Jerry Armstrong once ran 281 miles in 10 days while raising $6,000 for the Iron Andy foundation (which helps pay for camps for children with type 1 diabetes). But we do not find him out running big miles or climbing rocky terrain today. We instead find him in a room where the temperature is upwards of 100 degrees. He is surrounded by people of all shapes and sizes, bending, twisting, breathing, but most of all sweating through another round of Bikram Yoga.
Armstrong is in this group making his body stronger, but the focus is likely on his mind. To find out what an ultra runner like Jerry is doing in this yoga studio we have to go back a little ways.
As an ultra runner and a
former Marine, Jerry understands that sometimes the biggest challenge you will ever face is the voice in the back of your head that wants you to quit. The only way to banish that voice back where it belongs is to have mental fortitude.
But yoga for a marine and police officer and mountain runner? These tough guys don’t need that, do they? Jerry speaks very matter of factly about yoga and how much it helps his running, specifically Bikram Yoga.
Yoga, more specifically, Bikram’s 26 postures, help me prevent and repair overuse injuries. The postures target areas traditionally taxed by distance runners…those being the IT bands, leg muscles, lower back, and shoulders. The benefits also include increased balance, strength, and flexibility. Over time, you also start to experience the 90 minute session as a form of moving meditation, much like a long run. All of this helps one deal with stress and brings greater balance to your life.
Balance comes into play because as you hear Jerry tell it, he has always been “attracted to challenges”. He has always wanted to take on the toughest stuff and impress the hard to impress. This is what pushed him to become a Marine in the first place. The challenge, as well as the want to belong to something big and special. It didn’t end with the Marines though, Jerry eventually became a SWAT team sniper with the police department. He still felt the need for something more, though.
…none of those groups satisfied my personal drive to find like-minded people than the eclectic subculture of ultramarathon. For that reason, I am ever grateful for finding ultrarunning so early in my life.
Without this balance, the drive for the edge and the search for thrills, the yearning for a challenge will sometimes drive people in the wrong direction. You see, one thing many ultra runners seem to have in common is an addictive, type A personality. Jerry Armstrong would be no different.
Armstrong, as we said though, has always been driven athletically. His first word was ball, he could throw well before he could walk. In high school after not making the baseball team he took up wrestling. It was his endurance over his strength, however, that helped him win in a way that it was clear he was mentally outlasting his opponents.
When he finished school, Armstrong enlisted as a Marine, learned some machining, then became a police officer, earning the Physical Fitness Award in the academy. It was here that he met Paul Schmidt, an ultrarunning veteran.
I remember running alongside him in the academy 12 years ago…his legs were like tree trunks and his stride was soft and effortless. I had not yet discovered ultrarunning, but his demonstration of body mechanics and humble attitude toward 100 mile runs planted a seed in my mind.
That type A competitive spirit didn’t stop here, though. He didn’t feel anyone at the academy had really challenged him for the Physical Fitness Award, and he even felt the same way about the Marines. It came down to one thought.
“You may be the fastest fish in the pond” Armstrong would say, “but how would you do in the ocean?”
Type A personalities.
Lack of balance.
At this time in his life Armstrong was newly married, had lots of spare time and money on his hands. A void in his time and excess money, as Armstrong put it, “opened the door to bad things.”
I started gambling money. It was legal gambling, of course…but it was unhealthy none-the-less, and it was something like $1,500-2000 month. Yes, I know…ridiculous. It took a toll on my new marriage and Jen asked me to recognize the problem and make change. I loved her with all my heart, and the thought of losing my marriage to a silly thing like that was not acceptable. I immediately took action.
Armstrong realized it was time come to grips with his addictive energy drive. In other words he needed to redirect his addictive type-A personality. He chose the triathalon. Living in San Diego at the time, he was surrounded by top tier triathletes. In typical Armstrong fashion, he made a bold statement.
Within two months, I announced to my family I was going to be an “IronMan” by time I was 30 years old. They didn’t hear the “announcement” I thought I was making. You see, when I say “I’m going to become an IronMan, I’m not messing around. I mean that, without a doubt, I’m going to do whatever it takes to earn that title!”
In a few years, Jerry accomplished his goal, finishing an IronMan (2006) with his wife Jen at his side, carrying their 3 week old son Jalen with him across the line. Jen had supported Jerry through her pregnancy even though family members questioned how he could be training for such an event while his wife was home pregnant.
One of the main challenges endurance runners face is the feeling of selfishness. With a support crew like the one Jerry had, he finished his IronMan and his life was forever changed.
His wife had just given birth after months of pregnancy, his son Jalen was 3 weeks old, this goal had taken him 4 years to reach, he was no longer gambling, and they all crossed the finish line together. That is symbolic in that it took the entire family making sacrifices to get there.
I was forever changed. We now have a picture of that moment in our house and a sign hang beneath which reads, “And they lived happily ever after.” We became the “endurance family.”
There is nothing “quick” about training for Ultrarunning. It takes time. Armstrong is lucky though–his wife is very supportive of this ‘addiction’ rather than one that could be destructive. She, too, is an endurance athlete. His wife is a cyclist. She has a former Olympian as a coach and trains for century rides on her Trek road bike. But why does Armstrong call them “the endurance family”? Surely many families have husband and wife teams that compete in endurance events. The question is, how many have a 6 year old who ran a 1/2 marathon when he was 5? How many have a 3 year old that completes a trail event? As Armstrong puts it, “He was last to finish, but a huge group of people waited for him at the finish as he shuffled across the finish…barely 2 feet tall.” With the support of his family, Armstrong is capable of tackling huge runs and who knows, maybe one day we will be featuring his son right here on this site!
In the process of prepping for his IronMan, Armstrong read Dean Karnazes’ book “Ultramarathon Man”. In doing so he finally discovered the challenge that he had been looking for. A chance to take on something huge. A chance to do something even more rare than running a marathon.
The “impossible.” From this point forward Armstrong knew there would be no limit. Endurance events became his passion. The longer the better. He thrived for the trails, the mountains and the long run. He slowly but surely began to put in the miles.
The transition from high school athlete, to Marine, to gambler, to ultra endurance athlete was complete. It is not all easy from this point forward though. Becoming a great endurance athlete has it’s challenges. Challenges like training.
Armstrong is really clear about the training, warning would-be newbies that it takes months, perhaps even years of putting in miles before you can go out and run a 100 mile race, or complete an IronMan. You do not just “show up” and run 100 miles.
When you do not feel like training, when you are tired, when you are hungry, angry, happy or sad, you train. To complete these events the mental fortitude of training has to be bigger than the want to sit home, sleep in, watch T.V. Armstrong talks about his self discipline with a kind of quiet pride.
Self-discipline guides your training, your planning, and your ability to manage your “wants” vs “needs”. So, throughout the training process, you fight the struggle to do things that are comfortable or self-gratifying in the immediate, rather than working hard day in and day out so you can be successful months in the future.
We at TrailsROC know that Jerry has found a place where he and his family can succeed, and the feeling that pays off at the end is like no other feeling in the world. There is something that 100 miles on the trail can do for (or is it to?) your mind. Learning the self discipline in running and endurance teaches you self discipline in life. You learn not to let the highs get too high or the lows get too low. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
This bring us to trails and Jerry’s love for them. In 2008, the Armstrongs moved from San Diego (the mecca of triathalons) to Colorado (where world class trail running calls home). There, in Colorado, Jerry was able to run some of the worlds most famous trail and mountain races. He, like many of us, fell in love with the allure of the trails.
“I run trails 98% of the time,” Armstrong says, and like us, knows very few runners who go from trail running to road running. It seems almost everyone who makes a huge jump goes from roads to trails. Armstrong falls in line with the thinking of many of the world’s great trail runners–that the trails offer so much more psychologically than the roads ever do. There is a reason that trail runners are able to run thousands of miles a year pretty pain free.
For me, the variances in trail running spread the load through more diverse movement, compared to road running. The body is challenged by the subtle differences in the trail every day due to erosion, weather, etc… So, it is never exactly the “same” trail. On the complete opposite of that, a track is exactly the same as it was yesterday. So, the slight differences we all have in one leg over the other, or the tendency of one of our knees to be stronger than the other, are exaggerated by these sterile “repetitive” surfaces. While, trails are varied and diverse…requiring the body to use its imperfections for advantage.
Jerry has also found a deep connection with nature through trail running. Killin Jornet, the current King of mountain running, always speaks about the “spirit of the mountain.” Armstrong has always referred to these as his “Conversations with the Trail,” which later became the name of one of his blogs. Everything he ever wrote for ‘Conversations with the Trail’ was syndicated to a larger website he now writes for called www.TrailandUltrarunning.com
Like many of us, the foray into trail running and then the Ultra-Distance is a physical challenge, yet oftentimes moves to something more spiritual. As the author of this piece and a fellow trail runner, I have never felt closer to God than when I am rising a hill at sunrise or coming through the trees at sunset. As Armstrong says,
Compassion and love are at the core of where my mind goes during all day runs. If I run 50 or 60 miles through the mountains, listening and absorbing the energy of animals and nature, I immediately recognize the lack of peace that exists in the busy world of modern society.
When people talk about trail running events, they use words like “inclusive,” “fun,” “low key,” “laid back.” The connection to nature is obviously helping. Armstrong agrees feeling after these long trail runs he is kinder and more loving than when he is not running. This connection with nature is great, but in order to not end up as a statistic you have to be prepared. Finding himself “off the trail” in a few of his more recent ultras, Armstrong says you have to pay attention, and you have to be prepared.
It is also no coincidnence that a connection to nature such as this attracts many ultra runners to a plant based, vegetarian, and often vegan diet. 7 time winner of the prestigious Western States 100 Scott Jurek is a vegan. Many runners feel that this style of nutrition is exactly what is needed to recover and fuel for long runs. Many of the additives of non-plant based sports nutrition programs cause issues with endurance athletes. There is no real proof as of yet that a plant-based diet will lead to success, and many Ultra-runners eat hamburgers and steak like it’s going out of style, yet Armstrong finds a lot of benefits to more natural eating. He states he enjoyed incredible benefits from excluding dairy from his diet. Excluding dairy, he states, helped him greatly with digestion, sleep, skin clarity, and more. “I think cow’s milk is a perfect food…for baby cows!” Recognizing a benefit does not mean the switch will always be easy (ask someone trying to quit smoking).
I had several ‘starts’ with moving to a plant-based diet. It actually took a few years…and through various modifications, I had an eventual moment where I just knew I had to go all the way. That moment was a terrible “pulled pork” sandwich from a roadside bbq guy. It had knuckles throughout and grease dripping. I threw it in the trash and said, “that’s it…no more meat, no more eating animals.”
While Armstrong has chosen to go plant-based for nutritional and performance based reason he has developed a greater overall respect for both plants AND animals. A compassion for living things has developed, and he has begun to believe in the importance of harmony with the Earth. Long runs have given him clarity and vision that no longer affords him of the luxury of ignoring the selfish and destructive way modern society lives.
Again – It comes back to balance doesn’t it?
So how do you stay prepared for 6 hours in the wilderness? 6 hours of hard running, not just hiking. Is “balance” enough? How do you find a way to carry enough gear, but not too much gear? It takes experience. When Armstrong was new to the long distance world, he would carry too much. Just to be safe. ( A technique I suggest you follow until you know how you handle distance and terrain.) He now knows what he can manage (and succeed) with.
He also figures ahead of time whether or not he needs fresh water or if he will come across any on his run. With that said he does use the following.
-Ultimate Direction 24oz handheld bottles (clear plastic, so I can visually est. fluid intake)
-Ultimate Direction WASP pack w/bladder removed- I love the front-access on this pack and I carry this rig for storage of my food, water, filter, S-caps, etc.. I’ve had about 5 of these WASP packs in my running career and they are the best for ultra in my opinion.
-Camelback ceramic water filter attachment: On extensive outings, like 40-60 miles, I attach the filter to a camelback bladder, scoop up river or lake water, and filter the water into our handhelds.
-New Balance 101 and/or 110: I truly enjoy the ‘minimalist’ shoes and the NB101s seem to be my favorite, although they were out-phased for the 110s. I see Krupicka here on a regular basis cranking out mileage in the same treads. If you look inside the heel cup of the New Balance 110, you will see a picture of the Boulder Flatirons, where we run in Boulder. Honestly, the terrain is gnarly here and those New Balance treads are excellent for the trails we love so much.
-Garmin 310xt w/HR monitor: My 305 recently died and the 310xt became my new friend. I love it and enjoy the extended battery life and waterproof qualities.
It’s one thing to have the gear to cover 100 miles or to figure out what works for you in training. It’s one thing to train for the event, to try to get yourself ready for the event. But what does it really take to cover 100 miles in a single event? Every runner has his or her own techniques to these events and his or her own way to take the challenge. For Armstrong, he gains his confidence from his prep. He will actually run rehearsal runs so that he has 100% confidence he will finish the race.
I am racing the Leadville 100 this summer. So, I will train every step of the course throughout the preceding months. My “race rehearsal” will be a 60 mile run, which starts from the actual starting line at 4am just like the race itself. There will be no aid station, no music, no crew. I will have some running partners join me, but it will primarily be a time trial of what I think is possible for me the following month on race day. From that race rehearsal, I will obtain accurate assessments about my possible finish time, and also acquire the 100% complete confidence that I can run the race at the top of my game. I’ll examine my heart rate information and nutritional intake. Not everyone does this type of thing, but this is how I prepare for my key races.
Armstrong has been running/participating in ultra events for 7 years now. He has seen his life balance out from the days of his youth. He has gone from youth athlete to Marine, to Police Officer, to problem gambler, to IronMan and now to Ultra finisher. So what’s next? Armstrong, aware of the balance he has found, has actually been able to train harder and find more success. The drive, though, the type A personality won’t change. The satisfaction from “finishing races” is changing. Is he perhaps ready to “race” to “compete”?
My new challenge was to “race” the ultramarathons I enter. Running these races competitively is a whole new ballgame. It took me years to get to this point…but winning races and competing within myself, but amongst the others at the front of the pack, is what drives me right now. It is higher stakes poker game, in which you must know what is physically possible for yourself, but also ride the edge to the very last step. I don’t think I was ready to do this before now…it took years of experimentation to know what tools I have and how to use them.
Outside of racing and improving Armstrong sees a real future in this sport. The ultra sport is booming and will be in need of coaches and business men with his experience and commitment. Armstrong knows what it takes and has a lot of advice to offer a runner interested in hitting the trails.
The greatest inhibitor to being successful in these races, or life for that matter, is found in the limitations you put on yourself. My advice? Life is very short… you don’t have time to sit around for “someday.” Dream a magical dream, and imagine where you want to be in your life…and then set of on a great journey of personal development that sees you reaching that goal with happy tears! If running 100 miles is your goal, then stop being curious and start the journey. You will learn about yourself and meet great people on that adventure to self-realization. This is what gives me great happiness on a daily basis.
In addition to that, Armstrong is a staff writer for www.TrailandUltrarunning. To document the Colorado trail running seen Armstrong created the “Colorado Mountain Ninjas,” a hand picked team of trail runners. They document trail runs, you can check them out at www.FloTrail.com
But still, we come back to Bikram. We come back to the 105 degree room. There has to be more to this than just cleansing the mind and getting bendy? As a Marine, the self discipline in there, the mission first message is hardwired into his brain. Comfort is not a requirement for Armstrong. Yet early in his running career, the high mileage took its tole. As back and knee injuries settled in, Armstrong sought medical help. A doctor informed him his running days were over due to a deteriorating disc problem in his back. A second opinion informed him that the original diagnosis was completely wrong. He slowly began to lose trust in standard western medicine.
So here we sit sweating. Dripping. Steaming. Armstrong believes that with his yoga and plant-based diet, he has found a way to eliminate inflammation caused by long runs, speeding his recovery and keeping him healthy. It is through this sweat induced calm that Armstong has begun to work on a book called “Run with Bodhi.” The story is about a character named “Bodhi” who is being raised to be a distance runner. He is literally running towards enlightenment.
I believe Armstrong is working on finding himself within this Bodhi character. Finding his balance. Finding his calling. The research in this book has helped give him strength on the trails.
Bodhi’s daily mission is to run from morning until night, learning from nature and reading the daily passages provided by ‘Sentai,’ his adoptive father and teacher. I feel that “Bodhi” is the mindset I develop when I am running, myself. So, I try to capture the purity of thought, the inspiration of the earth, and energy of Bodhi into a character who can teach the reader about what it means to run for enlightenment. The character “Bodhi” is a fictional character, but something tangible that became a catalyst for my deepest thoughts in running meditation. All of this is still evolving.
So here we sit, still sweating. Still dripping. A Marine. An endurance athlete. A father. A former gambling addict. A “Bohdi.” Searching for balance. Armstrong seems to have found his pathway to balance. It just includes thousands of miles of trails and the steamed out calm of the yoga room.
For more information on Jerry Armstrong please see the following.
Staff writer at www.TrailandUltrarunning.com
Personal Blog/Coaching: www.JerryArmstrong.blogspot.com
Colorado Mountain Ninjas FloTrail Channel: http://www.flotrail.com/coverage/248635-CO-Mountain-Ninjas