Ultra running turned out to be a life saver when Kate Pallardy needed it most.
Twelve years ago Pallardy was a college senior “in a weird place.” She was in a bad relationship and sought out doing something for herself.
“I was coming out of a not-good relationship, was trying to find something that really got me excited,” says Pallardy, who was running three to four miles three times a week at the time. “Through my life, seeds had been planted. I stayed fit. I've always been athletic, but I just think I was just looking for something that just ignited that fire.”
Pallardy thought about running a marathon. Then she remembered hearing about the Ice Age 50-mile race, which is in May.
And with that, the fire was lit.
“The farthest I've ever run is probably five miles at that point,” recalled Pallardy, who had some competitive running experience as a youth. “This was in December, and I wanted to do it soon. I got four months — January, February, March, April. I'm going do it. I had told my boyfriend, who was the bad relationship, and he looked at me and he goes, ‘You won't be ready.’ I'm telling you that was the turning point of my life, because I was so angry that he said that. I was like, ‘F--- you. Now I'm going back.’”
Not only did Pallardy finish a 50-miler — even earlier than she vowed — but she has gone on to be a prolific ultra marathoner. Earlier this month, she won her biggest race to date, the historic JFK 50, while training almost exclusively on roads around her home in New York City.
Finding love on the run
Long before she crossed the finish line triumphantly at the JFK race, Pallardy showed promise as a runner. She broke her sister’s school record for the mile as a fifth-grader and ran on her high school team, including finishing second in states on a relay team.
But running wasn’t her passion back then. It took some time and motivation.
“I think why the 50 miler was so attractive was because it was so off the radar,” she explains. “My only goal for that day was to finish. That was it. That was something so comforting. I don't care if I'm last. I don't care if it takes me two days.”
She was driven by spite after the reaction from her condescending boyfriend. Pallardy decided to find an earlier 50-miler, settling on the McNaughton Trail Race in April. “It was a very toxic relationship. I was like, ‘Perfect!’ So I have January, February, March, to go from nine miles a week to finishing a 50 that's on a trail.”
On Jan. 7, 2007, roughly 10 days after signing up for the 50, Pallardy ran a marathon. Not an official race, a training run that she sketched out on paper, then headed out her front door.
“I didn't know what I was doing,” she admits. “I was wearing cotton. I had the hoodie sweatshirt. I didn't bring water, and I just went. But I'm telling you that was it. At that point I was probably running from something definitely. At the same time, it was something I really love. There was no faking it. I realized it was love.”
She continued to train as the calendar rushed toward April. Soon enough it was race day.
The McNaughton race is a 10-mile loop with 50-, 100- and 150-mile distances. She calls it “one of her most memorable races.”
At Mile 30, Pallardy stopped at the aid station and asked her friend Andy Weinberg for some Life Savers. He turned to his buddy, Mike, who had been up for about two days volunteering at the race.
“So here's this girl who's 21, and Andy says, ‘Oh, Mike! This girl needs Life Savers,” she recalls. “Mike looks at me and says, ‘Just reach into my pocket.’ I was like, ‘Hey now. This isn't the first time that someone has asked me to do that.’”
Pallardy grabbed the Life Savers, thanked Mike, and later learned he was an ultra runner and Ironman athlete. After the race she thanked him again and told him that she was thinking of buying a bike for triathlons. “These are all lies, of course, but we do what we do.”
She got his phone number, called him in a few days and they eventually dated, even though she lived in Illinois and he lived in New York City. They married in 2009.
Finding her passion
Not only did Pallardy find love at the 50-miler, she felt alive once again.
“Through this running pursuit, I started meeting people that really inspire me,” she says. “We just had adventures, and laughing, and picking routes and getting muddy, and getting lost. Everyone has a fire for something. But when I finished the 50, that fire was blazing. I just felt, well this is it, this is what I could see me doing for the rest of my life. It's not just the run itself but it's also the people, adventure, the places you see.”
For Pallardy, she hadn’t felt that free in a decade.
“I don't want to say it was a drug,” she reflected. “It really was a saving grace at that point in my life, so I wanted to keep the adventure going. I wanted to keep these good people in my life and I wanted to start pulling away from where I was. When I crossed, it wasn't like, ‘Oh can I get faster?’ I wanted to work towards another adventure and another race.”
And sure enough the adventures came. Another couple of 50-milers, including the Vermont 50, and a Spartan race. She happens to be good friends with Joe De Sena, the mastermind behind the Spartan Race and other challenging events. After Pallardy finished one of his races, De Sena told her she was ready for a 100-miler.
"Oh 100, no big deal,” she recalls thinking. “I've only been running for probably four months, but yeah, sure.”
Pallardy finished the Vermont 100 in under 24 hours.
“It did not go bad,” she says. “From 80 to 100 it was like a lot of people's stories. You know when you have a 30-minute mile? I was beat. I was destroyed after that race. I finished it off because of grit. I was not in shape to do that.”
That’s been her only 100 to date, though she has completed lots of 50K, 50-milers and other assorted distances in the United States and elsewhere.
Balancing motherhood and competitive running
After college, Pallardy dabbled in triathlons where she was very competitive. Still, she preferred the single discipline of running and the fewer hours of training necessary. Once she gave birth to her son, she resumed her focus on trails and ultras.
“I had been really triathlon focused, and then I had my son, I just couldn’t anymore,” she says. “I don't even really love triathlon. I can't train 30-hour weeks. I want to be home; my favorite thing was running. I'm going to just try to get fast.”
And she did, first notably at the Ice Age Trail in 2014, when she placed second to Kaci Lickteig. For her runner-up finish, Pallardy received a Golden Ticket to Western States. She declined, thinking her body wasn’t ready for 100 miles and her mind still wanted to focus on speed.
Pallardy nailed a 2:40 marathon before giving birth to her daughter, who is now age 3.
Like many mothers who are endurance athletes, she balanced motherhood and training. The sleep deprivation, breastfeeding and infant care forced Pallardy to be patient. She built herself back up slowly.
Throughout her running journey she wanted to be fast. At the Nov. 17 JFK, there was not a single woman who was faster.
Planning and racing JFK 50
Pallardy did the vast majority of her training on roads but was able to run trails when visiting Connecticut. Obviously, it worked out for her as the race is a combination of running on the Appalachian Trail and on roads. She studied the course, plotted out strategy and talked to previous runners like Michael Arnstein, who lost the 2013 race in the final mile.
“We had broken down this race, exactly what I was going to do, and exactly what I was going to train for,” Pallardy said, adding the goal was to hit 2:25 at Mile 15. “We didn't know the conditions would be but that's what we just put on the table.”
Most of the first 15.5 miles of the JFK course are on the AT, then runners transition to basically a full marathon on a dirt and gravel section on the C&O Trail and a final 8.4 miles of rolling hills on country roads.
Strategically, she decided to change shoes and socks after the trail portion, which is unusual for her even in ultras.
“This isn't a trail race; it's a trail warm-up,” she explains. “I told Mike to just meet me at Mile 15, and then you don't have to see me the rest of the day. You gotta take those kids and you gotta send them to a bouncy house. There's no point in seeing me. I’m gonna have my head down, and I'm just gonna go.”
Her plan worked as she changed shoes and socks at the transition point. Precisely at 2:25. At that point, she was running with Lickteig, and there were about five or so women runners ahead. Her husband told she was about 20 minutes off the leaders.
“Now we’re running,” Pallardy says. “This is the race.”
She had trained to run the marathon section between 3:05 and 3:10.
“I was on pace and we just slowly swooped up people,” Pallardy says. “I don't really know what's happening in the race. People tell you all sorts of things. ‘You’re fifth. You're 20 minutes down. You're five minutes down.’ I’m not really sure, so I’m just going to stick to the plan."
Catching the leader
At Mile 27, she was again told that she was 20 minutes down. “I still felt like I’m running for second,” Pallardy says. “But there's a section on the AT, from 35 to 41 that was just mud. The AT was pretty good until that point. And you just couldn't get traction. You're like, ice skating, but I told myself I am not falling off pace. This was my mission.”
Pallardy believes that section is when she gained crucial time, catching up to race leader Leah Frost.
After that section, a bystander told Pallardy she was three minutes down. “Could this be real?” she wondered. “Just keep to the plan.”
She was ready to finish hard on the roads. Her body felt good. Her stomach was good. Her head was good.
Soon enough Pallardy saw Frost up ahead.
“I got chills,” Pallardy remembers. “Oh, my God. I got chills not because I just saw her, but because I felt good. I was mostly worried about Kaci behind me, because I won't ever discount her. And I have no idea where she is. So I said, ‘OK. Here's the mission: I'm gonna pass her.’ And that was at Mile 41, a half-mile until the road section.”
Seeing Frost relit the fire in Pallardy. It was time to refocus all the energy from past disappointments into a final push to the finish.
"When I hit the road, I'm going to run as hard as I can all the way home,” she says. “I’ve come in second, third, fourth and fifth. But today, I'm just putting everything out on the table. I can't lose this race. I'm ready to hammer. I will bleed out the ears today to win this, and I am ready to go to the darkest place I have ever went in a race to be here."
Pallardy also thought of her friend Arnstein. She was not going to let herself be caught in the final stretch.
“They say don't look over your shoulder,” she says. “I looked over my shoulder. Michael lost the race in 400 meters, so I'm thinking that I don't want any surprises.”
Once on the roads, things literally brightened. The sun was out. Pallardy felt good. She was hitting her fast road stride.
That was really exciting,” she says. “To finish a race feeling like that was the best feeling. I trained so hard for this race.”
A year of successes
Pallardy’s success at JFK was the continuation of a successful but somewhat under-the-radar year. She ran a 1:15:20 at the Grandma’s Marathon half in June, barely missing her goal by 20 seconds. Then she went to MCC in France.
“I wanted to win that,” she says. “I wasn't going there just to run.”
To train for MCC and JFK, Pallardy focused on 90-mile weeks, often dong three long runs from 17 to 30 miles. To build her leg speed, she also does treadmill mile repeats. She will do a basic 5K all-out, followed by a mile repeat. “That keeps your speed,” she says. “If I can run eight times 5:20 miles, I'm in a good place.”
At MCC, Pallardy encountered an issue with four miles to go. Namely, a busted ankle.
“There were only two more miles of really technical trail, but I believe I cried a bit,” she recalls. “It's so painful. But I had two miles of easy running home, and I was able to just grin and bear it.”
After winning the race in 4:30:54, Pallardy couldn’t put any weight on the ankle and thought it was broken. She rested it and soon enough it had healed. “I had to almost back off of three weeks of hard running,” she says. “I had to lace up braces on my ankles, which was annoying, but the ankle is really, really weak.”
Training becomes more challenging over the winter for Pallardy. Family, of course, comes first. She home-schools her kids, too. And running in New York City during winter means a lot of treadmill miles. Pallardy is aiming to run around 2:37-2:39 at the Boston Marathon and/or Grandma’s Marathon in 2019. Then she is considering a summer trail race in Europe.
“I don't know if we'll go back to Chamonix,” Pallardy says of the UTMB race series in France. “Maybe I'll try to get into the OCC, which is the next one up. Kaci told me I should do CCC. I don't know about that. That's 100K out there, and that's starting to get out of my comfort zone.”
Pallardy prefers ultras she can race, like a road 50-miler or 100K.
“I would love to do something that I could run, so I have to figure that out,” she says. “Comrades Marathon is definitely on the bucket list. That is the great race. But it's in South Africa. I have two kids and a husband who works. We kind of have to plan egregiously. My kids come everywhere with me. I do want to do Western States, but that might require a Golden Ticket.”
Name: Kate Pallardy
Hometown: New York City
Number of years running: Competitively 12, but truly all my life!
How many miles a week do you typically run: 70 to 95 miles
Point of pride: My family and then we have to say winning JFK, ha ha.
Favorite race distance: probably 50 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Morning before race always green tea/ black tea blend with coconut milk.
Favorite piece of gear: A hat, always need something on my head, always.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: This changes weekly and to be honest, couldn't tell you who actually sings the songs I love. That's pretty depressing but truly don't pay much attention to that stuff.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Keep Going. Never quit.
Where can other runners connect or follow you: Instagram is the best way @katepallardy