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Geoff Roes is possibly the most accomplished endurance athlete you've never heard of.
Running Man 070710 NEWS 1 For the Capital City Weekly Geoff Roes is possibly the most accomplished endurance athlete you've never heard of.

Courtesy of Kevin Winzeler


Courtesy of Kevin Winzeler

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Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Story last updated at 7/7/2010 - 11:39 am

Running Man

Geoff Roes is possibly the most accomplished endurance athlete you've never heard of.

That's partly because his sport, the ultra-marathon - defined as any race longer than a standard 26.2 miles - remains niche anywhere outside Europe. More than that, though: Geoff Roes is remarkably self-effacing about his proficiency, almost to a fault.

I remember meeting Roes at a mutual friend's dinner party in Anchorage several years ago, after he'd just completed the Matanuska Peak Challenge, a rugged trail race that bills itself as "The Ultimate Mountain Run." Former participants don't seem to disagree - one female racer's blog debates the relative difficulty of the Peak Challenge versus childbirth.

From Roes's demeanor that evening, I never would have guessed he'd spent the day running up and down 9000 vertical feet, twice. None the worse for wear - aside from the occasional yawn - Roes didn't even mention he'd competed until we were about to leave. It was another week until I learned he'd nearly won. And I didn't hear it from him.

In the same quiet way, four years later, Geoff Roes, 34, has developed into one of the nation's top ultra-marathon runners. This past June 26, Roes not only won California's prestigious Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run - he shattered the course record by more than half an hour.

Three days after Western States, I met a mostly recovered Geoff Roes at the Second Street Heritage Coffee to talk about the race. Right off the bat, I asked him what the victory meant in terms of national rank. His answer was typically understated.

"Most of the country's best runners run it, so, I can see how people view it as a measuring stick," he said. Humble words from a man who has now won each of the first seven 100-mile races he's entered, all in record-setting time.

Born and raised in central New York, Roes ran track and cross country in high school - his senior year, finishing fifth in the state - and competed at Syracuse University during the 1998-1999 season. But for the next seven years, he literally didn't run another step.

Then in early 2006, Roes, living in Homer at the time, "thought it might be fun" to enter the Little Susitna, a 50-kilometer race along a portion of the frozen river. Until then, he'd never completed a race longer than eight miles.

"I guess I got into good shape," said Roes, who'd trained for less than three months. "I mean, I won, but by the end, I was dead."

Also, he was hooked, primarily intrigued by how far he could will his body to go.

Within days, he was planning races. The following year, despite having relocated to Juneau, Roes competed in various mountain challenges around Southcentral Alaska - setting records in the Crow Pass Crossing and Resurrection Pass 50 - before trying the Little Su's bigger-brother, the Susitna 100.

"I prepared more mentally and physically, so I felt a lot better," said Roes. This included tedious 50-mile training runs on the snow-packed Nordic trail at Mendenhall Campground (16 3-mile laps). But the work paid off. In his very first 100-miler, Roes' time marked a new course best.

It snowballed from there. More races, more wins, more records. Then, in 2009, for the second straight year, Roes reached a turning point, scratching from the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile race from Willow to McGrath. Despite a severe upper respiratory illness, Roes logged 150 miles before dropping out, a showing he characterizes as "poor."

"I was devastated," he said, explaining that, among other reasons, he failed to qualify for that year's Western States. "I needed to change my mindset. I was placing way too much emphasis on performance."

Roes describes his new approach as "organic," focusing more on the pleasure he gets from everyday running. He no longer alters his regular running routine to train for races. Still, he runs every day, anywhere from three to six hours and covering about 100 miles a week.

"And this is Juneau, so I'm running up and down rugged terrain, anyway," said Roes. In addition to the local topography, he also credits Juneau's surprisingly vibrant running community.

Typically, most competitive ultra-sport runners enjoy a seven-to-ten-year window before they burn out. By that measure, Roes' career is barely half over.

"I don't have a specific idea what I want to get out of it," he said. "I want to enjoy running as much as I can. Whatever that leads to, I'm open to it."

It's hard to say what might be. True, ultra-marathon running is gaining in both popularity and corporate interest. For instance, Roes figures he's earned $10,000 the last two years, in prize money and sponsorships. The two years prior, he just got free gear - "a lot of free gear, but still." By contrast, during the same time period, top-ranked competitive eater Joey "Jaws" Chestnut earned some $200,000 in prize money, along with two new cars and a motorcycle.

Not that Roes is looking for two new cars and a motorcycle.

"It'd be nice to at least cover travel costs," he said. "My next big race is in Europe, but even up to Anchorage is expensive."

The upcoming race in question: this August's Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 166-kilometer trek through the Alps, featuring 5000 entrants, including Europe's top ultra-marathon runners.

What does Roes think of his chances on the world level?

"At this point, if things go well, I think I have a legitimate shot at winning any race."

Right.

Geoff Kirsch is a writer in Juneau. Visit his website at www.geoffkirsch.com.