Inside the Mind of an Ultrarunner: Interview with Dylan Bowman

Inside the Mind of Ultrarunner Dylan Bowman
Photo: Cameron Baird / Red Bull Content Pool

Ask Dylan Bowman if it takes a certain type of crazy to run an ultramarathon and he’ll insist he’s just an average guy. One who thrives off asking “what if,” running 125 training miles per week, and spending the occasional 18-hour stretch of alone time with a bib pinned to this thigh.

Bowman first got the running bug in the wake of his collegiate lacrosse career, when he found himself in search of a form of exercise to keep his body and mind occupied. Cue Tom Hanks’ most memorable line: “I just felt like runnin’…and runnin’…” And Bowman didn’t stop. In 2009, the Colorado-native ran his first marathon with just a few weeks of training. A year later, he stunned the ultrarunning world with a third place finish in his first 100-miler, the prestigious Leadville 100. The Red Bull-sponsored athlete has since earned a heap of wins across the globe, from New Zealand’s Tarawera 100 in 2015 to the 100 Australia the same year. Just last month, Bowman climbed a casual 25,000 feet — and straight to the top of the podium — winning the 100 Miles of Istria in Croatia. All by the ripe age of 30.

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But before you write this endurance athlete off as superhuman, hear him out. On an “off” weekend in Santa Clarita, CA, Bowman sat down with Daily Burn before running an “accidental” 34 miles at the Wings for Life World Run, a unique charity race benefiting spinal cord research. At the same time as 155,000 runners across 25 countries, participants set out to run for those who can’t — and as far as they can — before the finish line (aka the “Catcher Car”) catches them. Kind of the ideal fun run for an ultrarunner like Bowman.

Read on for Bowman’s approach to training (altitude sleeping tents included), nutrition (#burritogoals), and where his mind wanders at mile…95.

Meet Dylan Bowman, Ultrarunning Phenom

What got you hooked on the ultramarathon distance specifically?

Well, ultras were actually my introduction to running as a whole, so —

Something probably no one has ever said before.

Ha, yeah. I guess very few people have that kind of story. But for me it was just a curiosity. I mean I remember when I first learned about the Leadville 100, which was the first major 100-mileage marathon that I did in 2010. It was a moment in my life where I knew I had found something I was really interested in doing. It’s hard to explain what made me want to do it. I think more than anything it was just intrigue about the people that did it and a curiosity about whether I could do it, too.

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And had you done a marathon before that? Or it was just like, “Let’s sign up for the ultra!”

Well, my first race was a trail race at marathon distance. And then I ran a couple road marathons, kind of just for fun. And then I did two 50-milers before I did Leadville. So I had been running for about a year leading up to it. I’ve since done eight [100-mile races]. For our sport, that’s sort of the most important distance, though there are races now that are longer. But at least on the competitive front that’s sort of the longest distance on the tour of really competitive world-class events.

So what is going through your head by mile… oh, 95?

“It is a painful, painful exercise. But most things that are worthwhile in life do require a little bit of suffering.”

Every race is different. But by mile 95 you are pretty much only thinking about getting to the finish line. At that point usually there’s a good amount of separation between whoever’s in front of you and whoever’s behind you. And basically the major motivation is that you’re almost done. But earlier on during the race obviously you’re thinking about eating and drinking and pacing. You’re doing the math about where the next aid station is, and how long it might take you. You’re making decisions based on where your competition is, and what parts of the course suit your strengths.

For me, I’m a better climber than I am a descender, so I’m thinking, “OK well maybe this is a good place for me to move a little bit faster.” But aside from just the basics of what gets you to the finish line fastest, there’s some higher level thinking, too. It’s really interesting because at a certain point in the really long races, your body and mind kind of shuts down whatever’s not critical to the simple task at hand. So you definitely stop thinking about life stresses or relationship issues or whatever thing in your life is actually bothering you. It does actually have sort of a therapeutic — almost meditative — effect. It’s something that is hard to simulate outside of extreme exercise. And I think that’s one of the things that makes it so attractive and compelling to me.

Ultrarunner Dylan Bowman - Mount Tamalpais
Photo: Cameron Baird / Red Bull Content Pool

Does the pain and discomfort somehow subside a bit, too?

In a way, yeah. I think one of the major misconceptions about the sport is that it gets progressively more painful throughout the race. Running a hundred miles in my opinion sounds crazier than it actually is in practice. I mean obviously it’s very hard. And it does hurt. And you do suffer, but assuming that you’re taking good care of yourself and you don’t have a structural injury, the pain is — you’re sort of in control of it. The longer I do it now, the more I realize that I can kind of control the level of suffering that I’m experiencing, whether it’s physical or psychological.

A lot of it comes down to, you know, “Am I low on calories?” Because in that case, it affects your psychology. It’s easy to become pessimistic and think, “Oh my God, I still have 40 miles to go.” Rather than, “Hell yeah, I’ve already gone 60 miles.” So yeah, it is a painful, painful exercise. But most things that are worthwhile in life do require a little bit of suffering.

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How do you fuel yourself during a race?

It’s always a moving target, trying to figure out what works best. In the longer races, it seems like as soon as you figure out what works, the same strategy doesn’t work in the next race. So you really have to be flexible. The most important thing is eating carbohydrates. For me, that’s gels, blocks and bars, Red Bulls and soda. But it’s also difficult to only digest really sugary sweet food, especially after 10 hours of only eating that. So it’s good to supplement with some real food. They might have potato chips or rice balls or potatoes — salty and easily digestible carbohydrates that work well.

What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten along the course?

The last race I did [in Croatia], I had a block of Parmesan cheese. I took it with me, because I was so sick of all the sugar. It was probably 80 miles into the race. I have to say it was pretty good. It tasted better than, you know, a lemon flavored gel at that point.

During your typical training cycle, how many calories do you consume in a day?

I wouldn’t even know! I definitely eat a lot, but it’s a balance. So I try not to gorge myself, but of course, you have to make sure you get enough otherwise you don’t recover as well.

A few of my favorites meals are:

Breakfast: Granola with almond milk and peanut butter
Lunch: Three eggs scrambled with veggies and toast
Dinner: Veggie burrito with chips and salsa (I do eat a lot of burritos!)
Cheat meal: Fish and chips

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Croatia was your most recent win. What was that race like?

“To me, it’s fun to run through a whole night where it’s just me and a headlamp and some food and water.”

It’s 170 kilometers, so it’s actually closer to 105 or 106 miles. And there was about 7,000 meters of ascent and descent. So roughly 25,000 feet of climbing and descending. The altitude wasn’t a major factor. I think the high point was only about 5,000 feet. The weather was perfect for racing — maybe high 40s, low 50s at night. And then in the early morning, crystal blue sunshine.

How many hours did you do it in?

I finished in 17 hours and 50 minutes. So just under 18 hours. I actually was lucky to have a pretty big lead. So at the end of the race I didn’t really have to dig or you know completely destroy myself. So I was able to really enjoy the last couple hours of the race. I ended up winning by about an hour.

Dylan Bowman Ultrarunner Views
Photo: Cameron Baird / Red Bull Content Pool

How do you train for races like this? What does a typical week look like?

Mondays are always my easy days — oftentimes completely off from exercise. And then depending on what I’m getting ready for, the rest of the week varies. But typically I’ll have three or four hard sessions per week. Depending on the type of race I’m doing, the distance of the race, the terrain of the race, I’ll try and simulate that as best as I can on those really important days.

Weekends end up being really rigorous. So leading up to this race in Croatia, I’d do about three hours on Saturday, which would be about 25 miles with some intensity built into it, trying to simulate the terrain that I would be racing on in Croatia. And then on Sunday, I would back that up with another run in between five and seven hours. So 30 to 45 miles. That’s done at a slower pace — just training my body to have endurance after a hard day the day before. Getting my body used to moving well on tired legs or on low energy.

So, total mileage for a week?

Total mileage for me usually would be between 100 and 125 miles a week. But I emphasize time and vertical more than I do mileage. So I’d say between 15 and 20 hours a week. And then, yeah, between 15,000 and 25,000 feet of climbing and descending. And then I’ll oftentimes do a second session in the afternoon where I’ll just spin easy on a stationary bike, or do some circuit training-type exercises.

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Do you think it takes a certain personality type to do what you do?

“The sport has a way of making everything seem a little less difficult, because I’m constantly putting myself in difficult situations…”

Yeah, it definitely does. I mean not everybody’s motivated to exercise for, you know, 20 hours at a time. But I think it does attract people who like spending time alone. I’m a very social person and I do really enjoy going out and having a good time with friends and family. But I also really like having alone time. And running for me is just that in a lot of cases. It’s my time to be on my own and think about things that are happening in my life, work through problems I might be experiencing. And generally, just be alone. I thrive in those situations. I really enjoy the part of the sport that is about self-sufficiency. To me, it’s fun to run through a whole night where it’s just me and a headlamp and some food and water. And just knowing that if anything goes wrong it’s my responsibility.

What are some of the craziest conditions that you’ve raced in?

There’s a race in California, it’s one of the biggest races in the world, called The Western States 100. It goes from Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe to Auburn. It’s in late-June, so it’s usually very, very hot. I’m a bigger, taller athlete in the circuit, and I think typically people of my stature have a harder time dealing with heat. So you know, when its 110 degrees in the middle of the day and you’re 50 miles in, those are pretty difficult conditions.

Also, last year I did a race in Japan where there was a typhoon that came through and it rained almost two feet over the course of the week. [For safety] they actually had to shorten the race. But I honestly don’t mind running in the rain or snow or cold. It adds another element to the race.

Dylan Bowman - Wings for Life World Run
Photo: Christian Pondella for Wings for Life World Run

So Wings For Life is next, which is very different from your usual races.

Yeah, and that’s exciting for me. Obviously, I just did a really long, hard race a few weeks ago, so this is more about having fun and being part of an event that is for a good cause. Plus, I do like that fact that it’s a unique format. With most races you know how long you’re going to go before you start. So having that element of mystery with the Catcher Car is going to be fun. I also like that fact that it happens all over the world simultaneously. Knowing there are people on the other side of the world that are doing the same thing as you, that’s motivating.

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What else do you have your eyes set on this year? What’s your big goal?

My major goal is coming up on September 1: The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, or UTMB. It’s a 100-mile circumnavigation of Mont-Blanc. It’s sort of like the Super Bowl of our sport. It starts in Chamonix and goes through Italy and Switzerland before coming back into France. That’ll be my major competitive objective for the second half of the year. So now I recover and then start building up for that.

What would you say to someone who is trying to get into ultrarunning, or just trying to add mileage or break through a plateau?

Number one: It starts with your motivation. Ultrarunning is hard enough as it is. If you’re not really excited about it, it might be best to take some time away. But if it’s more a problem of improper training, or not knowing how to prepare for the distance, I’d recommend seeking out a professional coach. That really helped me as somebody who didn’t have a background in running. I still experience plateaus where I don’t feel like I’m not really responding to training, but having a professional who’s educated in physiology and different aerobic systems to evaluate and tinker with my training is extremely helpful.

Were there any rookie mistakes that you’ve made as an ultrarunner?

Lots. For me, it was just about how I was training. Back when I first started running, I really never incorporated any intensity into my training — I just ran the same speed almost every day. And that will help you improve to a point, but then you definitely plateau and you have to start being more scientific or more intentional about how you’re training. So for me it was incorporating different interval sessions, running harder some days, easier other days. And then also being more intentional about training specifically for the race that I’m preparing for. We’re trying to simulate the conditions of that race as best as we can beforehand.

Hypoxico Altitude Tent - Ultrarunner Dylan Bowman

Your day job is with Hypoxico. Do you use their altitude simulation tents in the lead-up to certain races?

Yeah, I use the technology primarily to acclimatize before races at altitude. Since many of the top races occur at altitude and I live at sea level, it’s an important variable for me to prepare for leading into competition — particularly because most of the top guys on the circuit live and train at altitude. For me that just means sleeping in an altitude tent at certain points during the year and also doing occasional workouts on my spin bike at home using simulated altitude.

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What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned about yourself through this sport?

I think the biggest thing I’ve learned about myself is just how much I’m capable of dealing with difficult circumstances. The sport has a way of making everything seem a little less difficult, because I’m constantly putting myself in difficult situations and constantly proving to myself that I can get through them. And so then when I face things in my everyday life that are challenging, I think I have developed the ability to remain calm. To just have an innate confidence in myself that whatever it is, I’ll be able to see myself through it. And I think that rubs off on the people that I am close with as well. And, more than anything it’s just allowed me to prove to myself that I’m capable of more than I otherwise would have believed I am.

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