Q&A with Alyssa Godesky: Everything We Wanted to Know about 6 Days of Self-Supported Running through the Chihuahuan Desert

Q&A with Alyssa Godesky: Everything We Wanted to Know about 6 Days of Self-Supported Running through the Chihuahuan Desert

Alyssa, congratulations on another mind-bending accomplishment on two feet! We are in awe of your win at Trans-Pecos and are dying to learn more about all that this event entailed.

On paper, the event looks like a challenge but nothing too crazy relative to, say, your Vermont's Long Trail FKT. On paper, the event is advertised as 163 miles through the desert over 6 days with what stood out to me as the main challenge being having to carry everything you need for that timeframe besides water. Can you first explain the rules and parameters of the event and then what that looked like as the event played out?

This race was a six-day, self-supported race. When it’s self-supported, that means participants are required to carry all of the necessary food, clothing, and mandatory equipment specified by race organizers. Water is provided along the entire course at designated check points, approximately every 6 miles. Campsites are provided after each stage, offering shelter, additional drinking water, and hot water for food preparation.

There are certainly ways to go about this in an “ultra-light” fashion, but as you determine what you’ll carry and weigh that against being comfortable through the week, it’s a tough balance! I ended up with a pack that was 21.5 pounds (without my water) to start. That was about 15% of my body weight! The pack does get lighter as you go since you are eating food along the way, but it wasn’t until day 4 that I really noticed the lightened pack. Since the race is self-supported, you also aren’t even allowed to trade food with other competitors! What you bring, is what you bring. No exceptions. From the time you board the bus to get to the race site after gear check on Sunday, until the last finisher crosses the line on Saturday, you are only to use what you have with you.

I understand that, in reality, not only was the race a fair amount longer than advertised, but the challenges lay in other details of the race that one may not have considered. Can you talk about what "recovery," refueling and sleep between stages looked like? 

I can say that while we know GPS watches are not always accurate, it does seem like the “everything is bigger” in Texas mentality rings true with the length of their miles! But you’re right - a lot of the challenge of this race lies outside of the actual stages of running. This race takes place in the Chihuahuan Desert. This means that there is little to no shelter from the sun anywhere — on the run or in the camp. It also means that obstacles like thorns are *everywhere*. It’s not like you can get to the end of the stage and relax in a cool breeze while you lay in a shady, soft grassy field. The best place to relax is in a tent….but those tents are kept zipped up because there are wasps and spiders and other creepy crawlers. This makes them basically saunas to relax in!!

Eventually after you finish, time goes by and it’s an appropriate time for dinner. You get your hot water and eat your freeze dried meal that you had rationed for that day. Then many of us would drink some tea (or NUUN Rest for me!) by the campfire until around 8pm, when we’d head to the tent for bed.

Sleeping was another challenge in itself. The racers slept in large 10-person tents. You put your feet towards the center pole, and everyone fanned out like spokes of a wheel. It was comfortable, but definitely tight quarters. And what do you get when you put ten adults that have just run 5-12 hours in the sun into a tent to sleep? A lot of smells, rustling sleeping bags, snores, rogue headlamp beams, zippers, and trips to the bathroom!! The thought of continuous sleep goes out the window, and you just do everything you can to get whatever minutes are possible in between the noises.

You mentioned to me that this event was an even bigger mental (not physical) challenge than your Long Trail FKT, in a large part before you were enduring an extreme physical challenge largely (completely? wasn't sure if we count RD and medical folks here) devoid of outside sources of energy. Can you talk in more detail about that and how that affects one's mind?

It wasn’t until I was in the middle of this event that I realized how much the luxury of being able to go get whatever, whenever, on the Long Trail really played into that effort. Alyssa wants tater tots? Got ‘em! Alyssa wants new socks? Here you go! Because weight limits didn't exist and gear was unlimited, I was able to keep myself going often because of access to whatever I wanted in the moment. The same goes for having family and friends surround me during the effort. There is something to be said about the ability to have a crew at an event, and on the Long Trail that literally meant someone with me every step of the way. The mind is a brilliant thing and I do think that when you have that kind of support you can lean on them to bear some of the burden of fatigue - mental and physical - that comes with these kind of challenges. Taking some of their energy when yours is running low is a real thing.

At TPU, you absolutely had a tribe of people rooting for you — the runners bond to try to help each other through, and the medical staff and volunteers all want nothing more than success for everyone.  As doubts enter your mind, you don’t want to bring others down with those thoughts, so they can grow pretty quickly just festering in your own mind as you sit in the hot tent. It is easy at that point to overlook one of the best parts that I found in stage racing: tomorrow is a brand new day. After a meal and a night of sleep you can often feel like an entirely new, refreshed person. But without contact to the outside world to remind you of that, it is so easy to overlook it.

Can you talk a bit about your longer-term goals in ultrarunning and what prompted you to enter this race specifically?

Similar to how the World Championships in Kona is the “Super Bowl” of ironman, the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is the Super Bowl of ultrarunning. To enter a lottery to gain entry to UTMB, you need to acquire points from various finishes of other ultra events. This race was the end of my year-long quest for those points. I can now enter the UTMB lottery for 2 years with these qualifications.

Aside from UTMB, the concept of self-supported hiking and racing has always piqued my interest to try. When I set the FKT on the Long Trail, it was supported, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But, a supported trail endeavor is a big investment for everyone involved. My bucket list of adventures is long, and to get to some of these I might need to try a self-supported fashion. I saw this race as a stepping stone to figuring out the self-supported concept.

Now we have a rapid-fire round of questions from inquiring minds amongst our TeamSFQ ladies!

Which luxury item was worth its weight in gold? And which one didn’t you use?

I couldn’t have slept without my sleeping pad and pillow — definitely worth carrying that weight around…I’m too old to sleep directly on the ground!! The one item I didn’t use was a collapsable plate. I ended up just putting the hot water directly into the ziplock freezer bags and eating out of that.

If you could have added one more thing to your gear...what would you have brought?

More “snacks.” I underestimated how much I would crave some of the everyday snacks I have in real life. Adding in some chocolate, chips, or Oreos is something I’d do for the next one. I also got lucky that the rain storm for the week hit at night….I ended up bringing just my puffy coat and not a rain jacket, but I should have brought the rain coat too for as light as it is. Had it rained during the run, I would have been in trouble.

What food did you crave the most while running?

Where should I even begin? I think on the fourth day there was an imaginary person following me around whispering “guacamole” into my ear every few minutes! I also would have done anything for some ice cubes at any point. Red Bull, coke, gummy bears, and pizza also made the list.

I am very curious about your nutrition. How did you parse everything out? Did you stick strictly to a schedule so the food would last all six days? Did you make your mind override the hunger? Or, did you feel like you had enough calories everyday?

The race minimum was 14,000 calories. I figured I wanted closer to 3,000 calories a day, so I went with 18,000 calories to start the race. I had everything divided into breakfast, run fuel, and post-run/dinner fuel. I did stick to that because I was afraid I wouldn’t have enough to fuel the later days, especially the long day, if I just ate to hunger. For the most part this was okay, but I was definitely hungry and would have eaten more if I had unlimited food options.  I wouldn’t say I was super mentally tough about it — I’m pretty sure that there were a few times where if we could have exchanged a time penalty for some food, I would have seriously considered doing that!! Luckily the race director hadn’t thought of that yet so I didn’t even have the temptation :)

What day did you change your shorts?
I had a second pair that I wore every day around camp after I ran. Then, that pair became my running pair on the 6th day.

How many tarantulas crawled over you when you were sleeping?
I can’t even think about it! I did see at least one tarantula a day though while I was out there. They are wild!!

How much wildlife did you see?? Snakes, spiders, deer, rabbits etc.
I saw a tarantula each day, one snake that seemed nondescript (though, the guy running in front of me for two days saw two rattlesnakes, so he may have been clearing those for me!), a jackrabbit, deer, javelina, and a lot of longhorn cattle.

Who took care of Ramona when you were gone; and how often did you think about getting home to her?
Ramona was with my fellow TeamHPB teammate, Jamie, while I was gone! I missed her a lot, and I think everyone at camp knew that!!!

How long did you train for the race and what was your longest training segment? What specialized training did you do that was essential to your success?
I did race a full triathlon season from May to September with two 70.3s and two full Iron distance races. So in many ways, that created the endurance foundation for the specific training. After that, my coach, Hillary Biscay, had me transition to a focused running and strength block for about 5 weeks. Most of that included a mix of regular run miles, strength work, hiking with a weight vest, and running with a simulated pack. While I was in Hawaii to coach and spectate the race in Kona, I didn’t have my regular gym and trails access so I focused on running a lot of miles — I got in over 100 miles in 7 days of running which is my first 100 mile week since 2010 I think! My longest run with the pack in training was 20 miles, though, in retrospect I was doing that at sea level and it was about 60 degrees. It definitely felt different to do that kind of run at 5000 ft and 90 degrees.

Were there times you were running alone or was there someone within your view or close to you throughout the race?

I was pretty lucky that my pace generally put me smack in the middle of the front group each day. This meant I at least had someone in view for a good part of the day, and I often did the first 10 miles or so with someone. On the last day, I had fallen into a pace with two other guys and we decided to stay together.

I want to know about the people you seemed to cross the line with. Did you form some sort of friendship, share food, encouragement?

What happens in the desert stays in the desert!! Just kidding :) But yes, we absolutely bonded over the 15 hours that fateful day in the desert. You can’t share food (rules of self-supported), but we shared thoughts, laughs, ups and downs. We had a really good groove and all had different high points and low times, allowing us to help each other out when it really mattered. It was also really nice to have a few people to be watching for the trail markers in the dark. To say we were loopy after that many miles, and the accumulated lack of sleep through the week, would be an understatement.

What’s the difference in your opinion between the 10 who were able to finish and the 7 who were not (7 of 17 people who attempted the 6-day stage race were able to finish)? Was it physical prep, mental prep, injury prevention, etc?

I would say it was 50/50 between physical prep and mental prep. I think the conditions out there made the first couple days much tougher, and much slower, than many of us expected. For some people, that meant pushing hard for 10-12 hours. I’m not sure their training aligned with that kind of time on their feet. But, it was easy in those first couple days to panic about the rest of the week. When the first days are really, really hard, and you’ve only made a small dent in the mileage that is to come that week, it’s natural for your mind to have a lot of doubts. That’s when you find out why you’re out there. I think the people who wanted to be out there to really prove to themselves - no one else - that they could do it, would stick it out. For many of us we had to totally re-asses our “racing” expectations. And for me, that was no reason to quit. That seems to be the nature of stage racing - adapt and endure.

If an athlete told you they were considering this event, what would you need to know about them before you recommended the race?

If an athlete wants to do something like this, they should look objectively at their training. Are they able to string together hard training days back to back on a consistent basis? Are they good at staying positive when the initial goals are adjusted? And last, are they good at problem solving?  Stage racing seems to be a lot about being open to change, and then adapting to that change. If you are dead-set on things being done a certain way, stage racing probably isn’t for you!

Your mental game is so strong. How do you keep yourself mentally focused on such long hauls? What did you think about? What is your go to when things are tough?

I think part of my success is because when I make a commitment to a race or a challenge: that’s it. I’m committed. At that point in the process is when I throw the idea of not finishing it out the window. If you remove that option from your mind, then it frees up a lot more space to help you problem solve when things get tough.

I also try to keep emotions to a minimum when things get really hard, and take a step back. Usually you realize that you are just thinking about quitting because…..are you ready for this? It’s hard! And that always makes me laugh. Because DUH it’s hard. I knew that when I signed up and that’s no reason to quit. So I roll my eyes a little at myself for getting myself into yet another “hard” challenge, and I continue on :)

Do you have a "race" mentality when there are so few people around? With a stage race like this, what type of pace are you aiming for? What do you do to break up the monotony-- or was it never monotonous?
Since I had never done this before, I didn’t have too good of an idea where my pace should be, but based on training I had hoped to be ~5 miles an hour (I ended up ~4mph in the end). After the first couple days, I was very focused on maintaining hydration and keeping calories in (in the first two days I lost 13 pounds!), so that caused me to adjust my “racing” goals a little bit, as I wanted to be safe and make sure my body would physically hold up to get me to the finish. The race also doesn’t post stage times or anything through the week, so you have no clue how you stand overall….that makes the competitive side of things much less. A couple of the stages did get pretty monotonous — the desert landscape was much more variable and interesting than I ever expected, but I did need to pull out the iPod shuffle for maybe ~10 miles through the days.

Alyssa Godesky is a professional triathlete on the Smashfest Queen- Nuun Team and coach at TeamHPB. You can read more about her here

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