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An ultra runner’s dream come true

(Eric Senseman cruises during the 2017 JFK 50-miler. Photo credit / Ray Jackson, Jr.)

About 50 meters from the finish line at the JFK 50 this year, Eric Senseman finally realized he was about to achieve a life-long goal.

“It’s been on my list for a number of years so it was great to finally capture a win,” he says of the historic 50-miler. “I know the course well and I’ve crewed it before. One of the things that worked well, and that I learned through these races, is to stay in the moment and I did a really good job of doing that.”

Senseman kept his focus on the present, and shed thoughts of the next hill, the next aid station, the finish line and anything else. “What can I do right now to continue to lead this race?”

It truly was Senseman’s moment, one that began innocently enough about a decade ago when a college friend made a casual suggestion.

The evolution of a runner

Senseman didn’t start running until his first year of college. In high school, he dabbled in other sports — track, wrestling, baseball, football and soccer.

“A friend of mine suggested Dean Karnazes book, ‘Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner,’” he says. “I read that book and in it, he says something like ‘Anyone can fake a marathon.’ The context being that if you had to walk out the door tomorrow and do 26.2 miles, you could do it. I understand logic, so I figured that if anyone could do it, I could do it.”

(Photo credit / Ian Corless)

As a college freshman, Senseman began training for three months for his first marathon. Three months later, in April 2008, he crossed the finish line in 3:37 at the GO! St. Louis Marathon. “I had never before run more than three or four miles at a time,” he remembers. “I enjoyed the process, the process of training and seeing results and improvement.”

He ran a couple more marathons the next year, Rock N Roll San Antonio and the Boston Marathon, and then walked on to the cross-country and track teams at Texas Christian University.

“When I first started off in cross-country, it was frustrating to be in the back of the pack,” Senseman recalls. “It was tough. What I learned was that you have to stick to it and work through it and eventually you are going to find success.”

What he learned early on during those days at TCU has stuck with him on his journey, which has included a spot on the USA national 50K team.

“If you put in the work, you are going to see the result,” he says. “That’s one thing that inspired me when I started running and has continued to. Unlike a lot of things in life, there is sort of a correlation between the work you put in and the results.”

Running, writing and traveling

(Photo credit / Ian Corless)

Senseman has carved out quite a niche for himself as a runner, writer and traveler. (Learn more about his running, writing and traveling on his website, Good Sense Running.)

“It was accidental, more or less,” he says. “I just sort of stumbled upon the sport. After college, I was still running marathons for a few years. I figured that if I was going to be competitive, I needed to run longer because I’m competitive and I want to win. And that was not going to happen in marathons so I needed to run further. Ultras really seemed to interest me.”

And he made the commitment.

“There is a lot of opportunity for people who are willing to adjust their lifestyles accordingly,” he says. “I didn’t pay rent for two years when I started running ultras. You can do a lot of things and go a lot of places when you are not shelling out hundreds of dollars a month for rent. Those experiences are great. Now, I’m based in Flagstaff, Ariz., and work and travel. Those years were very formative with the experiences I got in going to different races, racing, pacing and crewing. I learned a lot by doing that, a lot of lessons that have helped me improve and be successful.”

To date, his most successful race was November’s JFK 50, which he led from start to finish.

“I felt like going into the race it was mine to win,” he said, noting that his friend, Jim Walmsley, who had won the race three times in a row was not running it in 2017. “The way I had developed as an ultra runner the past few years and how my training went this year, I went in confident — even though a lot can happen and it’s a long way to go.”

Leading JFK start to finish

At JFK, Senseman led “from the start and never looked back.”

But at Mile 14, he received a needed push. Senseman had passed a spectator and about 10 seconds later, he heard the same person yell, “Way to go, Michael.”

That stunned Senseman but helped propel and focus him. “I was confused because my name is Eric,” he recalls. But I looked back and saw Michael Owen. I knew he was a strong runner, especially on technical stuff so I wasn’t surprised to see him but I thought I was alone. So it was kind of jarring and I thought, ‘Could I really win this race?’

“But I just put my head down and ran what I thought was possible at the upper edge. I just didn’t want him to catch me. I had to do as much as I could without doing too much.”

At the 15-mile checkpoint, Senseman crossed in 1:51 even, 26 seconds ahead of Owen. It would be the narrowest margin Senseman had over Owen, who finished second, throughout the day.

It wasn’t until about three miles to go when Senseman felt like it was his race. “I’m not going to screw this up at this point,” he says. “Until then, I was running scared. You just never know what can happen.”

With the finish line in sight, Senseman let himself go, weeping. “I started crying because it was a lifetime dream to win that race and I did it. It was hard to contain emotions. I still can’t describe it. What do you do when you accomplish something you thought it would take a lifetime to do and you’re 28 years old?”

The keys to improvement

(Photo credit / Alison Panza)

In the last year, Senseman has seen his nutrition, training and experience all coalesce. He made the 2016 U.S. 50K team, and learned from teammate Tony Migliozzi. They were in Doha, Qatar, for the world championships in November 2016.

“He told me he averaged like 110-120 miles for 16 weeks in preparation for the race,” Senseman recalls. “I was doing 80 miles a week for eight weeks. I can’t hold a candle to that —you’re going to beat me by 30 minutes, and he did.”

Migliozzi told Senseman, “There are only so many ways to get better in this sport. The way I look at getting better is to run more miles. The more miles I run, the better I get.”

Senseman applied the lesson to his own training. “I never really thought about it like that. But I took it to heart and began to prepare for races like that. I gained a lot through the experience of running on the world stage, and also the people I met through that experience and what they taught me about training.”

He has also learned about how to properly taper and peak from ultra running brethren like Walmsley and Patrick Reagan, who recently won the Javelina Jundred. Their advice came down to “putting your body in the best position to run your best. All those idiosyncrasies and tricks are very dependent on the race. But I have a very good sense now of how to bring all those things together and it’s made a world of difference.”

The fueling

Walmsley told Senseman he takes in 400 calories an hour during races. “Dude, you need fuel,” Senseman recalls Walmsley saying. “You’re going to be out there a long time. You need fuel in the tank and that changed my whole perspective on fueling.”

Senseman heeded the advice, consuming 300 to 400 calories an hour during races such as JFK and Black Canyon, where he placed third in the 100K earlier this year. “There is a lot that goes into a successful race, but that’s definitely been a factor.”

As far as what is in those calories, Senseman says 99 percent of those calories are from GU Roctane. At 250 calories per serving, Senseman aims to drink 1.5 servings per hour. “It’s been incredible. No stomach problems. No super lows when it comes to energy. It seems to be working for me.”

His races this year have largely been between 60K and 100K but he knows when he does 100-mile distances, he’ll need to incorporate real foods into his nutrition game plan.

A commitment to being vegetarian

Senseman has been a vegetarian since 2009, soon after he starting running. While he can’t correlate his running success to his diet, he believes it has made him a stronger runner much like ultra running legend Scott Jurek. But that’s not the driving force behind his dietary decision.

“It was an ethical decision,” says Senseman, who obtained a philosophy degree with an emphasis in ethics. “There is just a really powerful argument in favor of not eating meat, which I tried to reject for quite a while. When you are in that field and those arguments are in front of you and you can’t come up with a reasonable objection, you are forced to accept the conclusion. For me, it was very much about the treatment of animals and that’s what led me to not eat meat.”

Still, a vegetarian diet is a much different equation when it comes to protein needs for Senseman than for a typical 20something who doesn’t burn as many calories each day.

He turns to a lot of legumes and seeds. “I make a smoothie after every run with hemp protein powder with 15 grams of protein, two scoops of peanut butter (8 to 10 grams of protein), and pumpkin and sunflower seeds,” he says. “When you put it all together, you have a smoothie with 30 grams of protein after a run.”

For everyday meals, he adds nuts, seeds and beans, as well as soy-, wheat- or pea-based protein foods. “It’s not terribly difficult when you sit down and want to make a change,” he says.

What’s next

With his diet, training, experience and results all in sync, Senseman looks ahead to 2018 and beyond. Days after his win at JFK 50 he wrote to the race director, posing a rhetorical question, “What do you do when you achieve a lifetime dream?

“I sort of answered it, by saying, you need to keep dreaming and keep racing.”

He is eyeing Western States as his 100-mile debut. If he is not drawn in the lottery, he is targeting a Golden Ticket entry by finishing first or second at Black Canyon. Beyond 2018, Senseman wants to run Leadville, North Face California and well-known international races. “In general, I would like to become more proficient at mountainous ultras and successful at more runnable stuff.”

Immediately, Senseman is eyeing a repeat at the 2018 version of JFK 50. “Not too many people have won it two years in a row,” he says. “That would mean a tremendous amount to me. To win that race a second year in a row … I wouldn’t have words to describe how that would feel.”

Speed drill

Name: Eric Senseman

Hometown: Flagstaff, Ariz.

Number of years running: “Since 2008. I started running during my second semester of college after reading that ‘anyone can run a marathon.’ I thought I'd try one and I've been running ever since.”

How many miles a week do you typically run: “In preparing for an important ultra race, I try to average 90-100 miles per week for 8-10 weeks prior to the event. My peak weeks often reach 110-120 miles.”

Point of pride: “Winner of the 2017 JFK 50 Mile and member of the 2016 USA 50K Team.”

Favorite race distance: “So far, the longer the better. The 80-100k has been my sweet spot so far, but I'm excited to try the 100-mile distance soon.”

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “GU Roctane Summit Tea is my preferred way to take in calories and electrolytes. It keeps me fueled and tastes great!”

Favorite piece of gear: “Nathan VaporKrar Waistpack. It fits everything I need for a short or long run.”

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “Music while running? It's not for me! I like to enjoy my surroundings and my thoughts.”

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.” Albert Camus

Where can other runners connect or follow you: / Twitter @goodsenseruns / Instagram @sensemagram

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