“Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet … you had to love running, or you wouldn’t live to love anything else.”
— Christopher MacDougall, “Born to Run”
An understatement as big as the Italian Alps: Will Thomas is in it for the long run … a long, long, long, long steep run.
The 41-year-old Sequim resident left a real estate development career in Seattle to split time between promoting his wife Jennifer’s burgeoning music career and being a stay-at-home dad to their three young sons.
The move allowed Thomas some time to pursue one of his passions: trail running. The professional-turned-stay-home-dad laces his shoes up for some of the most punishing trail races conceivable, taking him to both literal and figurative great heights.
That pursuit has taken him across the nation and the world, in extremes from long distances of 100 miles or more, to daunting weather of 40-below and well over 100 degrees, to great altitudes — including a 200-mile sojourn through the Italian Alps in September.
“Being in the mountains … that’s what I enjoy,” says Thomas.
“When you get into these 100-mile, multi-day races … physical isn’t everything,” he says. “You have to push hard (but) it’s more than physical.”
Eschewing the ligament- and soft-tissue-pounding pavement, Thomas slakes his running thirst on the undulating, earthen trails in the foothills and peaks of the Pacific Northwest’s Cascade and Olympic Mountain ranges.
Since his first “ultra” — a race that goes beyond that standard 26.2-mile marathon distance — Thomas estimates he’s racked up about 50 ultras, including the Tor Des Geants 200-plus mile race in Italy.
On tour with Jennifer, a classical crossover pianist and composer who completed her first major tour in August, Thomas said he got very little time to train for the Tor X (so named for the event’s 10th anniversary race).
“It was just a huge challenge — it’s the biggest race I’ve ever done with the least amount of training,” he said.
At the outset, Thomas said he gave himself a 20-percent chance of finishing.
From road racing to hill climbing
Sometime in his 20s, after seeing a half-marathon on television, Thomas said a seed got planted: I want to do that some day.
An athlete in high school, he was well versed in football and basketball. Once he got to college and realized he’d be too small to compete in those sports, he took up running.
At the outset, it was a run here and there, once or twice a week. In the early 2000s, with just a few smaller road races under his belt, Thomas geared up for the Portland (Oregon) Marathon. His longest training run at the time (2001) was about 15 miles and he figured he’d target about four hours.
He finished in just under 4:21.
The next year, still eyeing the four-hour mark, he cut about eight-and-a-half minutes. The next year, another minute. Finally, in 2004, he crossed the line in 3:57.
“I said, ‘OK, I’m done with marathons’,” Thomas recalls. “Since then, I haven’t gone back to the road.
“I found trail running.”
After moving to the Seattle, he found he enjoyed doing a lot of backpacking in the Columbia River Gorge and the Cascades but that his work week wasn’t conducive to long wilderness journeys. Friends wanted to do 50-mile trips into the backcountry, but he only had a short weekend.
The solution? Run. Run long. And do the 50 miles in a day.
There, in the woods Thomas found something that changed his life: “There’s a whole running world beyond the marathon.”
Well before the running craze of the 1970s and 80s put the marathon on millions of Americans’ bucket lists, athletes have been looking to go further than 26.2 miles and into what’s called “ultra” runs.
Those runs generally fall into somewhat standard race lengths — 50- or 100-kilometer or 50- and 100-mile runs are common — while other ultras look to test the limits of human physicality, from extreme temperatures, to timed events (such as 24-hour runs) and beyond.
Thomas’ first ultra was about 12 years ago on Squak Mountain, nestled between Tiger Mountain and Cougar Mountain just south of Issaquah.
Says Thomas: “I remember showing up, thinking, ‘It’ll be like a big city marathon.’”
Instead of legions of folks clapping and handing out water like the big city road races, there were aid stations spread miles and miles apart.
“I remember saying, ‘Never again.’”
But something about ultra running got in Thomas that he couldn’t shake, and since then he’s hit trails time and again in ultras of varying distances, climates and elevation gains.
Ultra running has taken him through extreme heat — including the Badlands, a 135-mile run through Death Valley that some consider the most difficult footrace in the world — and extreme cold, such as the Susitna 100-mile race in Alaska where temperatures hit 40-below, Thomas said.
“I’m not fast — I don’t have that (gear) — but I can go for a long time,” he says. “I noticed I didn’t have to push physically as hard.”
In marathons runners experience highs and lows, he says, but in ultras, “they get higher and lower.”
On some race days he’d watch the sun come up, then set, then come up again, all the while pounding the trail.
“And you’re still in the mountains … it’s a really cool experience,” Thomas says.
“I started here,” he says, his hands together, then broadening, “and now I’m here, and it was all my own power. It’s cool to see what the body’s capable of.”
At home on the peninsula
Thomas now takes to hills of Olympic National Park, where among its nearly one million acres one may find him chugging up a marked — or entirely unmarked — trail to one of the nearly 500 summits in the Olympic Mountains (he’s tallied about 150 so far, Thomas says).
Most of the time he runs solo, always with a satellite-connected messenger device to let family know where he is and how he’s doing.
“Seeing new terrain is always great — I love to explore,” Thomas said.
It’s a region he and Jennifer found and agreed to move to a few years back. Having driven the length of the West Coast from San Diego back to Sequim, a place they’d vacationed several times, the choice was clear: “It has her ocean; it has my mountains.”
And plenty to do for their three sons, Preston, Riley and Taylor. While Thomas says he hasn’t pushed them to take up long-distance running, they will come with him for short jaunts around the neighborhood.
He works training and races in between his day job: marketing, advertising and bookkeeping for Jennifer, now a world-traveling musician.
“I feel bad; they don’t have normal parents,” Thomas said, laughing.
“I get to be a dad. She has the (music) talent. (We’re) complete opposites, but it works out great. I get to be a dad.”
Thomas said he hopes his boys learn something from his trail running efforts, in the vein of setting goals and working hard.
Running the Italian Alps
With a goal of simply finishing in mind, Thomas took part in the Tor Des Geants in Aosta Valley, Italy, an ultra touted as a 330-kilometer race that must be completed in less than 150 hours.
To keep ahead of a minimum time cutoff, he ran nearly non-stop for six days. He’d pass aid stations every five or 10 miles where “dozens and dozens of runners (were) just giving up.
“That’s so hard. (I thought), ‘I could just stop.’”
The elevation gain and loss totaled about 80,000 feet, Thomas said — the equivalent of racing up Hurricane Ridge (from sea level) about 15 times.
In the end, Thomas — who estimates he slept about six or seven hours total — joined a little more than half of the 1,000 Tor Des Geants entrants in completing the race; he crossed the line in 145 hours and 24 minutes.
“I got some great friends out of the experience,” he said.
The winner, for the curious, was a 50-year-old firefighter Oliviero Bosatelli, who clocked in at 72 hours, 37 minutes, while the top woman, Silvia Ainhoa Trigueros Garrote, won in a record 85 hours, 23 minutes.
Said Thomas: “My bucket list of races is getting smaller and smaller.”
This October Thomas is getting ready for the Big Backyard Ultra, a kind of popular — but quite exclusive — ultra set for Oct. 19 in Bell Buckle, Tenn. The concept to the race is simple: run the 4.17-mile course in under an hour. Then do it again. And again … until one runner remains.
Winners from similar races, about 70 or 75, along with some “wildcard” applicants are allowed to enter, he said.
“As long as you finish you’re in the tie for first place with everyone else, like an elimination race,” Thomas said. “It’s puts me on a level playing field with the top runners in the world.”
Last year’s winner, Johan Steene, went more than 67 hours and covered more than 280 miles.
Thomas got 30 hours — 125 miles — into last year’s Big Backyard race before a pain in his hip forced him out. He finished 15th.
Some years, he said, it’s the fast folks who win, and some years it’s the steadiest.
“It’s something even a lot of non-runners can relate to,” Thomas said.
If you say so.