Ultra-Marathon Woman

Krissy Moehl, world-conquering trail runner, on a Friday evening in Santa Cruz.

By Odile Bouchard
Running is a sport anyone can partake in and enjoy. Some runners like to run alone; others with friends. Cross-country enthusiasts run up mountainsides and down ravines. A runner can stick to paved roads or explore forest and park trails. Rain or shine, you can run anytime.

Different types of runners prefer different styles of running. Marathons bring together all different styles of running and types of runner, stripped down to their bare minimum and ready to put their passion to the test. Krissy Moehl is one of these. Except she is not your average marathon runner, she is an ultra-marathoner.

Through the Hilltromper grapevine I heard that Moehl, a world-champion long-distance runner for the past 16 years, Patagonia Trail Running Ambassador, and now author of Running Your First Ultra, was making an appearance at the Patagonia Outlet in Santa Cruz. The event would start with a brisk three-mile run through downtown, ending at Patagonia, where snacks and beverages would accompany a presentation and book-signing by Moehl.

“Ultra-marathon.” Until last week I had no idea what that was. Is this just someone trying to legitimize a not-so-different-than marathon-style running with a fancy name? On Friday, after sunset, I laced up my jogging shoes and took off towards the Patagonia Outlet to find out.

Literally running late, I surprised two other joggers also on their way to the event. We grew into quite the unexpected crew as one and then another jogger popped out from obscure side roads. We showed up to a group of about 20 people—stretching, chatting, trying out the protein bars other complimentary gadgets Patagonia had to offer. I got my hands on one of the last bottle opener keychains, you never know when one of those could come in handy.

The group quickly grew to about 30 people, a mix of young partners, older couples with children, friends, and fellow solo attendees like myself. We were all given glow sticks in Patagonia’s efforts to avoid one of us being hit by a car and we took off.

I started off in the back of the group, jogging alongside a former Hash House Harrier. This, I learn, is a group of over 21-year-olds who meet up at a local bar every Thursday, rain or shine, to drink, socialize and jog. Apparently the 16-year-old Santa Cruz chapter is part of a larger, international club that was founded in Malaysia in 1938.

I didn’t know it was a dress-up event until I moved into the middle of the group alongside a young man dressed as Woody from Toy Story. A minute later a tall and thin, glasses-wearing and cane-bearing man dressed as Gandalf joined in alongside a woman wearing a fluffy pink tutu.

Up and down Pacific Avenue people were confused to see this eclectic group of individuals running at 6pm, while the bystanders were starting off their MLK weekend fun. Inching my way up to the front I almost tripped on a lumbersome four-legged mound of fluff pacing beside his owner. I also had the pleasure of officially exchanging names with the two mysterious nighttime joggers whom I unofficially came to the event with. One of them admitted she was trying to discreetly steal into the shadows to pee when I startled them. Oops!

I finally caught up to the head, lead by a Patagonia staff member. Krissy was keeping up the back end. Before I knew it we were back at the outlet.

While we were gone, the Patagonia crew had concocted quite the welcoming party with healthy snacks, sustainably caught wild sockeye salmon dip and local beer from Uncommon Brewers. Runners know how to exercise and enjoy good food and booze as well. Sometimes a victory meal is what spurs my runs in the first place! I predict that Patagonia will be much more jolly (and pocket-emptying) place to shop once the merged gastronomic forces of Uncommon Brewers and El Salsichero move in next door!

Star Power
After everyone was settled with hoppy thirst-quenchers and satisfied tummies, Moehl got up to speak, starting right off the bat by answering my question: What is an ultra-marathon?

“Ultra-trail running is anything longer than your typical marathon,” she said. For some runners that’s 50 kilometers—no small feat. For others including Moehl, who set course records in 2007 for both the HURT 100 in Hawaii and the Hardrock 100 in Colorado, an ultramarathon can stretch out to 100 miles and more.

“That’s what gets me going every morning,” she said, as a slideshow delivered colorful images and she shared emotional memories from her experiences as an ultra-distance runner, and one who chooses to wear a skirt or dress on the trails.

Krissy Moehl is a prime example of the idea that every runner is unique—be it in what they wear, eat, listen to, look at, and think about when they run.

At Patagonia, Krissy modestly admitted that she can inhale a couple greasy slices of pizza halfway through a race and scarf down a bowl of pasta in a few minutes 80 miles in. The fact that the pasta was made by Italians, and the checkpoint sat in front of the the breathtaking alpine backdrop that accompanied Moehl along the 103-mile marathon around the Mont Blanc massif. apparently made this even tastier. Listening to one of the world’s great trail runners admit such indulgence made me feel slightly better about the chow mein and Ben & Jerry’s I ate before the three-mile run that evening.

“The food that keeps you going depends on your body,” she said, explaining that it’s importatnt to test out different foods while training. And suggesting, I believe, that we want to be sure we can also keep them down. “You should get 200-400 calories in your system every hour along one of these races--staying hydrated and energized is important.”

However, health comes within and from outside. One thing that pushes Moehl through the most demanding and exhilarating moments in a race is the community around her. Running can be a solitary sport, and then not.

“One of the best parts of an ultra-marathon,” she says, “is the juxtaposition of being so remote and internal, and then, BAM!, you hit a checkpoint station and hands are all over you like a NASCAR pit crew.”

Krissy’s crew packs her with new water bottles, strips her out of the old and into a new shirt, gives her a slap on the bum and sends her off towards the finish line.

Three Golden Rules (and One Pro Tip)
As a fellow trail-runner, I had some of my own questions for Krissy.

A problem for me, a student who also works and is trapped at home by the El Nino storms, is not being able to run enough. What is the biggest struggle for someone whose career is running? Moehl admitted that writing her book was harder than she thought. “You can’t just sit there and expect the words to flow out of you, you have to learn how to stay put and concentrate.” It took her two years to finish.

Running, she said, is ”an immediate way to feel like you’ve achieved something on an everyday basis.” But too much can push you to the brink of injury. She recalled that training too hard, and not taking the time to enjoy life or see the morning sunrise before the Western States 100, saw her in a pathetic shuffle to the finish line.

“My body was failing me,” she says. Before she could pass out, the marathon director gave her a medal, saw her to the medical tent and called her an ambulance. Weeks passed before she could run again.

I was shocked and relieved to hear that running doesn’t have to be the injury-causing and therefore short-lived passion many people think it to be. Moehl has only had two injuries since she started serious long-distance running at 13 years old. (Pro tip: She suggests one-legged squats to keep the medial band strong and less prone to injury.)

Krissy Moehl has three golden rules that every different runner and style of running can adopt: Remember to smile. Make sure you and those around you are enjoying yourselves. Don’t hold back on being competitive. At the end of the day, it comes down to the runner and her drive that keeps her going the 100-plus miles. Krissy Moehl proved to me and the rest of her audience at the Patagonia Outlet that running can be more than just a passion, it can be a lifestyle and one that teaches you a lot about yourself.

Homepage photo: Andrew Burr / Patagonia