Uli started his running career as a teenager in the Bavarian city of Erlenbach, Germany, with top finishes at junior cross country meets (5th place German junior championships, 113th World junior XC championships) and a win at the junior's race of the Mountain Running World Trophy in Zermatt, Switzerland, all in 1991. All this led to a full tuition track scholarship at the (NCAA DI) University of Portland. In the fall of 1992, 2 months before leaving for Portland, he entered his first marathon in Frankfurt (2:25:14). At UP, he was a 6-time NCAA qualifier (12th, 9th and 10th in the 10,000m and 49th, 35th and 16th in cross country). After collegiate competition he continued to run track and cross, but also ventured into marathons, including a 2:17:21 at the Portland Marathon, a course record that still stands. His track and road PRs are as follows:
800m 1:56:03 (1994)
1500m 3:49.61 (1994)
mile 4:12 (indoor, '94 or '95)
3000m 8:03.02 (1998)
5000m 14:04.81 (1995 & 1998)
10000m 28:50.14 (2000)
1/2 mara 65:58 (2005)
marathon 2:13:56 (2000)
As fast as Uli was on the track and roads, few could have predicted the impact he would soon have on the ultra community. Course records fell regularly as he won the Chuckanut 50k in 2002 (3:57, CR) and 2005 (3:43, CR), 2003 Way Too Cool 50k (3:19, CR), White River 50m National Championship 2003 (6:37, CR) and 2004 (6:32, CR), Sunmart 50k 2004 (3:11, CR) and 2005 (3:07:47, CR), 2006 American River 50m (5:58), and the 2007 North Face Seattle 50m (8:17, CR). If you find yourself in an ultra with Uli, you are likely racing for 2nd (unless your name is Matt Carpenter).
Uli recently added $10k to his bank account by winning the 2007 North Face Endurance Challenge San Francisco 50-mile, the largest purse in ultramarathon in the US. I caught up with him over e-mail to find out about the race and his plans for 2008.
Scott: First, congratulations on your finish at the Endurance Challenge! I read your write up, and it sounds like your course preparation paid off. Can you summarize how the race went for you?
Uli: The very short version is that the first 18 miles were comfortable, the next 26 miles were a hard-fought dual between Matt and I, and the last 6 miles were still physically hard but mentally easy as Matt had dropped back with quad issues. I did travel to San Francisco to preview the course 2 1/2 weeks earlier, and it really paid off as some sections were not well marked and / or some markers were (re-)moved intentionally by someone.
Scott: I understand that Scott Jurek played a part in getting you into ultras. How did that come about?
Uli: In 2000, Scott Jurek won his first of 7 WS 100 titles, and a feature article in Northwest Runner about Scott talked about how he would run up Mt Si three times in a single run, faster than anyone else could do it. No way, I thought! I ran up to the Seattle Running Company where Scott worked at the time and 2 weeks later we were doing a "double Granite Mountain" - for a total of 16 miles and 8000ft of climbing (and descending). I was going to "show this ultra guy what real speed is" and he was going to "show this road runner that speed doesn't mean anything in the mountains". On the second climb I pulled away by about a minute from Scott, and on the last mile of the decent he pulled about a minute away from me. So we both came away from this run with mutual respect for each other and many long training runs together followed.
Scott: I had read that you went to Kenya this year for training in the marathon distance, as part of an intense focus on running and away from your teaching career. Can you tell us a bit about that?
Uli: I did teach 2 years of HS chemistry at Edmonds-Woodway HS from 2004-2006. However, this took so much time that my training was reduced to that of a weekend warrior. I had to make a choice: Do I want to focus on my career or continue to run at an elite level? The decision was aided by 2 things:
My wife Trisha got hired as the head XC and track coach at Seattle University (and a decent jump in salary compared to her previous job), and the fact that my HS principal was a jerk.
My kick-ass wife told me that she though there were a lot more things I could accomplish in the running world, and that years from now I might look back and wonder "What if?" if I decide to quit competitive running.
So we made the decision that I would do three things:
2) help her with coaching, recruiting, travel planing, paperwork, etc
3) substitute teach when it works with #1 and #2
Going to Kenya was part of that. Stephen Kiprotich, who we met at the Vancouver Marathon 2005, had invited us to visit him in Kenya. So in December of 2006 we did. For most of the time we stayed at a training camp in Kaptagat, about 20 miles from Eldoret, at 8000 ft. It wasn't one of those training camps for western runners but one where usually only Kenyans train. No running water, no internet, no laundery, no electric stove. And almost every evening ugali for dinner. Kenyans ALWAYS start out easy on every run. When they run easy, they run really slow, like 8:00 - 10:00 minute / mile pace. When they run fast I wasn't able to stay with them for very long. It was a great cultural experience and we also came back in much better shape. We'll probably go back next year.
Scott: It sounds like you are focused primarily on the marathon, but are still throwing in ultra distances. How does your preparation change when focusing on an ultra?
Uli: For me, the training isn't that much different. I have done 40 mile pavement runs as part of my marathon training before, as well as 5 - 7 hour runs with Scott on the trails. In preparation for the Northface 50 miler I did _more_ long runs and less speedwork than what I would do for a marathon.
Scott: Your Web page generously shares your workout logs for the last few years. My first take after glancing through it was there was a substantial amount of long, aerobic-paced runs. Would you consider these the most important part of your training?
Uli: When I'm training for a marathon I usually do one speedwork (5x mile or 20 x 400 or 8 x 1000), one tempo run (e.g. 15 miles at 5:12 pace), and one long run (2:00 - 3:00 hours) per week. Mileage is certainly important, but it's not everything. On the other hand, too much speedwork makes you tired for the race.
Scott: How many marathons have you run?
Uli: 30 - 35. 13 of them under 2:20. Portland, Pyongyang, Vancouver (4x), Berlin (2x), Toronto, Austin, NYC, Boston, Duesseldorf.
Scott: I once read that you eat "real food" on the longer ultras, like hazelnut strudel. Can you tell us a bit about how you hydrate and eat, both for marathons and ultras?
Uli: Unfortunately, the German bakery that made the hazelnut strudel went out of business. Guess I didn't eat enough! :) On training runs I can eat almost anything. Sometimes I eat a 1200 calorie granola muesli 30 min before the run, and salami & cream-cheese bagels on the run. On "shorter" runs I usually go with one or 2 Carbooms. At the Northface 50 race I ate about 7 or 8 Carbooms, 3 home-made muffins and drank about 2/3 strength Gatorade. In marathons I usually eat one or 2 Carbooms and drink 2/3 strength Gatorade. The amount really depends on the weather.
Scott: Your wife, Trisha, is also an accomplished runner (they respectively won the Men's and Women's Overall at the Seattle Marathon in 2006). What's it like having two elite runners in the same household? Any chance she will be joining you in ultras?
Uli: Actually, Trish has run 3 ultras already. She finished second to Nikki Kimball at the 2003 White River 50 in her first 50-mile race, followed by a second place and a win at the Chuckanut 50k. However, to me her most impressive ultra performance came on a 7 hour training run with Scott and me. I had gone on a few long runs with Scott earlier in the spring when Trish said she wanted to come as well. I was a little skeptical as she had not done anything longer than 3 hours all year. We did a Cougar - Squak - Tiger - Squak - Cougar combination with about 8000ft of climbing at a decent pace. When Scott dropped it to close to 6:00 min pace on the last, flat mile Trish just stubbornly hung on all the way to the end.
Right now Trish has other running priorities than ultras. But she'll run another one eventually.
Scott: I recently signed up for the Way Too Cool 50k and saw your 3:18 course record - I thought it had to be a misprint! Would you consider that your strongest ultra performance?
Uli: No, the 3:18:17 is not a misprint. I was in very good shape then, the trail was in superb shape after 3 weeks with no rain, the weather was great. I wanted to break the record (which I thought was necessary to win given Dave Mackey was running) and I didn't know the course. It turned out that the course was shorter than I anticipated, so I broke the record by a large margin (13 min). Especially the last "1.7" miles (including the rather significant climb after Hwy 49 crossing) in 9:00 minutes? I don't think so. Even if Greg (Soderlund) doesn't want to hear it, Way Too Cool is short. Maybe a mile or two.
I did beat Mackey by 18 and Scott Jurek by 23 minutes that day. I recall Ian Torrence arguing with some guys from Colorado about the pre-race predictions. The Colorado folks were telling him that they think Dave Mackey would win. Ian said something like: "I've run with Uli. He's here. He's running. End of discussion." I myself didn't have that much confidence in me, but I also never raced against Mackey before, and Ian had.
Scott: What inspires you to run and train?
Uli: I love running - most of the time. I don't always love training, though. But I know the next race will come and the competition doesn't rest. So I guess the competitive part of me is what keeps me going every day. Running on the Wonderland trail near Mt. Rainier in the summer is something that inspires me.
Scott: What motivates you to race?
There are 3 primary reasons:
1) for time: to see how fast I can run
2) for place: in order to win or finsh as high as I can
3) for money: part of the reason Trish supported me quitting my full-time job was because I would likely win prize money in some races, partly offsetting the loss of income form quitting my full-time job.
A lot of the time it's a combination of the 3 reasons. e.g. at the Northface 50 both Matt and I (and presumably a few others) decided to run because there was $10,000 on the line. That, in turn, brought the level of competition to a whole new level. The finish time was secondary, though in the end I pushed it to stay under 7:00 hours. Reasons 1 and 2 would be enough for me to race, but prize money makes it possible for me to afford to travel to far-away races and run against really good competition. e.g. I ran Chuckanut 50 3 times, and there is no prize money. But I wouldn't have flown to Sunmart (Tx) if they had no prize money.
Scott: What do you enjoy the most about trail running and ultras?
Uli: The scenery is different at each one. White River and the Northface San Francisco are probably the most beautiful courses I've run on. Sunmart probably was the least scenic course. But I like the variety. What has been great at every ultra are the people. The runners, the volunteers, the spectators. 99% of ultra runners are just genuinely nice people.
Scott: Do you think we will see you in the 100-mile distance sometime soon?
Uli: No. But I'm not ruling it out sometime in the future.
Scott: What are your plans for 2008 and 2009? Will we see you tackling more ultras?
Uli: That all depends on how my spring marathon goes. If I do run under 2:13, which I think is rather unlikely, then I'll run another marathon in Beijing in August. If not, there is a good chance I'll run another ultra that summer. I any case, there is a good chance I'll run the Northface race again in December. In 2009 the IAAF world championships are in Berlin, and I definitely want to make the German team again in the marathon. I mean, how much better can it get than representing your native country "at home"? I used the quotation marks since I now consider the US more "home" than Germany. I'm a permanent resident here, I'm married here, and I've been here continously (except for visits) since 1993.
Best of luck with your training, Uli, and thank you for the interview! - SD