Friday, April 22, 2005

Eighteen Ultra Wins In One Year - An Interview with William Emerson

There are few runners who can aspire to finish 18 ultras in their lifetime, let alone in the same year. But to win 18 ultras in one year?!? That's nothing short of super-human. And that's exactly what William Emerson of Portland, OR, did this year, winning 18 of 26 ultras in 2004 to set a new world record. Even with many of these races in the highly competitive Pacific Northwest ultra scene, this 40-year-old showed that he was in a class all by himself. The USATF agreed by naming him the 2004 USATF Masters Ultrarunner of the Year. I caught up with William on e-mail and asked him a few questions.

(William Emerson at the White River 50 miler, July, 2004 -
Photo courtesy of Glenn Tach, All Rights Reserved)

First, congratulations on an amazing year! That's quite a streak you have

1) I saw that you finished up the year by winning the Capital Peak 50k, Ron Herzog 50k, defending your title at the Quad Dipsea 28.4 miler and winning the Hunter S. Thompson 50k in San Francisco. What other races did you run in 2004 that comprised your record 18 wins?

The following list includes all 26 ultras run in 2004 plus four sub-ultra


1/1/04 CNW 5k Seattle, WA 4th 17min
1/3/04 Tiger Mt. Fat Ass 50k Issaqua, WA 1st 5hr 20min
1/10/04 Bridle Trails 50k Kirkland, WA 1st, set CR 3hr 44min
1/17/04 HURT 100k Honolulu, Hawaii 1st, CR 13hr 26min
1/24/04 Hilo to Volcano 50k Hilo, Hawaii 1st, Masters CR 3hr 58min
2/5/04 Lord Hill 33 Miler Washington 1st, CR 4hr 16min
2/19/04 Hagg Lake 50k Oregon 1st, MCR 3hr 52min
3/6/04 Dirty Duo 50k Vancouver, Canada 1st, CR 4hr 52min
3/13/04 Chuckanut 50k Bellingham, WA 1st, MCR 4hr 13min
3/20/04 Rucky Chucky 50k Forest Hill, CA 1st, MCR 4hr 26min
3/27/04 ARE-YOU-NUTS 8k Kirkland, WA 1st, CR 34min
4/4/04 Mt Si 50k North Bend, WA 1st, CR 3hr 27min
4/10/04 Diez Vista 50k Vancouver, Canada 1st, MCR 4hr 28min
4/17/04 Leona Divide 50m California 3rd, MCR 6hr 58min
5/12/04 McDonald Forest 50k Corvalis, OR 3rd, MCR 4hr 22min
6/19/04 WinterHawk 6hr Portland, OR 2nd, MCR 43.6 miles
7/10/04 Knee Knacker 30m Vancouver, Canada 2nd 5hr 16min
7/30/04 USATF 50m trail champs Green Water, WA Masters Nat Champ
8/14/04 Stormy 67k Vancouver, Canada 1st 4hr 26min
8/21/04 Wheres Waldo? 100k Oregon 4th, MCR 12hr 39min
9/11/04 McKenzie River 50k Oregon 3rd 4hr 1min
9/24/04 Lost Soul 100k Calgary, Canada 1st 13hr 16min
10/02/04 Capital Peak 50k Olympia, WA 1st, CR 4hr 33min
10/10/04 Rumble at the Ranch 15m Oregon 3rd 2hr 8min
10/30/04 Halloween Havoc 15m Oregon 1st 1hr 43min
11/6/05 Autumn Leaves 50k Champoeg, OR 1st 3hr 48 min
11/13/04 Ron Herzog 50k Granite Falls, WA 1st, MCR 3hr 52 min
11/27/04 Quad Dipsea San Francisco, CA 4hr 16 min
12/04/04 OTHTC High Desert 50k California 2nd 3hr 34min
12/11/04 Hunter S. Thompson 50k San Francisco, CA 1st 4hr 22min

2) That's amazing. How did you select what races and distances to run?

I primarily ran ultra trail races with four sub ultra races selected to round out my schedule. With so many races to chose from in my area, I entered races that were in the Pacific Northwest, California, and British Columbia, Canada primarily. I also ran two races in Hawaii. I had always wanted to visit Hawaii and the races were the catalyst to finally get me there.

3) Have you ever done 50-milers or 100-milers? If so, which ones?

I have run several "longer" ultras. My first ultra run ever was a 50 miler on road in Maine three weeks after finishing the Appalachian National Scenic Trail in 1996. I had not run much over the summer, but 2160 mile of hiking gave me a great fitness base. A few weeks after hiking the 2660 mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail in 1998, I completed my second ultra, the Sierra Nevada Double Marathon in California. I have run the Cascade Crest 100 miler in Washington State twice, finishing third and first. I completed three sub 24 hour silver buckle finishes at the Western States 100 in California. Although I have finished several other 50 milers and 100ks, the 50k distance is what I race most frequently.

4) What were some of the highlights/lowlights of the year? What were your favorite races? Which were the hardest?

The year went very well overall. I was able to win several close races which were highlights of my year. Bridle Trails 50k, Chuckanut 50k, Mt Si 50k and Ron Herzog 50k, Quad Dipsea and Hunter S. Thompson 50k were all decided by a minute or two time differential at the end of each race. In July, I won the USATF Masters National 50 Mile Trail Championships and went on to receive the USATF Masters Ultra Runner of the Year award at the end of 2004.

A lowlight was feeling the high race volume by the middle of the year. I still ran reasonably well between mid April and mid August, but I was lacking the zip that I had earlier and regained somewhat later in the year. I enjoyed most of the races that I ran in 2004, even though there
were a few low points along the way.

I have run the White River 50 miler the last five years and it continues to rank as one of my favorite races. The H.U.R.T. 100k in Hawaii and Quad Dipsea in California are also great events.

The Lost Soul 100k in Lethbridge, Alberta Canada was tough. I ran at course record pace for the first loop, however I lost steam on the second/final loop. With only about 6,000 feet of elevation gain and a high point of a little more that 2000 feet, the course appeared pedestrian from my pre-race research. However the ups and downs were STEEP! and the footing rough and challenging. I was reduced to walking both the ascents and descents on the second lap. Running the flats was all that I could muster. Further complications were provide courtesy of a local "Do Gooder" who was moving course markings to misdirect participants. A fellow Ultra runner confronted the guy and was told that organized events were not allowed in Canadian Provicial Parks, so therefore no event could be taking place. Evidently the dude was missing a few cards from his deck.

5) You raced some pretty fast ultra runners - did any of them threaten to break your streak? Who came closest?

Through out the year I competed against several top runners including Jim Kerby, Brandon Sybrowski, Mike Lynes, John Ticer, Dave Mora, Jorge Pacheco and Kevin Sawchuck. Some times things went my way, some times not. Different athletes peak at different times and for different races. Where we each were in our respective training impacted the outcome of our head-to-head races.

6) How long have you been running? And how long have you been doing ultras? How would you describe your passion for the ultra distance?

I have been active all my life. Running has been a core conditioning tool for various activities including team sports in school such assoccer and basketball, competitive rowing, cycling, hiking, canoe racing and long distance swimming. In addition to road and trail ultras, I have run several marathons including Boston, New York and Greece. During my senior year of college I ran on the cross country team as well.

I have been doing Ultra events since I was 16 years old. A friend and I paddled 44 miles in a canoe race in 1980. After several years of running marathons as well as participating in cycling and other activities, I directed my focus on swimming in the early 1990s. I swam 14 miles in
August 1991 in memory of my father, raising money for charity. While living in Maine, a local bike shop organized a one day ride across Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire billed as R.A.T.S. (Ride Across Three States). Five of us set out after midnight from Bangor, Maine and arrived in Burlington, Vermont at about 9:30 pm that evening. My odometer registered 300.4 miles; a one day triple century bike ride!

Multi-day and -week mountaineering trips are endurance challenges. During January 1995 I traveled to Argentina and climbed to the 23,000 foot summit of Aconcagua, the highest point in South America. In 1997 I climbed Europe's highest peak, 18,500 foot Mt. Elbrus in Russia. I summited Mt. McKinley (Denali) in 1999, reaching the highest point in North America at 21,320 feet.

Hiking has been an ultra endurance activity as well for me. In 1996 I hiked the 2,160 mile Appalachian National Scenic Trail. After a 10 month around-the-world trip in 1997/98 which included a month in Russia and two months trekking in Nepal, I set my sights on the 2,660 mile Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail. This thru-hike included many ultra distance days in succession over the summer of 1998. Then in May 1999, after almost three weeks on Mt McKinley in Alaska, I set out for the top from 14,000 feet - traveling many miles and gaining 7,000 feet of elevation to reach the summit that day. After returning home from Alaska a few days later, I took a month to finalize preparations for a 2,700 mile journey from Canada to Mexico along the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail , the least traveled of the three National Scenic Trails in the United States. Few attempt it, fewer finish it. Again, many ultra distance days were hiked to finish before winter snow storms in the Colorado high country signaled the end of the hiking season.

I ran a 50 mile ultra three weeks after finishing the Appalachian Trail in 1996 and a 52.4 mile race in the fall 1998, a few weeks after completing the Pacific Crest Trail. Although I considered running an ultra in the fall of 1999, I opted not to as the combination of climbing Denali in the
spring and Hiking from Canada to Mexico on the CDT over the summer left me feeling less than race ready. By spring of 2000 I was running with a group from the Seattle Running Company and gearing up for the White River 50 mile trail race in July. This race began my transition to ultra trail racing.

7) You had some amazing ~4:30 hour times for the 50k all year long. What is your PR for the 50k?

My 50k PR is 3 hours, 27 minutes (6:40 per mile) run at Mt Si in April 2004.

8) Clearly you have a day job/home life that allows travel. What do you do? Does everyone at work think you're crazy?

I worked at the Seattle Running Company for several years, before moving to Portland, Oregon in 2004. I have been focused on trail running since then. My co-workers at Seattle Running Company often participated in Ultras, so I felt right at home.

I would love to ask a few training questions if you don't mind.

1) There's often debate that the 50k can be run as a "long marathon" (run the whole way, and kick at the end) or a "short ultra" (even tempo with early walks). What's your take?

Most people will have a better experience AND finish time if they run an even tempo with early walks. The long marathon approach may net out a faster time, however it is far riskier. Eric Clifton, a top ultra runner over the last 20 years, frequently runs hard from the start. He often wins and sets course records, many of which still stand. Uli Steidl from Seattle runs both 50ks and 50 milers as long marathons and does not even takes walk breaks in hilly ultras. He is selective in his ultra racing and has set a course record in each of the six ultras that he has run over the last few years. My approach is to run steady, walk the hills (10,000 plus miles of hiking makes for a quick stride) and then increase my effort level as the race progresses. Not only has this approach worked well for me, but it also allows for a quicker recovery, which is especially important when racing frequently.

2) Some of your races are as little as a week apart, so clearly you have a good recovery strategy. Could you share some insight on what works best for you (how long to stop running, how do you start back up, diet, massage, etc.)?

In January 2004, I ran four ultras on successive weekends to start the year. Following a Saturday race, I would run an easy 10 mile recovery run on Sundays and then cross train on Mondays. A long trail run on Tuesdays was key to maintaining/building fitness and still have time to recover for another event the following weekend. Wednesdays consisted of a run and/or
cross training, followed by an easy run on Thursdays. Rounding out the week, I cross trained or took the day off on Fridays and entered another race on Saturdays (or ran a long training run if not participating in a race). After races and hard training sessions I used cold leg soaks, massage and chiropractic care to hasten recovery. I have been going to Dr. Dirk Farrell at Benchmark Chiropractic in Seattle since 2001, and to various massage practitioners as well.

3) How do you stay motivated to give it your all at the next ultra and the next ultra and the next...

Once the year was under way I realized that 2004 could be something special so I kept seeking out more races to enter. I was pursuing multiple racing goals through out the summer. I placed first overall in the Canadian Montrail BC Ultra Trail Series, second overall and first masters ultra runner in the Trail Runner Magazine International Trophy Series and won the USATF Masters 50 Mile Trail Championship at White River in July. Motivation is key; without it starting 30 races in one year, let alone finishing them all, would not be possible. Several of the races entered in 2004 were new to me; some I had run before. There was a good mix which kept things

4) Do you have any time to train at all, or is it just run/recover/run? If you do train, what sorts of training do you do (hills, speed work, etc.)? Any special considerations for being a "masters" racer?

I trained as well as raced a lot during the winter of 2004. By mid spring I scaled back some on both my training and racing. Most of the races served as training for the next event. By starting off conservatively and picking up the pace later in the race, the end of each event was a tempo run of sorts. A mix of rest, recovery runs and cross training between events served me well through out the year. Many of my training runs and races were on hilly trails. Speed work consisted mostly of mile repeats on the track when it fit my schedule and fast running at the end of races. 2004 was my first full year of racing as a "master" runner. Mark Richtman, a champion Ride and Tie competitor (two runners and one horse) and top three Western States 100 finisher at age 47, says that more rest and recovery is needed to be at your best as a masters athlete.

5) How about cross-training. Did you have any time for that?

I believe that cross-training is a very important tool. While it may not directly make you faster, diversifying your training limits your injury potential. If you are healthy, you can continue to train and race. So, yes I make the time for cross-training. What do people do when they are injured? They cross-train! Do it before you have to.

6) Can you share how you think about your race nutrition strategy? How many calories are you targeting per hour? Do you go all fluids, or do you eat too? What are your favorite snacks/drinks?

I shoot for about 300 calories per hour consisting of Clif shot gels and various sport drinks. Gordy Ainsley, the first to complete the Western States horse race on foot sans horse in 1974, showed me his drink of choice a few years ago on a 45 mile training run that we ran together. He mixed V8 juice, fruit juice and H2O in his bottles. There is a lot of sodium in the V8, lots of carbohydrate calories in the juice and lots of water in the H2O! ;-) This drink hits on all cylinders. Variations of Gordy's drink that work well for me include substituting maple syrup or honey for the fruit juice. I sometimes add protein powder as well. I also use various other sport drinks sold at retail.

7) Any other tips you would like to share with folks targeting their first 50k?

Be prepared; try out all of you gear ahead of time and plan for the unexpected - it might be hotter or colder that normal. Talk to people who have run the race before for specific pointers on how the race is organized and the layout of the course. In the fall 2000 I ran a 50k trail race that required everyone to check in just before the start so that race management would have an accurate count of runners on the course. Two people did not fufill this requirement and were excluded from the final results. Ask questions so that you are clear how things work at a particular event. Make sure that you enjoy yourself; ultras can be fun if you can get past the
suffering! :-)

8) What have you seen change in ultra running over the past few years? What do you think is coming next?

Ultra running is growing in popularity. Over the last several years races such as the Way Too Cool 50k in California have gone from days to hours to minutes elapsed before filling its entry quota. In the late 1990s, Montrail and Scott McCoubrey (now owner of the Seattle Running Company) put together a very successful trail running team that continues to sponsor many top
runners. More recently, companies such as The North Face, Vasque and Nike ACG have assembled ultra running teams. Various other running shoe and hiking boot companies are designing and marketing footwear for trail running as well. Look for the soon to be released "Nontrail" 100k road running shoe from a prominent player in the industry. ;-)

9) Aside from a long nap, what's next for you? Are you doing a full ultra schedule again next year?

Naps are great after a long trail run or interview....yawn...stretch...yawn... What was that last question again???zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

A great interview, William. Thanks for sharing with everyone! I hope to see you out on the trails soon.

- SD


  1. Great interview!!! Where do you find these guys? Emerson's record is amazing, and he did on some pretty tough courses.

    - Charlie1

  2. V8 during the race? Now that's disgusting. ;oP - Seed

  3. Thanks for the kudos, Chuck. In all honesty, I think the interviewees should get a lot of the credit for these interviews. Since I'm a free blog instead of a magazine, we don't have to worry about space and the runners can tell more of their own story.

    That being said, I do have a "creative commons" copyright, which means any magazine could reprint this article at no cost as long as they don't modify the content and cite me as the source. So they can pick it up anytime.

    I'm open to suggestions if there is more you would like to hear/see about trail running. I appreciate the feedback.

    - SD

  4. Scott
    I found your site from, who reprinted the Dean Karnazes article and linked to you, so your copyright is working.

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. Speaking of would have been nice if you would have asked permission to use my photo of William and gave me credit. Simple courtesy.

    Otherwise, excellent writing and great topics!


  7. You're right, Glenn, that was my bad. I added the credit and a link back to your site - let me know if you prefer that I not use your images.



  8. Emerson got 2nd at the 2005 USA 50-mile Championships...

  9. Looks like Emerson won the USATF 50k Trail Championships masters division too (placing third overall in 4:03). He's amazing!



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