Tommy Barlow-2016 Grand Slam of ultra running finisher

“I learned to never count myself out no matter how bad I was feeling, and that there was always a second wind just around the corner as long as I maintained belief.” ~ Tommy B

Thanks so much for making the time to chat. Let's start at the beginning. How did you get into running? 

I am probably the unlikeliest of runners because growing up I really did not like it at all and never ran more than a mile for the first 31 years of my life. My wife started running after having our third child and she progressed from a 5K to a marathon while I was busy playing golf. One day, jokingly I told her that she was going farther but not faster, and she quipped back that I could not make it more than 6 miles. The challenge was on and that night I ran 8 miles nonstop, and collapsed into a pile of helplessness. That run proved to deliver a new kind of stress relief and I can honestly say that I experienced an immediate runner's high. I quickly signed up for a half marathon, then a full marathon, and then I realized that I hated running. A friend recommended I do a triathlon because riding a bike might be more appealing, which turned out to be the case and I spent the next four years racing triathlons all the way up to the Ironman distance. I loved the sport of triathlon, but continued to hate running, until once again my wife led the way by entering the Wasatch 100 trail run. During my pacing of her finish I fell in love with the trails, the mountains, and the endurance test that is the 100 miler. Last fall I ran my first 100 miler at the Bear 100, which qualified me to enter and be subsequently selected to run the Western States 100, which was the gateway to running the grand slam.

Can you tell me a bit about your journey this summer- what did it entail and why did you want to take on a challenge like this? 

It's really hard to put the whole experience into words because it encompassed so much including mental, physical, emotional, and even spiritual components. Entering the grand slam, I was coming off the worst injury I have ever experienced and was virtually unable to run from the time that I had finished the Bear 100 in September through the entire winter and into spring. Honestly I was in a deep funk, and maybe even a depression through that period of time, and when I learned that I was selected to run Western States it was a bittersweet moment because I wanted to take part in such a historical event, but honestly didn't know how on earth I would be healthy in time to do it.

So much of my journey included committing to something that looked truly impossible, believing that I could somehow get myself ready for it, and then putting in every piece of work that was in my control to prepare for it. I had to get very good at listening to my body and knowing when to train versus when to rest. I also had the help of many people behind the scenes including an osteopath who really helped me sort out some muscle imbalances that caused structural misalignments which were adding to my injury.

Through a long and arduous regimen, I was able to run 13 miles, which was my longest run since getting injured, during Oceanside 70.3 half Ironman in April. From that point on I went longer and felt my body getting stronger through some amazing runs in Zions National Park, the Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim, and Bryce Canyon National Park.

During the same timeframe my dad was unexpectedly forced to have his leg amputated due to a complication during a routine knee replacement surgery. For me the slam was initially a "why not" challenge but it quickly became a "why" challenge. My dad's fight to learn to stand and walk again inspired me to never complain about the pain that I was going through, and I had a goal to inspire him and show him that we can overcome something that seems impossible.

Throughout the entire summer my body responded beautifully. With each race, although there were bumps along the way, I felt myself getting stronger inside and out. I was able to run the first three races in under 24 hours and earn the designated award for such an accomplishment which fueled my confidence not only in my ability to finish these races, but to do them in time goals well beyond my wildest dreams. I learned to never count myself out no matter how bad I was feeling, and that there was always a second wind just around the corner as long as I maintained belief. It's one thing to dream and imagine yourself doing something, but when you actually start doing things it's incredible what potential you unlock as you start to believe.

Most rewarding of all was the opportunity I had to meet so many people and share mutual experiences together. Whether runners, families of runners, pacers who selflessly joined me along the journey, or friends whose homes I spent time in, getting to know and feel the support of others was worth everything it took to tackle this challenge and is the lasting reward that I'll take with me from all of this. 

What is it like running (4)100 mile races in less than 4 months? Would you ever do it again?

This may sound a little crazy, but it was a lot of fun. Maybe it is because I exceeded my goals and expectations by a long shot, but even people who really struggled to get through the slam and those who didn't make it to the end still all had smiles on their faces and seemed to truly cherish the opportunity. I do believe that doing the grand slam is different than simply racing four 100 milers, because you have a community or even a family feel with all of the others who are doing it with you. You see them at every race, sympathize with what they are going through, and become one another's biggest cheerleaders. I really felt like the cumulation of miles did add up and fatigue would set in earlier in my muscles during races three through four, but my endurance both physical and mental seemed to increase as the weeks drew on. I was certainly getting tired and battling fatigue, but at the same time I was becoming a stronger version of myself.

The time between races really went quickly giving me almost 0 time to train and just enough time to recover, so you really need to start the Slam with a super solid base. If I was ever lucky enough to be selected for Western states again, I would like to run that race as a single 100 miler in a season just to see how fast I could possibly go so I would not enter the grand slam under those circumstances. That being said, if I was lucky enough to enter Western states two more times then I would happily take on the grand slam another time.

I love the idea of ultra running but it seems overwhelming. What tips do you have for someone looking to get started?

For anyone thinking about getting into ultra I would say that you are already on your way. I believe that thoughts lead to words, words lead to actions, and actions deliver results. Now that you are thinking about it, the next step is to start talking about it. Tell other runners what you want to achieve and watch as people will surround you with support and belief. Anyone can run the ultra distance as long as they believe. I would also suggest finding out what your personal strengths and weaknesses are and embrace them. I am not the best runner on flat terrain, but I am a really good downhill technical runner. I have learned to run to my strengths and use that confidence to better my weaknesses. Everyone starts somewhere, and in ultra the great news is that there is plenty of walking, hiking, and time to kill so you really get to discover a lot about yourself, and more importantly about nature that surrounds you.

My last piece of advice is to try to find a group of trail runners and join up with them. You can learn so much from others and your commitment to show up on a regular basis will prepare you in almost every way to complete your first ultra. There is no way I could've done what I did without my tight-knit trail running community. 

The highs and lows are to be expected, can you recall your favorite moment from the races? How about your lowest point during the races? What did you learn from both?

I took away so many special moments from the races themselves. I'll never forget running the track in Auburn in disbelief that I had come back from the dead to run a sub 24 at the most iconic 100 mile race in the country. Summiting Hope Pass both times and feeling stronger than I ever imagined en route to a sub 24 hour finish at Leadville was literally something I thought would be impossible for me, but it happened. Yet the most memorable moment of all was running to my dad at the finish of Wasatch 100 and seeing him standing with his prosthetic leg waiting for me and cheering me on. The entire race was extremely difficult, but because I knew who was waiting at the end of that race, I knew I would never give up and I learned the power my will and determination as I moved forward all day regardless of how bad my body was feeling. 

Physically I had my lowest points at Wasatch because I started puking at mile 40 and didn't stop until I was done. Emotionally, however I had one of the lowest moments at mile 74 of the Vermont 100 when I thought my bid at the grand slam was over due to discovering blood in my urine. I was panicked and feared the worst that my body was suffering from rhabdomyolysis and had to do everything I could to not freak out, give up, and let my dream die. It was a short moment but was also the only time that I thought I would have to quit, and it was difficult because it wasn't my legs stopping me, but rather something inside my body over which I had zero control. Fortunately this came on the fastest course of the grand slam and I was well ahed of my goal time so I switched to an ultraconservative mode, listened carefully to my body, and managed to hike out the final 26 miles. I learned from this experience that sometimes a twist of fate or bad luck can easily and a runner's dreams in something like a 100 miler where so many things can go wrong.

We’ve gotta talk nutrition - what did you use to race and recover? Were there any changes from the first to the last race? I know people will want to know… how did you eat while running 100 miles? 

For nutrition I thought that I had things dialed in by my last race at Wasatch but learned the hard lesson that fueling is a puzzle many of us still battle with during race conditions. Overall I learned that my body typically does well starting with slower burning fuels, then switching to faster burning fuels during the warmer hours. Once the sun goes down and temperatures start dropping again I tend to move back to real food like chicken broth, sandwiches, and quesadillas. Caffeine also definitely has a place in running 100 milers because unless you are an absolute freak of nature you will be moving for over 20 hours. I typically add Coke and Redbull throughout the last half of a 100 miler. Some of my favorite running fuels include Justin's nut butter, bacon, raw honey, Gu Stroop waffles, and if I can stomach a gel here and there I will. I am also a big fan of licking salt from time to time as your body tells you it needs it, but don't typically take salt capsules which dissolve in your stomach.

The part of my nutrition that I felt much better about was what I put in my body between races. After the first race and really up to that point I did not follow any strict nutritional guidelines. I almost justified eating anything I wanted because I was an endurance athlete that burned a lot of calories. After the first race it quickly became apparent that I could not neglect a strict plan and re-fortification of depleted nutrients in my body. That's when you and I had a chat and I was given a shopping list and instructions on what to eat, when to eat it, and how to supplement.

I believe that one of the biggest contributors to my success in the grand slam was taking in a lot of the supplements in the form of a daily shake. Adding things like macca, flax seed, hemp seed, super greens, collagen, and mushroom matrix seemed to help my body rapidly rebuild the damaged muscle tissue. During the slam I also found myself struggling to get into normal sleeping patterns and the improved nutrition seemed to help me get better rest as well, which is absolutely vital when taking on something this taxing.

Had I not made this shift mid slam, I may not have been able to drag my body through Wasatch because the cumulative fatigue could have been simply too much without a more specific nutritional plan as opposed to my "winging it like always". 

What are some of your favorite sports nutrition products? 

My favorite sports nutrition product still remains as raw honey. I think the closer we get to natural foods and ingredients the better our bodies will respond. One cannot discount the benefit of taking in concentrated calories and honey seems to fit the bill very well giving me about 120 calories per ounce. The shake I mentioned before with all of the supplements is my second favorite. For my hydration during the race I was a big fan of taking Gnarly nutrition electrolyte and their BCAA supplement drink. 

What is your favorite running thing - tool/accessory/shoe/clothing… something you couldn’t live without?

When it comes to gear, nothing matters more than taking care of your feet and knees in my opinion. I have struggled through knee injuries due to improper tracking of my patella, and simply cannot run pain free without using Rock Tape (or any brand of kinesiology tape) not even 3 miles without pain. When I tape my knees and provide extra stability I can run 100 miles with zero knee pain whatsoever. For my feet, I like Hokas. No other shoe keeps my feet happy over 50 miles. 

What's next, Mr. Grand Slam?

Officially I'm only committed to Ironman 70.3 California in Oceanside this upcoming Spring. If the lottery Gods continue to smile upon me, you may see me racing the biggest trail race in the world at UTMB in the Alps...but I had better win two lotteries so I can afford that one after all I spent this year ; )  Otherwise I plan to race the Discrete Peak series next summer and some more local trail races as my family schedule permits.