The No Excuses Interview Series explores the approaches and personalities of athletes who are inspiring in both the quality and consistency of their achievements. They’re real people doing great things. What they do, you can too, if you want it.
Ethan Linck is best known in the Pacific Northwest endurance community for setting the Fastest Known Time (FKT) for an unsupported run around Mt Rainier’s Wonderland Trail (93 miles, over 22,000′ of climbing) last year in 27 hours and 19 minutes.
He has also run around Mt St helens, Mt Hood, the Three Sisters, and placed in several PNW trail races and ultras. Most impressively, he accomplished all of this while a biology student at Reed College. His resume is impressive, and he catalogs his adventures and observations on his blog Beyond the Ranges.
A self-described would-be naturalist, he also “nurtures particular interests in the ecology of New Guinea and Melanesia, mountain running, and backcountry skiing. He’s currently spending the winter in Gothic, Colorado”. He joins us by email to talk about what goes into his big endurance efforts,where his naturalism and athletics meet.
Interview with Ethan Linck
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] First things first, how has growing up in Vermont influenced you as an outdoorsman, naturalist, and athlete?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] Vermont is a small, exceedingly rural state with low but rugged mountains; Vermonters tend to grow up outside and love the land. I grew up on a dirt road tucked off in the foothills of the Green Mountains, and never really considered myself an “outdoorsman”. Being outside was just what you did with yourself.
Becoming a naturalist was easy because lots of Vermonters were, and because it was hard not to fall in love with the natural world when you were immersed in it. Bernd Heinrich, a legendary ultra runner and biologist/natural historian, lived just a few miles from my home. One of my close friends was a recreational herpetologist, and I started bird-watching pretty avidly in high school. The University of Vermont and Vermont Center for Ecostudies both made biology seem like an appealing and feasible career.
As an athlete, I was mediocre high school cross-country runner, but we did most of our training on hilly trails, and one of my team’s coaches, Kasie Enman, is one of the best female mountain runners in the world. In this way, I had a bit of early exposure to goofy things like running 3000 feet up a mountain as hard as you can.
On the skiing end of things, my high school advisor pushed me to take up telemarking and backcountry skiing, and as I was about 20 minutes away from some pretty incredible glade skiing. I took to it quickly. The storied ski area Mad River Glen was not much further, and pretty much any talent that I have I developed there, in both incredible powder and on heinous ice.
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] Looking over your list of outings, it looks like something happened between 2009 and 2010– one year you’re doing some backpacking here and there, doing research overseas, and then the next you’re circumnavigating volcanoes and racing ultras. What happened?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] During the fall of my freshman year a few things pushed in the endurance-sports direction. My old Vermont friend, Clarice, ignored my warnings about the terrible overuse injuries and ran the Portland Marathon that fall. I was adjusting to being in a city, and discovered that Forest Park was a pretty nice escape from all that concrete. At some point, I bussed out to the far end of Forest Park and ran 26-ish miles back to the city. I asked a woman who was sitting in her car at the Zoo to give me a ride downtown, and she made me show her I didn’t have a gun in my running pack, but very kindly dropped me off at the 19 line. I went back to my dorm and drank red wine with some friends and talked about magical realism, as you do.
Somehow I heard about a 40-mile race in Sisters, Oregon, and signed up for it. I evidently trained enough to finish, and decided it was something I liked to do and could get better at. Once you can wrap your head around the distance, lots of things seem possible, and the 30-mile loop around Mt. St. Helens was one of those things. I ran it in spectacular fall weather and it was one of the most rewarding things I had ever done. Luckily, there were other volcanoes.
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] What exactly is it, do you think, that makes volcano running so appealing? Aren’t there other equally appealing missions that don’t involve a central prominence?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] Circumnavigating something is logistically simple and aesthetically satisfying: you start where you finish. No need for a car shuttle, or for hitchhiking. Out and backs up and down a peak are also attractive to me, all the more so if it starts at your front door, like your bike-powered Mt Hood climb. But in the absence of some “central prominence,” anything that interacts with the landscape in a logical and pleasing way: double crossings of canyons, loops that involve a valley and a ridge, point-to-point trips between towns.
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] You made a stir in the PNW ultra crowd with your FKT on the Wonderland trail. How did you prepare for that run, and what was that experience like, physically and psychologically?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] The previous summer, I was working in Costa Rica, and while I didn’t get many “long” runs in, I was extraordinarily consistent in running up a nearby dirt road to the Continental Divide (about 6040′
elevation) one or two times a day. This unintentionally gave me a pretty deep aerobic base, and getting back to Vermont at the end of the summer, I tackled a couple of my classic 25-ish mile loops with 6000+ feet of climbing. I hit one or two 100-mile weeks, maybe averaging 70 mi/wk overall.
Starting my senior year at Reed, I had a very loose schedule and took one of my off days to run around Mt. Hood on the Timberline trail, something I had wanted to do for a long time. The loop is about 40 miles with 10,000+ feet of climbing, and in late August has hallucinatory displays of wildflowers. Besides being a very solid training run, the route mimics the Wonderland in essentially consisting of 2k’ – 3k’ climbs from river valleys to the alpine, repeated ad nauseum.
The Wonderland was the premier volcano circumnavigation in the PNW, but about twice as long as I had ever run before. Still, my fitness gave me confidence and so I thought what the heck.
The first time I tried it, I did about 60 miles before having to bail in a storm. Basically everything that was going to be unpleasant about a 24+ hour run happened during that first try: I went 5 miles off course, got extraordinarily sleepy once the sun went down, struggled mentally with the massive distance remaining, hurt like hell, had terrible weather, and was screamed at by mountain lions.
The second time I was bracing myself for hardship but pretty much everything went smoothly. The night was not so terrifying. I stayed awake. I moved consistently. Everything still hurt but I could distract myself from it. Most importantly, I never felt I couldn’t do it. I remember crossing snowfields at Panhandle Gap and feeling an embarrassing amount of love for the world and everyone in it, being terrified by bugling elk as I dropped into dense and shadowy forest, and experiencing something utterly unique when the sun rose and I was still running, bleary eyed but alive and electric with the pulse of it all.
It’ a cliche, but at that distance (93 miles) it really is mostly mental. You aren’t going to be moving very fast. You just have to keep moving, and trigger some deep-rooted survival instinct to prevail through the pain that is telling you to stop.
Richard Kresser has recently knocked three minutes off my unsupported FKT. There is a competitive side of me that wants to return in better shape and try to reclaim it. But I am worried it would mar a memory that is dreamlike and precious to me and trivialize something sublime for the sake of competition.
Still, I’d hate to only go around the mountain once in my life. We’ll see.
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] Mostly mental, eh? What is happening in you that keeps you moving when your body is telling you to quit? Do distract yourself from the unpleasant aspects of the experience, or do you delve into it to move through it?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] With the volcano circumnavigations, you don’t really have a choice. Mostly I just try to appreciate my ability to do something so irrational in the first place, and try and not make an enemy out of the suffering.
Our bodies our small and frail and will hurt if you ask them to do big things, but it’s a pretty small discomfort for the privilege of seeing a full moon gleaming off the glaciers of Mount Rainier after 16 hours of moving quickly in the mountains.
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] How on earth did you manage to tackle so many impressive runs while finishing a thesis at Reed College?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] After the Wonderland, I pretty much just coasted off my deteriorating fitness and raced but didn’t train much. I don’t think this works for very long, FYI.
The running I did do provided necessary headspace to think about that thesis, so they were probably complementary pursuits in the end.
Running aside, our ski mountaineering circumnavigation of Mt. Hood was by far the coolest thing I did all spring.
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] The circumnavigation was good, though we certainly could have brought more water. How did you manage to come off the sofa and set your 50K PR at the Trail Factor?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] The race was in my backyard, on trails I had run countless times, so I didn’t have to worry too much about surprises in the course. The competition was mostly my friends from the PDX trail running community, so I had an idea of who I could hang with. Plus, signing up the night before kept me from putting too much weight on my performance, which paradoxically let me push harder than I might if I had trained for it and had an emotional investment.
Go big or go home, right? And home wasn’t very far away.
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] You’re cloistered away in Gothic, CO for the winter. Do you have any plans in the works, and if so, how are you getting it done in your own little Walden?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] I’m applying to graduate school, for an NSF fellowship, and trying to build up a body of published writing. Once the snow is here to stay, I’m going to be skiing every day, which was always a dream of mine.
Next spring, I’m hoping do the Elk Mountains Grand Traverse (a 40 mile backcountry ski race from Crested Butte to Aspen) in the couple’s division, and then enjoy the luxury of being out of school to ramp up my training for the summer mountain running season. I’m going to aim for an ‘official’ hundred-miler this summer, in the hopes of qualifying for Hardrock 100 and making it through the lottery before I’m 50.
[dropcap_2]Q[/dropcap_2] When you look at training for the Elk Mountain Traverse or for a 100-miler, do you take a systematic and scheduled approach, or are you more liberal/creative with your training tactics?
[dropcap_2]A[/dropcap_2] I try to stay loose in terms of when things get done, but make sure each week I 1) run hard at some point; 2) run hills often; and 3) run long at some point.
Getting out every day, even if it ends up being more of a hike or a long bike ride, is also something I strive for. Consistency builds confidence.
I do like to keep track of numbers, though.
You can find more of Ethan’s stories, photographs and writing on his blog:
Beyond the Ranges[divider_line]
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