Two long dark braids sprout from the base of her skull, which is covered by a mesh cap and a head-lamp. With her rugged-looking Montrails laced tight and triple-knotted for good luck, she flicks on her light. She looks like she's prepared to go spelunking in a cave but instead sets out at a brisk trot, sticking to a trail that traces the south face of the Boise Foothills. It's 5 a.m. and darker than the inside of a cow, but Joelle Vaught's eyes glisten with an alert focus that keeps her on her feet.
Ever since winning the Where's Waldo 100-kilometer ultramarathon last year and being crowned the U.S. national champion female ultrarunner for that distance, Vaught has been on a mission to compete at the 2010 Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile trail run in the eastern Sierras that boasts 18,000 feet of climbing and an average high temperature in the 90s.
At first blush, the difference between winning a 62-mile race (100K) and a 100-mile race seems huge--a 38-mile difference, in fact. But the reality is that anything longer than the traditional marathon length of 26.2 miles is considered an ultramarathon, and to most people, even the thought of attempting such a long run borders on insanity.
To many accomplished runners, however, the ultramarathon is becoming the next step in a progression toward satisfying their enduring obsession with long distance running.
"It is starting to appeal to a much wider audience these days," said Gregg Mizuta, co-owner of Bandanna Running and Walking. To illustrate his point, Mizuta explained that Bandanna has carried UltraRunning Magazine for years. It used to be a black-and-white newsprint item that "looked like it was published from somebody's basement," said Mizuta. Now, it is a full-color glossy, and each month his store's copies sell out.
Ultrarunning is still unconventional enough that it tends to draw athletes who are quirky at best and completely weird at worst. There are hyperbolic self-marketers, like Dean Karnazes, who blog, write books and constantly strive for new levels of extremism. In addition to running a world record distance of 320 miles without stopping, Karnazes made history again in 2006 by running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the humble hermits like Scott Jurek.
Jurek lives under the radar, hiding in plain sight in Seattle. He subsists on a vegan diet and channels his recently deceased mother as he meditates his way through 24-hour runs on a track. He also possesses the longest winning streak at the Western States Endurance Run, and he owned the course record until it was broken several weeks ago. He's won that race as many times as Lance Armstrong has won the Tour de France but has earned only a small fraction of Armstrong's fame.
Boise resident Vaught is relatively new to the ultrarunning scene, but with a background as an adventure racer, she is no stranger to pain. Vaught spent several years competing internationally in multi-day multi-sport events but made the transition to ultrarunning two years ago in order to spend more time with her son. She and her husband are dedicated parents and often tag-team their training hours and child-watching hours.
In a sport that's infamous for extremists and eccentrics, what is most striking about Vaught is what a traditional life she leads. She's a mother, a wife and works part-time as a neurodiagnostic technologist. Although she dedicates 10 to 20 hours each week to running, she doesn't track her miles with a GPS and claims to rarely wear a watch. She doesn't even have a coach or even adhere to a strictly periodized training cycle. And her favorite night-before-racing meal is usually pizza followed by ice cream. A certain amount of compulsion is almost required for success in ultra-endurance events, but by all appearances, Vaught isn't compulsive at all.
If compulsive is what Vaught is not, then what is she? After joining her on one of her shorter runs she seems, above all else, happy.
"Ultrarunning to me is about being on the trails, enjoying nature, pushing my body, and sharing it with so many others who have similar passions," she said.
Her uncomplicated approach has led to unprecedented success. Backed by Montrail as a sponsor, Vaught was never outside of the top three finishers in her first two years of competing in ultras.
In the earliest hours of June 27, Vaught finished Western States, her first 100-mile race. After spending 80 percent of the race vying for the lead with the eventual first female finisher, Tracy Garneau, Vaught surrendered five places in the last 20 miles to become the seventh female finisher. Despite battling stomach issues throughout the second half of the race, Vaught's top-10 result and elapsed time of just over 20 hours is almost unheard of in a sport that favors experience over youth.
Less than a week after finishing, Vaught's eye-of-the-tiger gleam has already returned. When asked whether she would consider participating again next year, she responded, "I gotta do better!"