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Ultra High

Aug 17, 2017 12:37PM ● Published by Leland Rucker

The Georgia Death Race takes place in early April every year. It’s an endurance challenge run, around a 70-mile, 24-hour highly technical slog up and down Georgia’s Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest, with 40,000 feet of elevation change along the way.

It’s part of the growing sport of ultramarathoning, which is gaining in popularity all across the globe. Though there is no set distance, an ultramarathon is defined as any footrace longer than the traditional marathon length of 26.2 miles. The International Association of Ultrarunners (IAU) organizes and operates four different world championship events and keeps ultramarathon achievement records. Many nations have their own organizations, and races are held on all continents—there are even two in Antarctica. There are perhaps four to six thousand working ultramarathoners. 

Why would anyone do this, you ask? Just entering the Death Race, to any normal person, seems, well, batshit crazy. I got the chance to ask that question to this year’s winner, 24-year-old Avery Collins. Many of the Death Race pathways he calls “East Coast trails,” built before we learned about things like switchbacks, he says, and instead just go straight up and down hills and mountains. “It’s 99 percent rocky, rooty trail, where it’s easy to fall and break your face open. Most of the time you’re just staring up at the trail,” he admits.

A mentally exhausting sport like this certainly takes you to places that are dark and deep, Collins admits. “It sucks,” he says. “A hundred miles is going to hell and back. Just absolutely terrible. But you keep going back.” 

But he had an ulterior purpose. “Ultimately, I did it specifically because there are five golden ticket races on the tour. If you finish first or second, you get an automatic bye for the premier event in California.”

That would be the Western States Endurance Run, or Western States 100, another brutal trek from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California, held in late June. The byes for the Western States event are coveted among ultramarathoners, as more than 4,000 people sign up and only 375 get chosen for the race. “If you can do the golden ticket,” he says, “you can bypass an impossible lottery.” It helped. Collins came in sixth in this year’s race, his best finish ever in perhaps the most grueling race in a grueling sport.

A lot of American ultramarathoners have migrated to Colorado, says Collins, who lives in Steamboat Springs. “It’s mostly atmosphere. We live in a place where it’s so much easier to train. There are beautiful trails everywhere, and it’s not hot and humid. I never sweat,” he says, “and once you get used to the altitude, it’s such a pleasant experience.” 

Collins grew up in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, but spent summers in North Carolina. He played basketball at a college in Wilmington, North Carolina, but he wasn’t doing much running off the court at the time. He was more into muscle-building and girls than sports. 

One day, his gym membership expired. He put on an old pair of running shoes he had from middle school and took off down the road. “Two miles,” he recalls running that first day, “and it was an absolute struggle, which is hard to believe, but I went out the next day, and the next day and the next day and the next. There was something about the struggle and what it took to get it done, the pain you experience mentally and physically that you can’t get it from anything else.”

For all the talk of ultramarathon low points, he says those aren’t the ones you remember. In a hundred-mile race, there will only be specific moments. “I was once told it’s never an adventure until something goes wrong. And when you have to depend on yourself and be primal and self-reliant, it puts you in a survival state,” he says. “No on-demand TV, no car. No one is going to get you over those eight mountaintops but you.” 

One thing that separates Collins from his contemporaries is that he uses cannabis in his training. There’s a healthy debate going on over cannabis use among extreme athletes, and Collins points out that he doesn’t consider it a performance-enhancing drug in any way.

So how does cannabis fit into his routine? “There are so many different ways it gets involved, but the starting point is recovery,” he says, adding that it really helps with the inflammation that comes after distance training. “I mean it in a sense that when you come home from a 30-mile run, your legs still think you’re running, and the blood is still flowing fast. Whether I’m eating an edible, using a topical, or smoking a bowl, it just slows me down back to normal, real life.”

Collins says that it works as a pain reliever as well. He doesn’t want to sound too spiritual or hippieish, but he admits there is something special about running through the mountains during practice runs in an elevated state. “It’s just amazing—this very natural, spiritual feeling. The whole point of running is getting away from work, getting away from the stress of daily life. Sometimes you can’t stop thinking about those things.”

He says it took him awhile to find the right balance of cannabis use during training. He follows all World Anti-Doping Agency rules, stopping his use long before each race. “I think experience plays a major role,” he says. “As you have more experience with cannabis, you start to use it and dial it in. I feel it’s more trial and error for at least a year or more.”

He uses many methods of ingestion, including vape pens, topicals, and ointments, but says that smoking a bowl is still his favorite way to ingest cannabis. “I also use a variety of different edibles and try to switch it up in the coolest ways—lately it’s putting olive oil into my food at night. It’s awesome. You just put it on salad or bread or steak.” 

He is sponsored by The Farm, a dispensary in Boulder, and Mary’s Medicinals, which makes popular cannabis products in Colorado, as well as with non-cannabis companies like inov-8 cross-fit running shoes.

“We really wanted to get away from that stigma about stoners not being able to accomplish anything in life,” says Abel Villacorta, director of marketing for The Farm. “We looked around, and Avery being an ultramarathoner, it was a no-brainer to ask him if he wanted to work out a relationship. We want to normalize people who do incredible feats and use cannabis in a productive way. He’s such an amazing and positive guy.” 

When you get right down to it, Collins says, cannabis plays its biggest role in helping him think through and forget about things that really aren’t that important. “Sometimes it’s nothing more than, ‘Is this really something I should be worked up about?’ This can be misinterpreted by someone who’s not an advocate, but I’m not running away from problems. I’m just dealing with them.”
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