In 2013, Joe Del Conte of the Bronx, New York, ran 14 ultramarathons, including three 100-milers. But as the website for the Beast of Burden Winter 100 warns, just because you’ve run the highest mountains and hottest desert valleys doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready to run in the heart of winter. So last Saturday, Del Conte laced up his Hokas and headed to western New York to test himself on 100 miles of frozen ground. Shortly after 4 a.m. on Sunday, after 18 hours and 12 minutes of running, Del Conte crossed the finish line in second place with the eighth fastest course time ever.
After thawing out and recovering for a couple of days, Del Conte sat down to discuss the Beast of Burden and his other ultrarunning exploits.
Thank you for agreeing to talk. How is your recovery going from the weekend?
It’s going well. I finally got some sleep last night. I had to drive back from Buffalo.
Let’s start with a little background on you. When did you start running?
About seven years ago.
Were you a runner previously or did you really just pick up the sport seven years ago?
I live in the city. I moved close to Central Park so I decided to start running in the park. I was active as a child, but never really did any running throughout my teens and twenties. Moving to the city kind of sparked that.
Interesting. So how did you get into ultrarunning, in particular?
Through an ex-girlfriend, actually. I was training for the New York City Marathon and she decided to sign us up for a 50k three weeks before, so I was kind of forced to run it. And I’ve never looked back.
That’s great. So, in the city do you get to run trails or are you mostly on roads?
Central Park does have some bridle paths, and there are trails for those who know them. I also go to upstate New York to Bear Mountain or even a couple of hours away to the Gunks [the Shawangunk Mountains]. I travel a lot for races—out west and throughout the country.
It looks like you ran about 15 ultras last year, including three 100-milers. Is that right?
Yes. Last year was a big comeback year. I had taken a road trip out west for about three months to travel to national parks. I was eating badly. I’d eaten healthy before that, but traveling in the national parks there were not many options for healthy eating, and being on the road for so long, I’d eaten a lot of junk. So when I came back I decided to tune my diet and run more. I actually DNF’ed a 100-mile race while I was on the trip so I was determined have a better year and run a lot of hundreds and do well.
Can you tell me more about this changed diet?
I’m vegan now. I was eating a lot of turkey on the road trip, and I was traveling through these farmlands and decided to cut out meat. First, vegetarian. And then after about a month, I decided to go vegan. I think it has definitely benefited my running. My times have improved, and my overall well-being.
That’s great. Of all the races that you did last year, are there any highlights that stand out for you?
Leadville, definitely. I had a good race. I didn’t go in thinking I would do so well at altitude, being from New York and not training at altitude, but it went really well for me, and it just continued from there.
How much ahead of the race did you go out there to get used to the altitude?
Just a couple of days. We got there Wednesday, and we did some hiking. We actually went up Hope Pass just to check it out, and I think it definitely helped me out. I had a great pacer, too, which was definitely beneficial for the later miles, an amazing older gentleman who I’ve known for several years now and is a phenomenal ultrarunner.
How can you run this many races and remain fairly injury-free? Any tips?
I think it’s my diet. And I don’t actually train a lot. It may sound funny, but I don’t do high mileage. I think since I’ve gotten older it takes more time to recover, but I’m still staying injury-free. A couple years ago I had broken two toes during a race and it put me out for a while, but since then I haven’t had any issues, and I’ve been running so much more.
I guess if you are racing that much, the races are your long runs.
Yeah. You know I did the three hundreds last year, and it was actually supposed to be four, but one of them got cancelled. I was kind of recovering and tapering the four to five weeks between races so it just worked out.
Let’s talk about Beast of Burden. For folks not familiar with the race, can you tell us a little bit about the course?
The course is on a towpath that’s 99.9 percent flat. It’s a 12.5-mile out and back with one aid station in the first seven miles and then another 5.5 miles to the turn-around point. There wasn’t much snow.
The course goes along the Eerie Canal. There’s not much scenery except the canal and some brush and the road on the opposite side. The volunteers are great. The race is well put on. Not very many races are put on well, but this is a good race. I have a lot of friends who’ve done it many times and they kind of convinced me to do it. I did the 50-miler last year.
I saw that you did the 50-miler last year. What made you want to go back and do the 100-miler this year?
You know, when I crossed the finish line last year I said I would never want to do that again. I’m not really into flat courses. But I had some friends who were doing it again. One friend, Kat, who has been running it for years now, kind of convinced me to do it. She has done the 50-miler, too. We had a big group of 9 or 10 that went out there. And then there’s just the challenge of the snow and the weather and the cold.
You said there wasn’t a lot of snow on the trail. Was there ice? Did you have to wear any type of traction?
There definitely wasn’t ice. I just wore a pair of Hokas. I wore them last year, too, and I didn’t have any issues. I had thought I was going to have to use Yaktrax or maybe some screws, but the shoes were fine. No major issues there. It’s a towpath so it’s like gravel, but it was frozen, nothing loose, no ice.
You said the volunteers were great out there. What’s the overall atmosphere like? Are there spectators?
Definitely not, not on the course. The middle aid station, I don’t remember the name, there were volunteers there. And then at the turn around, which is in a hall, there were spectators. Not a lot, maybe 10 or 15. But on the course there’s no one. It’s just long and lonely.
I guess that’s like winter in general.
Yeah, and that’s the whole reason I do ultras is to have the hours of time alone on trails. It was inviting for me.
You knew it was going to be cold. Did you do any special training to prepare for the cold?
No, I just layered up. I have some brands that I like that keep me warm. I changed after 50 miles and then after 75, twice I think. But I didn’t really prepare, no.
Do you know what the high temperature was during the day?
You know, I have no idea. I wasn’t even paying attention. I just knew it was going to be cold, regardless. I think last year the high was 14 or 15, so I was expecting the same.
What about wind?
It was pretty windy, some light snow, but by the time I finished it wasn’t bad. But Sunday afternoon I was out there waiting for some friends and it was like 50 mph winds. It was pretty brutal. I think I got away with not having to suffer as much.
You said you layered up. What did you wear?
I wore an Icebreaker base layer, another race top (a hoodie) on top of that, and then a short sleeve shirt underneath. Three layers. That’s it. Because I knew I was going to sweat and it was going to get really cold. I’d rather dress lighter because once I’m running it’s fine. It’s when you stop, that’s when you start to feel it.
Any special nutrition or hydration issues when you are running in the cold? Did you eat or drink differently than you would in another race?
No. My race nutrition is pretty much the same in any weather. I eat bananas, oranges, potatoes if they have them. I did drink some vegetable broth. It didn’t really warm me up, but just to get something warm in my system. I’ve done that for every hundred that I’ve raced at night when it gets a little cooler, but I don’t think it really helps me keep warm.
How would you compare this to other ultras that you’ve done, especially 100-milers. Was it mentally or physically harder?
Mentally pushing myself in the cold was the big factor, obviously not the terrain or the elevation. I think that’s why I chose this race, in particular, was to push myself in the cold at night. I wasn’t sure if I would make it overnight without cracking.
If you started at 10 a.m. and finished in a little over 18 hours, you would have finished just past 4 a.m. It must have been pretty tough running through the night in the cold. Were there some pretty tough moments out there or do you feel like you stayed strong?
I think I stayed strong throughout. It was just going into the aid stations and refueling. After the aid stations, there was the shock of going back out and knowing that I couldn’t walk for those first few minutes until I got my body heat back up. That was the thing. Once I was out there running, I was fine the whole time except those aid station stops. That initial first two minutes was just ridiculously shocking to my body—so much that I would scream out loud just to get it out. But after that it was fine. Even if I had to walk at some point in between it was fine because my body temperature was up and my blood was flowing.
It looks like there were a fair number of runners there. Did you see a lot of other runners on the course?
You do. You pass them because it’s the same route, so you see them in both directions.
Did you run with anyone or was it mostly a solo effort?
I ran with the lead pack for the first seven miles. For the rest of the race I pretty much ran alone. I didn’t have a pacer. A friend was coming out with me, but she had another obligation so I ran the race on my own. I didn’t want someone to have to come and run in that cold just to pace me for a couple of hours. But I did have friends that were volunteering at the race. It was good to see a familiar face when I stopped.
Running in the dead of winter seems really intimidating, any tips for runners considering this race?
I think people think this is an easy race because it’s flat. But it’s definitely not. I’d say just practice running in the cold to get acclimated.
I saw that you are signed up for Fuego y Agua 100k in Nicaragua on February 8. Is that right?
That is right.
The average temps on Ometepe, where the race is held, in February are in the 80s and 90s, so you are looking at a huge difference.
A few months ago I ran the Javelina 100 in Arizona and it got up to triple digits during the race. That was the fourth time I’ve done that race and I kind of knew what I was in for. So I’ve prepared for the heat, too. I wanted to go to the extremes. Since I’ve done Javelina in the heat, I wanted to try out the cold. I’m looking forward to Fuego y Agua too. I’m going with some friends who are from Nicaragua. They invited me to come.
Having done both, what do you think is tougher—running in the extreme heat or in the extreme cold?
Definitely the cold. With the heat, it’s easy to get your body temperature down. And you can walk in the heat. But in the cold, if you walk for too long it definitely affects you—frostbite on your hands and just freezing up. And getting to the next aid station is definitely tough if there’s an issue.
Anything else I should be asking you about the Beast of Burden or anything else you want to share?
It was an amazing experience. I would recommend it to experienced runners, but not necessarily doing the hundred as their first hundred. But definitely it’s a great race atmosphere.