A transformational year: An interview with Larisa Dannis

Photo of Larisa Dannis

Dannis navigates New England’s rugged terrain near Nancy Pond in the White Mountains.

It has already been quite a year for Larisa Dannis, the winner of the 2013 Vermont 100, and there’s more to come. Next weekend, she’ll be at the Virgil Crest 100. In November, she’ll run the Stone Cat 50. And in between, she’s thinking about squeezing in a marathon. Ultrarunning, she says, is “my calling.” Dannis talks about how she got started in ultrarunning, her training, and more.

First, can you give us a little background on your running?

My journey into the running world was somewhat unconventional. Although I dabbled in team sports in high school, I was never very active as a kid. Upon starting my first office job back in 2007, I became especially sedentary. As my weight started to creep up, I knew I had to do something to improve my fitness. Many of my warmest childhood memories center around the White Mountain Region, where every summer my Dad would take me on a birthday hike up some of New Hampshire’s tallest peaks. The decision to take up hiking as an adult seemed almost instinctive. It was as if the mountains I loved so deeply as a child were calling me back.

What began as a goal to simply get in shape led to my discovery of the White Mountain 4,000-footers. Suddenly, I found myself filled with an urge to stand atop all 48 of New Hampshire’s tallest peaks. First, in any season. Then, in a single winter season. And ultimately in consecutive calendar seasons. As my peakbagging obsession grew, I started to put together longer and more challenging routes in the mountains. The transition from hiking to running was very natural for me. I soon learned that I could travel even faster by jogging the downhills, then the flats, and, in time, some of the uphills.

Upon discovering ultrarunning in 2009, I suddenly found my calling. I began running trails, and they are still my passion and primary focus, but I did unexpectedly discover a love for road marathoning this past year. So, I am starting to branch out a bit.

It looks like you ran your first ultramarathon at age 23, which is pretty young. What inspired you?

Pacing at the Vermont 100k!

In 2009, I was introduced to ultrarunning by some hiking friends. Prior to that, I had no idea the sport even existed. At that point, I’d hiked some ultra-distance loops and traverses in the mountains but couldn’t fathom the thought of running for such a long period of time. Nevertheless, I found myself intrigued. A friend encouraged me to head to the Vermont 100 and pace a runner for the last section of the 100k race. The experience was eye-opening and surreal—running under the soft glow of the moon, with nothing but a stream of chem lights to mark the route. Something about the sport and the culture surrounding it resonated deeply with me. I resolved to return to Vermont in 2010 to run the 100k, and since then have not looked back.

The last year has been a pretty good one for you. You’ve had great finishes at the Beast of Burden Winter 50 (1st overall), the Hyannis Marathon (1st woman), the Zion 100 (2nd woman), the GAC Mother’s Day 6-hour run (2nd overall), and the Peak 50 (1st overall). And, of course, you won the women’s race at the Vermont 100.

Are there any moments that really stand out?

Photo of Larisa Dannis at the 2013 Vermont 100.

Dannis moments after crossing the finish line in first at the 2013 Vermont 100.

2013 has been a transformational year for me, and I feel very lucky that I’ve been able to progress with my running. Each event had moments that stand out. Beast of Burden was my first (and completely unexpected) overall win. At Hyannis, I discovered that there’s something wonderfully exhilarating about running flat, fast roads even while being pelted by rain and blown about by coastal winds. Zion served as a huge confidence booster because I learned that I’m capable of running a 100-miler without a crew or pacer. The Mother’s Day 6-Hour reconnected me with good friends. Peak is my absolute favorite 50-miler in the Northeast, and it meant the world to me that I could perform well there this year in brutal, 90-degree heat.

Vermont . . . I still get intensely emotional just thinking about it. My only goal was to run happily and consistently for the entire 100 miles, which I somehow managed to do. Everything went as perfectly as I ever could have hoped, and it still feels like a dream.

Every picture of you from the Vermont 100 shows you smiling. Did you really have fun for 100 miles?!

For the most part, yes! I run first and foremost because it’s an activity that brings me a tremendous amount of happiness. Of course, I hit a few low points here and there, but overall I was in a happy place mentally for most of the race.

Can you share any tips for how to stay strong mentally in a long race?

I very much believe that 100-milers are far more of a mental challenge than a physical one. The best way to prepare yourself mentally is to realize that you will hit tough spots and to come up with strategies in advance for overcoming those lows. For example, I’ve learned that I almost always hit a low right around the 45- to 50-mile mark of a 100-mile run. At that point, I’m already heavily invested in the race, yet it can be overwhelming to think of just how much distance I still have to cover. When that negativity creeps up, I remind myself of why I’m out there running the event and think of the many amazing volunteers who are out there dedicating their time to help me achieve a goal. I also make sure to keep a close eye on my fuel and water intake to make sure I’m getting enough calories and fluids.

The most important thing to remember is that the mind is both a trickster and a very powerful weapon. It’s very easy to give into negativity as soon as a low spot hits. Always keep in mind that, barring extreme physical injury, of course, low spots will pass with time. By keeping my thoughts focused on the positive, I find that I’m almost always able to turn things around during a tough spot in a race.

You were also the top New Hampshire woman in the Mount Washington Road Race, meaning you won the Crossan Cup. How does the training for a race like Mount Washington compare to the training for a race like the Vermont 100? Do you prefer the long-distance races or the mountain runs?

To be honest, I love the challenge of both long-distance and mountain runs. My training is never tailored towards specific events. I strength train 4 to 5 times a week (running to and from the gym to get in my weekday miles) and put in longer mountain runs on the weekends. I rarely do speed work, and my pace and effort during all workouts is entirely dictated by maximum aerobic heart rate. It might not be a conventional approach, but I feel that the single biggest reason I’ve been able to make progress as a runner is because I train to be aerobically efficient. Maffetone Method training has genuinely worked wonders for me.

Recently you DNF’ed the Cascade Crest 100-mile Endurance Run after completing more than 60 miles. Can you tell us what happened in that race?

My DNF at Cascade Crest was the result of three key mistakes:

1. I was not 100% recovered from Vermont and I went out too hard. By allowing my heart rate to creep 5+ beats per minute higher than max for the first few hours, I put my body into a state of stress way too early in the race.

2. I underestimated the number of calories that my body needs on a demanding mountain course, which further contributed to that stress.

3. I overhydrated to the point where my electrolytes were very out of balance.

It was not until mile 40 that these mistakes came back to bite me. All of a sudden, my stomach completely shut down. Everything I tried to eat or drink would come straight back up. I had never experienced anything like that in a race, and it terrified me. I slowed my pace and kept going, hoping the issue would resolve itself. Unfortunately it never did, and every mile I traveled without fuel and water became increasingly tougher. When I reached the mile 60 aid station, my body was so depleted that I felt it was unsafe to continue.

Photo of Larisa DannisA part of me will always wonder if I could have walked it out, but having paced at Cascade the prior year, I knew that the last 30 miles of the course were exceptionally demanding. Given my physical state, I couldn’t bear the thought of putting others at risk if something went wrong. Dropping was one of the most difficult and emotional decisions that I’ve had to make in recent memory. That said, if the lottery gods are kind to me I hope to return and complete the course next year.

It seems inevitable that runners who race enough long races (especially 50+ miles) will DNF at some point. Do you have any advice for other runners about how to get back on your feet after a DNF?

A DNF is always difficult, regardless of distance. The most important thing to keep in mind is that every race can’t be perfect, especially as you venture into 100-mile territory. For me, the beauty of running longer races is that you can never fully prepare for them. When you’re out on your feet for hours at a time, so many factors come into play that you simply can’t control. It’s those unknowns that make 100-milers so exciting for me.

Instead of focusing on the negative, I always try to be proactive and learn from a tough experience. I’ll write down a list of the things that went wrong and start putting a plan in place for how I will resolve those issues mid-race if they pop up again.

Your next big race is the Virgil Crest 100. This will be your first time running Virgil Crest. Can you tell us how you chose this race?

Let’s just say that Ultrasignup can be a very dangerous website while on a delayed, late-night flight home post-DNF.

Virgil Crest has a reputation for being a pretty tough course. Lots of hills and a few tough climbs. Do you enjoy the more technical races or the more runnable courses

Photo of Larisa Dannis

A training run on Ethan Pond Trail.

That’s what I have heard, and I can’t wait! I’m a mountain girl at heart, so I really enjoy the challenge of hilly, technical terrain. That said, I also have a lot of fun with fast, flat courses. Interestingly, my body seems to be suited more towards the latter, even though I wish it were the opposite. I’m quite the klutz when it comes to the rocky stuff. Thank goodness for running poles.

Without sharing any secrets, do you have any special strategy for Virgil Crest?

None at all. My only goal going into Virgil is to finish, hopefully with a big grin on my face. I know that to do that I need to keep in mind the mistakes I made at Cascade Crest and stay very in tune with my pacing and fueling.

You’ll have less than a month between Cascade Crest and Virgil Crest. Do you feel like you’ve recovered from Cascade Crest?

The small silver lining to my Cascade Crest DNF is that it enabled me to get in a solid final training run for Virgil Crest. My body feels fantastic right now, though my mind is going a little crazy now that I’m starting my taper.

Are you doing anything different to get ready for Virgil Crest than you’ve done for other races this year?

My training and race prep never really varies much. I’m not much of a planner. For Virgil, my primary focus is on preparing myself mentally for the double out-and-back nature of the course.

What’s your fuel of choice during a race?

Since I train my body to be aerobically efficient, I don’t require too much fuel during training or in (most) races. For distances of 50 miles or less, I stick with VFuel gel, SaltStick electrolyte tabs, and CocoHydro Sport mixed with BCAAs [amino acids used to prevent muscle catabolism]. Prerace I always squeeze my gel into eight-ounce flasks, which enables me to take in more or fewer calories depending on my needs at the time.

During longer events, I start taking in solid food every 1.5 to 2 hours right around the 50-mile mark. My favorite solid foods include PocketFuel, Raw Revolution bars, and the occasional piece of fruit. Sometimes I’ll also drink a protein shake (StrongerFasterHealthier Recovery) mid-race if I feel a need to up my calories. I also love to drink hot soup at night. I carry my own packets to mix up at aid stations because I’m a gluten-free athlete.

Photo of Larisa Dannis

Dannis and Toby prepare to run the Presidential Traverse.

During the week I mostly train solo. The bulk of my weekday workouts center around strength training. On the weekends, I train with my boyfriend, Rob, and my superstar mountain pup, Toby. That said, I’m always up for showing new friends around the mountains if anyone has interest in checking out the Whites.

What does a typical high-mileage week look like for a 100-mile race?

I never run particularly high-mileage. I usually hit 40 to 55 miles a week, with some weeks lower and others a bit higher. My biggest week leading up to Vermont was 73 miles. I run the bulk of my miles on weekends, typically on mountain terrain, which is much slower than lowland routes. So, even though my mileage might not be high, I do get in a lot of time on my feet. I log all of my workouts religiously on dailymile, primarily because I like to keep track of how my heart rate and pace are trending.

Do you have any favorite big trail training runs?

Anything in the White Mountains! The trail network up north is so extensive that I can put together all sorts of fun routes that involve anything from flat, smooth running to steep, unrelenting climbs. A few of my favorite runs include the Wildcat–Carter–Moriah Traverse, the Desolation Trail loop over Mount Carrigain, and the long approach to Mounts Tom, Field, and Willey via the Ethan Pond Trail. All three provide a great mix of hiking and running and wind you through some of the most rugged and scenic terrain that our mountains have to offer.

After Virgil Crest, you’ll be running the Stonecat 50-miler, which is very different to Virgil Crest—a much faster, more runnable course. Will your preparation for Stonecat differ a lot from your Virgil Crest training?

Call me crazy, but as long as I’m sufficiently recovered I’m planning on giving the ING Hartford Marathon a shot between Virgil Crest and Stone Cat. My training remains pretty consistent throughout the year and is never really tailored towards a given event. Between the races, I’ll primarily focus on making sure I give myself plenty of time for recovery.

Which race (Virgil Crest or Stonecat) makes you more excited? More nervous?

Stone Cat would be an excellent course for a 50-mile PR, which definitely excites me. I’m very much looking forward to Virgil because I feel this intense urge to get in one final 100-miler this year. Nerves are not too much of an issue for me because I try not to ever take things too seriously. I’m certainly more excited than nervous for both events.

In addition to finding success in races, you’ve also started to dabble in the FKTs. You’ve got the women’s FKT for the Pemi Loop. How does running a big race compare to running for an FKT? How do you keep yourself motivated in an FKT attempt?

FKTs are wonderful because they have a much more personal feel to them. I’ve only run FKTs on routes that are close to my heart, so they are very much about aspiring to be the best I can be on trails that I love rather than competing with others. I approach FKTs exactly as I do races. I pace using heart rate and see where it takes me.

I see fewer women going for the FKTs, especially big mountain FKTs. Is that also your impression? How did you get into the FKTs? Any tips for other women who might want to give it a go?

Photo of Larisa Dannis

Dannis has summited all of New Hampshire’s 4,000-footers in winter.

In the Northeast, absolutely. I actually got into FKTs somewhat unexpectedly. Last June I went out to run the Pemi Loop as a training run and wasn’t paying close attention to my splits. Approaching Galehead Hut (which is a mile or so before the halfway point of the route), I checked my watch and was surprised to see that I had reached that point a good half hour faster than I ever had in the past. I knew that if I could maintain a steady, consistent pace I had a good shot of breaking my own PR on the loop. I didn’t check my watch again until I reached Flume (the final peak of the day). At that point, I realized that I was not only going to PR, but I was going to finish the loop in under eight hours. I ran my heart out for those last 5.5 miles, crossing the suspension bridge back to Lincoln Woods in 7 hours, 40 minutes, and 52 seconds.

The first time I hiked the Pemi Loop, it took me just under 14 hours to complete. I never thought that I’d be capable of running the loop in close to half that time. It was an emotional and defining moment for me. It substantiated my belief that no dream or desire is out of reach if you have the courage to reach toward the impossible. Three months later, I ran the loop again and took a few minutes off the FKT, which currently stands at 7 hours, 34 minutes, and 25 seconds.

When it comes to Northeast FKTs, my biggest piece of advice is to familiarize yourself with the routes in advance. The White Mountains might not be tall, but they are extremely rugged and can be unforgiving if you go out too hard. Running well in the Whites is all about consistency. It’s funny, because I’m never traveling all that fast over mountain terrain but my pace is always steady and averages out to be faster overall than those who go out hard at the beginning.

What are the races you dream of someday running? Anything big you’ve got your sights on for next year?

I’ll be running Rocky Raccoon in 2014, and was just recently accepted into the Boston Marathon! Other than that, I’m still trying to plan out my race schedule. When it comes to dream races, I’d really love to run UTMB someday.