There’s a revelatory moment that occurs for endurance athletes when the untold hours of training and racing and inexplicable suffering suddenly make sense.
For ultrarunner Emily Judd, that moment came while crossing the finish line of the Bighorn Mountain Wild and Scenic Trail Run, a 100-mile foot race across the rugged Bighorn Mountains of Wyoming that gains 18,300 feet in elevation. In 2011, Judd covered the grueling course in 23 hours, 40 minutes, winning the race and becoming the third woman ever to finish in less than 24 hours.
“That was my ‘aha’ 100-miler,” Judd, who has competed in more than two-dozen ultramarathons, said. “I didn’t feel like I was just surviving. I was actually racing.”
Danielle Coffman’s moment of clarity arrived during a 50-kilometer race in Chicago, her first ultramarathon. Having only run road marathons prior to the event, Coffman had intended to run the first portion of the three-loop course, but the sweet, sugary food at the aid stations motivated her to run the entire course.
“I wanted to keep running so I could snack,” Coffman said. “There were brownies and cookies and boiled potatoes. In road running you don’t eat like that. I was like, ‘this is awesome.’”
There’s an intrinsic loneliness to long-distance running, a self-imposed exile that comes from the endless training cycles and hours spent padding along remote trails in solitude and for reasons that are difficult to articulate to the layperson.
There’s also an inherent camaraderie to the sport, and in the Flathead Valley, where there is no shortage of endurance athletes, no want of long, lonely training sessions, the running duo of Judd and Coffman – both Kalispell attorneys – stand out as much for their close bond as their disparate racing styles, and the degree of the distances they conquer.
Judd’s running resume boasts first-place finishes at storied Montana ultramarathons like the Old Gabe 50K in Bozeman, as well as on world renown courses such as the Wasatch Front 100 mile. Its slogan, “100 Miles of Heaven and Hell,” is an apt description, but in 2011 Judd conquered the course in 26 hours, 46 minutes, climbing roughly 26,882 vertical feet through the Wasatch Mountains and placing second.
The following year, she shaved two-and-a-half hours off her previous time, handily winning the race after edging out women’s frontrunner and pre-race favorite Sarah Evans in the final miles. In doing so, she landed squarely on the sport’s map and her name began popping up on running blogs.
Coffman’s approach to ultrarunning is more cavalier, but no less extreme.
She has competed in scores of events, but recently developed a masochistic taste for races across the frozen Alaskan interior. In 2011 she participated in the Susitna 100, a 100-mile ski, foot or bike race held on packed snowmobile trails in the Susitna River Valley, north of Anchorage. The race requires participants to tow their gear on a sled, and after enduring more than 40 hours of sub-zero temperatures while trudging across an endless sea of white Coffman dropped out, accepting a ride from a snowmobile around mile 82, just shy of the final checkpoint.
“To say that the Su 100 is a tough footrace is an understatement,” Coffman wrote on her blog, where she summarized the trying experience.
The next year she signed up again and, having prepared herself mentally and physically, finished the race in 41 hours.
“I’m not fast and I’m usually in the middle of the pack, but I have endurance,” she said. “All you have to do is go long for hours on end and eat candy and listen to music.”
In March, she ran the White Mountains 100, another human-powered race across Alaska in which competitors can bike, ski or run, and which Coffman said was more difficult than the Susitna. She finished in 46 hours.
“It was just really challenging,” she said. “It was blizzarding most of the time.”
Afterward, she vowed to never run another 100-mile race, but soon after returning to Montana sent in her application for the Iditarod Trail Invitational, an exclusive, 350-mile race from Anchorage to Nome.
She was not accepted in the invitation-only event, but slated two other 100-mile races for the summer.
Judd brings a more disciplined approach to her running and training, having been introduced to the sport by her ultrarunning uncle before training under the counsel of Bozeman’s Nikki Kimball, the three-time winner of the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run, which is arguably the most storied and competitive ultramarathon in the world. Kimball taught Judd how to structure her workouts to target specific areas of performance, and she quickly began seeing her results improve.
In 2008 she won the Old Gabe 50K and followed it up with victories at the Elkhorn 50-mile race in Helena and the Spokane River Run 50K. In 2011, when she won Bighorn in one of the fastest times in the race’s history, Judd realized she could compete at the highest levels, and her “aha” moment was confirmed by her success at Wasatch, one of the most difficult endurance runs in the world.
Although she had hoped to complete the race in less than 24 hours, she said the come-from-behind victory buoyed her confidence.
“My goal time was 25 but I knew that if I had the race of my life I could go under 24,” she said.
Judd, 31, who works as a public defender in Kalispell, says she appreciates being able to pursue a career she is passionate about while continuing to excel at running.
“I’m able to do the two things I’m most passionate about,” she said. “It’s been rewarding.”
In addition to her legal practice, Coffman, 38, serves on the board of the Foys to Blacktail Trails, a nonprofit organization working to secure access to trails and lands around Herron Park. When the project is complete, a designated trail will connect the park to Blacktail Mountain. Coffman said Herron Park is one of her favorite places to run in Kalispell, and her work to expand its trail network is a rewarding endeavor.
Coffman said she intends to continue ultrarunning for as long as it remains fun, a concept she said is sometimes difficult to understand.
“I think it’s hard to describe to people what is so enjoyable about it. Sometimes I don’t even know, but it is enjoyable,” she said. “There are more moderate ways to get outside and do stuff, but I’m interested in extremes.”
Judd said running is the perfect activity to help decompress from a stressful job, and she avoids burning out by taking time away from racing in the winter, although a budding interest in ski-mountaineering races whets her competitive edge.
“I skied and did yoga all winter, which was refreshing. It’s kind of like hitting the reset button,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m ready to compete again.”
Her favorite distance is 100 miles because of the strategy required to finish, let alone compete at a high level.
“A lot can go wrong over the course of 100 miles,” she said. “You have to be so prepared mentally and physically.”
Later this month, Judd is competing in the 100-mile Tahoe Rim Trail race in the Sierra Nevadas, and said her confidence was boosted by her early-season successes – a first-place finish at the Pocatello 50K and a third-place finish at the San Juan Solstice 50-Mile Run.
Both Judd and Coffman enjoy competing in endurance events, but their favorite aspect of the sport has little to do with racing.
“I just love being outside all day,” Judd said.
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