Monday, August 16, 2010

Rocky roads await these two runners

Ken Bansemer's plan to run the Gore-Tex TransRockies Run started as a way for him to satisfy his thirst for adventure.

"I had been thinking about doing an ultra for awhile, but wasn’t sure I was ready to make the leap from a marathon to a 50-mile or 100-mile run – which generally takes place in one day only," says the 42-year-old Charlottean, a veteran of four marathons (PR: 4:13). "After reading about this race, I knew this was the kind of adventure I was seeking – it had manageable distances each day, but doing a challenging distance overall, in challenging terrain."

The 113-mile event begins in Buena Vista, Colo., and ends six days later in Beaver Creek, Colo. Entries are allowed only in pairs and rules dictate partners must stay within two minutes of one another throughout the race. If one drops out, the other also is finished.

As his teammate, Bansemer recruited Lynn Pettus, a 41-year-old Boston qualifier (PR: 3:47) who had been a training partner of his since the two met while prepping for the 2008 Disney Marathon through Team In Training. To date, they have completed three marathons together. "After Boston, I wanted to keep running but try something different," she recalls. "Ken approached me with this opportunity and it seemed like a great experience."

Then Bansemer came to a realization: If they were going to put forth this type of effort, they should raise money to benefit someone. Emmah Gudeman turned out to be an obvious choice for him.

"Emmah was the 13-year-old daughter of my friends Jeff and Julie Gudeman. She was the oldest of 6 kids – ages 3 – 13. I introduced her parents to each other about 18 years ago. I worked with Julie and was friends with Jeff. So in a way, I feel that I played a role in helping bring Emmah into this world." Emmah died in February after a four-year battle with neuroblastoma cancer.

So far they've raised more than $4,400, and the total still is growing.

They are flying to Colorado on Thursday, a few days early, to acclimate to the altitude. The race starts Aug. 22. Some days the runners will cover as many as 23 miles, some only 10, but each day they will be running between 8,000 and 12,000 feet above sea level on trails and narrow gravel roads, camping each night in a mobile tent city and taking five-minute showers in a shower truck.

And on Aug. 27, when the husband and father of two crosses the finish line with Pettus, they will be greeted by Emmah's parents Jeff and Julie, who are flying out from Joliet, Ill., "to share that special 'completed' moment with us," says Bansemer, "so they can also be a part of the celebration dinner, and so we can present them with the money we have raised."

I caught up with Bansemer and Pettus recently to talk about the challenge ahead.

Q. There are lots of ultramarathons out there. What appealed to you about this particular one?

Bansemer: Having never done an ultramarathon before, I knew I was ready to move beyond the marathon as I wasn’t going to get any quicker, and I always seek a challenge where I can do something different. I happened to read about this in Runner’s World about two years ago and it sounded appealing in a number of ways. Different distances each day, in a different state, on different terrain, at altitude. Also the fact that we would be sleeping in tents at night -- something I’ve done maybe twice in my life -- and running in teams, which were limited to a total of 200. It had all the elements of a unique experience that I was looking for, and was going to be a challenge to boot.

Q. What kind of training have you been doing to get ready for this challenge?

Pettus: A lot of running! I also do quite a bit of cross training -- cycling, yoga, Pilates, and weights.

Bansemer: We have been following a training plan set forth on the TransRockies website. Since January we have been running longer miles each week. My weekly mileage peaked at about 65 miles two weeks ago. It used to be that running 25 miles in a week seemed like a lot, and even for my previous marathons, I never ran more than 35 miles or so a week. Now, going out for a 15-miler seems like nothing, and I don’t fret about it. I learned from another friend who has done many ultramarathons that the key to be prepared is getting in back-to-back long runs on the weekend to get your legs prepared to run while tired. It is so true. Unlike previous training, there haven’t been any days in the past few months where I wake up with sore legs. Tired maybe, but not sore. So I take that as a good sign. There is really no way to replicate running the hills we are going to face, or training at altitude, so the best I have been able to do is some training runs recently at Crowders Mountain, and doing incline runs on a treadmill. Since January, I’ve logged about 850 miles, and had to take six weeks off for a broken rib and another three weeks for an Achilles injury.

Q. You've said this isn't about being competitive or winning, but about finishing -- and about the cause. Finishing in and of itself will be a huge accomplishment. Have you already laid out a strategy? What is it?

Pettus: The most important "strategy" is to enjoy the experience. We will be surrounded by beautiful scenery and participants with similar interests. Winning for me is enjoying the journey. That said, we will probably take Day 1 slow and thoughtfully. I definitely want to feel good going into Day 2.

Q. Lynn, what's your running relationship with Ken like?

Pettus: We do talk quite a bit about running, new gear, how we feel, but we also talk about politics, current events, career. When it gets tough (in Colorado) -- and I know it will -- Ken has my back and can motivate me to keep going. I hope I do the same for him.

Q. Ken, was it difficult to get your wife to sign off on this partnership?

Bansemer: Since I have been married to Brenda for 14 years, and running for about 10 of those, she has always been supportive of my passion to do races every so often, but I knew this time was different. This would be a huge time commitment for me, and put extra burden on her to take care of the kids on weekends when I ran long. But how does she say no when she knows this is a challenge, and I am doing it to help out our friends and honor Emmah! Brenda was sitting in the room with me when I spoke to Jeff on the phone and brought up running a race for Emmah and after that she was bought in as well. She does know that I am a goal-oriented person, and that I need these goals to keep me motivated to keep on doing my running. Plus, Brenda has known Lynn [who is not married] since our training for Disney -- Brenda also ran the half-marathon there that year -- so she knows that running together gets each of us out the door each weekend as a commitment to one another.

Q. What's your biggest fear going into the race?

Bansemer: During the past few months I haven’t thought about the challenges too much, but as the race is approaching, I am getting nervous about only one thing: the hills. The miles of hills. I don’t believe I am properly prepared to tackle them for long periods of time. The altitude doesn’t worry me at all -- although others are telling me I should be worried -- nor does the distance worry me, as that is why the TransRockies run had an appeal. Fortunately, I recognize all sorts of people try to do this run -- this is the fourth year -- and that they are able to accomplish it. It will not be easy, but if it was, I probably wouldn’t do it. Of course, if you look at the race course, Day 2 looks quite intimidating. It's only 10 miles that day, the shortest distance of the six days, but it looks like it is straight uphill for the first five miles.

Pettus: My biggest fear is the altitude. I feel strong and healthy, but the highest I have trained was 6,500 feet, on Mount Mitchell. And blisters!

Q. In the end, what do you expect or hope to get out of this experience?

Pettus: I have told others I hope this will be a spiritual adventure. I have never been to the Rockies, and am very excited about the unknown. Also, I am viewing this as a "detox" from everyday life.

Bansemer: I would like to think this brings confirmation that if you put your mind to do something that may seem impossible at first, you can do it. The body achieves what the mind believes. However, driving me the past eight months has been thinking about Emmah. … I have worn my "KEEP EMMAH IN YOUR HEART" bracelet every day since her passing in February, and it serves as a constant reminder for me that when times are tough, there is someone who had it even tougher and fought until the end. I think when I cross the finish line on Aug. 27, there is going to be a flood of various emotions – relief, satisfaction, joy and sorrow. (Colorado) was one of Emmah’s favorite places. (Her parents) will be able to participate in the celebration dinner with all the runners on that Friday night, and I hope by then all the other runners will know their story as well. It will be a special moment for me, and I am sure for them. This journey I have been on in celebrating Emmah’s life, and doing a run a few years ago I wouldn’t have thought possible, will be coming to an end. Then it will be a time for a new beginning and a new journey for me – most likely the attempt at a true one day ultra. Just don’t tell my wife.

Ken Bansemer regularly updates his blog,, and promises to do so throughout the race. You may make contributions at the site.
Observer special correspondent Melinda Johnston contributed to this report.