Ultramarathoner Helen Lavin makes the most grueling endurance sport look easy
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For most of the 11,000 runners who step up to the starting line for the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon on October 3, the race represents the culmination of months—if not years—of hard work. For Helen Lavin, the race represents something else entirely: a training run.
For ultramarathoners like Lavin and the thousand-runner-strong community in Minnesota, a good race doesn’t end at 26.2 miles. It’s merely the point at which a run starts to get interesting. And there is perhaps no one in the state who has made that 30-, 50-, or even 100-mile journey as interesting as Helen Lavin. Lavin, who at 33 is a youngster in the ultramarathon community, has spent the past three years shattering course records, demolishing her competition—both women and men—and making a name for herself among the nation’s elite ultra runners.
Yes, we’ve got Joe Mauer, Lindsay Whalen, and Adrian Peterson. But Helen Lavin may be the most talented Minnesota athlete you’ve never heard of.
Lavin admits she had an inauspicious start. Growing up in Ireland, she played a few sports unenthusiastically and she didn’t hop on a treadmill for the first time until she graduated from college. “My whole goal that first year was to run three miles in 30 minutes,” she says. She hated every minute.
In 2002, she tried her first outdoor runs, and it was as though the world opened up. She moved up to 10ks, half marathons, and by 2004, a marathon. The farther she raced, the better she got. When she moved to Minneapolis for a job in 2005, she immediately joined a running group and began mulling the possibilities of even longer distances. In 2007, she tried her first ultramarathon, a 50k race in Moab, Utah. She hasn’t looked back since.
Where the marathon ends, the ultramarathon begins—anything longer than 26.2 miles qualifies. And while marathons and ultras are both endurance races, that’s where the similarities end. A typical marathon can attract thousands of runners; an ultra usually has fewer than 300. Run a marathon and you’ll likely have a runner who is just steps ahead to help you keep pace; in an ultra, the closest competitor might be a half hour away.
Lavin is built for the ultra: She’s got strong legs, a durable stomach, enormous mental fortitude, and relentless optimism—all requirements for races that can stretch from a few hours to more than 24. Just nine months after she ran her first ultramarathon, she posted a victory: a top finish at the Glacial Trail 50k in Greenbush, Wisconsin, in 4 hours, 45 minutes.
By 2008, Lavin was picking up speed. That year, she completed an impressive ultra trifecta: She won a 50k (Chippewa Moraine in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin), a 50-mile (Voyageur in Carlton, Minnesota), and a 100-mile race (Superior Sawtooth in Two Harbors, Minnesota). At Sawtooth, her first-ever 100-mile race, she finished in 26 hours, 49 minutes. She broke the women’s course record by nearly three hours. Other top ultra runners in Minnesota began to take notice.
The fact is that it’s easy for a great ultramarathoner to slip under the radar. Unlike football players or gymnasts, it’s not really possible to pick an ultra runner out of a crowd. Beyond a general athletic mien, they don’t look much different from the weekend warriors who clog the Chain of Lakes during the summer months. Perhaps the one thing that separates a top ultra runner from anyone else is not a specific physical attribute but a mental one, says Kurt Decker, a veteran ultra runner and store manager for Eden Prairie’s TC Running. “Ultras are about patience,” he says. “If you’re running 26 miles and you hit the wall at 20 miles, you can gut it out for six miles. But if you hit the wall at 20 miles in an ultra, you might have 30 miles left. Or 80. Mentally, you’ve got to find a way to keep going through those tough spots.”