Spring is teasing us again. With trails beginning to thaw and a bit more extra daylight, it’s easy to think we’re safe to put away the insulated running tights and thick fleece, and pull out the visors and short sleeves. But don’t be fooled. While there’s much to enjoy about April and May running, it presents its own challenges. If it’s not the slippery, muddy single track that slows you down, it’ll be the mid-April blizzard. And anyone who’s had a spring or early summer race on the calendar knows the challenges of spring training in Colorado. However, very few of us are grinding out the kind of workouts Alex Nichols will endure this season out on the trails.
If you’re not familiar with the name, it’s probably because he’s too far in front of you in many of our region’s biggest races. A sponsored athlete with shoe company Inov-8, Nichols grew up running in Colorado Springs and ran for Colorado College. He’s had multiple top-five finishes in the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon and more recently, impressive finishes against stiff competitors in national and international trail races.
May 30, Nichols will race the IAU Trail World Championships, an 86-kilometer trail course at Plage d’Albigny in Annecy-le-Vieux, France. The course includes 5,300 meters of total climbing (that equates to 17,060 feet of uphill!) and, “will test the competitors’ endurance and strength,” according to the official announcement from the American Trail Running Association. Needless to say, Nichols is incorporating hill-work and long mountain runs into his schedule this month.
“For the most part, I can mimic the course, at least in elevation, here. It’s tougher when it it’s a really technical trail; more rocky terrain than we typically have can be helpful. But, we have access to a lot of big mountains, so can really replicate the elevation of just about any race,” he says of his training strategy in the Pikes Peak Region.
Nichols was recently selected to the US Team for the Trail World Championships. He’ll join seven other elite runners (a total of five men, three women) from across the country to compete against the best mountain runners in the world. 15 countries are expected to be represented at the race, which is about 53 miles, and longer than what Nichols typically races. He says competing at the world championship level makes it worth it.
“They do take a lot out of you, so I try to schedule only one or two [ultra distance races]. This race breaks the rule that I’d set for myself – 50 miles was the longest I’d ever race. It’s close enough that I’m going to go ahead and let it slide.”
In trail running, setting personal records by distance presents a unique challenge. Alex says he measures his strongest performances by time, as opposed to distance. “The terrain can vary so much in the races. I do well with races that are in the two- to two-and-a-half-hour range. Sometimes that can be a 12-mile race and sometimes it can be a full 26.” If you’re looking to test your mettle in an extra-long race, it seems there are more and more options to race the ultra distances, many of which take runners through spectacular and often exceptionally challenging trail courses.
“In the running industry, ultra running and trail running are the fastest growing segments,” Nichols said. “With the number of races and the growing number of participants, now there are all types of really competitive races out there.” As a top competitor, Nichols has been a part of trail running’s rise as a mainstream event that draws endurance runners from all over the world. Nichols raced on Pikes Peak in college, and has continued racing (and winning) many endeavors out on the trails. “That got me into trail running. From there, it just kept building and I still do shorter trail races. It’s a pretty wide range from five miles to 50 miles.”
Nichols says he mixes up his training, to get in endurance work, but not lose speed when training for longer distances. “There’s not necessarily a standard training technique for ultra marathons yet, like there is for marathons, for example. I try to do close to the race distance in training, but maybe not as fast,” he said of this training cycle. “My longest run for a 50-mile race might be 40 miles. That’s they way I feel most prepared. And I get hills in once a week.”
He does lots of running in the Jones Park and Bear Creek Canyon Trail system, seeking out routes that don’t have many crowds (P.S. You probably won’t run into Alex during you weekend Incline jaunt or trip up Barr Trail.). But he says hitting the trails is a great way for any runner to work in variety, especially when ramping up the mileage.
“It’s nothing to be afraid of; it’s enjoyable. One of the first reasons I got started running on trails was because I had a lot of injury problems and the surface is softer.” Nichols’ secret weapon, however, may be his discipline when he’s off his feet. “I tend to sleep a lot more than people who aren’t training. When I’m training a lot, it’s 10-12 hours per night.”
He balances training (and rest) with work and travel obligations. Nichols coaches the Colorado College cross country and women’s distance track teams. “Right now, it’s really a focus on training and coaching. Once the season gets started, we have competitions every weekend, with lots of travel time,” he says.
As his coaching season winds down, his racing season is just heating up. The World Trail Championships, hosted by the International Association of Ultrarunners, in May, will be Nichols’ first big race of the year. In the summer, he competes in SkyRunning series races in the US and abroad, which will keep him racing all the way through November.
Odds are pretty even that you see bright sun and blue sky, high wind advisories, or six inches of snow on your weather app forecast for April. Regardless of what our spring training season brings for the next month, Nichols will not be deterred, hitting the trails in preparation of his big race. “I try not to let the weather change things too much. I slow down a little bit if there’s snow. As along as you’re prepared, it’s not that bad.” Words of wisdom for the weather, or your next ultra.
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Author Stephanie Wurtz has had a longstanding love affair with running for more than a decade. She runs roads and trails, anything from a 5k to a 50-miler and maybe beyond. She’s talking with elite runners connected to the Pikes Peak Region, learning a few things along the way.