“I recently started using one of your bottles on some adventure runs and recently in a local 50K race here in Portland, Oregon. I’m not a huge fan of racing with a pack and I prefer to run hands free when possible as I think it alters my running form in a negative way. Your bottles are the perfect solution and a great balance of shape and size.” This was part of the note I received from Brian Donnelly in June of this year. Being in the midwest I had not heard of Brian but I quickly got to know a bit more about him through our exchange of e-mails. Brian is relatively new to the ultra scene in the northwest but is making an immediate impact finishing on the podium in most races he enters. He simply loves to run trails and recently set the Oregon Pacific Crest Trail Speed Record. Read our interview about Brian and see why ultra runners need to keep an eye on him next year. We’re also pleased to announce that Brian Donnelly is the newest member of the Simple Hydration Ultra Elite Racing Team.
Name: Brian Donnelly
Location: Portland, Oregon
Q. Where did you grow up and how did you get into running?
A. I grew up in the California Bay Area and moved to the Sierra foothills (Auburn, CA) when I started high school. My first real connection to running came at the age of eleven when I entered a local turkey trot race. I think the race was about a mile. A bunch of kids sprinted off the line and were ahead of me for most of the race, but I slowly caught back up and passed everyone, winning the race and receiving a 14-pound turkey as a prize. That definitely made an impression, but I didn’t really get into running until I started high school and joined the cross country team.
Q. Did you run in high school and college?
A. I became very passionate about running when I started high school. I did cross country in the Fall, nordic skiing (skate skiing) in the Winter, and track in the Spring. My older brother was a standout cross country and track runner, so it felt natural to follow in his footsteps. I enjoyed modest success in high school. I was the fastest runner on my team (after my brother graduated) and would usually win or podium finish at all of my races. I was an all-league runner and competed in the state championships my senior year, finishing 10th in division III schools.
Nordic skiing was also something I enjoyed as it was a great way to maintain fitness through the Winter months. I finished 4th in the state meet my senior year and competed in the Junior Olympics national race in Alaska (where I got my butt kicked by a bunch of really fast skiers). I did OK in track, but didn’t have enough leg speed and wasn’t as interested in running in circles. I definitely preferred the trails and varied terrain of cross country and nordic skiing.
I didn’t run in college. I wasn’t quite good enough to get a running scholarship. I still enjoyed recreational running after high school, but my focus shifted toward excelling in academics. I worked my butt off during the school year and spent summers working as a whitewater rafting guide where most of my athletic focus centered around rock climbing and whitewater kayaking.
Q. What are your personal bests at various distances?
A. I’ve only recently started to devote my energy to trail and ultra racing. Last September I placed second at the Volcanic 50K race. This is a very tough and technical course that circumnavigates Mount Saint Helens in Washington. I took a nasty fall about 10 miles into the race and cracked a rib but still managed to keep my head in the race and hold onto a podium finish. In April of this year, I placed second in the TrailFactor 50K race in Portland’s Forest Park in a time of 3:45:54 (below the previous course record time). It was a very wet and muddy race, but overall I was happy with my time and performance. In July of this year I competed in the Mount Hood 50 (mile race) and managed to finish in third place (6:43:14) despite dealing with a shin injury leading up to the race. This was intended to be my focus race for the year. I was a bit bummed to lose some fitness prior to the race, but I was still pretty happy to finish on the podium amongst a competitive field of runners and my finishing time was the fifth fastest in the history of the race. Last year I also set an unofficial speed record on the 30.25 mile Wildwood trail in a time of 3:37:16.
Brian running strong on his way to a third place finish at Mount Hood in July.
I don’t have many other meaningful times to share as I haven’t done much racing until recently. I’m a very competitive person but tend to enjoy my routine of high intensity trail running more as a form of meditation and as training for long adventure runs in the mountains. Of course, I do keep track of times for many local trail loops and daily runs, and I’m pretty proud of some of those times.
Q. What do you do for a living and how do you manage to balance it with your running?
A. I make a living as a technical writer and work remotely (in my home office) a few days a week. The flexible schedule makes it a great career choice for me. I also happen to live on the edge of Portland’s somewhat famous 5,000-acre Forest Park. My property literally borders the park, so it’s very easy to step out my back door and run trails during my lunch break or after work. I’m pretty spoiled. I have huge respect for athletes that are forced to make bigger sacrifices to train, waking up early to fit in pre-dawn runs and driving to trailheads. I feel extremely fortunate.
Q. How did you get into trail and ultra running and how long have you been doing it?
A. Except for a few breaks, I’ve been running (mostly on trails) for the majority of my adult life. I’ve always enjoyed being out in nature and pushing myself physically and mentally. The real reward for my day-to-day training has mostly been found in long, ultra-distance adventure runs, spending long days ascending and circumnavigating mountains, crossing ridge lines and canyons. It’s just something I’ve always enjoyed doing. I was somewhat aware of ultrarunning from an early age as the famous Western States 100 mile race finishes on my high school track (at Placer high school). I was always very impressed witnessing the amazing feats of endurance as my brother and I would hang out on the course and cheer on the Western States runners. It is only recently that I’ve been lured into the ultra racing scene by an incredible community of local runners in the Portland area.
Q. You recently set the Oregon Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) Speed Record. What’s involved in attempting such an effort?
A. The self-supported Oregon PCT speed record was by far the toughest thing I’ve ever done. I dreamed about and prepared for the adventure for over a year. I researched and purchased a superlight sleeping system, studied maps, created a detailed itinerary, and trained my body for the journey. I knew it was going to include many high and low points, but I don’t think I was truly prepared mentally, and even physically, for what was to come. The trip included running roughly 470 miles across the state of Oregon with no outside support in less than eight days. I averaged about 57 miles per day. It was an intense and very rewarding adventure, something I will carry with me for the rest of my life. I wrote a detailed account of my trip, which was published at the excellent ultrarunning website irunfar.com. It’s worth reading for anyone interested in all of the gory details.
Q. Do you have any aspirations of attempting a similar or longer distance effort in the future?
I am very interested in similar adventures in the future. I will continue to compete in shorter and (eventually) longer ultra races, but I think I will always be more drawn to adventure runs. I didn’t really know how my body would react to running over 400 miles in a week. I definitely took a good pounding and I’ve since found out that it takes a while to recover from such an intense physical effort. With that said, I was a bit shocked to find myself scheming and dreaming about future adventures only days after completing the grueling PCT run. Right now I’m most interested in running (and possibly attempting a self-supported speed record on) the Wonderland trail which circumnavigates Mount Rainer in Washington. The trail is roughly 93 miles and includes about 22,000 feet of elevation gain. And now that I’ve run across Oregon on the PCT, I suppose running the Washington section of the PCT would be the next big adventure run to consider.
Q. What person(s) in running inspire(s) you?
A. I follow the ultra racing scene a bit and am definitely inspired by the ongoing display of incredible performances by elite runners. I also get a dose of inspiration from the longtime legends of the sport (Prefontaine is my hero), but I think I’m most inspired by the local guys and gals I get to run with and race against on a regular basis, guys like local ultrarunner Larry Stephens who, at the age of 57, ran four 100 mile races this summer. He not only finished the races with a big grin on his face, but ran impressive times. There’s the speedy and very talented Andrea Jarzombek-Holt, who always manages to lay it on the line and crush just about every race she enters. Yet she is such a humble and down-to-earth person. My friend Trevor Hostetler is another inspiration. The guy is the definition of tough. He’s the race director for some of the best local ultra races and has done just about every amazing endurance feat you can think of, including riding his bike 60 miles from Portland to the base of Mount Hood, summiting the 11,250 foot volcano, and then riding his bike back to Portland, all within a day. And, of course, there’s my good bud, Yassine Diboun. I was privileged to pace Yassine the last 20 miles of the Western States 100 this summer where he finished in the top 10. I was truly in awe of his determination as we charged the last few miles together. He was racing on pure guts and heart. It was incredible to witness and a huge inspiration. There are just so many examples of friends and fellow local runners that do amazing things and I draw inspiration from each one of them.
Q. What is your favorite race and why?
A. The Volcanic 50 is probably my favorite race. It circumnavigates an active volcano and includes some of the most beautiful and varied terrain in the region. It’s technical and with about 7,000 feet of elevation gain/loss, it will humble the most hardened runner. I also like that it is a very pure line around a mountain with no contrived loops or out-and-back sections. The race is also directed by a stellar group of people.
Q. What’s a typical week of training in your life right now?
A. Right now I’m still in the final stages of recovery following my epic run across Oregon. I’m running about 40 miles a week and starting to target hill work as a means of regaining some strength in my legs. I also like to do core strength training a few times a week to help with injury prevention. It won’t be long before I’m back to my typical training load of 70 to 90 miles per week with a good helping of tempo and hill work, all of it on trails.
Q. At what distance do you take water/hydration with you on a run?
A. I try to be pretty minimal with hydration and calories when I’m training. I usually only carry water and maybe a gel or two if I’m running more than 18 miles. It helps that I typically run in a mostly cool and forested area. If it’s hot or exposed, I will carry water on a 14 (or more) mile run.
Q. What was your reaction to the Simple Hydration Bottle when you first saw it?
A. I knew I had to try it when I found out about it. I was familiar with the concept of tucking a bottle into my waistband as I’d done it many times on longer runs after I had emptied all or most of a 20 oz bottle. I definitely prefer to run hands free and I think carrying a bottle impacts my running form and efficiency. But I never felt like I could get my larger, rounded bottle to sit on my hip the way I wanted. The Simple Hydration design seemed to be the perfect solution.
Q. What was your reaction to the Simple Hydration Bottle after using it?
A. It worked. It didn’t bounce. It was comfortable. I forgot it was even there. It was easy to pull out for a mouthful of water and slid easily back into place in my waistband. The concept and design perfectly complemented my minimalist approach to running.
Q. How do you use the bottle in your training?
A. I use the Simple bottle on long runs of 20 or more miles. I take it with me when I run in the Columbia river gorge or up high in the Cascade mountains where it’s easy to refill in the abundant small streams and creeks. I have also found that the bottle is invaluable when racing. I can run hands free and the bottle can be quickly and easily refilled at aid stations. It’s the perfect ultra racing bottle.
Q. What races do you have left in 2013 or do you have any focus races or efforts for 2014 planned yet?
A. I’m mostly using the remaining months of 2013 to recover from my Oregon PCT run and to rebuild some strength and speed. And while I don’t have any races planned for the remainder of 2013, I do hope to get in a few adventure runs in the mountains before the snow forces me onto backcountry skis. For 2014 I will put my name in the lottery for the Western States 100. I’d like to run the White River 50 miler in Washington, and I’ll likely race the Waldo 100K in Oregon. I’m sure I’ll also run some other local races, but I haven’t yet put together my complete racing calendar for next year. I also intend to do a few big adventure runs and speed record attempts, with the unsupported Wonderland trail speed record at the top of my ‘to do’ list.
You can follow Brian Donnelly’s running adventures on his blog.