With Weston Paul, MTNTOUGH Director of Business Development
Ultramarathon runner Weston Paul remembers his first mountain race in painstaking detail, but he doesn’t necessarily recommend the approach he took for others interested in the sport.
“I ran my first one on the Bangtail Divide in Montana in 2013 straight off the couch,” he recalls. “It was devastating. I had chaffing in places I didn’t know I could chafe, but the runners, the aid stations, and the encouragement were amazing. I was hooked instantly!”
If you’re not familiar with ultra running, an ultramarathon is any race over a marathon distance (26.2 miles) and typically includes a lot of vertical gain and loss. Many runners work towards running a 100-miler, and people have been pushing the limits to 200+ miles in recent years. Runners are generally completing a 100-mile race within 24 hours. A series of aid stations about 10-15 miles apart throughout the race allow runners to resupply for their next leg, getting critical rest, rehydration, and nutrition. Many 100-milers also allow competitors to run with a pacer, who serves as a voice of encouragement and reason for exhausted runners.
Weston was first introduced to running by his wife Karley and a few dedicated mountain athletes in their community. He “always got out of running” when he was younger due to having really bad asthma. But once he got a glimpse into the world of ultra running, he was blown away by the tight-knit community cheering on every competitor. As an avid skier, hiker, and elk hunter, he was also intrigued by the prospect of seeing so much wild country in such a short amount of time. He attributes this connection to his style of elk hunting.
“I’m curiosity driven,” Weston explains. “I seek out new areas to hunt just to experience the place. The correlation between hunting and running was immediate. There were so many times I’d watch elk go over a ridge into no man’s land, and I wanted to follow.”
The husband and father of two boys grew up in Rapid City, South Dakota and spent his youth constantly exploring the Black Hills and Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming. He moved to Montana for a ski scholarship at Rocky Mountain College and quickly became a seasoned ski bum. He then found his passion for elk hunting when he moved to Bozeman, and he hasn’t missed a September in elk country with his bow since.
Ultramarathon running took his hunting to a whole new level, and the MTNTOUGH team is consistently humbled by Weston’s success rate and the caliber of elk he takes year after year. Weston says the biggest benefit ultra running has on his hunting is giving him the confidence to keep up with an animal that can run circles around a human in the high country.
“Trail running gave me confidence on the hunt. Suddenly, distance wasn’t such a limiting factor. The whole concept of distance becomes easier to comprehend when you’ve gone that far on foot.”
Whether or not you hunt, Weston says the experience of training and competing in ultra running is nothing short of transcendental for your physical and mental strength. He recounts one run in particular as symbolic of his journey as an ultra runner.
“I ran the Wyoming Range 100-Mile Endurance Run,” he says with a look that implies he’s exhausted just thinking about it. “It took 42 hours for me to cover that spectacular country. We had a crazy thunderstorm on the second night. There were six swollen river crossings in the pitch-black dark. Ascending 30,000 feet and descending 30,000 feet made it the most difficult race I have ever done. Finishing it is something I’ll cherish forever. I owe so much to my pacers and my crew for encouraging me to push harder than I had ever pushed before. It was an amazing experience, and the confidence that race gave me was really powerful.”
The prospect of running 100 miles in the mountains is daunting no doubt, but Weston says beginners should understand it’s a pace game. While you typically run downhill, it’s also a lot of fast walking and power hiking uphill. The most important thing to remember is to not sell yourself short. You can do it, and you need to believe that you can with every step you take.
“I want to use this body and not waste anything I’ve been given,” Weston says. “It’s a gift to have two legs and two lungs. We’re capable of so much more than we think, and that translates to so much more in life. Mountain running has helped me learn how to push through hardship.”
Here is Weston’s roadmap for running your first 100-miler (or any distance) in the mountains:
Training & Recovery
You have to start with the attitude that you want to do this and you’re willing to learn and push through what it takes to run an ultramarathon. Sign up for a race, even a 5K, so you have an end goal to work towards. The race is a test you have to prepare for.
It may seem impossible at first, but use it as a way to get experience and gain confidence. It’s an incremental process of figuring it out. Start with shorter distances as you train. Find a distance that challenges you, test it, see how you feel, and then re-test it. I also highly recommend doing back-to-back days where each day is half the distance of your end goal race. If you are running a 50K race, then do back-to-back 16-mile days about a month out from your actual race day. The mental side of going back the second day helps to prepare you for doing it all in one day.
Incorporating strength training into your running schedule increases your durability. Life gets busy and with a family it gets even busier. Sometimes doing fewer miles is inevitable. Time spent on strength and mobility helps to prevent injury and make you more durable. It is important to develop a strength program that supplements the time you spend on your feet. I like to focus on lateral movement routines, weight vest or backpack work, mobility training, and building up my core strength. You need to enhance your ability to push really hard and then allow your heart rate to come back down. The MTNTOUGH Backcountry Hunter Preseason Prep program is perfect for someone who wants to start or get back into running.
I also highly recommend tapping into a local ultra running community if available. They will be an invaluable resource for you. I assure you that they will welcome you with open arms! Most importantly, they will be a reliable source of encouragement and inspiration.
For recovery, listen to your body but stay mobile. Vegging out will be devastating. Biking and walking are great ways to recover. It’s also important to remember that you don’t need to run year round. A running buddy put it to me this way: just let your body recover. Once hunting season comes around, I stop running. I spend hunting season hiking, and then I start skiing when the snow falls. In the spring, I start running again. Enjoy the seasons and give your body the recovery time it needs.
A good rule of thumb is that you need to consume around 200 calories of food and one liter of water every 45 minutes to an hour. I go with more of a natural route on my nutrition. I use whole food energy gels and drink supplements that provide the calories and minerals I need. You often don’t feel hungry when you’re running, and it’s critical that you remind yourself to eat and hydrate regularly. One of the perks of ultra-running is the snack buffets they have at most aid stations!
Ultrarunning is all about simplicity. You don’t need much gear to do it, but the items you do need are indispensable.
- A lightweight pack with a hydration system: There are a ton of these on the market. Find one that fits you well and make sure the hydration system works for you. I also carry bear spray if I’m in grizzly country.
- Lightweight rain gear: Ultralight, breathable rain gear is a must-have. It will keep you dry in unpredictable mountain weather, and it is also the primary gear you’ll have to maintain your core body temperature. Always bring the jacket with you!
- Trekking poles: I rarely run without them. They provide important stability in rough terrain and also take a little bit of the load off your legs.
- A space blanket: An emergency space blanket only weighs a couple ounces, but it could save your life if you get injured and need to wait for assistance.
- Waterproof mitts or gloves: You’re typically holding your trekking poles really tight, reducing blood flow to your hands. A good pair of waterproof gloves or mitts will go a long way to keep your hands warm and nimble. It always gets colder at higher altitudes.
- Shoes: Don’t overthink it. Find a shoe that feels good and doesn’t give you blisters. Once you find a shoe, stick with it. Go half a size larger than what you typically wear because your feet will swell and you don’t want to lose your toenails!
- Lube: There are a variety of anti-chaffing concoctions out there. Check with your local running store. If you want a laugh, ask them where to apply the stuff! No one told me about this when I started running. I am telling you to get this and apply it liberally. Your skin will thank you.
In a day and age when we live pretty sheltered lives, endurance running can help us to better understand ourselves and show us what we’re capable of. You can easily get in your head and psych yourself out, focusing only on the pain and exhaustion. Remember it’s just a moment in time in the big scheme. You’ll be surprised how your body can bounce back, and that will give you confidence. The further I run, the more aware I am that I’m not thinking about anything. I’m in a flow state. That’s a really beautiful thing and not something you can just slip into.
Adaptability is another essential mindset. Make a plan, but be prepared to throw it out the window. Something always changes on race day. Focus on the process, understand your benchmarks, and be prepared to adjust. You’ll probably have crazy anxiety and nerves ahead of your first race. If you train hard, trust in yourself and your training. Go into the race knowing you did everything you could to prepare for it.
Stay positive. Ultra distances will break a person down. Being negative or hard on yourself is a waste of time and energy. My good friend Erik was pacing me at the Bighorn 100. About 70 miles into the race he said, “Does it hurt to walk?” I answered “yeah.” He said, “Does it hurt to run?” and I answered “yeah” again. He followed up with, “Well, then we better run!” I could only chuckle to myself and break into a slow trot!
About Weston Paul
Weston lives in Belgrade, Montana with his wife Karley and their two boys, Hazen and Wilder. As MTNTOUGH’s Director of Business Development, he is responsible for building partnerships and community to advance the company’s goal of using fitness as a way to build human capacity for physical and mental strength through every aspect of our lives. Weston and his family live to experience adventure, camping, hiking, running, rodeoing, hunting and skiing at every opportunity available.