Western state of mind, part 3: Bob Ayers

Bob Ayers at the 2011 Iron Horse 100

Bob Ayers at the 2011 Iron Horse 100.

In 2011, at the age of 50, Bob Ayers won the Iron Horse 100 Endurance Run. Two months later, he covered the course of the Umstead 100 in 15:38, earning 5th place, and a month after that, he traveled to Virginia and finished 13th in the Massanutten 100. He took five full months off from hundreds at that point, and then he ran the Virgil Crest 100, which he won.

So Ayers isn’t new to running ultras in bunches. That experience will come in handy this year, as Ayers is attempting to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, something that only 234 people have accomplished since 1986. The Slam starts with the Western States 100, continues with the Vermont 100 in July and the Leadville 100 in August, and ends with the Wasatch 100 in Utah in September (more information on the Slam is available here). Ayers, who is from Colchester, Vt., and runs for Pearl Izumi’s Project e:Motion, talks about what makes him want to run Western States and how he’s preparing to take on four hundred-milers over the next three months.

You’ve been running ultras for a while now. What was your first ultramarathon?

My first ultra was the Vermont 50k in 2006. And then the following year I ran the JFK 50-miler. The reason behind all that was to qualify to run the Vermont 100. So I went down and ran JFK, and the year after that I ran the Vermont 100 for the first time.

Looks like you did really well at that Vermont 100. You ran 20:48. That’s pretty quick.

Yeah, I learned a lot and decided that was something I was interested in doing, so I’ve been running them ever since.

And this year you’re going for the Grand Slam?

I am. It was all based on getting into Western States.

You ran both the Wasatch 100 and Leadville 100 already last year, right?

I did. I kind of gave up on the Western States lottery. I wanted to get out west and see what it’s like to run at elevation, so I decided to run Leadville and I put my name in for Wasatch and got in.

How did they go?

They went well. For Leadville I went out only the day before. I didn’t have the time to get out there earlier. So I just tried to enjoy the run. I ended up at 23 hours.

Was it tough with the altitude?

It was. It felt like I was just dragging all day long. But it was a good time and I was happy with my finish. Then I went to Wasatch. The elevation isn’t so bad out there and it was much more enjoyable. But a lot more climbing.

What makes you want to run Western States?

You know, it’s like the Boston Marathon of ultramarathons. It’s the event of all of the hundreds that everyone wants to do. Actually a friend of mine, Serena Wilcox, went out there last year with Nick Yardley, and I do a lot of training with Serena, so when she got back she just kept telling me I had to do Western States. So that made me more excited than ever to get in. I said if I got in I would definitely do the Grand Slam, because that’d be a big deal to me if I could get through that. By the luck of the draw, I got in.

How has your training gone?

Good. Work has been keeping me busy, but I’ve been hanging in there. I did the Traprock 50k and had pretty good result there. And I just did the Vermont City Marathon. I ran a 2:52 there, so a bit of a speed workout for me there.

Do you like to do a lot of research on a course beforehand? Or just show up and see what’s there?

I don’t read much about the course. Once I get running and start climbing mountains, I say, “I wish I’d looked at the elevation chart.” But I kind of like to keep things a secret until I get there and just deal with it as it comes.

Do you have a favorite places for long runs?

Probably my favorite is some of the Long Trail in the Camel’s Hump area and Mount Mansfield area.

Anything that makes you particularly nervous about Western States compared to all the other ultras you’ve run?

The only thing that’s on my mind about it is to make it through it. I’ve got to look at the big picture because I’m trying to do the Slam. I need to look at all four. So I’m not quite sure how I’m going to handle it yet. But most of the time I just take it as it comes. Depends on how I feel. If I feel like running hard, I’ll run hard.

Right. Basically you’re running a 100-miler a month.

I’ve been practicing them for the past two years, running four or five a year. So I think I’ve set myself up pretty good for the Grand Slam.

What do you enjoy about ultras? What keeps you running them?

I like the competition. I like doing well. The longer the runs the better. When I do these 5ks and half marathons, I always seem to struggle, but I can go up against the same guy that beat me in a half and beat him in a marathon. So it just seems to work for me. Things seem to start working for me at mile 70 when most people start to fall apart.

Why do you think that is?

I just say mental toughness. That attitude of “Bring it on. Let me finish it.” That doesn’t always work, though!

In 2010, I turned 50 and I was going to do five hundreds because I was turning 50 years old. So I did Massanutten [the Massanutten 100 in Virginia] and ended up breaking my foot 20 miles out. I had that determination to finish, so I made it to mile 52 and I was like, something ain’t right here. It was in pretty rough shape. That was the first time I’d ever dropped out, so it was a big decision to make. But I learned a lot from that. I didn’t get to do my five hundreds. I was down for two and a half months recuperating from that and if I had to do it over again I definitely would stop instead of pushing through things. But everything happens for a reason, and if you can learn from it you’ll do better down the road.

Looking at the ultras you’ve run in the past few years, it looks like you’re not exactly slowing down. You seem to have a lot of good results in a lot of recent races.

In 2011, I decided to try again to do five hundreds. I hired Jack Pilla as a coach. I used him in 2011 and 2012. He definitely made a difference in my running. He really helped my training. That’s when things started to turn around. This year I’m not working with Jack because I took what I liked from his training programs and I had some ideas of my own as I started to be more of a veteran. So I thought I’d see how this year went. So far it’s been pretty good. I had a good run at Rocky Raccoon.

You ran 16:54 there and got fifth place. That’s pretty impressive.

Jack was also there, and I knew if I slowed down any he’d pass me.

Right, so you had some motivation to keep moving.

He’s an incredible runner, that dude.

Are you looking forward to any of the Grand Slam races in particular?

I’m pretty excited about all of them except Leadville. I’m not very excited about that one. It’s an out and back course. There’s a lot of runners and it gets pretty crowded up on Hope Pass. And there’s a lot of singletrack and they seem to have a lot of runners for the trails. If it was a point to point it might not be a big deal, but coming back and forth like that it’s congested. The whole atmosphere up there is a little different from the other hundreds. It’s a bit more commercialized to me.

It sounds like the atmosphere at Western States is pretty crazy as ultras go. Are you excited to be out there early?

Yeah, they put on a big show there. It will be interesting to see how that is. I’ve heard a lot of good things about Western States, all the support, so that’ll be great to be part of that. Of course, everyone wants to run Western States.