Navigating the Road to Ultras


When I first started running ultras, I was looking to extend the joy I received from running the roads, but without the crush of the urban environment. I saw a photo on the office wall of the director of a sports care center that I had office space in. He was standing in running shorts and a singlet on top of a snow-covered mountain peak. I asked where that was.

He told me it was the Western States 100-miler, and I was in disbelief (we’ve all been there when hearing about 100s for the first time). I’d been road running for about five years at the time, and thought I knew the sport of running. I thought I was a stallion of sorts, as I’d morphed myself into a 2:30-something marathoner by then. I thought I knew toughness and discipline – and then I got introduced to this.

The guy who gave me my first look into the sport was named Nick Daley. Nick toyed with my ego by suggesting that with the times I’d posted in marathon running, I’d be a shoe-in to do well in the sport of ultrarunning. He swayed me into running home from work with him one afternoon as my baptism by fire. Being the accomplished road runner I felt myself to be, and knowing I was a much faster runner than Nick had ever dreamed of being, I thought, how bad could it be?

I knew we wouldn’t run more than 26 miles on a day after work and felt that even if we did, the most it would take me dead would have been four hours, so hell yeah.

I didn’t know jack shit about trail running, but I thought I did, as I occasionally ran the 8-mile connector Strawberry Canyon trail up to Berkeley’s Grizzly Peak and back as part of a 20-plus-miler I’d do for my marathon training. Like I said, I thought I was tough.

The sports care center was located on Ashby and Shattuck in Berkeley, CA, and we had to negotiate a little more than a mile on pavement before we hit the trails. I’d never run more than 10 miles on trails at any one time, but I thought this would be a glorious experience. It was, but it was that and more. I didn’t think we’d run 20 or more miles, and I didn’t think it would take more than four hours. But that’s not how it turned out. It was a watershed moment in my life, and a new awakening, but it also concluded with me sprawled on Nick’s living room floor, wondering what just happened to me. Nick patted me on the back, told me I was tough, drove me to the local BART station and sent me home.

I was undone. I went home feeling like a whipped dog, looking for payback, if I survived. I’d met a sadistic guy involved in a sadistic sport, and he’d throttled me – but I wanted more. I wanted to give as good as I got. I wanted respect and revenge. Now that I knew a little more about trails than just the Strawberry Canyon 8-miler, I went to work. I still ran roads for a couple of years, but most of my training was confined to finding new trails to run and training for the American River 50, my first-ever trail race, to be run with my mentor Nick. I had a road runner’s mentality and I put it to work at the race. I ran the first half in about 2:45/2:50, which felt comfortable to me as a roadie. I left the bike path and hit the trails from Beal’s Point roughly halfway, and it took me another 6 hours to complete the task. I got another ass whipping and education, but I bested Nick that day by an hour and sealed my fate.

I was now addicted and had an obsession with a demanding mistress, a sadistic sport that wouldn’t let go. Most of the enduring friendships I have now were born from this initial endeavor. While I’ve lived what some would call a very wild and colorful life, my most rewarding experiences have come from the trails and the people who run them and who embraced me because we shared the same passion, love of adventure and self-expression through running.

When you start down a new trail in life, whether it’s an athletic endeavor or another pursuit, you have to have the courage of your convictions. You also have to pay some dues, but in the end, you can find joys and friendships that last a lifetime. You never forget finishing your first 100. You transcend to another reality. I can’t remember a lot of people and things I once thought I would forever, but I can still recall almost every experience I had on trails, and that’s a shit-load of miles. Yeah, I’ve got a problem, but I’ve had worse! What’s your explanation or excuse?


About Author

Errol "Rocket" Jones is a veteran ultrarunner of 34 years, having participated in over 200 ultras dating back to 1981. Jones completed ultrarunning’s Grand Slam in 1998 and is a 3-time finisher of Badwater. He is also Co-Race Director of the Bear 100 and the Quad Dipsea, and serves as indentured servant at the Miwok and Lake Sonoma ultras.

Comments are closed.