Since he frequently trains in New York’s Catskill Mountains, it’s fitting that Jim Sweeney’s running career has its share of ups and downs.
It all started when his father, Steve Sweeney, challenged him to a summer running contest to see who would run the most days. For Jim, any run over 1.5 miles would count; for his dad, anything 3 miles or longer would count.
That set the tone for Sweeney, who played soccer, football and basketball as a youth, to transition to running in high school.
“I went to track and field and cross country and was part of pretty good teams in what is often called the most difficult section in the country,” says Sweeney, who recently ran 13:09:32 at the Hennepin Hundred, believed to be the fastest 100-mile time so far this year. “I made it to states in cross country my senior year and missed out on states in the 1600m in indoor by less than a second.”
Sweeney, who also set his school’s junior class record in the steeplechase and held it for about a decade, headed to Division I University of Hartford.
That’s when he faced his first significant running challenge.
A ‘weird college career’
“I had a weird college career,” Sweeney recalls. “I only competed in four or five meets in cross country and ended up getting very sick. It took me months to get healthy again.”
He took a year off from running competitively and then transferred from Hartford to Fredonia State in upstate New York.
“My junior year, I had very little success,” he says. “But I was still our number one distance runner my junior year in cross country and track and tackled the 10K for the first time ever. I ended up loving my time at Fredonia and left the school going to nationals in cross country, making the SUNYAC Hall of Fame in cross country and having the sixth fastest 10K time in school history.”
Even though Sweeney’s ultrasignup page is filled with podium finishes at various ultras, his proudest achievement is when he made nationals in cross country. “I worked my ass off for a year for that moment and I ran the best race of my collegiate career at regionals,” he says.
A smooth transition to ultras
A few months after college, Sweeney ran his first road marathon — the Mohawk-Hudson River Marathon in Albany, N.Y. — and won with a time of 2:37.
Sweeney moved to Washington, D.C., and ran a few marathons but life got in the way of a full commitment to the sport. Then he crewed his dad at the Vermont 100 in 2005.
“I loved the atmosphere and vibe of the sport,” he recalls. ”I ended up running my first 50K in April 2006 at Sybil Ludington in Carmel, N.Y., where Bob Sweeney (no relation) and I had a few epic battles, all of which he bested me.”
A friend asked Sweeney to run the JFK 50 in November of that year.
“My first 50-miler was the same year at JFK 50 where I finished second to Peter Breckenridge,” he recalls. “I'm not really sure how or why I transitioned to ultras. I wasn't seeing the success in road marathons that I wanted to see. I saw success in ultras very early and I enjoyed them.”
A new goal
While Sweeney has been competitive for years, including four top 10 finishes at JFK, he gained attention with his course record in early October at Hennepin. While many elites are in their 20s, Sweeney is crushing races now as a 37-year-old.
“I am very consistent which is something I am very proud of,” he says. “I think my biggest piece of advice is to not force it. If you don't feel like going long, don't. If you don't feel like going hard, don't. It’s OK to adjust your training schedule. Like life, running is a very up and down sport. I have years that I don't run well, whether it’s due to injury or other things are just taking precedent. You just have to keep powering through. Down time is important!”
At the start of 2018, a potential record at Hennepin was the furthest thing from Sweeney’s mind. Heck, he wasn’t even considering running that race.
“I actually wanted to go back to Grindstone this year, because I dropped out last year due to an injury from kicking a rock,” he says.
His 14:07 earlier this year at Umstead changed his plans from a redemption race to a blistering pace. He changed his goal to get under 14 hours.
“I looked around and wanted to try my sub 14 hour attempt at Javelina Jundred,” Sweeney says. “My crew couldn't make it to that race and I couldn't get those that I know in Arizona to commit to crewing at the time. I continued to do some research and found Hennepin on a good weekend. It was nice that there was a 50-miler that started at the same time which meant that I could have people to run with for at least 50 miles.”
Hennepin made sense for other reasons too, Sweeney explains, saying the weather would likely be decent and a friend would also be there. “It was also nice having Sam Skeels there. We had run together at Burning River in 2013 and he was also trying to get under 14 hours.”
Giving ‘em hell at Hennepin
Sweeney and Skeels agreed to race together and even waited for each other at aid stations.
“My hope was to stay at about 8-minute pace or slower through the first 32 miles,” says Sweeney, who recommends Hennepin for those looking to PR or do their first 100. “That didn't exactly happen, I seemed to be in a 7:47 rhythm and I didn't fight it. The day, for the most part, felt very easy for me outside of a couple of moments.”
Sweeney hit the midway point at 6:30.
“Crap, this pace may have been a mistake,” he recalls thinking. “At that time I stopped and took the grit out of my shoes and I seemed to be fine after that. I felt great from 52 miles to 75.”
He was just under the 13-hour pace with 25 miles to go.
“I kept thinking that if I could continue to feel as good as I did I could get there,: he says. “I came into the 88-mile aid station still on pace for just under 13 hours but I was hurting. I spoke to my crew asking when I would see them again and thankfully my Dad brought an extra headlamp because apparently mine wouldn't turn on.”
Even though he didn’t break 13 hours, the backup headlamp provided a huge dividend.
“I made it to Mile 95, wishing it was the finish and knowing at that point that sub 13 hours wasn't going to happen,” Sweeney says. “It was also very, very dark. Dark to the point that I could only see what my headlight was focused on. I also knew I was physically exhausted because about a mile from seeing my crew at Mile 95 I thought I could hear them, then I thought it was a loon on the canal. Come to find out it was a couple of coyotes off in the distance.”
It was the first time that Sweeney ran every step of a 100-miler.
“Even though my goal was to run faster than the CR, the CR was never on my mind,” he recalls. “I just wanted to accomplish my goal of sub 14 hours. However, I knew I would accomplish my goal at Mile 75.”
Looking ahead to new challenges
Soon after his accomplishment, Sweeney was setting a new audacious goal.
“When I crossed the finish line I was happy that I didn't need to run another step,” he recalls. “I kinda fell into my girlfriend and rested my head on her for a moment. I then spent some time talking to Michelle (race director) and my crew. I wanted to change before I got cold, I even ate some chili about 20 minutes after I finished. What went through my mind was that I missed the North American top 10 list by 13 minutes and that I will be making a true attempt at that list in 2019.”
Looking further out, Sweeney ticks off a list of goal race including Badwater, Sinister 7, Cruel Jewel, Fat Dog 120. “My ultimate is Hardrock,” he proclaims. “Western States never interested me until the last two years. I'm going to try and get into Western this year, but it isn't a bucket list race for me.”
Sweeney has found success at both flat and hilly races, including the Ultra Race of Champions, where he has two top 10 finishes. Right now, he is "running" all of the high peaks in the Catskill Mountains with 17 of 39 completed.
As Sweeney transitions for a major accomplishment to training for his next goals, he remains focused on his personal “why” for running.
What drives me to keep putting in the work?” he asks. “I enjoy it. I enjoy being outside. I enjoy being surrounded by nature. I enjoy being around like-minded people who are driven as much as I am. I love running with my friends. Running is my therapy. It’s my way to figure out things that are going on in my life — good or bad.”
Name: Jim Sweeney
Hometown: Guilderland, N.Y.
Number of years running: 23 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: Over the last two years it’s been between 75 and 80 miles per week
Point of pride: I'm going after my goals and I'm not going to quit until I achieve them.
Favorite race distance: Probably 100 miles, but I do enjoy marathons (even though I haven't run one in three years).
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Burger and a beer.
Favorite piece of gear: New Balance 1400s.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I don't run listening to music.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.” — Mark Twain
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Facebook. I do have a Twitter account (ultra_sweeney) but I don't really use it.