Had her original plan worked out, Jen Pfeifer would be deep into training right now for the Olympic women’s marathon trials in January. She’d be pounding it out daily on the unforgiving asphalt, obsessing over mile splits, wedded to the watch, shaving seconds off track intervals, all the while pushing her body to the brink of injury.
Instead, how about this for a Plan B? Spending hours on the Sacramento, Calif.-area trails, careening down canyons and soaring over winding hills, negotiating rocks and roots as if on some madcap obstacle course, all the while repelling surges from mud-splattered pursuers en route to winning six of her eight trail ultramarathons in 2011.
Getting injured and sick this time last year — just as she was peaking for a marathon in Arizona that she hoped would be her Olympic Trials qualifier — could have unintentionally been the best thing for her running.
Pfeifer is not ready to go quite that far. She will miss the experience of competing in the Olympic Trials, which she did in 2008. And she worries that, nearing 40, she might not get another chance.
But a bigger part of her is happy with her decision to jump off the road-marathon hamster wheel and hit the trails, where she excelled a decade ago as a three-time Western States 100 Mile finisher and elite 50-mile and 50K competitor.
“I was struggling with [marathon training], honestly,” Pfeifer said. “I got injured a couple of times and then I was getting ready for Phoenix and got horribly ill. I finally realized I needed to change something. I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore.
“I felt I was beating my head against the wall. I’d switch things up, drop mileage, increase mileage. For whatever reason, it wasn’t coming together.”
Time, then, to go back to her roots. Literally.
After letting her body heal, Pfeifer returned to racing last January by winning the vertically challenging Pacifica 50K. She followed that with victories at the Jed Smith 50K in Sacramento, Calif., the (Mount) Diablo Trails 50K, the Silver State 50K in Reno, Nev., the Auburn 50K and the Run on the Sly 50K in Pollock Pines, Calif. She also placed third last April in the American River 50 Mile race, one of the nation’s most competitive.
And, just to show she hadn’t completely forsaken the roads, Pfeifer recently easily won the inaugural Half Moon Bay International Marathon — a road-trail hybrid — in 3 hours, 5 minutes, 57 seconds. The time, at first blush, made Pfeifer blanch. She has run 2:46 on the road, after all. She was hoping to run under 3 hours on the hilly course.
“There was a point in that race where I sort of had to let go of my marathon mentality,” she said, laughing.
The tyranny of the clock does not rule in trail and ultramarathons. Each course is different and exceedingly more vertical and technical than a road course. Hydration and fueling is much more crucial, too, and pure speed, while still important, is only one of many factors determining the outcome — hill climbing, acumen on descents and overall endurance among them.
Few top runners have excelled on both types of running at the same time, mostly because few have attempted it. An elite runner’s window of success is relatively small, and most have chosen to exclusively race on either road or trail.
Yet that might be changing. Top women trail runners Caitlin Smith and Devon Crosby Helms have qualified for January’s Olympic marathon trials, in between their ultra triumphs. And, among men, the indefatigable Michael Wardian has toggled between road and ultras at a dizzying rate. This past summer, he ran a 2:17:49 road marathon to qualify for the Olympic Trials and finished second in the world 100K (62 miles) championships.
Wardian’s message for Pfeifer and others is that being road-ready and trail-conditioned are not mutually exclusive. It’s more mental than physical, he says.
“You have to really change the way you’re thinking,” Wardian said. “On the road, there’s not a lot of chance for error and you really have to be on top of your game. But on the trails, it’s a long, long day. A lot can happen.
“I’m glad to see [runners’ attitudes] are changing. It’s cool to be able to do both. I love the big-time [road] races and everything, but the atmosphere [at trail ultras] is low key and really nice. Sometimes, you know, I just feel like running trails. Other times, I want to do roads. Basically, if you put it in front of me, I’ll run it.”
Making the physical and mental adjustments are not so easy for runners not named Wardian.
Rich Hanna, the Run to Feed the Hungry race director and 2001 world silver medalist in the 100K, says making the transition is all about mindset.
“If you’re looking at your watch and used to running on the bike trail and checking your splits, it’s going to be totally different on the trails,” Hanna said. “Even though on the trails you might feel like you’re running fast, your watch tells you something different. It’s all about the terrain you’re running.
“But there’s nothing like trail running. It’s great, living where we live, because this is a place [where] a runner can do both. We have all-weather tracks, the bike trail and drive 30 minutes (to Folsom or Auburn, Calif.) for great trails.”
Pfeifer, who lives in El Dorado Hills, Calif., may have returned to racing trail ultras, but she says she has not abandoned all of her road-runner’s training principles. She still can be found most Tuesdays doing interval training around a track with her road buddies.
The only difference is, on weekends she heads out for four-hour trail runs with her buddies on the Fleet Feet Fair Oaks ultra team.
“I’m trying to train like a marathoner during the week and then like an ultramarathoner on weekends,” she said. “Of course, 100-mile [race] training is different. I hope to do Western States in the summer.”
It’s a fallacy to assume that ultrarunners don’t need speed, she said. She concedes that the road runner in her doesn’t like to be reduced to walking on severe uphills in ultra races, but she’s slowly coming to terms with the relative slowness of marathon-plus distances.
“Once you become a pretty experienced trail runner, you can get away with a minimal amount [days per week] of trail running,” she said. “It’s really the speed that’s going to benefit you.
“The guys I train with (on trails), we’ll say, ‘OK, let’s run what we might consider race pace for the next 20 minutes.’ We don’t say, ‘Oh, it’s got to be a 7:20 pace.’ You just can’t have that on the trails. Your time can be all over the place.”
It can be disorienting, even wearing a GPS watch, trying to run for time, rather than pace, on the trails. In August, Pfeifer had a comfortable lead on all other women in the Run on the Sly 50K. But she was shooting to best the course record for a monetary bonus.
“I knew I wanted to run 4:33, but I didn’t know how that was going to play out on the course,” she said. “So, what I did was, the parts I could run hard, I’d run hard. And the other parts I was, well, not walking but running very slowly. I had a couple 11 minute-miles in there on the hills. But I never paid attention to the splits. I was just going by feel.”
Hanna says that runners may be going slower on the trails, but “you’re gaining strength and that can help on the roads, too.”
For now, Pfeifer is having too much fun — and winning too many races — wearing water-resistant trail shoes to revert to her road-racing flats. She felt that one reason she failed to thrive on the road last year was because “I was missing that base strength I had years before running trails.”
Strength shouldn’t be a problem if Pfeifer ever decides to go back. Her next race is the Nov. 26 Quadruple Dipsea — four scalings of Mount Tamalpais, from Mill Valley, Calif., to Stinson Beach, Calif., and back twice. Pfeifer will be squaring off against defending and course record holder champion Caren Spore of Davis, Calif.
“I’m looking forward to it,” Pfeifer said. “I had never been able to do the Quad because I’d always been locked into the CIM [the first week of December]. It should be fun.”
Jen Pfeifer’s 2011 trail results
• Jan. 23: Pacifica 50K, 1st, 4:52.32
• Feb. 5: Jed Smith 50K, 1st, 3:45.39
• March 19: Diablo Trail 50K, 1st, 5:46.05
• April 9: American River 50 Mile, 3rd, 7:04.09
• April 30: Quicksilver 50K, 2nd, 4:56.41
• May 21: Silver State 50K, 1st, 4:52.04
• June 4: Auburn 50K, 1st, 5:17.53
• Aug. 21: Run on the Sly 50K, 1st, 4:33.22
• Sept. 25: Half Moon Bay International Marathon (road-trail hybrid), 1st, 3:05.57