Lessons from the Standhope Ultra Challenge

While completing an ultramarathon is an impressive feat by any standards, Sturtevant’s Standhope Ultra Challenge puts even the best endurance athletes to the test. Described as “extremely difficult” by race organizers, the rugged course winds through the Pioneer Mountains up to a high point of 11,000 feet and back down again.

This summer, Zenergy’s own Jackson Long took the challenge—his first ultramarathon ever—finishing the 60-kilometer route in an impressive 7:51:26 and fifth place overall.

We caught up with Jackson, an avid cyclist and mountain biking and Nordic ski coach, to learn his secrets to success.

What inspired you to compete in the Standhope 60K?

I’ve been pondering the idea of doing an ultra for many years. It kind of just made sense to do my first one in my beautiful backyard. I’m infinitely inspired by the Pioneer Mountain Range and hadn’t fully explored a lot of the sections the course goes through.

What training did you do to prepare?

Perhaps unconventionally, I started the summer with a 200-mile bike race, so I was pretty focused on cycling fitness early on. It helped me really dial in my fueling strategy for long events and also my aerobic capacity and endurance without the impacts of running. After the bike race, I shifted into running and really emphasized getting some long mountain runs, a bit of intensity, and a lot of gut training to handle the fueling requirements of such a thing. Course recon was also important to understand the terrain better. I was lucky enough to take a group of the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation (SVSEF) Nordic skiers to a summer training camp in the same area as the race about a month before race day.

What was race-day morning like?

Early and dark! Race start was at 6 a.m., so I camped near the start with a friend who was also racing. We basically woke up, shoved some food into our mouths, drank coffee, and walked over.

What were the biggest challenges that you faced during the race?

The downhills. I felt great aerobically, but with so much technical vertical gain (and subsequent loss), my legs kind of shut down in the last couple of hours. The heat was also a big factor and staying hydrated was definitely a challenge.

How did you stay hydrated?

Luckily, there were aid stations regularly sprinkled in throughout the course—massive thank you to all the volunteers who were out there to support us with lots of fuel! It’s just hard to drink enough when it’s so hot and you’re running hard for so long. I had a running vest that could hold about a liter of water at a time, so it was just a matter of getting from aid station to aid station as quickly as possible. But I struggled and felt like I was always thirsty.

What about food and calories?

As a sports nutritionist and complete nerd about performance fueling, this was definitely a big focus of mine leading up to the race. There’s a lot of good research on the value of “training the gut” just like we train our muscles to handle the demands of what is almost as much of an eating competition as it is a running competition. So this meant practicing in training exactly how many calories I’d be trying to take in hourly from different sources to get used to that feeling. I used to always struggle with stomach issues while running and eating, so it took time to adapt. For the most part, I relied on a regular stream of fig bars, boiled potatoes, high-carb sports drink, ginger ale, gels, and anything else that sounded somewhat appetizing 5 hours into a run. But the key was eating early and often.

How did you pace yourself?

I knew I would need to start very conservatively so for the first hour or so I actually ran really slowly! I chatted with some friends and then quickly found a small group of runners that all had similar paces and we kept switching off leads. Once we hit the first big climb, people split up, but I was feeling great at that point so I pushed a little bit. I ultimately found myself in the top 10 and then just held on for dear life.

Was there any point where you questioned whether you would finish?

There were definitely some low moments. That’s what’s crazy about a race that long, and I think a big part of why we do it. There are so many ups and downs where you get caught realizing “I still have 10 miles left” after what seems like being out there all day in the heat. But somehow, you just bring it back to the present and focus on getting to the next aid station or checking off one more mile. You can’t think too far ahead, and even if you feel completely terrible, it’s likely you’ll swing back to feeling awesome.

What was your recovery like after the race?

My body was pretty shattered, but sadly I didn’t have much recovery time. I had a day off and then drove about 20 SVSEF Nordic ski team kids to Colorado for training camp, where we did plenty of alpine trail running. So I had to keep going!

Would you do it again?

I’m unsure if I’ll do it again next year. As of right now, the pain and suffering is still quite vivid in my mind. But based on how my short term memory loss works, I’ll probably sign up once registration opens this winter. Us endurance athletes are a special kind of masochist.

What’s your next endurance goal?

Have a really fun winter! I’m mostly into the whole “suffering in the mountains” thing. So I can feel awesome when I’m out on long trail running or ski touring adventures with my friends and be able to be balanced and strong enough to jump at whatever sounds exciting. I’m definitely focused on cross-country skiing and backcountry skiing this winter and may try to do at least something epic when I’m not coaching or traveling.