From Trails to Trials

Larisa Dannis at the 2013 Vermont 100

Larisa Dannis on her way to winning the 2013 Vermont 100.

Over the past year, Larisa Dannis has won the Vermont 100 and the Stone Cat 50-miler. But over the next year, this self-proclaimed “mountain girl at heart” will be taking on a whole new type of challenge. She’ll be trying to qualify for the Olympic marathon trials, while still running a challenging ultramarathon schedule. And she’ll be chronicling her effort for Far North. Read her first entry here.

As I toed the start line at the 2012 Manchester City Marathon, I had little idea that in three short hours, the course of my running career would be forever altered. Having completed several ultramarathons, I knew I had the endurance to run the distance—but 26.2 miles on cold, brutal, unforgiving pavement? As a girl who thrives on remote mountain trails, the concept of a road marathon seemed foreign and terrifying. Up until that point, I’d never run more than 20 miles on road, and that experience forced me to take six weeks of recovery to heal a broken body.

As nervous as I was, a part of me was strangely curious as well. I resolved to approach the run as I do all races—pacing by max aerobic heart rate and fueling via my typical ultrarunning strategy. This meant, of course, that I’d be carrying my own fluids as well. The sight of a colorful trail girl in beefy Hokas and a hydration vest must have seemed comical to some, but the familiarity of my routine brought me comfort in an unknown environment.

The gun went off. I ran. I jumped. I cheered with the spectators, all the while smiling uncontrollably. . . . And 3 hours, 7 minutes, and 27 seconds later, I learned that there’s something deeply thrilling about running flat and fast. It was something I’d never experienced, nor even thought myself capable of. Instantly, I was hooked.

Larisa Dannis at the 2013 Hartford Marathon

At the 2013 Hartford Marathon, Dannis reached her goal of breaking the three-hour mark.

A new dream was born on that day, a goal that increasingly occupied my thoughts.

I wanted to break that three-hour mark.

That would mean running 26.2 miles at a 6:52 pace. I truly had no idea if I’d be able to average such a speed over the marathon distance. Nonetheless, the thought intrigued me and I was determined to try. As the seasons ticked by, my focus transitioned back to the trails and mountains that I love. Yet in the back of my mind that sub-three lingered, like an itch I could not scratch.

This year, on October 12, I realized my dream at the ING Hartford Marathon. As is the case with many goals, the completion of one serves as a stepping stone towards something even wilder. If there is one thing that running has taught me, it’s that nothing is ever out of reach if you’re willing to take a risk.

Thus, over the next two years, I will be training to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. To do so, I will need to meet the “B” Standard by running a 2:43 marathon or better.

Will I be able to achieve fast road goals while still training, racing, and exploring the rugged trail routes that I love? Only time will tell. At this point I have no idea where this adventure will take me, and I’m excited to have the opportunity to share my experience you.

With that, I’d like to kick-start my column with an update on my training.

The Hunt for a Coach

Up until recently, I was 100% self-trained and somewhat spontaneous with my running. My weekly routine typically consisted of short runs to and from the gym, where I’d lift hard and intensely for 30 to 40 minutes. On weekends, I’d head up to the mountains for longer trail runs or snowshoe hikes.

Larisa Dannis at the Vermont 100My primary goal as a runner centered around building a solid aerobic base. To achieve this, I followed the Maffetone Method of training, which advocates keeping anaerobic training to a minimum. Therefore, I rarely performed speed work and instead gauged the pace and effort of my workouts by maximum aerobic heart rate. The approach genuinely worked wonders for me, enabling me to significantly improve my endurance while remaining injury free.

However, as my focus has now shifted towards building speed, I decided to take the leap and hire a coach. Since I have such little road experience, I knew I’d benefit from the structure and support that a coach can provide. The initial search was a bit overwhelming, to say the least! There are lots of excellent coaches out there, and my top priority was to find someone who would let me pursue both road marathons and trail ultras. Moreover, I’m a firm believer in balance and smart training. Since I come from a somewhat non-conventional running background, I knew I needed to work with someone who could review my past training holistically and recommend gradual changes to help me achieve my goals.

After a good bit of searching, I was lucky to find Coach Mark Hadley. He has created the 2016 U.S. Marathon Trials Project, the goal of which is to help runners qualify for and excel in the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials. Coach Hadley’s training philosophy centers around five key tenants: consistency, capacity, frequency, mixture, and passion. His smart, balanced approach to distance running very much resonated with me.

My New Training Plan

I have been working with Coach Hadley for five weeks now and thus far it’s been a tremendous, eye-opening experience. After reviewing my running logs, he decided to implement two key changes:

  1. The addition of a weekly quality workout. This typically means a tempo run or speed work that’s done at high-intensity. I must admit that I’m still trying to get the hang of pushing hard, as it feels awkward to let my heart rate creep up that high! Nonetheless, I do feel like I’m making a bit of progress (albeit slowly!) week over week.
  2. Easy-paced recovery runs between my quality workout and weekend long runs. I keep my heart rate a good 20 to 30 beats lower on my recovery runs than I did in the past. Initially, it felt odd to run that slowly. However, I’m finding that by keeping my recovery runs very easy, I’m able to push much harder on my quality runs. This is especially apparent on my long weekend runs, where I’ve logged some of my fastest, strongest trail miles to date.

KettlebellsMy favorite thing about Coach Hadley’s approach is that he is not at all restrictive. I’m never told to run x amount of miles at x heart rate; instead, I’m given a mileage and heart rate range for each workout on my schedule, which provides me with the flexibility to run less or more as needed. That said, I have a tendency to be a bit of an overachiever, so my daily mileage typically falls towards the higher end of my workout ranges.

On a non-running note, I’ve also been experimenting with some new types of strength training, and have become wholeheartedly obsessed with kettlebells. Unlike traditional weight lifting, which emphasizes isolation exercises, kettlebell training focuses on working the body as a whole. It’s explosive, it’s tough, and I’m really noticing an improvement in my overall body strength since switching over.

Up Next: Lookout Mountain 50 Mile

Larisa Dannis at Bear BrookOne of the key reasons I chose to work with Coach Hadley is that he genuinely believes that I can balance road marathons and trail ultras. As it turns out, my first race under his guidance just so happens to be an ultramarathon—the Lookout Mountain 50 Mile race on December 14. I’m excited to have the opportunity to run one more trail race this year, on what should hopefully be a snow-free course. (More details to come. . .)

I’d like to thank Far North for providing me with the opportunity to write this series—and to thank you for taking the time to read it! Please do let me know if there are any topics that you would like me to cover in future posts, as my top priority is to write content that is of interest to you as I embark upon this crazy new journey of mine.


  1. Eric Ahern says

    Good luck, Larisa! Kudos on choosing a challenging (and hopefully attainable) goal. Looking forward to following your progress. Great write-up here, as well.

  2. Steve Pero says

    This will be a great series of articles…I’ve enjoyed following your progress since we first me several years ago on the Pemi and will even more enjoy watching you advance towards the Trials. Best of luck at Lookout!