Racing Across the Sky
Alexandria native Adam Bybliw knows his latest passion sounds crazy to most people.
"After 70, 80 miles, everything in your body screams to stop," Bybliw said. "But if you can win those mental battles and say, 'Everything hurts at this point. It hurts to walk. It hurts to run. I'm just going to run anyway, then you stand a chance."
Bybliw is part of a small class of runners known as ultramarathoners, athletes who battle any race distance longer than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon.
Bybliw's most recent race challenge in August of 2017 started at the intersection of 6th Street and Harrison Avenue in sleepy Leadville, Colorado. He and 650 other runners lined up at the starting line at 4 a.m. for the infamous Race Across the Sky.
In the Leadville Trail 100 Run, runners race through the heart of the Rocky Mountains, climbing and descending 15,600 feet. Elevations range between 9,200-12,620 feet above sea level. Most years, fewer than half of the starters complete the 100 mile race within the 30-hour time limit.
Bybliw finished his first 100 miler on the same course a year earlier. He finished 17th place in 21 hours and three minutes the first time.
"It went really well for my first 100 miler, but I knew I had room for improvement," he said.
There's a famous quote by race director and founder, Ken Chlouber, that Bybliw swears by: "The biggest distance to conquer in this 100 mile run is five inches... the five inches between your ears. If you can't control that five inches, you're dead meat out on the course."
Bybliw trained for a full year to face the tough mental battles that weighed on him in his first 100 mile race in hopes that things would go better a second time around.
"It's pretty much another part-time job, even full-time for a race like this," Bybliw said. "Each week, I'm probably doing 15, even 20 hours a week of running. For this particular race, there were no days off."
Bybliw's mental toughness was challenged by a stretch of the race called Hope Pass. Hope Pass is a single-track trail that climbs 3,300 feet over four miles to a height of 12,600 feet above sea-level. There's 35 percent less oxygen at these heights.
After Hope Pass, runners descend into an old historic mining ghost town, marking the halfway point of the race. Then runners turn around and face the brutal Hope Pass again.
"Hope Pass trashes even the most seasoned runner's legs," Bybliw said. "There's only so much you can do to prepare for it, but having it behind you is a huge relief. This is where the mental battle gets the best of you."
Bybliw won those mental battles the second time around, running the second fastest split for the last 25 miles of the race, crossing the finish line at 11:35 p.m. in eighth place. He bested his previous time by almost an hour and a half, covering 100.7 miles in 19 hours, 35 minutes and 21 seconds.
"I was gifted enough to race the 100 miles. But most people are out there just surviving," Bybliw said. "If I can keep my body healthy then I'm going to keep doing this for years."
Bybliw ran cross country at Jefferson High School before he graduated in 2000 but it wasn't until he and his wife, Holly, moved to Vail, CO that he started experimenting with longer distance running.
"The more I ran, the more I enjoyed it, but for different reasons than when I ran cross country in high school." Bybliw says. "I enjoyed the physical and mental challenge of pushing myself farther than what I thought possible."
In 2012, Bybliw ran his first marathon and finished 12th overall for his age group. He immediately signed up for a 50 mile trail race after the marathon. So began his ultramarathon career.
"There are plenty of excuses you can come up with for reasons not to go out. Poor weather. It's dark out. I just don't feel like it today," Bybliw said. "But it's pushing through those low energy and lot's of excuses days that pays big dividends in the end."
Bybliw is planning his 2018 race schedule now, and it's sure to include more ultramarathons.
"This is one of those rare sports where I think you get better with age. Luckily for me, at 36, that's a good thing," Bybliw said. "Every run I see something new. I enjoy the environment around me. I breath fresh air. I feel better. I challenge myself mentally and physically, and I grow stronger. If that isn't motivation to get out and run, I don't know what is."