Amazing Racer

Ultramarathoner Helen Lavin makes the most grueling endurance sport look easy

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.”
 

 

Indeed, it’s Lavin’s internal fortitude that’s most frequently invoked by fellow runners. “She’s really, really mentally tough,” says Andy Holak, who directed last year’s Voyageur Ultramarathon and runs Adventure Running Company with his wife, Kim, one of Lavin’s top competitors. “She has an ability to push herself just a little beyond what a normal person is able to do,” adds Decker. “Everything changes at 50 miles, and you’ve got to have a different kind of mindset. Some people have it, some people don’t. Helen does.”

While her races inspire awe from fellow runners and bewilderment from nearly everyone else, her training is nothing short of mind boggling. During her most intense training, she might run 80 miles a week, supplementing her cardio work with swimming and biking, and adding hot yoga to prepare her for the 90-degree temperatures she must contend with on summer race days. Her weekend plans often include 10-hour trail runs with like-minded pals. “The goal is just to spend that kind of time on your feet,” she says. “It’s to train your body to know what that feels like.”

The sport requires an astonishing commitment, but because most of Lavin’s best friends are ultra runners, there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing. And because of the relatively small size of the ultra community, a competitor on the course is likely to be a close friend off of it. It’s not uncommon to spend the first 25 miles of a 50-mile race just chatting with other runners before getting down to business. “People want to do well, but we do just as much work trying to make sure that we all get through a race, too,” Lavin says.

The attrition rate is high for ultramarathons—sometimes half of those who start don’t make it to the finish line. And it’s not just that people get tired and give up. Because ultras are typically run on trails, which are much easier on an athlete’s body than pounding on pavement, there are other complications, says Holak. “You’ve got to be more athletic on trails, because you’ve got to dance around the rocks and roots,” he says. One wrong footstep can lead to a sprained ankle or a twisted knee.

Lavin admits that the kind of agility required to maneuver around obstacles has occasionally been her downfall, which she means in the literal sense. “I just lose my concentration for a minute, and that’s all it takes,” she says about her frequent tumbles. “People expect me to be dirty at the end of a race.” Last winter, while competing at the Hellgate 100k in Natural Bridge, Virginia, she stumbled face first onto the trail. She finished the race looking like a battered pugilist but took home the winner’s trophy nonetheless.

For all the time, heart, and effort that goes into an ultra victory, the races are anything but lucrative. The winner of the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon will take home $25,000. In February, when Lavin won the Psycho Wyco 50k in Kansas City, she took home $150. It is the only prize money she’s ever earned for racing, and it’s why she keeps her day job as a regulatory-affairs manager at Boston Scientific.

Sometimes it’s hard to see what attracts Lavin—and fellow competitors—to a sport that’s as obscure, physically demanding, and mentally taxing as ultramarathoning, but Lavin can’t understand why it’s not more popular. “When you’re on a trail in the middle of nowhere, you get to see the kind of gorgeous scenery that you’ll never see from a car,” she says. “And because you work so hard to train for races, you feel powerful when you can do something this big all by yourself.”

For Lavin, the stakes are high and getting higher. Unlike nearly any other sport, ultras offer tantalizing challenges in the form of gender parity—the longer the race, the closer the top men and women’s finish times get. (Men on the losing side of this equation call it, uncharitably, “getting chicked.”) Last August, at the devilishly hot Lean Horse 50-mile race in South Dakota, Lavin got her first taste of an overall victory. She didn’t just beat every competitor, male and female—she left them in the dust. Her winning time of 7 hours, 26 minutes bested the next closest runner by more than an hour. Though she downplays the victory, she does think about how she’ll fare against both top women and men whenever she enters a race.

In her short ultramarathon career, Lavin has racked up 12 victories and four course records. She’s fared well at races that attract national competition, including California’s Way Too Cool 50k (ninth place) and in the Miwok 100k (13th place). She also hopes to tackle some of the nation’s most competitive ultras in the coming years, including the Western States 100 in California and the Leadville 100 in Colorado.

In the meantime, she’s got a 26.2-mile lark to look forward to. When Lavin completes the Twin Cities Marathon, she’ll likely be among the top 200 finishers—no small feat for a race that attracts more than 3,000 female racers. But there’s no question that she could do even better—if only someone would move back the finish line.

Erin Peterson, a Minneapolis writer, co-wrote the feature “What It Feels Like” in the July issue of Minnesota Monthly.

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