Army Capt. Andrew Catalano said he'll always remember running past Scott Jurek in last week's Leadville Trail 100 and humbly thanking him for his immense contributions to the sport of ultrarunning. He'll also remember the mental anguish of missing a turn and running off course while his competitors gained time on him.
But there is no memory like knocking off Leadville, trotting onto the red carpet in the old mining town to celebrate the completion of the tough and historic footrace across Colorado's rocky rooftop. With a fifth-place finish in last week's race - to go with the sixth place he notched in 2012 - Catalano has forged a name among ultra running's top racers. His finishing time of 18 hours, 43 minutes, 25 seconds, was only 16 minutes outside the Top 3.
Catalano moved to Colorado Springs in 2010, served a hard year in Afghanistan, and has six 100-mile finishes to his credit. We asked for the Leadville lowdown. He had a lot to say.
Huge congrats on your performance at Leadville. So you're running into town in fifth place, what do you remember and what are you thinking?
I was pretty pumped. No matter what place you're in, it's always a great feeling to finish an ultra. I do have to say though, it was especially enjoyable this year given that this certainly wasn't my most smoothly executed race and yet I was still able to hang on, get through some rough patches, and end up with a decent time and place. Also though, the Leadville finish is always pretty dramatic with the long run up 6th street and the red carpet at the finish line.
You were sixth last year, you must be happy with this year's race.
I have to admit, I felt like I could do better place-wise but with the circumstances of the race, I'm happy with the result. Last year I did finish sixth, but was never really a threat overall. I went out conservatively and ran a calculated race that had me passing runners until the end as I worked my way down into the top ten. This year was very different. I'm a much stronger runner, so going into the race I wanted to mix it up with the best out there. That's what I did, I was in second place at one point and ninth at another. I may have even raced a little too hard/too early, which is something I need to work on, but I was definitely able to walk away from this one knowing I gave it a shot. And it was still about a 45 minute improvement over last year's time, so the progress was there.
Leadville is one of the toughest ultra's on the planet. What attracts you to it?
Toughness is what it's all about. Leadville's a chance to pit your training and determination against the mountains and some altitude. Not to mention, the race carries a lot of prestige and history with it. While I definitely think the difficulty is exaggerated by some people and the media (just like everything else) there is something about this race that sets it apart from a lot of other competitions. No, it's not an impossible feat (or else I certainly wouldn't be able to do it) but it's a worthy challenge for sure. And there's no money prizes but a ton of pride at stake. If you don't go in ready, the altitude and the climbs can be too much... and honestly, even as ready as I've felt for my two Leadvilles, I still wound up getting humbled a bit.
You also won the Leadville Silver Rush 50 this summer. That must have been a confidence builder.
The biggest thing with the Silver Rush 50 is that it let me know I was on track with my training. All winter and spring long I was training for the Nashville marathon so when early summer hit, I felt a little out of place in the mountains. I then had to switch gears and get ready for mountain running pretty quickly. The majority of that phase of training came leading up to the Silver Rush and when performed well there (running about 20 minutes faster than last year) I knew I could have a good showing at the 100.
What have you learned about yourself since taking on these huge challenges?
I've learned that I can be patient when I need to be. My friends could tell you, that's not always my strong point, but ultras have really helped me cultivate it. Athletically, the past few years for me have all been about making steady progress at this sport, constantly listening to my body and always trying to find balance. That requires a lot of patience, more than I probably would've guessed I had, but has really paid off so far.
Leadville record holder Matt Carpenter says the secret - or the one that worked for him - is fuel. What is your eating and hydration plan in endurance races?
Nutrition and hydration are two things ultrarunners are always tweaking. I think I've come a long way but I'm no where near as proficient as I've heard Carpenter was when he set that record. A big breakthrough for me was when I changed my everyday diet over to a low carbohydrate-based one with a focus on eliminating processed foods. That has helped me adapt to burning fats for fuel in a more efficient manner, which makes a big difference when racing. Now I can consume a lot less calories during the actual race. Taking the supplement, Vespa, also helps with this. All told, I try to consume at least 1 gel packet an hour and as much water and electrolytes as I think I need during a long race. When I'm really struggling, I'll try to throw down some solid food to keep the body from shutting down completely. Coke is my go-to when I need some immediate sugar and caffeine... it's probably a good thing that it happens to be my favorite drink because I've been known to drink a six pack or more over the course of 100 miles.
Everybody gets through these things in their own way, is there anything unique that you do to help cover the distance?
I don't think I do anything really out of the ordinary. Music is a big help sometimes. When things are going bad in an ultra, I'll throw on my headphones to get a little adrenaline boost. Also during those times, I'll try to make a conscious effort to focus on my form. Form drives speed so I think if I can maintain some semblance of good form then my pace won't slow down too much. For the mental side of things, I try to step back from the race and draw upon other experiences to gain some perspective. Racing is tough and stressful sometimes, but not as tough and stressful as being in Afghanistan where quitting isn't even an option.
How long and when were you in Afghanistan, and what was your assignment there?
I was there last year, from June 2011 to June 2012. That was actually before I became a Company Commander, at the time I was a Platoon leader... my platoon was about 30 Soldiers. We were all Combat Engineers and did a bunch of different missions but our main purpose was to capture high value targets, locate explosive devices in the orchards, and train the local Afghan police to do the same for themselves.
What tools do you possess that make you competitive at Leadville?
I'm not exactly sure on that one. Sometimes I see the guys I'm competing against and wonder that myself... but I guess if anything, it's probably the fact that I tend to have a little more speed than some of the runners out there with incredible endurance and a little more endurance than the guys with a stronger speed background than me. And then I've always been able to train pretty hard (when I'm smart about it) without getting injured. Whatever the combination is, I'm just thankful to God that I've been able run hard against some really talented runners because I really enjoy racing.
What moment or moments will you remember from this race?
Catching and passing Scott Jurek at the top of Sugarloaf Pass on the way back was definitely a highlight. At the time, I was running with one of my best friends from college and it got him pretty excited too. It was especially cool because Scott isn't just one of the great American ultrarunners, but also an overall great guy who does things like waiting at the finish line for hours for all competitors to finish and going to Iraq to cheer up Soldiers. I hadn't spoken to him before the race so my chance to tell him I appreciated his contributions to the sport came while passing him at the top of a mountain. That's a rare opportunity. And then the low points are always some of the most memorable. For me it was around Winfield (the halfway mark) this year. The aid station informed me that I had lost 11 pounds already and then, as if I had energy to spare, I wound up running past one of the turns and going a considerable way off course. As I walked back to the missed turn, I fell couple a spots back in the race and gave up some important. That was definitely a rough patch but I got through it and things never got any worse. Those kinds of moments stick with you and make you a tougher person overall I hope.
Any plans to jump on a mountain bike and go for the Leadman buckle?
People that know me and my lack of coordination will probably laugh at this but I won't rule it out. Isn't that the object of endurance sports, to always find something harder and more ridiculous sounding to do?
How many miles a week were you training leading up to the race and where do you like to run in the Colorado Springs area?
100 miles a week is pretty typical. That varied based on my Army job and how much time/energy I actually had to get to get the miles done, but I probably averaged around there with some 80s and 120s mixed in. As far as trails go, the ones I hit the most are in and around Cheyenne Canyon. I live right near the Canyon so almost all my runs start out my door and up to Gold Camp Road. I particularly like Captain Jack's and trail No. 668 because it doesn't take long to be running in the middle of nowhere with some awesome terrain around you. I'm pretty grateful to have had some more experienced ultrarunners from the area show me what an amazing trail system we've got here in the Springs.
With two big finishes at Leadville behind you, what races do you hope to run in the near and distant future?
My next race will be the Army 10-miler in Washington, D.C. on October 20th. It's a pretty big road race and there's a competition between all the Army posts across the country. We beat the other posts last year, which scored some bragging rights for Fort Carson. This year, I'm hoping to run somewhere around 52 minutes and with the fast teammates I've got (some were pacers for me at Leadville) I think we'll be unstoppable again. Beyond that, I'd like to see if I can get my road marathon time down. And while I haven't decided if it'll be next year yet, I've got some unfinished business up in Leadville.
Thanks for the write up! I love running up in Cheyenne Canyon, Just did a short run up to St. Mary's Falls this morning from Gold Camp. While the 100 isnt quite on my radar yet, looking to possibly hit up the Gold Rush 50 in a year or two.
Next year he should get one of his Infantry buddies to help him so he doesn't get lost.