueled first lap in 2:27 while chasing Jorge Pacheco and Akos Konya, but that evening I crossed the finish line 16 minutes short of my goal of breaking the men’s course record. Meanwhile, Jenn whooped and smiled her way to a 2:41 first lap (running in the top five overall) and went on to absolutely crush the women’s course record by virtue of a 14:57:18 winning time and third-place overall finish—only five and a half minutes behind a fading Konya.

In order to put her race into perspective, consider that Jenn actually ran even faster in the second lap (2:39) and then slowed only slightly the third lap to pass through the 60-mile mark in 8:13. USATF selection procedures stipulate that a woman run a road 100-km in better than 8:40 to be considered for the World Championship team; Jenn did this on muddy, root-filled trails, and then continued on for another 38 miles at ten minute-per-mile pace.

200704.pdf_1No other woman has run a trail 100-mile as fast as Jenn’s Rocky Raccoon effort. Despite her precocious youth, however, she had already established herself as a promising competitor in the ultrarunning world before coming to Texas. A win at the Old Dominion Memorial 100 Mile in 2005 and a stellar second-place finish behind the virtually unbeatable Nikki Kimball at the 2006 Mountain Masochist 50 Mile last November were precursors to her unparalleled race in Huntsville in February.

Anyone who has met Jenn or seen her race might be confused by how someone so young and seemingly untempered is so successful in racing—Jenn verily bounds down the trail, seemingly unburdened by any knowledge of the enormity of the distance she is planning to cover. Regarding race strategy, she acknowledges, “(My approach is), I’m gonna go for it and see what happens. If I fail miserably, it’s not a big deal because I know that I get stronger with each race. (As young runners) our peak isn’t for at least another decade. If I go out at eight minutes per mile in a 100-mile, it’s not because I think I’m going to hold it. It’s because one day years from now I might be able to hold it for 100 miles, so let me see how long I can hold it today. But more importantly, it’s because it’s no fun running slow.” It’s hard to argue with the results that Jenn has experienced embracing this philosophy.

What she might lack in age and experience, however, she makes up for with youthful exuberance and an unbridled passion for life that she allows is often “plagued by impulse.” For instance, after her sophomore year at the University of North Carolina, she decided she was largely ambivalent about what she wanted to be doing, so she took a year off and traded coasts, heading for San Francisco to see what the West had to offer. It was there— temporarily free from the demands of classes—that Jenn began running consistently on a daily basis, logging up to 50 miles per week.

jenn-shelton-full-cropWhen she returned to Virginia Beach in the summer of 2003 and was working as a lifeguard, Jenn and another co-worker were bored by the lack of surfable waves, so they decided to spend the extra free time training for a 50-mile race that fall—the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile Trail Run. As Jenn explains it, “there were no waves that summer—shocker—and we were bored so (Billy) found this race called the Mountain Masochist. So we did it.” Despite being a mere 19 years of age, Jenn finished as the eighth woman, and—emboldened to push her limits even further— decided to run the Umstead 100 Mile the next April. The nontechnical, relatively flat terrain of the Raleigh, North Carolina course seemed to suit Jenn; she ran strong to finish as the second woman and fourth overall in 19 hours.

After her positive first 100-mile experience, Jenn has been in a cycle of running well in every other 100-mile she has entered, culminating in her scintillating performance at Rocky Raccoon (her fifth 100). After Umstead, Jenn submitted to the exceedingly technical terrain of the 2005 H.U.R.T 100 after 67 miles in her only 100-mile DNF, won the 2005 Old Dominion Memorial in a 17:34 second-place overall effort, puked for the first 93 miles at the 2006 Vermont 100 Mile that year (but still finished as sixth woman), and then produced a nearly flawless run in Huntsville.

Jenn realizes that it may seem to some that her Rocky Raccoon race was by far the best ultra performance of her career, but for her, it didn’t necessarily come as a surprise. Instead, she feels that she has just been incrementally improving and getting stronger and stronger since that first Mountain Masochist three and a half years ago. In addition, she thinks East Coast ultrarunners simply get no respect, compared with what’s going on in the West Coast scene.

Jenn explains, “People don’t watch the East Coast races as closely as they watch the West Coast. I’m not afraid to admit, if you put me in the mountains, I’m not going to win. I could have run the same time I did at the Masochist last year (Jenn was only the fourth woman to run under eight hours there), and if Nikki Kimhall wasn’t there, no one would have raised an eyebrow. Because a West Coaster was there is why some people say that I gained some legitimacy in that race. But the thing is, Nikki kicked my ass. She ran the last 25 miles at 20 seconds per mile faster than me. That is a royal ass beating.”

However, Jenn’s attitude with regard to ultra racing is such that she automatically sees the positive side of being handed such a defeat in her home state. She claims, “I’m not complaining (regarding the East vs. West Coast). I like it that way. I don’t feel any pressure to perform. And I learned so much by running with Nikki for just 20 miles. I’ve never seen a person plow through a trail the way she does.”

Despite this expression of humility, the simple fact can’t be denied that after her run at Rocky Raccoon, any woman she lines up with—or man, for that matter—will have to take note of her presence, if he or she is interested in winning the race. Here’s how Jenn explained her race: “I knew I could significantly break the course record, but 1 thought, well maybe I’m being cocky, so let me just go for it and see what happens. However, I felt stronger and stronger as the day went on. I slowed down, but I wasn’t trying to keep my pace consistent as much as I was trying to keep a relaxed effort throughout the whole day.

“I didn’t plan on running lap two quite so fast, but I was having such a good time running with (one of the top men) that I didn’t want to lose my running buddy. Lap three was the only lap I ran alone. For the first two laps, I could feel the other racers and the aid station people looking at me like, “Who is this idiot? She’s gonna die.” But on lap three I felt a shift in the energy and people started rooting for me and the trail was just electric with energy. Plus, by then you had a solid lead and it was encouraging to see you out there, trouncing along. I loved those out-and-backs! It felt like 1 was running with a big happy family. Lap four was supposed to be the hardest, but Meredith found me a pacer, so that lap just flew by.

On the last lap I was scared to push it beyond a relaxed effort, because you hear all these horror stories of people collapsing with five miles (or 300 meters) to go. I got a bloody nose at like mile 82 that lasted for the rest of the race. At first I was scared that something was wrong, but you know, it’s not like I was going to stop and find out. The only time it bothered me was when I tried to drink some Coke and threw it up a little, probably because I was swallowing so much blood. By that point, I knew that all I had to do was keep running and I’d have the record, so I played it safe until three miles to go, where I finally was confident enough to open up and push. Next time, though, if I’m in that same position, I’m going to go for it.”

It is clear from Jenn’s personal account of her race that she is capable of running with a fearlessness and abandon that one doesn’t normally associate with 100-mile races—a distance often considered to be typically a bit more laid back and leisurely than the usual running contest. Jenn certainly enjoys the more low-key atmosphere of the longer race, remarking that, “I don’t like fifties as much as hundreds—fifties make me feel like I’m sprinting the whole way.” However, a large part of her motivation for ultrarunning seems to be using it to express her overall approach to life. She seems to revel in ultrarunning’s simplicity and the opportunities it presents for personal growth and exploration. Jenn explicates, “Science hasn’t bogarted ultrarunning yet and, for me, that’s an awesome thing. Wanna run 100 miles faster than anyone else? There’s no mandatory training schedule, diet plan, stretching system, or whatever marathoners and triathletes subscribe to. Go out and run a ton of miles, smiling all the way, and I guarantee this method is way more effective and fulfilling and introspective and instinctual, and playful and, yes, spiritual, than concocting some ridiculous training regimen built on ambition and end goals. I like how ultrarunning makes you internalize the present moment. If you can only think about the end, you’re gonna burn out.”

Don’t be mistaken, however. Jenn’s successes haven’t merely come about as a result of caprice and whim. Instead, Jenn follows her own advice and runs a lot. She trains hard. Although she takes one day off per week, on the other six days Jenn completes four to six 20-mile runs and supplements these with a few secondary shorter barefoot runs with her dog on the beach. This all adds up to a formidable 120 to 140 miles per week. Even so, Jenn maintains that such an ambitious training schedule grows out of her passion, not any single-minded focus on meticulously preparing for a future race: “I like my training runs as runs in and of themselves. (As a result), I don’t get frustrated when an ultra gets tough and dark and existentially burdened, because I’m not focusing on some inflexible end goal.”

It is likely that Jenn has derived at least a portion of this outlook from a week she spent in the Copper Canyon region of Chihuahua Mexico running and racing the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon with the Tarahumara Indians last spring. This indigenous Indian tribe resides in some of the deepest canyons in North America and is legendary for its everyday feats of endurance. In 1993, Tarahumara Indians placed first, second and fifth at the Leadville 100 Mile and returned in 1994 to place seven runners in the top 11, with the champion, Juan Herrera, setting a then-course record of 17:30:42. Regarding her time in Mexico, Jenn relates, “I can’t speak for the Tarahumara and if my Spanish wasn’t so bad I could let them speak for themselves, but it seemed like, for them, running is just a natural extension of life, and racing is a celebration of life. I try to remember that when 1 get caught up in chasing records and improvement.” Interestingly enough, such a healthy relationship with her running has facilitated plenty of record-breaking and improvement.

With a sizeable amount of success already behind her, and with her recent standard-breaking run at Rocky Raccoon, one might think that Jenn has ambitious plans for the future. While she surely has expectations for her future races, she is somewhat evasive and much more general about what her hopes and dreams are for the coming months and years. She says, “My goal is to keep running as fun, fulfilling and pure as possible. I don’t want to let myself be defined by running. (Outside of running), I’d love to learn to become completely self-reliant; I’d like to live slow and simple, and to make people smile.” Noble goals, indeed, and with a mind-set like that, the ultrarunning world surely has much more to look forward to from this fun-loving young runner.

Share.

1 Comment

  1. Teddy Allen on

    Although the title references age, i did not catch her actual age in the article. Some simple math (19 years old in 2003) suggests that she is 32/33 years old now. Is 30 the new 20? Despite how many times she has revolved around the sun, she seems to have a good perspective with an emphasis on fun!