Wednesday, September 20, 2006

An Interview with Jasper Halekas, 2006 TRT100 Winner

In his brief four years in the sport, Dr. Jasper Halekas has clocked some impressive times at races like the Headlands 50k, Miwok 100, American River 50, and more. He has successfully transferred his mountain climbing background into blistering off-road speed, and continues to get faster. In 2004, he won the Diablo 50 miler in a course record 8:59, despite the 100+ heat and 11,300’ vertical. In 2006, he placed 2nd at the Bear 100 and 7th at the Across The Years 24-hour run. But it was his 1st place finish at the inaugural 2006 Tahoe Rim Trail 100-miler (20:16) that sealed his fate as one of ultrarunning’s elite.

(On his way to a 2nd place overall at the 2006 Bear 100; photo courtesy of Jeff Hunter)

I caught up with Jasper over e-mail to see how he’s doing, and learn if his PhD in Planetary Physics from UC Berkeley gives him an edge in ultrarunning.

Thanks for the interview, Jasper.

First of all, thanks for having me on here. I read your blog on occasion, and always appreciate the opportunity to learn more about some of the other ultrarunners out there that I don't know so well. I don't live up to the star power of some of your other interviewees, but I'm honored to join that select group! Thanks for the flattering bio, too. Also, I want to congratulate you on the new addition to your family. Getting any sleep yet?

I’m getting some, but not much! Before I forget, congratulations on your win at TRT! You looked great when I saw you on the course, and your rivals never caught up. What led to your success?

Thanks! You looked great when I saw you too, and it sounds like you had a successful run in the 50m as well. As for my race, it was just one of those rare things where everything went perfectly.

I raced hard all spring, running Way Too Cool, AR50, Boston Marathon, and Miwok. Then I cut back on the racing and just trained hard for about 8 weeks before TRT. I never got hurt, and other than a bad case of poison oak from the Dipsea, never really had any setbacks in my training. I also ran the whole course in training, which was a big help on race day.

Then on race day, everything went perfectly. I ran the first 25 miles with Rod Bien, which was really pleasant. Rod's a great guy and fun to run with. We were surprised to find ourselves in the lead of a 100, but neither of us felt like we were pushing, and we just had a good time out there. After 25 miles I pulled ahead a bit, and I actually led the race alone from that point on. Not to say that I didn't get some scares - at mile 75 at the turnaround, I found to my dismay that Brian Robinson was very close behind me and looking strong. Brian is an incredible powerhiker, so for the rest of the race I was looking over my shoulder on all of the uphills, sure that he was about to catch me. Every time I saw the headlights of the safety patrol guy on his mountain bike, or caught a glimpse of the Moon, I was sure I was about to get passed. As it turns out, Brian had some troubles with his hydration and electrolytes, and finished a bit behind me. Watch out for that guy in his next few 100s, though. His presence behind me certainly motivated me to finish strong, I can tell you that.

Did anyone crew for you?

Actually, I went without crew or pacers at TRT, as I did at the Bear. I've found that I can do pretty well out there on my own. Not having crew means that I'm not tempted to waste time at aid stations, and not having a pacer means that I don't have anyone to whine too. I think the right pacer and crew can definitely be an advantage, and I probably will run with pacers and/or crew on occasion in the future, but not having them doesn't bother me too much.

At TRT, it was actually pretty nice even without a pacer, because you saw people so often on the out and backs. Every one out there was super friendly, and it was nice to always be exchanging pleasantries with other runners.

(Climbing at the White River 50; photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama)

With your win at TRT and 2
nd at Bear, I think you can officially consider yourself a 100-miler. Will you be doing more in the next year?

I do like the 100s. I think there are few things as rewarding as finishing a 100 mile run. If only it didn't take so long to recover from them... I certainly plan to run more, though, as long as my body holds together. I have a long list of 100 mile races that I'd like to try, but my top priorities are probably (in order) Hardrock, Western States, and Wasatch. I've paced at all three now, and really want to run them all. Hardrock especially is the king of 100 mile races to me - I just wish it wasn't so hard to get into.

How did you get started in ultrarunning? Were you always a runner?

Nope, I've only been a runner for a little longer than I've been an ultrarunner. I was a climber and skier when I was younger, and then I played ultimate frisbee for the University of Washington (in college) and U.C. Berkeley (grad school) club teams, as well as a couple of Bay Area club teams after I ran out of college eligibility.

My running can be blamed on a couple of my former ultimate teammates, though. Though I had never run more than ~5 miles before, they convinced me that it was a good idea to sign up for the 2003 Big Sur marathon. Before that, I always thought running was the horrible thing people did to train for other sports. Once I started marathon training, though, I was hooked. Before I even ran the marathon, I was researching these things called ultramarathons, and it pretty much seemed like an obvious path from there. I ran my first 50k that year at Skyline, then my first 50m at Firetrails, and then went on to the HURT 100m in 2004. That was a bit of an accident, actually. I lost a bet to my friend Ethan which committed me to running the HURT 100k.

At that race, you just register for the 100m, and if you finish 100k, you get credit. Unfortunately, the shirt says 100m on it - nothing about 100k, and it's a really nice Patagonia shirt. So when I got that shirt at the race check-in, I realized I needed to do the 100m, or I'd never be able to wear it. Hey, so I'm not that bright about some things...

(Cutting up the mud at the 2006 Way Too Cool)

What is it that you enjoy about the sport?

For me, this sport is all about pushing your limits, and finding out that you can do things that you never thought possible. That, and the endorphins.

You run for the Vasque Ultrarunning Team, yes? What’s that like?

Yes, I've been with the Vasque Ultrarunning Team for three years now, which has been a fantastic experience. Ethan gave me a shot when I was brand new in this sport, and had no business being on a sponsored racing team. I'm still one of the comparatively slow guys on the team, but I like to think that I've been able to justify my existence to some degree.

Running for Vasque has been really wonderful. From the start, it has been a true team, rather than just a group of sponsored runners. This is largely thanks to the efforts of Ethan in recruiting a bunch of people that are not just great runners, but also great people, and making sure that everyone on the team are treated as equals. We're all friends, and we help each other out at races whenever possible, train together when we're in the same area, and get together at least once a year as a team. I've paced or crewed for a half dozen Vasque runners (including Carol O'Hear last weekend at AC - Congrats, Carol!), and they've been there to help me out, too.

I see you have a PhD from UC Berkeley and research planetary physics. Do you have a special relationship with gravity that helps on your ultra runs? Do you study the auroras of mars during your night runs?

Nope, gravity hates me, just like everyone else! And you might think that I spend all my time thinking about abstruse physics questions when I'm running, but actually running is my time away from everything. I like to not think about that much at all when I'm running. Running is my therapy as well as my recreation.

Are there many ultra runners in your line of work?

There are a few. I know a couple of physicists that are ultrarunners, including the famous Blake Wood. Most of my co-workers just think I'm a little touched in the head, though.

Physics and ultrarunning do have one thing in common - it turns out that neither "Hi, I'm a rocket scientist" or "Hi, I'm an ultrarunner" is a good pickup line. ;)

Can I ask you a few training questions? What does a typical week look like for you (mileage, types of workouts, etc.)?

My comfort zone is about 50-60 miles a week. Then I'll ramp that up to 80-90 at most for a few weeks before a big event. I've tried to be a 100 mile a week guy, but my body just won't stand for it. My training is probably pretty typical - I try to do a tempo run or some kind of speedwork every week, and then a long run or two on the weekends. Right now, my speedwork consists of doing the Transports trail runs that Richie Boulet puts on every Wednesday, and trying to keep up with the fast guys there. I also run with a group of my friends from around the Bay Area every Wednesday night. I just got back from a great run around Lake Chabot tonight...

Do you cross-train, or mostly run?

I mostly cross-train when I'm injured or not really training for anything specific. I like to road bike, but I can't find the time to do it when I'm also running at full capacity. I find that I need a lot of rest when I'm doing more than 50-60 miles of running a week.

How many races do you do each year?

I've been averaging around 10 races a year, of which 5-6 are ultra distance, and the others shorter. To steal a line from a friend of mine, I want to be not just an ultrarunner, but a runner. I like to do some marathon and shorter races every year. For instance, this year I did Boston Marathon and the Dipsea, as well as a couple of the Pacific Coast Trail Runs events, which are the best organized and most fun trail runs around. Anyone who hasn't run one of Wendell and Sarah's events is missing out.

(Beating the heat at Mt. Diablo; photo courtesy of Ethan Veneklasen)

What’s your favorite thing to eat before, during, and after races?

Before races, I eat anything and everything, and lots of it. My diet is probably not the greatest, though it's not terrible. That's definitely a bonus of running for me - I don't feel bad about eating some junk food here and there. During races, I rely largely on gels and energy bars, but I also like cookies and PB&J, sometimes some fruit or candy. Right after races, I usually can't manage anything except soda. Once my stomach recovers a bit, though, my two vices are ice cream and beer.

Where do you find the motivation to train?

Motivation is never a big problem for me. I have a lot of things I still want to do in ultrarunning. I went on a blind date with a girl last year, and after about 20 minutes she said, "You're very goal-oriented, aren't you?". Do you think she meant that in a good way?? Anyway, I always want to do more races than my body can really handle. For me it's more a matter of trying to be smart and limiting myself to a training program that won't leave me injured.

What’s next for 2006? Any races targeted beyond that?

I'm running the Tsuneo Hasagawa Cup (a 71.5 km mountain race) in Japan in three weeks. After that, I'm thinking of doing Quad Dipsea. Then, next year I'm going to apply for Western States, Hardrock, and Wasatch, and hope I get into at least one of them.

Best of luck in Japan, and I hope to see you at the Quad Dipsea. Thanks for a great interview!

- SD


  1. Great interview. I saw Jasper at the HURT 100k and he was destined to become a 100-miler!

  2. TRT100 was TOUGH. I tip the hat to anyone who got it done.

    Good luck in Japan!


  3. I met Jasper at the TRT100 and he is really cool and supportive of the volunteers. He's a great representative for us in Japan.

    - Don

  4. Scott -

    I enjoyed your piece on Jasper Halekas; I'm a student at the University of Florida, working on a PhD in Mass Communication, and it was a great motivator to learn about Jasper's training schedule and goal-setting. I'm a Brooks ambassador transplanted from Ohio - tell Jasper to take a close look at the Mohican 100, that's one of my favorite events!

    Tom Mueller

  5. Excellent. I was a runner for twenty years, and this guy covers more ground in a one day race than I did in my high mileage weeks!

  6. How did you at the Hasagawa Cup? It was a great day for a fast time. Last year sucked!


  7. Hi Fitz,

    You're right, there were beautiful conditions for the Hasagawa Cup. Actually, I could have done with a little less heat and dehydration, but other than that... I can definitely recommend this race to anyone who loves extremely steep and technical but also very beautiful jungle trails.

    I placed 17th overall out of 2004 starters / 1515 finishers. I was very impressed by the many strong Japanese runners, and I really hope that more of us can make it over there to run and that some of them can come to the states and run some of our races.


  8. For those who didn't catch it, Jasper won the 2007 Silver State 50m, 2007 Diablo 50m, and the USATF/RRCA 100-mile National Championships at the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 this year (course record, 18:16).

  9. Note that has an interview with Jasper about his training plan building up to his win, which is now closer to a peak of 120 miles/week.



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