From trails to trials: The trail to redemption

Larisa Dannis - Whiteface Mountain

In addition to lots of running, Dannis mixed some snowshoe adventures in the White Mountains into her training for the Rocky Raccoon 100.

In 2013, 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 all entries here.

A Finish and a DNF

Three years ago, on February 5, 2011, I ran my first 100 mile race, the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Texas. My decision to register for the event was spontaneous, fueled by a little too much caffeine and the encouragement of a couple of friends. Although I had run a few ultramarathons that year, my training at that point in life primarily consisted of long mountain hikes. Toeing the starting line on that cold, cold morning at Huntsville State Park, I truly had no idea if I could travel such a distance. My primary goal, as is the case with many first 100-mile attempts, was simply to finish. Twenty-five hours and 10 minutes later, I crossed the finish line hand-in-hand with my boyfriend, Rob, the warmth of the rising sun beating against our backs. It was a surreal, defining moment for me—one that I struggle to accurately convey with words.

As it turned out, Rocky Raccoon was also the sight of my first DNF. Inspired by the memories of the year prior, Rob and I returned to Huntsville State Park in 2012 to run the race for a second time. A beast of a storm hit Texas that weekend, saturating the course with four inches of rain. The wonderful, pine-covered trails of my memory were quickly transformed into mud pits of epic proportions. Soaked, sore, and disheartened, I pulled out from the race at mile 60.

The DNF left me feeling hollow. I knew that nothing would ever placate that empty feeling until I returned to Texas and completed what I had left unfinished. On July 23 of last year, I—once again somewhat spontaneously!—informed Rob that I planned on running the 2014 race. If that meant crawling out the final loop, then I would crawl. The only thing on my mind was finishing.

At the time of my registration, Rocky was not a Montrail Ultra Cup race, nor had it been selected as the USATF 100 Mile Trail Championship event. When the news broke about these two things, I immediately found myself signed up to run what would be my most competitive ultramarathon to date. The entrants list was soon filled with the names of tremendously speedy women. I was beyond excited to share the course which such talented runners, but also nervous. Throughout my buildup to the race, I made sure to keep my top level goal in mind—redemption.

The Buildup

I recovered from the Lookout Mountain 50—held in mid-December—surprisingly fast, which meant I was able to quickly jump back into training. My coach, Mark Hadley, put me on a plan that primarily focused on endurance: easy recovery runs plus one quality workout during the week, and back-to-back long runs at a slightly higher intensity on weekends. My running mileage peaked at 73.6 miles approximately 3 weeks before the race:

Dec. 17-2250.7
Dec. 23-2971.6
Dec. 30-Jan. 561.4
Jan. 6-Jan. 1273.6
Jan. 13-Jan. 1960.5
Jan. 20-Jan. 2646.1

Other than a few indoor speedwork sessions, almost all of my runs took place out on the road. Rob and I braved snowstorms, subzero temperatures, and ice-covered pavement to get in our miles—all of which added to the adventure! I’m convinced the residents of Strafford, N.H., must think us pretty crazy after witnessing us run around in some wild, borderline perilous conditions. Fortunately the roads in our area are very hilly and quiet, which kept things safe and interesting.

training in Strafford, N.H.

Dannis on a training run along the snowy roads of Strafford, N.H.

In addition to running, Rob and I also got out on a few easy snowshoe hikes when we could fit them in. Visiting the mountains brought a welcome respite from all of those road miles, providing just enough balance to keep me grounded.

Lastly, I greatly simplified my strength training routine to consist entirely of heavy kettlebell work coupled with a few bodyweight exercises. Prior to starting with kettlebells, I was on a four-day strength split that would focus on one muscle group at a time. While this was great for aesthetic purposes, I’ve come to believe that kettlebells are the single best functional weight training tool for runners. I’m now strength training for half the amount of time (and performing half the amount of exercises) that I used to, yet I’ve noticed a considerable increase in my core/glute strength while running.

All in all, I was amazed at just how well my body adapted to the higher road mileage. Coach Hadley’s emphasis on stress and recovery made it possible for me to get in some fantastic workouts without overtaxing my body. Heading into Rocky, I felt calm, collected, and prepared—more so than I ever have going into a 100 mile race. Although not at ideal race weight, the road miles had toughened me up and I was optimistic that I might be able to run a 100 mile personal best if the conditions cooperated. My strategy and goals remained simple:

  1. Finish
  2. Stay happy and positive
  3. Follow my fueling plan
  4. Keep my heart rate in the 135 to145 range until it naturally dipped

As long as I kept these things in mind throughout the run, I knew I would be content with whatever finish I was able to achieve.

The Race

Start of the Rocky Raccoon 100

Getting ready at the start of the race.

The Rocky Raccoon course is not quite like anything we have back in the Northeast. It’s “flat” by our standards, but always rolls slightly. The footing is for the most part soft and excellent, but there are just enough roots to trip you up if your attention wanes. There are alligators in the area, but I have yet to see one. And on race day this year, it was far hotter and humid than what we typically experience in a New England February.

Lining up at the start, that Texas humidity was already very noticeable. Instead of worrying about my lack of acclimation, I reminded myself that it was now especially important to follow my race plan. With three Western States entries and a USATF championship win on the line, I knew that many folks would probably start out hard and fast.

Remember your #1 goal: to finish

I positioned myself right behind the first wave of faster runners and took things steady from the start. The first two loops went smoothly as could be. I executed my fueling plan to a T—taking a VESPA every 20 miles, a VFuel gel every 30 to 45 minutes, and drinking to thirst. My legs felt light, my spirits high, and my pace sustainable. The only intermittent nuisance was my heart rate monitor, which would malfunction every once in a while due to the high humidity. That said, it actually turned out to be a pretty neat thing as it forced me to focus on running by “feel.” Instead of fixating on that 135 to 145 BPM range, I would assess my pace every few minutes and ask myself if it was something I could maintain for the remainder of the race. The experience was enjoyable and kept me mentally preoccupied.

However, by the end of loop three the humidity had finally started to take its toll on me. Reaching the start/finish chute, I found myself wishing I had lined up a crew and a pacer. The runners with support were able to resupply so quickly! I’d done a poor job of arranging my drop bag, which meant I was wasting quite a bit of time rummaging through my supplies to find what I needed. Of course, this “wasted time” was really very minimal in the grand scheme of things, but I let it get to my head.

Larisa Dannis at the Rocky Raccoon 100

Along the course of the Rocky Raccoon 100.

Stress is not at all a good thing when you’re 60 miles into a race, and I made my first big mistake of the day by forgetting to take a VESPA prior to loop four. I didn’t realize just how effective of a fuel source it had been for me until my stomach swiftly went south. At that point I knew that I had two options: to let the situation get the better of me, or to come up with a revised game plan.

I chose the latter.

One of the reasons I’m drawn to 100 milers is because you never can fully plan for them. When things go wrong—as they almost certainly do at one point or another—you can either give in or you can dig deep and fight. Finding the strength and determination to keep on pushing when all seems lost is the ultimate mental challenge. Succeeding in the face of that adversity is the ultimate mental high. With that in mind, I improvised and came up with a plan to get me through the race.

Instead of focusing on the 40 miles I still had to cover, I broke the run down into manageable chunks. Rocky is a very well-supported course, which meant that the farthest I needed to travel without aid was the 6.2 mile DamNation loop. Thus, to keep myself motivated I focused on the tried-and-true ultra trick of running from aid station to aid station.

Fueling was the trickier part of the equation, as anything and everything seemed unappetizing in the heat. My thoughts flashed back to Cascade Crest and that final crawl up to Keechelus Ridge in the darkness—under-fueled, zombie-like, and very much defeated. I was not going to make those same mistakes here at Rocky. I knew I needed to find something to keep me going. As it turns out, Coke with ice was the key, and I resolved to drink a small cup each time I reached an aid station. Stomaching the sickly sweet, bubbly liquid took quite a bit of resolve, but at least it stayed down—for the most part!

To keep my spirits high, I reminded myself that I was still 100% running—albeit at my super snazzy “fat burning shuffle” pace. Small wins, such as running up a mini hill without breaking into a hike, provided huge mental boosts. Heading out on my fifth loop in the darkness, I took note of the clock and realized that I had a pretty good chance of setting a 100-mile personal best. My new goal for those final 20 miles was to run every step of the way. Knowing that every footfall was inching me closer and closer to that finish line brought tremendous comfort.

By the time I reached DamNation for the final time, my tolerance for Coke and ice had finally waned. Running on the fumes of a VESPA packet and a good bit of mental grit, those final eight miles dragged and dragged. Even though there were hundreds of other runners out on the course, I found myself for the most part alone. Soon the road crossings came. Then the welcoming sounds of the finish chute. Seeing the red neon blur of the time clock in the distance, I broke into (what seemed like) a sprint and pushed as hard as I could. My timing chip beeped. 17:10:30. A PR, but I had missed Western States. Nonetheless, redemption. I hunched over into a heap—hot, sticky, and glad that the run was over.

Larisa Dannis at the Rocky Raccoon 100

Dannis after crossing the finish line with a new 100-mile PR.

As tough as Rocky was, overall I am satisfied with how I performed there. I ended up placing in the top five women (4th), top 20 in the overall field (19th), and setting a 100-mile personal best by just shy of an hour and a half. The difficult, humid conditions took a toll on many runners, as is evident in the 58% finish rate. It was a day for running steady, not fast—and for the most part I managed to accomplish that.

What I’m most proud of, however, is that I was able to take a very difficult situation and turn it into something positive. I learned that I can, in fact, adapt, and that a little bit of level thinking goes a long way. Without that flexibility, I know I would have not achieved my goal out there in Texas. One hundred milers are definitely not my strong suit, but there’s something about them that keeps drawing me back to the distance.

It was a true pleasure to share the course with some of the kindest, friendliest runners in the sport. I was especially happy to have the opportunity to run with Melanie Peters and Shaheen Sattar, both of whom kept me motivated and pushing forward.

What’s Next?

With Rocky now complete, I will be shifting my focus toward the Boston Marathon. Coach Hadley drafted my training plan this past week, and I am hugely excited to delve into some marathon-specific workouts. Once again, my recovery is progressing far faster than I ever could have hoped. I am one week out from Rocky as of this writing, and my body feels the best it ever has after a 100-miler.

If all continues on this track (and I can find a cheap flight to the Bay Area!), I plan on running the Marin Ultra Challenge 50 Miler on March 15. After Boston on April 21, however, I have no races planned. It feels odd to be without a race schedule for the bulk of 2014, and I’m still not sure what to sign up for. Continuing on the DNF redemption trend, I’ve entered into the Cascade Crest lottery as my next tentative 100. If that does not materialize, my plan is to tackle another fast 100 mile course with the hope of cracking that 17 hour mark. Any and all race suggestions you might have are most appreciated, of course!

Excitingly, though, the bulk of my summer will be spent supporting Rob as he goes after the Grand Slam. I might not be running Western States this year, but crewing and pacing there will be a tremendous experience. Regardless of how the rest of 2014 unfolds, I have much to look forward to as I continue to chase my running dreams.


  1. MJ says

    Congrats on a great performance at Rocky and your great attitude! Thanks for sharing info on how the race went in detail and on your training leading up to it. Would you be willing to share more details of your kettlebell strength work? Sounds like it’s giving you good results so I might like to try it.

    Best wishes on Boston, will be eager to see how it goes!

    • says

      MJ, thanks for the kind words! I’m more than happy to share the details on my current kettlebell routine, and will be sure to cover the topic in-depth during a future post.

      I strength train about 4-5 times per week on average, almost always on my easy run days. The exercises I focus on are:

      1. The swing (usually single arm)
      2. The clean & press
      3. The windmill

      I then add a fourth exercise – typically single-leg stiff-legged deadlifts, front squats, or thrusters – at the end of my routine if I have time.

      In terms of reps/sets, I’ll typically perform about 100-150 swings (broken out into sets of 10-30 reps depending on the weight), and straight sets with minimal rest for the clean & press and windmill. I almost always work one arm/side at the time, as this really helps engage the stabilizer muscles and improve your balance.

      My #1 priority when performing each exercise is form. The swing in particular can be a dangerous exercise if you go too heavy without mastering the technique. Fortunately, there are many great books and videos out there that can help you learn the exercise safely and correctly.

      I also really try to focus on that “mind-muscle” connection during all of my strength training workouts. I visualize each muscle group working as I go through each rep, and make sure to keep things steady and controlled to maximize the time under tension.

      I hope this helps!