(Chris DeNucci at the Western States 100. / Photo by Justin Britton)
Up until 2005 Chris DeNucci had never thought of being a runner. He grew up in an active family, focusing on sports like soccer, lacrosse and ice hockey through high school.
“In college, I flipped that a little,” he says. “I tried to stay active but focused on studying and staying active academically through undergrad and into med school. I was just a weekend warrior, playing a weekend game of pickup soccer with friends.”
Then a major health issue — ulcerative colitis, an inflammatory bowel disease — knocked DeNucci down. It’s unclear why certain people get ulcerative colitis but it’s likely a combination of genetics and environmental factors.
“Your system is attacking your intestines,” explains DeNucci, who is now doing his residency at Stanford University. “There are some pretty good medications out there and I took those off and on for seven years. But eventually around 2005, I reached the point where I was pretty sick.”
In the past, he had considered but declined a procedure to remove the entire colon — the part of the body under attack. ”I didn’t want to do something that radical because I wanted to handle it with medications, lifestyle changes and such.”
While in the middle of medical school at the University of Minnesota, the ulcerative colitis worsened. “I was sick and malnourished and weighed around 110 pounds,” he says. “I was at the hospital and they told me I would have to have my colon out within the next week or two, which was kind of overwhelming for me. Two weeks later, I had my colon taken out.”
The surgery was successful, giving DeNucci a new lease on life in more than one way.
“I think some of these points in your life when there are major changes, you have to make major decisions,” he says. “It forces you to be retrospective in what you are doing and where you have ben and where you want to go. At that point, I got interested in running.”
During his recovery, DeNucci had plenty of time for reading. Bill Bryson’s book, “A Walk in the Woods,” served as inspiration.
“After the surgery, it was less about getting in to running to promote fitness at that point,” DeNucci recalls. “It was more about reaching out for new experiences and adventure seeking and challenging mostly in ways that I feel would enrich me. Bill Bryson talked about his perspective about getting prepared to walk the Appalachian Trail. He talked about people setting speed records on the Appalachian Trail. It kind of got me thinking, ‘Maybe, if I can get back to walking, or even some strenuous activity, maybe that would be something cool I could do to press my limits.’ If I could do something like that, I could train to do something like run a marathon. Things kind of went on from there.”
‘There is no faking it’
Perhaps running was in DeNucci’s blood. After all his father ran marathons in the late 1970s and early 1980s — before it was all the rage.
“Running to me was a natural pre-disposition, it came easier and it seemed that to go out and do something like that — run the Appalachian Trail or a marathon — seemed more doable because I had the good genetics to do it,” he said. “The other thing about running is that it is a pure sport. You don’t need that much gear and you can just get out and do it. There is no faking it. I like that aspect of it, too.”
But before he set foot on a trail, or ran a marathon, DeNucci progressed through the various shorter distances — 5K, 10K, half marathon. “I did my first half marathon in 2007. I remembered crossing the finish line and thinking there’s no way I can ever do that again.”
It didn’t take long for him to vanquish that thought and embrace the 26.2-mile distance. DeNucci finished his first full in 2008, and continued down that track for a while. After moving to California in 2012 for radiology residency at Stanford University, he received the necessary push to embrace trail running. “The availability of trails year round led me to explore them and get into trail and ultra running.”
A match made on the trails
Reflecting back, DeNucci connects his inspiration from the Appalachian Trail book to his love for trail and ultra running.
“My original spark into running was something that I know now as trail and ultra running,” he says. “I didn’t know that entity existed but I wanted to do something like that. But I didn’t know that there were races. I didn’t know there was Western States. I didn’t know people ran 100 miles. That was inconceivable.”
DeNucci saw road running as being really time- or pace-focused.
“But when I got into trail running, there was a great complexity in the races that appealed to me — the type of trail, the amount of climbing, or descending, adverse conditions or weather you may encounter,” he explains. “That appeals to me at a higher level. Not only can I challenge myself but I can be out there problem-solving. When you have success at one thing, you tend to pursue that even more.”
DeNucci found success early and often as an ultra runner. Starting with his ultra debut at Mad City 50K in Madison, Wisc., in 2012, he finished in the top five in his first nine ultras. Those include a fourth-place finish in the 50K at the North Face Endurance Challenge Series in California in 2013.
“In general I feel like I am an average road marathoner but have a higher degree of success on the trails where there is all these other factors that come into play,” he says. “I really like that aspect of it, as well as the whole community that I met when I moved to California. A lot of support and really interesting people. I really like that about ultra running — the places you see and the people you meet.”
Another setback, another surgery
His success continued and he got into Western States in 2015, finishing 21st overall with a time of 19:07:48. The following year he improved to ninth overall in a time of 17:07:57. And last year, he finished fifth overall with a time of 17:36:11.
“I had a good training period for Western States in 2017, had a great race and was super happy with it,” DeNucci recalls. “After the race your body hurts so much you can’t really pinpoint where you might have an injury. But about a month after the race, I was still having some pretty significant right groin pain and it was not getting any better.”
DeNucci saw a sports medicine doctor for some imaging, which revealed an injury to the core muscle, specifically the abductor on the right.
“After putting everything together, it seemed that my earlier surgery had set me up with an imbalance in the core muscles,” he says. “Those muscles help transfer power from the upper to the lower body. And during my earlier surgery, I had the same type of incision a woman would have for a C-section. In addition to that surgery, I had some innate weakness in the core muscles as compared with the thigh muscles. And that set up this imbalance that resulted in the tearing and chronic degeneration over time.”
DeNucci put his medical background, research skills and contacts to work. Given his “anatomic abnormality,” he decided surgery in November 2017 “would be the best way to intervene if I wanted to continue running at a high level.”
Once again, DeNucci was laid up, recovering from surgery. “Since I hadn’t been running, I committed to a fairly regimented PT schedule,” he says of his rehabilitation, which includes strength training for the core and then a gentle progression back to running.
On Day 21 post-op, DeNucci declared on his Facebook page, “I’m free” on a post showing him running a 12-minute mile while smiling on a treadmill. He wrote: “1 min run/1 min walk for 10 mins. Mostly pain free but post surgical adductors remain tight, limiting hip extension and resulting in an upright posture. This is a 12 min/mile pace which would be a 20-hour finish at Western States 100. Things are coming along just fine!”
‘An overwhelming peace’
(Chris DeNucci makes the Western States river crossing during the 2016 race. / Photo by Gary Wang)
Now, three months after surgery, he has continued to progress and is now back on the trails.
“The first feeling after getting back out there and my first run back was a sense of freedom or piece of mind,” DeNucci says. “It’s the feeling a lot of us seek when running — just being able to run. That felt really good when I had not been able to do that in a while. It was an overwhelming peace. Then I quickly realized that I was extremely out of shape. It’s been a great experience to be able to run again. It’s made me so happy.”
DeNucci is eyeing his fourth straight Western States. “My A goal — better race than last year, would love to podium at Western,” he says. “My B goal would be top 10, and my C goal would be finishing under 24 hours. Those are long-term goals. Coming back from injury, I am taking a shorter perspective, almost a week to week approach — see how this week goes, and plan from there.”
He knows he will soon have to create a more rigid training plan for Western States and pencil in some races to build toward Western. Tentatively, he is looking at returning to Quicksilver 50K in May.
“I ask myself why I need to take it to that level,” he says, referring to being competitive at races like Western States.
(Photo at left: DeNucci at start line of 2017 Western States by Alex Kurt.)
“In the recovery and injury process being honest with myself one of the things was there are certain things you don’t have control over. You have to acknowledge that. If this was some sort of injury that I was never able to run again, it would be sad and disappointing. But I would get over it. If it was an injury that wouldn’t allow me to be competitive that would be disappointing. I realize that in the end I would like to be able to get out and run and have that feeling of freedom and peace of mind that running brings me. Seeing the progress I’ve made I do enjoy the goal-setting aspects of running, setting up training and the completion aspects — not necessarily against others, but seeing what I can do and how far I can push my body. Given that I am in a place where I can do that — push my body — it is extremely attractive to try to get back to Western States and get after it again.”
DeNucci, who subscribes to a high-fat, low-protein diet, has his mind right as his body heals and recovers.
“I have found that we can all do a lot more than we ever thought we could,” he says. “The greatest lesson for me is that we all set limits on things we can do, which holds us back a lot on life. You can pursue those extra curricular activities of what is possible and what you can do. When you stand at the start line of a 100-mile race, it puts things in perspective. I don’t think anyone really thinks 100 miles is feasible or reasonable for a human to run. You get out there and we do it. That’s the biggest thing I have learned from this experience. We can do more than we ever thought possible.”
Name: Chris DeNucci
Hometown: Gaithersburg, Md.
Number of years running: 10 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: 50-70 miles
Point of pride: 5:56 beer mile
Favorite race distance: 100K to 100 mile
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Anything with almond butter
Favorite piece of gear: Naked Running Band
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: AC/DC Thunderstruck
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Keep going. Never quit.
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