A Staten Island triathlete and endurance coach ventures into the ultramarathon realm where there are seemingly no limits to human endurance. In 2013, he successfully finished the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning (picture of 2013 Grand Slam finishers above; I'm second from right), becoming only the 282nd person (since its beginnings in 1986) and only the fourth New Yorker to finish four of the oldest and most prestigious 100 mile ultramarathons in the U.S. in only 10 weeks.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

To East Coast Winners of the Western States 100 Lottery - So You Think You Can Slam? Some Questions To Ask

You checked the Western States lottery on Saturday December 7 and saw your name on the list. You got in!!! Congrats on winning a coveted spot in the Western States 100, the oldest 100 mile race in the world.

This is certainly on your "want" list in 2014. Should you gamble and go for the Grand Slam too?

Now of course, a question pops into your head...do you want to try for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning? I mean heck, you got into Western States, maybe after 4 or more years of trying. That is a very important question, and one that you have to mull over the next couple of weeks.

The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning involves running four races in 10 weeks. You start out with Western States in June, then Vermont in July, Leadville in August, and finishing with Wasatch in September. It's a long, tough haul, but like all ambitious ultrarunners, you dare think about taking that challenge.

I will give you the good and the bad of attempting the Grand Slam. Please understand that although I myself finished the Grand Slam in 2013, I am by no means an expert on it. I will though, give you my experience as an East Coaster and what decisions I had to make before I decided on the Slam. Your situation might be a little bit different, but the main issues are the same.

The issues:

1) High degree of failure - This is obvious. There is a substantial degree of failure in any one of these 100 mile races. You're doing four of these races, in about 10 weeks. The chance of failure is extremely great. You're going to have to take that leap of faith and hope that you can get to that finish line at Soldier Hollow at the end of Wasatch.

2) Financial Cost - You're an East Coaster. Three of the races are out west. That poses a bit of a financial burden. The entry fees for the four races are well north of $1200. Plus three flights out, hotels, maybe a rental car, meals, days off from work, etc. That adds up to a LOT of money. On something that you run the possibility of failing at. Think about it; if an unforseen circumstance causes you not to finish Western States, then the other three races don't count towards your main goal any more. Sure, you can still do those races, and have a great experience with them, but it would be definitely anticlimatic as you are not in the running for the Grand Slam anymore. That's a lot of money that has been spent for not achieving your goal.

3) Terrain - The last two of the races in the Grand Slam are high mountain races. These mountains you will never truly see in the East Coast. You still need to develop a pair of "mountain legs" for the Slam, otherwise, you're in big trouble. I cannot stress this enough, I'll repeat this in red caps...YOU NEED TO DEVELOP "MOUNTAIN LEGS" FOR THE SLAM!!! This is the biggest priority in getting prepped up for the Slam. Even with the lack of big mountains here in the East Coast, there are fortunately special ways of developing that critical pair of "mountain legs" designed to bounce up and down those high mountain peaks. Hill and mountain repeats are one possibility. Road and mountain cycling (which I did a lot of in the ramp up to the 2013 Grand Slam) is an excellent alternative as well, really blasting your quads to "larger than life" status, and well designed to bound up the mountain slopes. One other alternative that you can use is the tire drag. Some miles using this apparatus will put some serious work on your quads!

You don't have to use a tire this big; even a smaller tire will help develop your quads for the high mountains.


4) Altitude - A big tripping point for East Coasters in the Slam. Please DO NOT underestimate the difficulty of Leadville and its altitude. Leadville is pretty flat in places, but the altitude (10,000+ feet) gives every runner, especially low-landers, a huge penalty, one in which, coupled with the aggressive cut-off times of the race, combine to kick any unsuspecting East Coaster out of the Slam. The race is relentless; only those who are WELL PREPARED will get to the finish line. The only way to directly reduce that penalty is to get up to Leadville at least a week before the race. If you're cash strapped and cannot do that, you can indirectly reduce that penalty by being in the best shape of your life. If your body is extremely fit, it can definitely better handle the reduced oxygen and you will suffer less. This requires a well prepared training plan that puts you at the top of your game by the time you toe the line at Leadville.

5) Commitment - If you're putting all this money into the Slam, the least you can do is commit to it. It's really a common sense issue. Why spend your hard-earned money on something you're not committed to? Make a deal with yourself, "if I'm going to shell out thousands of dollars for the Slam, I had better make this the main focus for the year. I will put 110% of my effort into completing the Slam."

6) Friendships - This is one of the biggies! I cannot put into words the benefits of the friendships that were forged with the other Slammers in the group. Most of us leaned on each other at some point in these Grand Slam races to get to the finish line. I was in a lot of trouble in Leadville trying to get up over Hope Pass. Two other Slammers I was running with motivated me enough to get up over Hope Pass and over to the finish line with an hour to spare. In the Slam you gain friends for life!

7) Satisfaction - This is another biggie...if you complete the Slam, you join a very elite fraternity of people and a special spot in the sport of ultrarunning. You get a great trophy and recognition from other athletes in the sport that you have achieved something that few other people have done. Remember that only 288 people have completed the Slam from its beginnings (1986-2013). That's about 10% of the people who have been to the top of Mt. Everest!


The complete schwag associated with the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. The Eagle Trophy on the left, the four bib numbers and belt buckles in the shadow box, and the finishers medals/plaque in the foreground. And maybe some media attention too. :-)


What made the choice for me to decide on the Slam in 2013? I am not a very rich person, so cash was an issue for me. But when I won a spot in the 2013 Western States, I realized that I might not get another shot at the Slam in several years. Maybe never! So I decided to enter the Slam, and shell out the cash, with the promise that I will get into the best shape of my entire life and that if I do fail, I was not going to be removed from the Grand Slam without a fight! I've had my number of battles in the Grand Slam, but for each one, I've steeled my resolve and got myself to the finish line every time. I could have easily dropped out in a couple of them, but instead willed myself to the finish. That is what it's going to take to complete the Slam.

So make your decision accordingly. You're going to shell out a lot of money for it. Will you back it up by committing yourself totally to it? Only you can answer that question.

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