Completing a 100-mile race is something most runners will never experience. In 2012, Jason Koop completed three 100 milers, and he would have nailed a fourth if not for a painful collision with a tree branch.
The director of coaching at Carmichael Training Systems, Koop, 33, admits that speed is not his strong suit, but he is fit for long runs on tough terrain. This year he finished the Wasatch 100 (11th, 23:36:25) in Utah, plus Colorado's Leadville 100 (25th, 22:17:45) and the brutal Hardrock 100 (14th, 30:20), some of the world's toughest foot races. And that was just the long stuff. He also knocked off two 50-mile events, two in the 30-mile range and a marathon to boot.
"I was really good at basketball but our team was a bunch of pranksters," he said. "So we had to do a lot of ‘punishment’ shuttle runs on the court because of our antics. I learned there that I was pretty good at this running stuff."
Koop and his wife, Liz, live near Cheyenne Cañon, where he spends about 12 hours a week plying the area's single track. He took some time to answer a few questions this week.
You attempted four 100-milers in 2012 and finished three of them. One is more than enough for most runners. What led you to do four?
It’s basically which ones I get into. Most of the 100s I like to do use a lottery system. It’s difficult to get into many of them, so if I get the opportunity, I take it.
Which was your most satisfying 100 this year, and why?
Definitely the Hardrock 100. It’s the most difficult 100-mile mountain course in the world and runs through stunning scenery in the San Juan range near Silverton, Telluride and Ouray. The average grade of the course is over 12 percent and the vast majority is above 11,000 feet so it’s incredibly challenging. It’s also a loop course which is unique. I set a four-hour PR on that course this year but still feel like I have some time to gain.
You dropped out of one race, what happened and do you regret the decision?
I concussed myself on a low-hanging tree branch about 15 miles into the HURT 100. I ran another 35 miles before finally throwing in the towel. I don’t regret it so much as I was becoming a liability on the trail so it was the right decision. In reality, the only reason I stayed out there for that long is that the course was fairly easy to follow and the aid stations were pretty close together. Had the course been more remote, no way would I have continued to make a go at it. Still, it was definitely not a highlight of my running career. I always thought I would never drop out of a 100 as I’m fit enough to make most cutoffs pretty easily and even if I got into trouble, I can nurse my way to the finish line. This changed that perspective.
You undoubtedly have many great memories from your ultra events, can you tell us about that one magic moment you'll never forget?
That’s easy. I proposed to my wife at the finish line of the 2008 Leadville Trail 100. It was my first 100 and the conditions were terrible. Aside from being 100 miles at 10,000 feet, it rained, sleeted, snowed and hailed almost the whole time. People were dropping out right and left from hypothermia. The aid stations looked like MASH units with hoards of runners shivering underneath blankets and sleeping bags. I carried the ring in my pocket the entire race. I almost lost it in a mud puddle when I finally got it out of my pocket at mile 99. Turns out numb and cold hands combined with disorientation and hypoglycemia make for fingers that don’t work so well. I got to the finish line and pitifully kneeled down on one knee. Early in the race, I worked out some unbelievably charming line to say to her but I ended up mumbling something completely incoherent. Didn’t matter as she got the point and I was so pathetic looking, how could she say no?
OK, you're 70 miles into a race, what thoughts or mind games do you play to keep going?
I never have to play any mind games during an ultra. I have never used music and rarely use pacers. For me, ultra running is always a constant series of yes/no problems to solve (do I need another Gu? Will I take my jacket at the next aid? Is that a rock or an elk that’s staring at me?) so I’m constantly engaged in the process of running 100 miles. If I’m having a decent day, I’ll feel pretty good, at mile 70. Even then, I will remind myself that it’s a long way to the finish line and to take it one mile at a time.
What was your typical weekly training mileage during the year?
I usually judge my weekly training volume by hours vs. miles as most of my running is done in the mountains and one mile can take a six minutes (downhill) or 30 minutes (the Incline) depending on the terrain. So, I usually spend about 10-12 hours per week running. That’ll equate to anywhere between 40-100 miles per week depending on where I’m actually running.
What are your plans for 2013, and do you have an ultimate running goal in mind, something you feel you have to accomplish?
It depends on how the Ultra lottery gods treat me. Most of the races I like to do are very difficult to get in to. So, I usually don’t form a plan until late December or early January when all of the races have gone through their lottery processes. It’s usually pretty simple, if I get in, I will run it. Eventually, I would like to run Hardrock, Leadville and Wasatch 10 times (I currently have four Leadville finishes, and two each for Hardrock and Wasatch). I also want to take another crack at Badwater. One year if the Ultra lottery gods are particularly unkind to me, I’ll do the Colorado Trail and try to set fastest known time across it. However, all of these things are just things that I would like to do, not have to do. The only thing I feel like I really have to accomplish is to always enjoy the challenge and give back to the sport.
You coached Dean Karnazes in his 2011 Run Across America, what did you take away from that experience?
Wow… so much, I don’t know where to start. Every time I get the opportunity to do a project with Dean I learn a lot. He sets his goals so big and they always go far beyond the actual running. In fact, running is rarely the goal with Dean. He always strives to have a positive impact on people’s lives, running just becomes the vehicle to achieve that impact. One of the biggest things I always learned from him is that running can have an enormous impact on people’s lives. I have met so many people who have turned around their health, addictions, depression, relationships, whatever ails them, with running. The Run Across America was part of the Regis and Kelly show. I also learned that there are a lot of people who watch that show.
Fill in the blank: I am a _______ nerd. Now, tell us why.
No need to fill in the blank with anything, I’m just a plain ‘ole nerd. With my job, I have a good outlet for this as my co-workers are all also nerds. They can tell you anything and everything about science and human physiology. I also get into public policy at the local and national levels. I read all the political blogs and analyze the survey data. I also keep a detailed spreadsheet of any pork shoulder, brisket, fish, chicken or other animal I’ve cooked in my smoker. Basically anything you could possibly prescribe a formula to, I try to do it.
If you could do any run in the Pikes Peak Region tomorrow, where would you go and why?
There’s this awesome loop I do for some of my long runs that basically links up every trail on the southwest side. I’ll use Columbine trail, St. Mary’s falls, Mt. Rosa, Seven Bridges, Buckhorn, 667, 666, High Drive, Palmer trail, section 16, Red Rocks open space, and Bear creek open space. I can leave from my house, get about 40 miles out of it with a lot of vertical gain and only run 1 mile on pavement. I love it because the trails are great and I don’t have to drive anywhere to get to them. That’s one of the big reasons I love living here is the near endless amount of quality trails in the area.
Steve Bremner, an ultra runner who lives in Manitou Springs, contributed questions for this interview.