© Copyright – 2010 – Athletics Illustrated
Greg McMillan, owner of McMillanRunning, has hired veteran ultra-runner Ian Torrence to head its new ultramarathon coaching division. The creation of the new ultramarathon division expands the offerings of McMillanRunning to include any distance beyond the marathon (most typically 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, and 100 miles).
Torrence has more than 15 years of ultra experience under his belt. Since his ultra debut in 1994, he has to date, finished 150 ultras, 22 of which were 100-mile races. In all, Torrence has won 49 ultramarathons. Some of his wins include the Massanutten Mountain Trail 100 Mile Run (twice) and the Superior Trail 100 Mile Run. He’s a two-time, top-ten finisher at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run.
One of the most impressive feats for Torrence was when he ran the fastest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, which requires an athlete to race the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, Vermont 100 Mile, Leadville Trail 100 Mile, and the Wasatch Front 100 Mile in a single summer. Torrence also has eight top-ten finishes at USA Track & Field National Road & Trail Ultra-marathon Championships.
Christopher Kelsall: I understand you grew up in Maryland. Was there an inspirational running environment in place for you?
Ian Torrence: Yes, I’m a Maryland boy. Gaithersburg, MD to be exact. Pretty much born and raised all the way through high school. Running is definitely a big thing back in the DC metropolitan area! I was a member of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club for a while and they usually have some sort of running event going on. Lots of members too. The ultra-running club back there, Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, was also an integral part of me becoming an ultra runner. It was at their races and from their members that I learned much of what I know about ultrarunning.
My Dad, Paul, actually got me into running. He forced me to! I hated running with a passion. When I was growing up I’d rather play with my GI Joes and Dungeon & Dragons. Oh, yeah, I admit I was a geek (probably still am). There was some sort of transition along the way though. I remember my Dad entering me (against my will) in a mile “kids race”. I ended up winning. That was a great and unique feeling. When I got to Junior High I quickly found that volleyball and soccer teams didn’t want me, but the cross-country team was happy to have me. I was looking for a place to fit in and I had found it. My first years of competitive running were dreadful. I often brought up the rear at the races. But subtle changes started happening. I got a little faster, lost some of that baby fat and started feeling good about myself. I continued on to Gaithersburg High School where I had the best cross-country (Herb Tolbert) and track (Fran Perry) coaches. They only encouraged me and under those conditions I got faster and raced more competitively. I enjoyed what I was doing. I would still only race as a mid-pack runner with some occasional high finishes in small meets. I ran my best high school times my senior year. This encouraged me to continue on into College. So I went off to PA and Allegheny College and continued my streak of improvement.
But let me come back to Maryland. My first ultra ever was the JFK 50 Miler (my home “ultra” course) in Boonsboro, MD in 1994. The start line was only an hour from my home. I have returned every year since to run in that event! Though I no longer live in MD, I am still considered a home-town boy by the race director, race management, the followers and fans of that particular event. Very cool!
CK: So dad was a runner?
IT: Yup, he was. He’s older now and prefers to spend his energy on tending to his organic farm in Williams, OR. He ran several marathons and low-key ultras in his day. I was young and was NOT a runner when he was doing these. At the time I didn’t know why he was doing it, but I clearly understand now.
CK: Any plans to repeat as the Grand Slam champion of Ultras?
IT: Well, the thought has occurred to me several times. The summer of my Grand Slam (2002) was arguably one of my best summers of running, racing and ultra-related memories. It was a great time!
It’s a hard task though. Not only do you have to finish those four 100-milers (which I believe to be the easiest part of the mission), you have to have (or make) the time to undertake such a goal and find the cash flow for the travel arrangements and race fees. The logistics can be tough. It’s even harder now to do the Slam than it was eight years ago, because it’s difficult to get into the races. It all rests in the hands of the lottery gods (Western States and Wasatch Front have lotteries). In short, the hardest part of the Grand Slam is making it to the starting lines of those four races.
It was tough to see Joe Kulak come out the very next summer and sink my Slam record. There’s always been a part of me that wants to see if I can regain that title again. So, yeah, I can see myself doing it again.
CK: One would think that as a Grand Slam Champion, you would be provided with comp entry and red carpet service.
IT: Yeah, I wish! At some races I am treated very well. I did run the Slam a while ago and there are different folks at the helm now in many of those Slam races. It all comes down to those specific race directors and the race management to make that call. It’s a can of worms really. Who does and who doesn’t deserve what? Ultra-running is a funny sport. I will tell you this: I have never been turned away from a race, lottery or no. Even though I may have had to pay an entry, I’ve never had a race director turn me away from a race I’ve wanted to run. So perhaps, that is my red carpet! I’m thankful for that.
CK: Some great athletes who achieve a high level in sport often claim they can remember every goal they ever scored, basket made, completed pass and so on. Running 12 marathon in 12 months, there must be some blank miles in the mix, yes?
IT: 150 ultra-distanced races and counting. Just finished #150 this weekend at the Pemberton 50K outside of Phoenix, AZ. Nope, can’t say that I remember all those foot-falls. But if asked about any one of those races, I think I’d be able to come up with at least one defining memory or circumstance surrounding that race. It’s just a lot of racing miles and for a good portion of them I know I wasn’t always 100% mentally with it. The brain clearly needs sugar to operate well and create memories; ultra-running has a tendency to reduce the availability of that substance.
I can tell you this though: I remember my four DNF’s (Did Not Finish) clearly and the circumstances surrounding them. I think they left more of an imprint than any of my ultra wins! Those are where I learned a lesson or two about myself.
CK: Any plans to race Death Valley or Comrades in the near future?
IT: Badwater? Um, no, nope, never! I have no ambition to start a race where I know I WILL puke. Running in 120 degrees under the desert sun is a neat experience (I used to live in Vegas so I’ve done it often), but its nice to end that after 30 minutes or so. I crewed for former course record holder Eric Clifton twice at Badwater. I am very familiar with the course, the race, the experience. So I’m good, don’t need to do it, and there is absolutely no desire to pit myself against such a course.
Comrades? Heck yeah! That would be an awesome experience. A race with such culture and history. It’s on my long list. Again it comes down to the time, money and willingness to commit to the journey. I’m just bad at planning that far in advance. Perhaps if some of my ultra-running buddies decided to go, I’d have more incentive to head over.
CK: Which other races are on your long list?
IT: It’s not an ultra, but I’d love to go to Scotland and run the Ben Nevis Mountain Race. And because they are some of ultra running’s classics; Arkansas Traveller 100 Miler, Strolling Jim and Ice Age 50 Miler.
CK: Ben Nevis looks good, it appears to be sold out at least seven months ahead.
IT: I know. So some pre-planning would have to occur on my part. It’s just hard for me to commit to a race that far in advance. I love day of race entry! But this also says a lot about that race…it’s gotta be a good one if it sells out so fast!
CK: Arkansas Traveller 100 looks rather rustic, is that the attraction or Jimmy the Running Man story?
IT: To be honest Chris, I had no idea what you were talking about (i.e. Jimmy the Running Man story), so I just looked it up on the AT100 website. Arkansas Traveller has been around for awhile…20 years! I’d consider it a classic now. Yes, it is rustic but that’s one of the attractions, I suppose. Just a different ultra in a different part of the country; unique to me and a well organized event.
CK: For ultra-runners, is running the same very long event repeatedly, mentally a tough thing to do?
IT: I think it depends on the runner’s goals. It’s tough to always be competitive at those 50 mile and 100 mile distances. The training needed for high performance levels are tough to maintain all the time. Typically, you see a top ultra-runner have four or five awesome years, then fade for a while. If they do truly love the sport, they’ll arise again, but maybe in a different age category or at a new, different distance of ultra. Its rare to see an ultra-runner on top all the time for constant years.
BUT…You have to keep in mind that many ultra events are unique and completely different than the next. The terrain, locality, and time of year make the races so. For example; compare Rocky Raccoon 100 Miler and the Hardrock 100 Miler. RR100 is in February in Texas; you run 20-mile loops on relatively sane, flat ground and it may rain. Hardrock is in July in Colorado. You run over 12 mountain passes of over 12,000 feet and summit a 14’er, you cross snow fields and have to worry about afternoon thunderstorms. The skills and training needed for each race are so different it keeps it interesting and fun…burn-out is less likely.
CK: Are you staying in Colorado or moving to Flagstaff, AZ?
IT: I actually moved to Flagstaff as the count down for the New Year was unfolding. I moved here from Ashland, OR where I helped manage Rogue Valley Runners (Hal Koerner’s speciality running shoe store). Actually, before Oregon I was living here in Flag. I’ve spent a lot of time in Flag and know it well. My kind of town…
CK: So you do the bagel run, Lady 80’s with the other area runners?
IT: Bagel Run? Heck ya! I’ve done four or five times since I’ve been back. It’s cool to rub elbows with the best! It’s my tempo day. If I opt to keep up with the fast guys I am worked by the end of the run. Builds character!
Ladies 80’s? I went there like three weeks ago. Insanity…the only way to tolerate it is to be heavily buzzed before walking in. Truly a zoo! I had a good time.
CK: So Gotcher apparently is the town madman at Lady’s?
IT: That’s what I’ve heard. I’ve actually never seen him in action there, but I hear its a thing to behold.
CK: What is your poison of choice?
IT: New Belgium, Stone Brewing, and I have a special place in my heart for the Blackbird Porter from Flagstaff Brewing Company. There’s nothing wrong with PBR either.
Back to running talk
CK: For a 100 km or 100 miler, typically how long is a long training run?
IT: Typically runners training for 100-milers will enter a series of smaller ultras in the months leading up to the big race. For example, in Northern California, a popular trend for a runner living there and training for Western States 100 Mile might look like: Way Too Cool 50K in March, American River 50 Mile in April and MiWok 100K in May…then in June they tackle Western. So, in essence, your using one race to train for the next. Easier mentally and logistically. Early in the season or between these races, even the most serious runners won’t run farther than 30 miles on any single training run. One way to reproduce the fatigue encountered in these longer races is to run two long runs back to back; say 26 miles on Saturday and 20 miles on Sunday. Keep in mind that most of these miles are over race terrain specific…so, on trails.
CK: How many gigs of music is a 100mile race?
IT: I ran one 100-miler with an iPod. I had to hand it off to my crew at 62 miles and pick it back up at 80 for recharging. But, my pacer got pissed I was wearing it, so since then I haven’t raced with one. I actually don’t run too often with headphones even now in training. I have a dog that runs with me now and she deserves my full attention.
CK: Have you experienced the pleasure of hallucinating in an ultra yet?
IT: Not really. Though I have gotten so sugar starved that I’ve almost lost my vision. I was lucky, the last miles of that ultra were on road, so I just followed the stripe on the side of the road at my feet to the finish. A can of soda at the finish line cleared that issue up.
CK: I know for ultras fueling and hydration are highly important and vital. Saying that, do you practice letting the body do the glycogen sparing thing?
IT: Sure do. Depletion runs are just as important in ultras as they are for marathons. Preps the body for more efficient fuel burning and mentally readies the mind for some difficult miles.
CK: I assume in the US, your standard USATF or sanctioned running coaching certifications do not cover ultra run specific material – if this is so, any changes coming in the future as the popularity of ultra is increasing.
IT: Good question, I don’t know. It certainly should. There are USATF Ultra Championships; the coaching should follow suit.
CK: McMillanElite recruits post collegiate athletes as we know. As part of McMillanElite providing distance coaching, are you recruiting specific level of athletes?
IT: I’m not part of McMillan Elite (the non-profit); that’s Greg’s Team. I work for Greg under McMillan Running (the on-line coaching, or for-profit part). I enjoy coaching all levels. Sometimes you get the most satisfaction by coaching a new runner; someone who hasn’t learned bad habits and has the most potential for improvement. And, I believe, it to be a true challenge to coach an elite “ultra-runner.” They’re already at a high level, so the list of variables and tweaks for improvement are more challenging to find and exploit.
CK: Have you had a chance to coach both high level and new ultra-runners?
IT: Currently I am training ultra-runners who are looking to improve on last years results, and have only a year or two of ultra-running under their belt. I hope I get the chance to work with the whole gamut soon!
CK: Are you coaching any other forms of running, such as Mountain or Fell running?
IT: Not yet, but the interest is there. Like ultra-running, USA Mountain Running is another entity growing in numbers and popularity.
CK: You mentioned ultra-runners often end up running with a shuffle. Do you engage the athlete in hill work or speed sessions to keep the lower leg strong and the stride open?
IT: Yes. Hills, strides, interval sessions (fartlek and some track work). This not only keeps them strong, efficient and less-injury prone, but it keeps the training exciting and refreshing.
CK: Over-asked question here for more standard distances, but what does weekly volume get to when training for a 100 miler?
IT: Again, it depends on the person. I think its safe to say that one can finish a 100-miler running on a consistent diet of 60 to 70 mile weeks. But I do know a guy or two who run 140-160+ mile weeks in preparation. Personally, I get my fix between 100-110. It simply comes down to how much time you have, how injury prone you are and what your priorities in life are.
CK: Apart from some distant-specific coaching and advice, what is it that you bring to the table for ultra runners that a marathon coach, such as Greg McMillan already provides?
IT: Simply a link. I think many folks know who I am in the ultra-world. I have run many of the large ultra-events and have experience with many courses and situations that would arise on those courses and at those distances. Greg gets many requests for ultra-coaching, but has turned most of them away up to this point. He just has never felt comfortable assisting an athlete in an event he’s unfamiliar with. Ultra-running coaches are out there, but each has a different take on what works. I suggest that we take what works, Greg McMillan’s marathon training plans, experience and knowledge, and tweak them for ultra-running distances.
I think most ultra-runners are out there running without guidance, and I think many of them want that guidance. They want to know what they are doing is right. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut in ultras…you just end up running one after another become slow and over-trained. Muscle systems get lazy and one develops the ultra-running shuffle. Using Greg’s model, I know there are proven improvements we can easily make in any ultra-runner’s training to make it healthier and more fun.