Running in a marathon is a tremendous accomplishment that requires dedication, training and perseverance. But, imagine completing the equivalent of almost four marathons at once—without stopping as you dash through the California wilderness.
At the end of June 2016, ultramarathon runner Maggie Guterl of West Chester, PA did just that. Guterl not only competed in the prestigious Western States Endurance Run, the world’s oldest 100.2 mile trail race, she placed 8th in the women’s category. Guterl shares with us about what it’s really like to run an “ultra,” what fuels her—literally and figuratively—and how she got the nickname “Maggatron.”
Lauren Jonik: Congratulations on doing so well in the Western States race—what a feat! What was the experience like?
Maggie Guterl: The first 20 or so miles were so scenic. You run through mountain streams and tall moss-covered trees. You start at 6,229 feet above sea level and run up to 8,713. The highest point is reached 4 miles into the race just after sunrise. From there, you are above or around 6,000 feet until you begin to really descend down into canyons after mile 29. The trails are dry and dusty. The canyons are known for their heat, although this year it wasn’t as bad as some past years. There are some long, steep uphills, but the total downhill is greater than the ascent so it can really destroy your quad muscles if you do not train properly. At mile 78, you reach the legendary American River crossing, also known as Rucky Chucky. Some years, the water is so high and the current so strong that you have to cross in a raft. This year, they had ropes for you to cross on foot. The ropes are lined with volunteers who stay in the water to help you cross. You wear a life jacket regardless of water depth. This year it was up to my waist and it was quite refreshing. At about 4 miles to the finish, you cross the iconic No Hands Bridge, which I did in the dark, but the fastest guys and some fast women get to cross in daylight. At the finish line, you enter a high school track, run half a lap and cross the finish in the stadium. Very epic!
LJ: You ran for over 20 hours, what goes through your mind during a race? How do you keep your stamina and energy strong? I was tracking your progress and noticed that you advanced your position the farther you had run— it was really incredible to watch.
MG: Running ultras is all about nutrition. Even mental lows can be caused by low blood sugar. Everyone is different, but I used a lot of gels, particularly Endurance Tap, which is just maple syrup, salt and ginger and Tailwind, an electrolyte drink with calories. What also worked were avocado sandwiches, peanut butter sandwiches, boiled potatoes with salt and my new favorite aid station treat: avocado rice balls! My thoughts during the race wander a lot early on, but become more focused later when I need to concentrate on pace and my position in regards to those ahead of me and behind me.
LJ: How do you train for an ultramarathon? Do you have any special rituals you do leading up to the race, like eating certain meals?
MG: I have a coach who has shown me how to improve beyond my wildest dreams. Her name is Michele Yates and she is a professional ultra-runner. She changed up my training from quantity to quality. There is always a big emphasis on strength training. For this race, we really focused on quad loading and running downhill since there is a huge amount of descent in this race. A few days out from the race, I begin to carb load but I ate a bit lighter the day of. I never have a big carb heavy meal the night before. The morning of is always oatmeal, peanut butter and banana for me.
LJ: What role does having a crew play during a race? Who was on your crew for Western States?
MG: Crew is essential. Although the aid stations at Western States are second to none, it is still very helpful to have a crew at the aid stations were you are allowed to have crews. It was important for me to be able to refill my pack with the gels and nutrition that I train with. They also help you with emergencies if you feel nauseous, need Tums, more Trail Toes (anti-chafing lube), or a change of clothes. I had a very large crew at this race. One crew was comprised of my boyfriend Ryan and my good friend Matt, Jeremy and Edward from Trail Racing Over Texas and the legendary ultra-runner Connie Gardner who would need her own article to list her accomplishments. The other crew was made up of my NATHAN co-workers, my two bosses, Greg and Brent, and our West Coast account manager Sablle. Connie and Ryan were my pacers. You are allowed to have one pacer join you after 62 miles and can switch out pacers at designated aid stations.
LJ: How do you recover physically from an ultramarathon?
MG: Ideally, you want to consume a bit of carbs and protein and rehydrate right after you are finished. Did I do that? No. I was too nauseous to try to consume anything and threw up after I finished showering at the hotel. During the first days after, I try to take an Epsom salt bath and get a massage. After 4 or 5 days, I resume easy running or biking. This time around, I waited a whole week before running again.
LJ: When and where did you run your first ultramarathon? How did you get into ultramarathons?
MG: My first ultra-marathon was a local 24 hour race in Philadelphia in July 2011, “The Back of My Feet 20in24.” You run as far as you can in 24 hours. In this case, it was an 8.4 mile loop around the Schuylkill River near the Philadelphia Art Museum. I made my goal 100 miles and made it 97. I made some huge nutrition mistakes due to my lack of experience. Like I said
before, nutrition is everything in ultrarunning. After getting so close to my goal, I knew I had to try it again next year and from there it just “snowballed.”
LJ: Is there a definition of an “ultramarathon” as far as distance or does it apply to any race that goes farther than the typical 26 mile marathon?
MG: Anything over 26.2 is an ultra. Most ultras start at the 50k distance and go up from there.
LJ: We often think of running as being a solitary sport, but it can be very communal too. How has your life been influenced being a part of a running community?
MG: The ultra community is unbelievably tight. It is not uncommon for ultrarunners who do not even know each other to donate to another runner who was badly injured and needs help with medical bills. I have met some of my closest friends solely because we connected on Facebook. Without ever meeting me first, they showed up at a race to crew or pace me. Each year I crew and pace for fellow runners just as many races as I run. I can feel awkward in social situations around lots of new people, but this is not the case when I am surrounded by other ultra runners. After most every ultra I have run, I’ve left with at least 1 or 2 more close friends. I now have friends all over the world just because of this sport.
LJ: How many states have you run marathons or ultramarathons in, so far?
MG: It is 32 states now with the completion of Western States in California. My goal of running a marathon in every state has been slowed a bit now that the states are a lot farther away. I also stopped running so many marathons, so I could focus on being more competitive at a select few ultras a year.
LJ: How did you get the nickname Maggatron?
MG: When I started running marathons in 2009, my friend Colleen coined the term. She felt I could run forever- like a machine. It stuck.
LJ: Which companies sponsor you and how has sponsorship helped you achieve your goals?
MG: I run for Trail Racing Over Texas, which has opened the door to so many amazing opportunities. They helped support my Western States dream, as well as produce a short film about my journey to Western States (which should be released sometime in September). Nathan, the company I work for, has also been unbelievable supportive. I ran in a new, not yet available racing vest called the VaporHowe. It is the best vest I have ever worn. Trail Toes has been another company that has shown me so much support. In addition, I am an ambassador for Altra (footwear), Feetures (socks), Bearded Bros (natural energy bar) and Tailwind. A shout out is due to Elevation Tat, Endurance Tap and Fuel 100 for helping me out with product for Western 3 States.
LJ: Do you have any favorite races that really stand out or that were extra memorable for some reason?
MG: Besides Western States, the 2015 24 Hour World Championships in Turin, Italy. Never, ever have I felt so horrible in a race and dug so deep for an end result I was very proud of. Although I didn’t quite reach the podium as an individual (I was fourth and missed a bronze medal by about 2 kilometers), I did help my team win a gold medal. The ladies team ran more miles combined than any team in the history of the competition. There was no greater accomplishment for me than standing with a gold medal around my neck as a member of Team USA.
LJ: What advice would you have for someone new to running who wants to seriously compete?
MG: It took me 3 or 4 years to find my groove in this sport. The beauty of ultrarunning is you don’t have to be the fastest, most genetically-gifted runner. You just need to have determination, passion and a desire to work very hard- and a little stubbornness couldn’t hurt. Just keep working at it and set realistic goals for yourself, as well as some slightly unrealistic ones just to see what happens.
LJ: What’s next on the horizon for Maggatron?
MG: Next is a stage race called Transrockies in August 2016. My teammate Katalin Nagy (The 2015 24 Hour Worlds Champion) and I will run through the mountains of Colorado for 6 days and cover 118 miles. Should be a piece of cake for two experienced 24 hour ultrarunners, right?
Lauren Jonik is a writer and photographer in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in 12th Street, The Manifest-Station, Two Cities Review, Artemis, The Oleander Review, Calliope, Bustle and Ravishly. She currently is at work on a memoir about coming of age with a chronic illness. Follow her on Twitter: @laurenjonik