Alex Nichols – Why Ultra Running Is Not Always A Selfish Sport

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Pride in abundance at IAU Trail World Championships

Ultra and distance running is inherently a selfish sport. As a distance runner, I spend hours out on the trails, often alone, for the benefit of myself. I sleep a lot and often, I avoid staying out too late (most of the time) and I make many of my life decisions based on how it will affect my training. Once in a while, however, I get the chance to run for something more than myself. Earlier this year I was invited to be a part of the US team competing at the IAU Trail World Championships, and from that point on my training took on a new meaning. I was no longer just training for myself; I was training to represent my country.

There is a very special kind of honor that comes attached to running for a team, be it Team USA or a high school cross-country running squad. Suddenly you are responsible for more than just yourself. In a sport that is normally so individual this change in mentality is huge. Having that pressure of knowing people are counting on you can often produce results that would be impossible if racing purely as an individual.

Upon arriving for the championships in Annecy, France, I could immediately sense a feeling of team camaraderie that would prevail throughout the event. I talked with the Canadian team, the South Africans, Germans and Norwegians to name but a few. What I always sensed was a real sense of pride in all their voices. Rivals in their home countries and yet when brought together under their national flag they had become allies.

Checking out the course prior to race day. Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt, USA Team Manager
Checking out the course prior to race day. Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt, USA Team Manager

83km. 5,300m elevation gain. My toughest race… ever

Team USA was no different. Although I hadn’t previously met most of my team-mates I immediately had the sense that we as a collective were one. I knew I could trust them to do all they could to help me and I intrinsically knew I would do the same for them.

When race morning finally arrived I was filled with dread. The course stacked up to 86k (53 miles) with 5,300 meters of elevation gain through the mountains around Lake Annecy. It was set to be my longest run… ever… and with far more ascent than I’d previously been used too. I was, however, there to represent my team and my country and was determined to give it my best shot.

As is the case in most European races I’ve run, the pace was hot from the start. A downpour the night before had made the ground muddy and the rocks slippery but that didn’t seem to slow anyone down. The lads at the front were flying. I, on the other hand, felt terrible. Perhaps it was the 3:30am start or maybe it was all the mud, but my legs just didn’t feel right.

Pre-race interview with Bryon Powell, iRunFar. Checking out the course prior to race day. Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt, USA Team Manager
Pre-race interview with Bryon Powell, iRunFar. Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt, USA Team Manager

Hunting a podium finish at IAU Trail World Championships

At the mile 12 aid station I heard that I was in about 30th place and the 4th American counter on the course. At that stage my legs were really aching. I wasn’t in a points scoring position for the team and I began to think about dropping from the race. It was just about that point when a couple of fellow inov-8 runners –Eirik Haugsnes (Norway) and Gediminas Grinius (Lithuania) -came by me. Seeing them really brightened my spirits and I decided to go with them and see what would happen. As it turns out, things improved and my legs stopped aching. Soon enough I found myself leaving that group and charging forward on both the second and third big climbs of the course.

About 20 miles in I caught US team-mate Alex Varner. He said he wasn’t feeling great and that it might be a long day for him. Suddenly placed 3rd American, I was now a points scoring member of the team. Not long after that I caught another white singlet, that of David Laney. Together, we worked hard over the next 8-10 miles, pushing and motivating each other. Along the way we caught up with Tim Tollefson, who had been having a good day before injuring his foot. Tim was forced to drop out. Despite this we remained in contention for a team medal, possibly even silver, as behind us Alex had rallied. At the same time, the Spanish team was crumpling.

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Course profile of 2015 IAU Trail World Championships

Running with complete abandon and disregard for my pulverized quads

With David and I now just outside the top-10, things looked really promising. I pushed on and with just over 10 miles to go surged ahead of David. Normally I would have been content with a 10th place finish in such a high-quality field of runners, but this was a team competition and knowing a medal was up for grabs I decided to push my body well into the red.

Hitting the climb up the last mountain, I gave it absolutely everything. In doing so I closed a 7-minute gap and passed four other runners on the ascent. Suddenly I was in 6th place. All that remained was one final descent. I ran with complete abandon and disregard for my pulverized quads. In my mind, every second counted. I wasn’t going to be the one who let our team slip away from that silver medal position.

Fuelling up at one of the aid stations. Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt, USA Team Manager
Fuelling up at one of the aid stations. Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt, USA Team Manager

Different sponsors. Different motivations. One team

Coming to the finish line I had nothing left, aside from the hope that I had done enough to help my team onto the podium. After some tense waiting, David and then Alex finished, coming in 12th and 18th respectively. We had upset Spain and come away with team silver. I was so proud of what we had achieved and so grateful to both David and Alex, who put their bodies on the line. I gave everything I had for the team and I know David, Alex, Yassine Diboun and Tim all did the exact same thing for me. Even though we arrived as individuals, we ran the race as a coherent team.

The feeling of camaraderie on the entire USA squad was something that transcended the individual. We all have different sponsors and motivations but we were brought together by the honor of representing our country and running for something greater than ourselves. In this way I will always remember the IAU Trail World Championships as the most collaborative race I’ve ever run. I felt so much support from all of my team-mates, friends and family back home, volunteers on the course, the crew from iRunFar, inov-8 team-mates, our USA team manager and even competitors from other countries. It was one time that I felt entirely unselfish in a sport that is so often only focused on the individual, and for that I’m very grateful.

With the rest of a proud USA team, sporting our silver medals. Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt, USA Team Manager
With the rest of a proud USA team, sporting our silver medals. Photo courtesy of Richard Bolt, USA Team Manager

Rocking the women’s ‘pink panther’ RACE ULTRA 270 shoes!

I ran the IAU Trail World Championships in my inov-8 RACE ULTRA 270. I actually wore the women’s version (size 40) of the shoe. I never use socks when I run so it allows me to run in a smaller shoe, which in turn, means a lighter shoe. I was really happy with my shoe choice, especially given how rocky some sections of the course were. They were surprisingly nimble on the more technical terrain but still gave my feet good protection later on in the race when I needed the extra cushion. And I like to think that the bright pink ‘panther’ color turned a few heads too!

You can see some of my running stats for the race on Strava (see screenshot below). inov-8 has launched a new INOV-8 ALL TERRAIN RUNNING CLUB on Strava. Join me on there!

Alex Nichols' Strava stats from the IAU World Trail Championships
Some of Alex Nichols’ Strava stats from the IAU World Trail Championships

Alex Nichols
Colorado-based trail, ultra and sky runner. Two-time Moab Red Hot 55k winner and Skyrunning World series podium-placer. 2015 Mont Blanc Skyrunning 80k Ultra winner. USA team silver medallist at 2015 IAU Trail World Championships.