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<strong>“Remind me not to do this again next year,”</strong> Dave Mackey said with an uncharacteristic hint of despair as he neared the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.

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Rene Villalobos is less than halfway through the 2016 Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville State Park, Texas, when the pain in his back returns. A year earlier, he had fallen on a patch of black ice late at night during Arkansas’ Run LOVit 100K and slipped a disk. The doctors told him he wouldn’t be able to run long distance anymore but, well, here he was.He grimaces as pain shoots up his back. Soon the sun will sink beneath the canopy of oak trees and sweet gums overhead and out of sight. Villalobos uses a few unprintable words to gripe to his “friend” Sal (James Salvador), an Italian ultrarunner who encouraged Villalobos to quit dropping the F-bomb on long miserable runs and find the joy in running.

“Look at this and this and this,” he would tell Villalobos, pointing at the scenery. “And don’t worry about anything else. Enjoy it! This is all a gift.”

Salvador had passed away nearly 10 years prior, in April 2002, during a low-risk planned surgery. He and Villalobos had been running together for 20 years by that time, and were planning to run several ultras together in the coming weeks. Instead, Villalobos found himself and his sister, Clara, with Salvador’s family as the priest read his last rites.

Villalobos says he’s “not really too much into superstition.” He doesn’t have pre-race rituals or lucky socks. But he does have a lot of running buddies like Salvador who have passed away over the years, and he still communicates with them.

“That’s probably about the weirdest thing I do,” he says. “I always say, ‘Well, I’m going to take my angels for a run today.’”

Miles on Miles

Rene Villalobos (who pronounces his name “Rain-E,” with a delightful Texan twang), 59, of Fort Worth, Texas, is not your typical runner-looking dude. He has dark skin, bronzed by hours in the sun, salt-and-pepper hair and a goatee to match; until a few years ago, he weighed over 200 pounds and possessed a hefty paunch.But looks may be deceiving in his case. Villalobos has run over 350 ultras, and over 150 100-milers. At one point, he ran nine 100-mile races in nine weeks. Counting unofficial races, by August 14, 2018 Villalobos says he had run 1,117 marathons. On the Mega Marathon List, he is ranked number five, with 1000 official marathon finishes. Let those stats sink in.

“Trying to explain Rene is almost as difficult as trying to explain trail running,” says Joe Prusaitis, the former longtime owner and race director of Tejas Trails, a collection of respected Texas races that includes Rocky Raccoon. Prusaitis has a long history of racing with and hosting Villalobos at races. “And I think the more you understand trail running, the more you would understand Rene.”

While not a household name or podium contender, Villalobos epitomizes a passionate approach to trail running. His training weeks might make even the pros blanch (see page 62 for Villalobos’s weekly running schedule), especially because, for over 30 years, he worked digging ditches and fixing pipes as a plumber, often in 110-degree Texas heat, before going on his weekday runs.

Things changed in 2004 when he got a job as Master Inspector for his hometown of Fort Worth. While he appreciates the air conditioning, being what he calls a “blue-collar runner” makes him proud, and he still does plumbing jobs for friends on the side.
“Once a plumber always a plumber,” he says. “Kind of like once a runner …”

Villalobos’ house is spartan—there’s no TV and few wall decorations.

“You know what minimize is?” Villalobos asks. “That’s me. Anything I have over a year, I get rid of it.”

The exceptions are his race bibs, including marathon-and-under bibs and medals, dispersed throughout his home like tiny monuments to his countless miles.

True Grit

During the 2016 Rocky Raccoon, Villalobos is using his best sailor mouth to complain to his angels, and “they just sit there laughing,” he says. “They’re probably saying, you paid for it, you dummy, why you out there? You ain’t got nobody to blame but yourself.”The Rocky Raccoon is made up of four 25-mile loops. It’s getting dark by the time volunteers and spectators catch sight of a Hispanic guy using a thick stick as a cane, moving slowly into the clearing. He’s obviously struggling—his stride is off, and he’s using the stick only halfway into the race. But he doesn’t stop. Villalobos hobbles back into the woods for his third lap, and, when he emerges again, he goes right on for the fourth.

Volunteers watch with concern and hope. The finish line looks increasingly like a ghost town as people pack up and go home.

In the woods, Villalobos repeatedly thumps the stick beside him like a third leg, occasionally griping to Sal, when no one else is around. He shuffles down the singletrack, over little wooden bridges, through brush and pine needles and endless roots as the sun rises.

“Pine trees and roots, that’s all it is,” Villalobos says. “What happens is you do four laps, and on the last lap all the roots have grown a foot.”

When he exits toward the finish for the last time, he is hunched over his stick, barely taking steps. He looks like he’s aged several years in a single night. In the miles since the last aid station, he’s fallen 20 minutes behind the cut-off time.

But he has “finished.” Racers and volunteers have tears in their eyes as he crosses the line. He doesn’t get an official finish time, but the race organizers give him a finisher’s belt, “because they said I was tough,” Villalobos says.

“When he sets out to do something, he just finishes it,” Villalobos’s running buddy Gerardo (Gerry) Ramirez says. “We’ve been through some races, in snow, like knee-deep snow, races where we’re drenched in mud; we’ve been hailed on, but I’ve learned not to give up because of him.”

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“The same mountains. The same hut system. We both grew up in New England. We both went to Middlebury College.

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Dragonflies flitted above weary runners lying in the grass within the Placer High School track like forgotten rag dolls. Families braved the heat to support their broken-down kin, bringing water, … Continue reading "Wisdom"

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“I didn’t like running at first, I really didn’t. I don’t know many people that actually do love it right from the get-go.”—Gina Lucrezi Lucrezi, founder of Trail Sisters, a … Continue reading "Watch: Gina Lucrezi, of Trail Sisters"

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There’s a breed of trail runner not only finishing out front at nationally competitive races, they’re raising their children along the way. The challenge of being a mom may not … Continue reading "Moms on the Run"

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As we departed from his car, Ted Winters, 78, hunched over, shuffled with determination toward the trailhead, saying, “It ain’t gonna be speedy, but we’re gonna get there.” We were … Continue reading "Ted Winters’ Long Run"

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When Shaun Martin talks about running, he first addresses the “why.” “We run first to celebrate life,” he says, “to celebrate all the things the great ancestors have blessed us … Continue reading "The “Why”"

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Jenny Tough walked through the doors of Kyrgyzstan’s mountaineering office in a bright purple shirt and even brighter teal running shorts, blond hair pulled back in a ponytail. Tough, a … Continue reading "Tough as Nails"

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On June 28, 2013, Adam Casey left his apartment in downtown San Diego, alone, and drove east on Highway 15, straight into the blistering heat of the Nevada desert. He had one goal for the … Continue reading "To Hell and Back"

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Legend has it that Buzz Burrell once hitchhiked 80 miles away from his home in Boulder, Colorado, and ran back on remote trails for two days carrying not much more than a straw and a … Continue reading "Father of the Fastest Known Time"

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The Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run: The horse-race-cum-footrace, from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California, is where legends are born and where runners go to launch themselves into the elite ultrarunning scene. It carries some of … Continue reading "The Cowboys VS Everybody—Even Themselves"

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Every year, there are many a dark-horse article about the next up-and-comer, the fastest trail runner you’ve never heard of, the kid to watch out for. But, seriously, check out Liz Canty’s results on UltraSignup … Continue reading "You Can’t Stop Liz Canty"

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With less than 20 minutes left before the 30-hour cutoff at the 2017 Western States 100, cheers erupted as Scotty Mills reached the Placer High School track in Auburn, California. Blond-haired, with boyish looks and … Continue reading "Old School Hero"

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Evening had fallen, and Pete Ripmaster was alone in the Alaskan wilderness. He was 196 miles into a 1,000-mile Iditarod footrace and had come upon the most dangerous part. It was February 2016. The passage … Continue reading "A Race to Make Even Hardened Ultrarunners Cower"

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Excerpted from THE PURSUIT OF ENDURANCE: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience by Jennifer Pharr Davis, published April 10, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Jennifer Pharr Davis. Chapter Eight: The Science of Endurance Since 2015, Shawn Bearden, professor of exercise … Continue reading "The Pursuit of Endurance: Harnessing the Record-Breaking Power of Strength and Resilience"

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Running in the woods behind her parents house as a child, Bobbi Gibb felt free—like Athena or Aphrodite. She ran on equestrian trails, climbed rocks and trees. She experienced the miraculousness of nature and felt a sense of empowerment as she ran. The world whirled by. “I discovered that I felt wonderful when I ran … Continue reading "The First Woman to Run Boston Trained on the Trails"

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A 400-mile bike tour from Vienna to Venice was Kristin Gablehouse’s idea of a perfect vacation with her cyclist husband. The pair had been planning and saving for the two-week trip for years, and the 37-year-old, experienced trail runner was in the best shape of her life when they left their Boulder, Colorado, home in … Continue reading "From Traumatic Brain Injury to 100 Miles"

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“A friend of mine saw three bears here last week,” Rich Hooper says by way of introducing me to his favorite trail, a steep, rocky loop above his hometown of Basalt, Colorado. He usually runs it alone, but he’s made an exception today, so I huff quietly and do my best to keep up. “If … Continue reading "Vietnam Veteran Rich Hooper Finds Peace on the Trails"

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Liza Howard believes in mantras. During the recent USATF 50-Mile Championship race, as she was picking people off, she cheerfully shouted, “Make way for the old runners!” Then, a while later, she talked to her cramping calf. “Come on, buddy. I know we can do this.” Then, “Just three more miles.” Then, “I don’t want … Continue reading "Liza Howard Began Her Ultra Career Just 9 Years Ago"

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Liza Howard believes in mantras. During the recent USATF 50-Mile Championship race, as she was picking people off, she cheerfully shouted, “Make way for the old runners!” Then, a while later, she talked to her cramping calf. “Come on, buddy. I know we can do this.” Then, “Just three more miles.” Then, “I don’t want … Continue reading "Liza Howard Began her Ultra Career Just 7 Years Ago"

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Early on the morning of September 29, 2017, Tom Green shuffled through the woods of Abingdon, Virginia, pushing a jogging stroller. Momentarily he lifted his fingers from the handlebar, but he began to fall over. Quickly, grabbed back on. He knew generally that he was on the trail but his vision was blurry—as though he … Continue reading "After A Near-Fatal Brain Injury, Tom Green Runs 100 Miles"

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French ultraunner Francois D’Haene, 31, spent more than a year conceptualizing and outlining his recent attempt of the 222-mile John Muir Trail (JMT) speed record, which he successfully accomplished on October 17. His speed record arrived less than two months after he set the course record at the 106-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc—his third time winning … Continue reading "How Francois D’Haene Set the John Muir Trail FKT Two Months After Winning UTMB"

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Three-quarters through the 2016 Quad Dipsea, a 28-mile rain-soaked mudfest on the famed Dipsea trail north of San Francisco, Jamil Coury, 32, of Phoenix, Arizona, and Schuyler Hall, 28, of Walnut Creek, California, hammer down the trail while holding two gilded, dog-sized faux reindeer adorned with bells and holiday ornaments. Coury also holds a camera … Continue reading "Mountain Outpost, The Jackass of Ultrarunning"

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This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Trail Runner magazine. Red zephyrs of dust whirred from the feet of nervous racers as they anticipated the start of the Collegiate Peaks 25-Mile Trail Run. It was a May morning in the early 2000s, in Buena Vista, Colorado. A truck pulled up towing a trailer painted … Continue reading "Remembering Burro Racer Curtis Imrie"

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At 4 a.m. on September 15, Darcy Piceu stood at the trailhead to California’s Mount Whitney, surrounded by a small group of friends. She wore a pack with everything she’d need for the next 42 miles. The stress of the past few days—the travel, the frenzy of organizing crew and securing a last-minute permit—melted away. … Continue reading "Darcy Piceu Sets Women’s FKT on John Muir Trail"

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Hillary Allen doesn’t remember much about falling off the edge of Hamperokken ridge. What she does remember is in fragments: a stumble, a feeling of freefalling, trying to grab onto something to stop her momentum. She remembers lying on a bed of talus, utterly shocked and in extraordinary pain. She’d been nearly halfway through the … Continue reading "After Near-Fatal Fall, Hillary Allen Finds Strength in Silver Linings"

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Founded in 2015, Portugal’s PT281+ race was designed to mimic two of the world’s most difficult ultras: Badwater 135, which takes place in the insane heat of California’s Death Valley, and the Brazil 135, which is famous for its extreme humidity and huge climbs. The race travels 281 kilometers, or 175 miles, through Beira Baixa, a region … Continue reading "Photo Gallery: A Badwater-esque Race in Portugal"

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Michael Wardian bounced around his kitchen in split shorts and a yellow-orange race tee, compiling his breakfast. It was 7 a.m. on a Thursday. From counter nooks and refrigerator shelves, he produced one pear, one apple, two bananas, two packets of instant oatmeal, a cup of baby food, a large brioche-looking bun and a 16-ounce … Continue reading "Michael Wardian, the Running Man"

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When the blast of a starting gun sent the runners on their way in the first wave of last summer’s Pikes Peak Ascent in the town of Manitou Springs, Colorado, Joe Gray was nowhere to be found. As Andy Wacker, Eric Blake and other top competitors sprung from the starting line of the fast wave, … Continue reading "Shades of Gray: The Story Behind Top Trail Runner Joseph Gray"

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“Trail running made me an asshole.” Amid a mindless scroll through my Facebook feed, I braked. Not because Emelie’s powerful and honest declaration stood out amid a feed full of humble bragging and lookwhere-I-am selfies. Though it certainly did. I stopped because I knew exactly what she meant. And that right there is one of … Continue reading "How Not to Be an Asshole"

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It is pitch-black dark in the woods, just past 3 a.m., when I see the eyes. They catch in my headlamp beam, yellow and beady and low to the ground, about 15 feet in front of me. My legs freeze while my heart turns into a jackhammer. I can now see the full body of … Continue reading "Washington’s Issaquah Alps are a Hidden Wilderness"

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Andrew Hamilton has never won a race. He has never even gotten close to a podium. But when it comes to big peak linkups, he has put down times that many of the country’s best trail runners can’t touch. The 42-year-old Denver native has held the record for summiting all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks—14ers, in … Continue reading "Andrew Hamilton Sets Two (More) Nolan’s 14 FKTs"

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The Western States 100—the oldest and most competitive 100-miler in the U.S.— looms just a few days away, June 24-25, 2017. The race routinely attracts a deep field full of talented elite runners, but, this year, one runner in particular will have everyone’s attention: Jim Walmsley. Last year, Walmsley took a wrong turn at mile … Continue reading "Jim Walmsley Prepares for His Return to Western States"

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Fifteen minutes after crossing the finish line of the 2016 Leona Divide 50 in Lake Hughes, California, Alison Chavez is standing on the side of the road spilling gallon jugs of water over her head. She has taken off her finisher’s medal, “F*ck Cancer” trucker hat and hot-pink tank top, and aims the water strategically … Continue reading "How Cancer-Survivor Alison Chavez Tackled the Western States 100"

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The parallels between Timothy Olson and a modern-day, trail-running Jesus go well beyond his long flowing hair and sinewy, tan body. Olson rose to glory early in his running career, around 30 years old, and developed a substantial following with his racing and mindfulness teachings. Then he all but disappeared from the scene. His racing … Continue reading "Timothy Olson’s Return to Competition"

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Hal Winton, a longtime co-director of the Angeles Crest 100, died last week in Torrance, California. He was 85. His daughter, Cynthia Winton-Henry, said the likely cause was prostate cancer. An institution for almost three decades, Angeles Crest has shaped the local ultrarunning scene and inspired generations of runners. Winton—“Uncle Hal,” to those who knew … Continue reading "Hal Winton, a Driving Force Behind the Angeles Crest 100, Dies at 85"

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No one was there to watch as Leor Pantilat pushed hard, well past midnight, along a windswept ridge high in California’s Sierra Mountains, looking like he always does when he is in his element—filthy and focused, pitching his lean frame forward to conquer mountains. At 12,000 feet the temperature was in the 20s, but it … Continue reading "Leor Pantilat Runs For the Love of Mountains"

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On the afternoon of April 3, 2017, practically the entire trail running world watched as Gary Robbins sprinted his way to a DNF at the Barkley Marathons, having become disoriented in the final miles of the race and accidentally taking a wrong trail back to camp. Even the race’s founder, Lazarus Lake, was shocked. “The … Continue reading "Gary Robbins Shares His Barkley Journey"

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Practically overnight, John Kelly became a household name in trail running. Over the weekend, he battled his way to a finish at the Barkley Marathons, becoming the 15th finisher at what is arguably the hardest 100-miler in the country, if not the world. But before Monday, most trail runners had never heard of him. That’s … Continue reading "Born and Bred in the Briars"

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As more road and track athletes have moved into ultrarunning, records have fallen and new stars have emerged. But none of those recent crossovers have the raw marathon speed of Nick Arciniaga. Arciniaga, a professional marathoner with a stellar 2:11:30 PR, 23 career marathon finishes and a win at the 2013 U.S. Marathon Championships, has now … Continue reading "Ultrarunning Gets Its First 2:11 Marathoner"

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When Morgan Elliott learned that he would be racing breakout trail-running star Jim Walmsley at the 2016 Franklin Mountains Trail Run 50K in El Paso, Texas, his response was, “I’m gonna beat him.” Elliott, then a promising but little-known 24-year-old, went out strong and hung on for the first 10 or so miles. But he … Continue reading "How Morgan Elliott, Free-Spirited and Ambitious, Climbed to Skyrunning Success"

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Gina Slaby has won every single trail race she’s ever entered. Except for one. On December 10, 2016, she came in eighth place at the Desert Solstice 24-hour race. The reason she came in eighth is not because she bonked, nor because she was too slow. It’s because halfway through the race she decided to …

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