One of the country’s top ultra distance runners is walking through the parking lot of a Panera Bread in Louisville, Ky., on a Thursday afternoon. She has a faded tattoo around one ankle, sunbleached hair, the type of tan one gets from hours upon hours spent outdoors, and most of her toenails — at least for now.
Traci Falbo is a legend. But she’s a legend in the quintessential ultra runner way — meaning no one, other than me, recognizes her at this restaurant. In fact, even I was worried I wouldn’t recognize her in person, and I’m a huge fan.
But Falbo, who lives just across the river from me in southern Indiana, wasn’t always a runner. In fact, she hasn’t even been a runner for very long.
Just 13 years ago, Falbo started running to lose weight. She was 31 years old and the mother of two. Over the course of 15 months, she lost 80 pounds and decided — like so many of us do — that she wanted to run a marathon.
From 2004-2006, she ran a marathon a year.
“Then I stopped, because I didn’t like the long runs,” she told me.
In fact, she didn’t even know ultras existed at the time.
But she began a quest to run a marathon in all 50 states, she ended up running some back-to-back marathon days.
“If I’m going to fly all the way out to Washington, I might as well try to get Oregon while I’m out there,” she said. “And one of my friends said if I could do back-to-back marathons, I could probably do a 50 miler.”
As of Labor Day, she’s run 101 marathons — one in every state, plus 21 first-place finishes.
Her first foray into ultra running was in 2011 — and she made her first Team USA in 2013.
“I didn’t know I would be good at going longer,” she said, but by trying new distances and terrains, she found her niche.
A niche that includes being the American Record holder and World Indoor Track Record holder in the 48-hour event — 242.093 miles.
Yes. Slightly more than 242 miles run on an indoor track. I once ran 144 laps on an indoor track, which I thought was a pretty impressive accomplishment.
Falbo encourages other runners to explore the possibilities, too. It’s less intimidating than one might think — her training is not much more than what many marathoners put in — 50-60 miles a week and occasionally 70-80 when training for “longer” races. She supplements her training with strength training for her hips, core, glutes and hamstrings three times a week.
Trail running and ultra marathons gave Falbo a chance to add variety to her running, something that she was missing when she decided to stop running marathons.
“I think branching out in running is a good thing,” she said. “You can be too serious about running and take the fun out of it — you don’t have to do everything better every time.”
Falbo made the U.S. national team for the 24-Hour event in 2013 and 2015, completed the Grand Slam of Ultra Running in 2013 (four prestigious 100 mile races in four months), and held the American record for 100 miles on trail from November 2014 to February 2015. She also has a silver medal from the IAU 24-Hour World Championships in 2015, where she ran 148.9675 miles in Torino, Italy.
And here I am, having tea with her at Panera — and she’s brought me a neon Nathan water pack — a loaner, because I’m headed to West Virginia in a couple of weeks with a solo 22-miler planned.
The week I met with her, the official invitations for the 100k national team had just been sent out. Falbo was already a lock for the team as the reigning national champion for the 100k Road event.
She earned the title in April at the MadCity races held in Madison, Wis. Falbo didn’t take the lead until 80k but showed her strength as races get longer, winning the women’s division by more than 45 minutes — all gained over that last 20k. She was the sixth finisher overall.
She then headed to South Africa in May for the Comrades Marathon (actually 56 miles), and then to the Burning River 100 miler in Ohio in August. Despite a number of falls at Burning River, she still finished first female and third overall, punching her ticket to Western States for a fourth consecutive year (although she hopes to not be drawn for 2017, because the race is right around the same time as the 24-hour championships).
Falbo is proud to have made four national teams, and loves representing her country in international competition. But — and this may come as a surprise — it is also expensive. The USATF partially funds the ultra running teams, and the International Association of Ultrarunners contributes some funding as well.
Normally, lodging and food at the race location are included for a few days and part of the airfare. Being on a U.S. National team is, in many ways, like going to an international race on your own.
Of course, you do get to wear that big USA across your chest.
“We get the same kits as the Olympians,” Falbo said, although they’ll still be wearing the 2012 kits for November’s race.
In the past, Falbo has held silent auctions to help cover her World Championship expenses, but decided this year it is just too much trouble. With a senior in high school, she’s juggling a demanding race schedule with college visits and scholarship applications.
Instead, she’s relying on visits to her AthleteBiz.us page, through which customers can shop at Running Warehouse and Falbo receives credit for the purchase. She can also be supported by shopping other sponsors linked on her site, TraciFalbo.com.