The defending Western States champ is looking to make it 9-for-9 in 100-mile races.
Interview by: Duncan Larkin
When it comes to 100-mile ultra marathoners there is no one like Geoff Roes. The 35-year-old ace from Juneau, Alaska is unbeaten at the distance, having won eight straight 100-mile races. At last year’s Western States 100, a race now famous for its oppressive heat, Roes nearly dropped out at the 46-mile mark, but he decided to stick with it. Methodical and judicious by nature, Roes slowly reeled in his opponents and took the lead with only 12 miles to go. His winning time there, 15:07:00, set a new course record.
Roes returns to defend his title this weekend. He faces an incredibly talented field that includes the likes of 2009 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc champion, Kilian Jornet of Spain.
We caught up with Roes earlier this week as he arrived at the race’s start in Squaw Valley, California.
Competitor.com: You’re heading into this year’s Western States as the defending champion. How do you feel going into the race?
Geoff Roes: I feel good. I had a little bit of a head cold for the past week, so I’m definitely trying to get a lot of rest this week and hope that it is not much of an issue. I feel pretty relaxed about it. I’ve been focused on my day-to-day training really up until yesterday. Until I got here in California I hadn’t thought really much about it.
Now that you’re at the starting line in Squaw Valley, is your adrenaline starting to pump?
A little bit. I’m starting to bump into other folks that are rolling into town. You start talking about it. So, yeah, it’s gradually building up a little. I’m trying not to get too anxious and too worked up.
Because of the heavy snowpack, they are altering the course like they did last year. Have you adjusted your training in any way compared to last year?
I don’t think so. I train on a lot of snow at this time of year anyway. I’ve been up in Alaska for the last month, basically doing about one third of my running on consolidated snow pack. That’s kind of what I have to run on up there, so it’s the same as last year.
From reading your blog, I can tell that you take a very relaxed approach to the sport. Yet, you have yet to be defeated in the 100-mile distance. As you continue to succeed in ultras, are you starting to feel pressure to keep winning?
Definitely. A little bit. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel any pressure. But I think I feel less pressure that I did initially. When I first starting ultras, I started having success right off the bat. I put a lot of pressure on myself. I felt like if I didn’t win every time I raced I was sort of a failure. I really don’t feel that way about it at all any more. I’m gong out on Saturday to do everything I can to win this race. If it doesn’t work out that way, there are thousands of reasons why that could not happen. I feel like I’m pretty prepared to accept whatever the outcome is.
What do you think about the field this year?
I think it has an amazing amount of depth. It was really strong at the very top last year and it is again this year. The thing to me that is really shocking about the field this year is that almost all of the top 10 or 15 runners from last year are back this year. And then on top of that there are a dozen or so new people that didn’t run last year, but could be right there in the mix. I think the field goes about 20-deep this year where it was 10-deep last year. That makes is a real battle for the whole top 20.
You mentioned the depth of the field and how there are more people this year. With the success of the book “Born to Run” ultra running seems to be gaining in popularity. Do you think the depth across the entire sport is increasing as it’s gaining in popularity? And do you think that will make it more challenging as more talent enters the sport?
Yeah. Absolutely. I think previously with ultras there was a divide between people who just ran ultras. They were an entirely different breed. A lot of people thought they were just these weird, crazy, eccentric ultra-running folks. There’s still a lot of that culture with it. There’s certainly not as much as a divide any more between a lot of these really top runners who have the most potential in 100-mile races. A lot of those runners are doing it now. There are all these new folks coming in. There are people who could do really well in ultras and haven’t done them yet. I just think the people you are seeing at the top of the ultras now are at the top of the world at that distance, whereas previously in some cases anyway, those that won the 100-mile races were those who were crazy enough to do it.
Have you read “Born to Run”?
What do you think about minimalism and the barefoot running movement?
I think it has a place. I think there was a lot of hype that has spun out of it. It has gone kind of way too far for a lot of people who are probably overdoing it in terms of jumping into it without approaching it with a little more discretion, patience, and caution. I haven’t done much with it. Personally, I’ve developed a style of running that works for me and so I haven’t tinkered much with going all that minimal or doing much barefoot myself. But doing some barefoot running does force you to run with a pretty efficient and logical stride and form. If you can use that as a tool and not overdo it, I think it’s a great thing.
There’s a great debate out there on speed work for ultra runners. You come down on the side of the fence that argues that speed work isn’t all that important for 100-milers since you don’t do any speed work yourself and yet have achieved all kinds of success. Is that correct?
So if you aren’t doing speed work as a component to train for ultras, what other types of workouts are you filling into make up for that traditional area of training?
I really focus on building just strength and endurance. I do a lot of long runs, but also do a lot of really steep vertical and a lot of runs where a lot of times when I’m out, I’m just hiking, because it’s too steep to run. The fastest guys in the world who are running 100 milers are rarely running below 8-minute-mile pace, because it’s just not sustainable to pound much faster than that. If you’ve got a fairly adequate running background and you’ve done some shorter-distance running, you have that leg turnover there. It’s been engrained in you where you grew up running in high school. It’s been engrained in you to turn over 8-minute pace for hours. I think to go out and train to turn your legs over at 5:30 pace or even faster if you are doing shorter interval stuff, it just doesn’t make any sense to me. So for me, I just build strength. That means I’m doing a lot of just really rugged mountain runs with lots of vertical. That’s what I enjoy the most, anyway. It’s not a conscious decision; it’s just more of what I enjoy doing.
You talked about ascents and rugged climbs. Do you do any specific training for coming down steep hills, since Western States has a lot of vertical drop?
I do, but again, it’s not so much a conscious effort. I love being out on runs and love sort of just hammering hard down a hill. It’s really fun to push myself that way. I will do a lot of really long and steep descent. On certain days when I’m feeling pretty good, I’ll push it, putting a little focus on knowing that this is going to prepare me for a race like Western States.
You go out and run for five to six hours at a time in training. That is a complete aerobic fat-burning exercise. Do you look at your nutrition in terms of how much fat you are consuming?
I just try to eat a lot, as much as I can, all the time. [He laughs.] My whole approach to nutrition on race day and after my runs is to try to get my body to process carbohydrates so consistently and efficiently that I try to burn as little fat on runs as possible. Certainly on 100-milers you are burning off a lot of fat as your fuel. I know some runners will go out on five-hour runs and not eat much of anything during the run to get the body used to running on stored energy, but I kind of take the whole opposite approach of just training very similar to racing. When I race, I try to consume as many calories as my body will process. I sort of will do the same thing in training. I’ll go out and do a five-hour run and I’ll eat 1500 calories during the run.
I’ve read that you’ve recently opened an Alaska Mountain Running camp. Describe what that’s all about.
I just did the first ever session of it a couple weeks ago. I’ve got another one coming up in July. It’s sort of a thing that I’ve had in my mind for a few years now. I finally went out and did all the logistics to make it happen this year. I definitely want to continue it next summer. The one I just did is, by all accounts, a success. It was a really great week of running.
How many students did you have?
I had ten people. It was a pretty small group. I had a few local friends of mine help me out. Really, it was just a focus on going out running and showing everyone how I run and train, with some focused talks on key points. It was really laid back and was a chance for people to see for themselves what it’s like for people to see where I run around Juneau and how I approach my running.
You had moved to Colorado and then recently moved back to Alaska. What was the reasoning behind those moves?
I moved to Colorado, because my girlfriend is going to school there. We knew all along that we’d be moving back to Juneau at the end of the spring semester. We’ll be back down in Colorado this coming September. She’ll be back to school. She has two and a half to three years of school left in her program there, so I’ll be doing this back-and-forth thing for a few more years.
Do you think that at some point in time ultras will get enough credibility and build up so much popularity that it will become and Olympic sport?
I don’t know about the Olympics. I’m not sure that’s the direction it would head. If it did, it would probably be a road 100K event. It’s an ultra distance, but the core and grass roots element of the sport is the trail stuff. In that area it’s challenging due to permitting and getting courses set up. You have to get land use approvals and buy-in from agencies like the Forest Service. It’s definitely limited in terms of venues where it could go. I think ultras are in this extreme growth period right now. At some point, it’s going to slow down. At that point ultras will be in a more sustainable spot. In terms of what that will look like, I don’t know.
Any future plans to run longer than 100 miles?
Yeah. I got a definite plan in mind. I’m doing the Iditarod Invitational Race up in Alaska next February. It’s 350 miles. I’ve attempted it twice and dropped out both times. So I’m going to take another shot at doing a really long one.