[News-Sentinel] Fort Wayne natives tackle ‘Race across the sky’

A Day in the Life6 Comments

100-mile race at high altitude tests even best runners

By Brett Hess of The News-Sentinel

Tuesday, August 21, 2012 – 1:07 am

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do,” is the saying credited to Saint Ambrose. But if this fourth-century Saint had lived in Colorado, I figure, he would have been an ultra-marathoner.

The Rocky Mountains are where the greatest ultra-distance runners live and train. And if they are not born there, growing up at 10,000 feet, then they are re-born there.

Such is the case of Brandon Fuller and Matt Watkins, two Allen County natives who were never runners until moving to Colorado a few years ago. Now, both are part of an elite club.

Fuller, a 1993 Bishop Dwenger graduate, and Watkins, a 1997 New Haven graduate, both completed last weekend’s Leadville 100, the historic 100-mile footrace nicknamed “The Race Across the Sky.”

For 29 years this race has been the litmus test for endurance runners. The hilly trail race bounces between 9,200 and 12,600 feet above sea level and contains extreme conditions, including below-freezing temps. This gives “the natives,” those from Colorado or other Rocky Mountain states, a real advantage. Rarely do runners from the flat-lands or near sea level, have much success. Of over 1,000 starters this year, only 358 finished before the 30-hour time limit.

Watkins finished 187th in 28 hours, 20 minutes, 58 seconds. It was Fuller’s second finish in three attempts, while Watkins finished in his first attempt.

Fuller, a Purdue software engineering graduate, and Watkins, an Indiana University computer information systems graduate, have never met. But they followed similar paths to the finish line Saturday. Both took up running because of the magnetism of the legendary Leadville 100.

“In 2003 we were in Leadville and I saw the race and I thought, these people are crazy,” Fuller recalls. “I started running about a year later and then ran in (2005) Boulder Half-Marathon. When I finished, I remembered Leadville.”

Fuller progressed steadily, running marathons and ultra-marathons before finally tackling Leadville in 2010. He finished in 28 hours, 53 minutes, earning the famous “Silver Buckle” which is awarded to those who finish in under 30 hours. Last year, he went for the “Gold Buckle,” a finish time under 25 hours. But the aggressive pace resulted in a “DNF,” or “Did not finish.”

“So this year, I tried to find the right pace,” Fuller said. “I know last year I ran too hard early in the race, so I was slower this time. But it didn’t work out. I still haven’t analyzed what went wrong.”

Upon further interviewing, it became clear what went wrong: Fuller had raced The Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run on June 23, finishing in 23 hours, 22 minutes.

“I guess I hadn’t fully recovered,” Fuller said. “Maybe running two 100-milers in two months was too much.”

Fuller, ever the engineer, vows to dissect his race and training and make another go of it, perhaps next year finishing fast enough to earn the “Gold Buckle.”

“I go to half-marathons or full marathons and it’s almost unfulfilling,” Fuller said. “There is something about the extremes. I need to figure out how to do this better, faster.”

And this is where Fuller and Watkins’ paths may diverge: for the later, it was “mission accomplished”.

“I haven’t been a lifelong runner so this was new to me,” Watkins said. “I don’t think I’ll ever run another ultra-marathon again. I set a goal and I accomplished it. It was a great experience, but there are other things I want to do.”

Watkins, like Fuller, was mesmerized by his first visit to Leadville, which was just last year.

“I had been running for a few months and agreed to be part of the crew for a friend of a guy I knew at work,” Watkins said. “My longest run had been 5 miles and I was supposed to only do 5 miles but another pacer got altitude sickness.”

The result was two legs of 10 miles, four times the distance of Watkins’ longest run ever. Like Fuller, Watkins was hooked.

“I knew right then I wanted to come back in 2012 and finish,” Watkins said.

But like any new runner, training was all trial and error. As Watkins tried increasing his weekly mileage from 20 to 70 in a short time, he injured himself.

“I tried coaching myself, raising my mileage. I thought I had to get to 200 miles a week,” Watkins said. “I was hurt by October. In November I got a training plan and stuck to it.”

Watkins only reached 90 miles a week during training and along the way ran his first full marathon (Leadville Marathon) on June 30, finishing in 5 hours, 20 minutes. He knew he was ready even though he would have to run nearly four times that distance.

“I beat a lot of runners who had completed Leadville 100 and were planning to run it this year,” Watkins said. “The runners I knew gave me a lot of encouragement. I had a lot confidence going into Leadville.”

Watkins paced himself well the first 50 miles and then simply survived the second 50.

“You run those first 50 by yourself and I was just looking forward to seeing my wife (Liz Watkins) at the turn-around,” Watkins said. “At mile 76 I wanted to quit, but my crew talked me out of it. My brother (Jeff Watkins of New Haven) ran with me from 76 to 86 and I knew then I could make it. Jeff ran with me the last seven miles.”