Running to a big win at the Mountain Mist 50K in 5:27:24 (full results)—through snow, ice, standing water, and mud—Alicia Rich learned several new lessons on the steep learning curve of ultrarunning. She ran and won her first ultra in December 2014, and she finds herself still undefeated at the ultra distance with big goals on the horizon for 2016. In this interview, the Indiana-based runner discusses her introduction to the trails, women in ultrarunning, and of course her win at Mountain Mist.
Quick & Dirty: Congrats on your victory at a brutal Mountain Mist 50K last weekend! What were the trail conditions like and what did you find to be most difficult about the race?
Alicia Rich: The trail conditions were the toughest that I’ve experienced in my (limited) trail running history. I’ve handled races with some really thick mud, lots of standing water, heat and humidity, but I’ve never raced in ice and snow like that before. I really underestimated how much every inch of slipping and sliding early on was going to wear me out by the halfway point.
Friends told me horror stories about top females losing teeth and breaking arms out there in years with much nicer weather. I was working really hard to block those images out as I slid around on ice-coated rocks. I don’t usually fall much on the trail, so when I fell so hard on a rock at mile 24, I lost what little confidence I had left on the technical, icy sections. Plus, all of the chaos around me and the concentration required to stay upright distracted me from being diligent about my nutrition and hydration. I probably only consumed 350 calories at most during the race.
Mountain Mist is the kind of course that punishes early mistakes like that even more than most races by throwing the bulk of the tough climbing and technical descents into the last 10k. By the time I reached that point I felt like I was mentally and physically spent. All I wanted to do was maintain enough forward progress to stay in first in the women’s race.
Q&D: I know that due to winter storms, you had a tough time just getting down to the race from Indiana. How did that affect your physical and mental state leading up to and during the race, and how did you adjust to those challenges?
AR: I feel like most of our battle last weekend was just in getting to that race. Now that my boyfriend Scott [Breeden, another top ultrarunner,] is in his first year of medical school, we tend to work around a really tight schedule. We found out a week before that we wouldn’t be able to begin our 6.5-hour journey until after 3 p.m. the afternoon before the race. It seemed feasible until the blizzard decided to sit itself right in the middle of our path a few hours before we left. My problems with anxiety and blood sugar are always two of my biggest hurdles for racing, and I really didn’t manage either of them well while dealing with that storm.
We ended up snowed in just past Louisville, KY Friday night and thought about turning back in the morning. We didn’t even have any dinner, and all of the restaurants had shut down. When they moved the race to Sunday and so many of our friends were still making it there it just seemed like a shame to turn back then. Still, it meant a lot of terrible eating and very little rest in the days leading up to the race. By the time I arrived I felt like an exhausted mess! I think it all was probably just one more lesson for me in learning to be more flexible about my training and my racing.
Q&D: The Mountain Mist 50K is a classic at 22-years running—the first trail ultra in Alabama, founded and still directed by local ultrarunner Dink Taylor. What did you think of the your first Mist and do you plan to return? If so, what goals do you have for the future (weather-contingent of course!)?
AR: I don’t think I can express how impressed I am with this event. I was having a pretty terrible race, and yet I never fell completely apart, probably due to the great atmosphere all around me. I was especially impressed with the other runners on that course. I’ve never met so many guys in the chase pack intent on encouraging and supporting the lead female. The running community in the whole area of Kentucky, Tennessee, and northern Alabama really has me hooked.
I think on a year with even slightly better conditions that really could be my kind of course. I usually love technical, rocky terrain (hold the ice, please), and that course offers plenty of it. By tossing all of the heavy climbing into the last 10k, Dink has created a course that tests a runner’s ability to strategize and control their effort every step of the way. It’s the kind of race that you could improve on so much just by trying it over and over again.
I made a few comments about touching that women’s course record while I was training. Janice Anderson’s time of 4:39:52 has held that spot since 1997, and Michelle Richardson came to within just 1 second of it in 2004. Now I see why it’s such an old CR though. Even in perfect conditions I was not going to get within sight of it on Sunday. I think that on a better year I might be able to aim for sub-5 hours though. I also would really like to go after top-10 overall.
Q&D: If I’m not mistaken, you haven’t lost a trail or ultra race since December 2014; this streak includes an outright win at the Dances with Dirt – Gnaw Bone 50 Mile last May. What is your favorite trail or ultra performance to date?
AR: I’ve only been running ultras since 2014, but I’ve managed to get first female at each one so far. Obviously that streak will eventually run its course as I keep traveling farther for bigger races with more competition. I hope that I never forget what it felt like to cross that finish line at Dances with Dirt though. One of my close friends, Ron Brooks [who finished third at Mountain Mist], was well in the lead and actually completed the 50-mile distance at least an hour ahead of me, but he got off course a few times and was disqualified. I trained really hard for that race during a very tumultuous time in my personal life, and I never imagined I was capable of that finish. There were definitely some tears behind my sunglasses as I crossed that finish line with all of my closest friends (and my parents) right there.
The Barkley Fall Classic was also a really special race for me. That event is more about a culture than a race, and it was just an honor for me to be out there in the thick of it with those guys. Plus, I will never forget how hard that course kicked my ass! I still can’t believe I held up to that challenge as well as I did.
Q&D: You came to competitive running fairly recently. How did you get interested in racing trails and ultras and how has your improvement evolved?
AR: I’ve only been running for about 6 or 7 years. In fact, my first 5k was in 2010. At the time I had no idea that racing on trails was even a thing, and if I’d known I probably would have just skipped all those miserable road marathons. I grew up hiking and exploring in the woods of Pennsylvania with my dad and the rest of my family, and a big part of my job is keeping up with chimpanzees in African forests (and occasionally outrunning dangerous animals like elephants). So marrying my love of the trails and my new passion for running just seemed like the perfect idea.
A friend hooked me up with a local running club that took to the trails once a week, and they started showing me the ropes. After a handful of trail races I moved to Uganda for a year [for chimpanzee research]. When I came back I was grappling with a failing relationship and a bad case of PTSD. I didn’t really plan to become an ultra runner, but every extra hour on the trails seemed to help me cope just a bit more. Before I knew it I was putting in enough miles to prepare myself for ultra distances anyway. That was the year I ran Jackson County 50 Mile [in December 2014], only a few hours from Bloomington. It seemed like a good time to give it a shot.
I enjoyed that 50-mile more than any other distance I’d ever tackled. The next really popular 50-mile in our area was Dances with Dirt – Gnaw Bone in Brown County, Indiana in May of 2015. A month after Jackson I was sitting in a bar with Scott and our friend Jeff Yoder, and they told me that I could run the Dances with Dirt 50 Mile in 9:30 (faster than any female had ever run it). They also said I could break 3:10 in the marathon (my PR was 3:43). I told them that they were absolutely insane and had a good laugh over it. After that Scott started asking if he could help me with my training to prove that I could do it. So I decided to trust him. I’d never even done a workout before. A month later I dropped my first sub-7 mile on a tempo run. Then in May I ran the Dances with Dirt 50 Mile in 9:23 and in November I ran a 3:02 at Indianapolis Monumental Marathon. The guys finally got to say, “I told you so.”
Q&D: You’ve got a busy racing lineup scheduled for the first half of this year, including a planned 100-mile debut at the Eastern States 100 Mile in August. What are your big goals for this year and beyond?
AR: I met Maggie Guterl, a member of the National 24-hour running team through Barkley Fall Classic, and she was the first person to mention the Pennsylvania Triple Crown Series (on her home turf) to me. I’m from western Pennsylvania, so I liked the idea of a sort of homecoming type of racing year. Plus I thought if Maggie was any indication of what the rest of the running community in central PA is like, then these races should be a really great experience. The courses are all supposed to be quite technical with plenty of elevation change, which is my kind of terrain. And to top it off, the first race in the series is a 50k on my birthday.
The series culminates in a 100-mile, and it had been my plan all along to finally tackle that distance by the end of the year. So going for the whole series just seemed perfect. The best part is that it makes it easy for my parents to go to each race. I am really lucky to have the kind of parents that would make it to every one of my races if they could, and they’re actually the best at crewing for me now. They know just how to keep me calm and push me during an ultra.
Obviously I’d like to win the whole triple crown series. That’s going to depend on me finishing my first 100-miler, which isn’t an outcome I’m willing to take for granted. I’m not really sure what my goals will be after that series. I guess we’ll see how I fare in those longer distances and decide whether I want to keep focusing on 50s or start going longer. A lot of people were pretty disappointed in me for not applying for Barkley Marathons after winning the women’s race at Barkley Fall Classic this year. I am absolutely certain I just could not have prepared myself for that challenge this year, and I don’t like to take on something unless I feel like I can really do what it takes to make a strong showing. I wasn’t mature or experienced enough as a runner this year. I was with Scott at the Barkley Marathons last year, so I got an inside glance at the madness. It’s nothing like the fall classic or any other “race” I’ve heard of. Still, the better I get at rugged terrain, longer distances, and especially navigation, the more I’d consider giving it a shot someday. Maybe not even next year but the year after. Scott’s going to need some help for the next year or two while he goes after that dream anyway.
Q&D: I know that gender equality in ultrarunning—including women’s participation, community support, media focus, etc.—is an important issue to you. Can you expand a bit on this topic?
AR: Both subtle and overt sexism have impacted my academic career a lot. One particular struggle that involved some unfair treatment from an academic mentor reached a peak just around the time I started running ultras, so gender equality was an issue that I’d already become quite sensitive to. Because I’d never been athletic before, I’d never really won things. Once I started winning I just expected that I would get the same attention that the male winners did, and I’m not afraid to admit that I thrive on some of that recognition. I was pretty hurt to discover that that wasn’t always the case though.
After I was dating Scott and often winning races with him, it became even more impossible for me to ignore. Sometimes even mutual friends would just congratulate him after we both won a race, and I was training right alongside him, so I knew I’d worked just as hard for that win. Possibly the most infuriating example was when we both won our events at Land Between the Lakes Trail Runs last year. The local paper showed up and did a nice little piece on it, but they only listed the top 3 males in each event in their article. That just seemed completely absurd to me in a small community with plenty of underprivileged kids where a lot of young girls would really benefit from that kind of female example sweeping through their region and showing them what girls can do.
That’s the most frustrating part of it: this habit of overlooking the female winners seems to be most pervasive in the small-town cultures of the Midwest, the South, and Appalachia. I think that it’s a complicated, intricate problem that would be very easy for me to oversimplify if I tried to explain it thoroughly, but after a lot of thought and discussion, I decided that a general lack of female competition at these races was one big part of the problem that I might be able to work on. There just aren’t that many girls running trails and ultras in this region. The west coast is pretty stocked with some great female role models on the scene, but chicks around here just haven’t really gotten the memo yet (to be clear, I’m purposely oversimplifying). So when I win a race sometimes I can almost hear people thinking, “Okay, but how many girls did you even beat?” I could do the easier thing and just abandon my local running scene for some big popular races in Colorado and California to get some recognition, but (1) I can’t afford that, and (2) I really love the running community and terrain in this part of the country. It already gets overlooked by the rest of ultrarunning far too often. I’m not going to give up on it and move on.
There are a lot of reasons that women aren’t participating as much in these races, and I definitely don’t have all of them figured out yet. [But] the only way to really dive into trail and ultra running is to get out there with someone more knowledgeable and experienced than you and learn things one step at a time. So I decided instead of whining I could try to do something good for my local community. I posted a little callout on Facebook with my friends [and ultrarunners]Becky Boyle and Miranda Addonizio, and it exploded! [We] set up a group and within two days we had over 100 members. Every month we travel to a different [area]trail and give all of the gals a little tour. Some of them have run those trails a million times, but plenty of the participants have never even been on a trail before. Watching this group flourish has been more exciting for me than any race I’ve ever run. I really hope that in the next year or two some of these new trail runners register for races and find themselves running at new levels. That’s really my biggest goal for 2016.
Alicia Rich runs for the Quaff ON! Racing Team and blogs at http://aliciamrich.tumblr.com. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @aliciamrich. And if you are a lady in Indiana (or just traveling through), get in touch with the Indiana Female Fellraisers group!