You will have to excuse Darcy Piceu if she is making up — in a big way — for lost time.
Piceu, who won four 100-milers in 2018, didn’t find running until she was studying abroad in New Zealand during college. She was a little out of shape and decided to start exercising.
“Running was an easy way for me to get outside and to start taking better care of myself,” says Piceu, who did not run in high school or college. “Running was a great way to see a new area through a different lens, as opposed to riding in a car.”
After college she worked in the back country in Colorado and was also a ski instructor. “I think that was where my love just being in the trails came from,” she recalls. “I was seeing terrain that I wanted to be running. Taking off a heavy backpack and going light was the way to go.”
And she has barely paused since.
‘A little bit of intrigue’
Piceu started this year by winning the HURT 100, then took first in the Andorra Ultra Trail 170K, won Angeles Crest 100-miler and topped it off with a victory at the Javelina Jundred 100-miler at the end of October.
Long before she stood atop the podium, Piceu picked away at smaller distances but found a home within the ultra community.
Like many runners, she started out doing road races — mostly half marathons. Then Piceu did a trail marathon while living in Breckenridge, Colo.
“That was my first glimpse into longer distances on trails,” she remembers. “I fell in love with it at that point. Ultra running came a little bit later when I started hanging out with people who were doing ultras in the late 90s. And then was introduced to races like Leadville, Lake City and paced friends doing those races. Even at that point, I was like ‘I don’t know if I really want to do these things.’ But there was a little bit of intrigue.”
Piceu took third in her first ultra, the San Juan Solstice 50 miler in Lake City, Colo.
“It went really well,” she says. “It was a beautiful course in the San Juan Mountains. Thirteen miles on the Continental Divide Trail for a large chunk of the race. I was loving these mountain races. Even now that is my preference, my favorite kind of course.”
No high school running. No regrets.
While many elite ultra runners carried over various levels of success from high school and/or college running, Piceu does not regret her absence from her high school cross-country and track teams. “I don’t know if that would have led me to burn out more quickly or not.”
As we talked in early December she admitted her motivation was low because it was the downtime between a successful season and starting training again for the next.
“I am still motivated even though I have been in the sport for a really long time now,” she says. “I think had I run in high school and college, I may not be as excited about it as I am today. And also my body didn’t take that type of beating when I was younger. But at this point I have definitely done that to myself,” she says with a laugh.
A lesson learned
On her way to successful finishes, Piceu has had two DNFs. The first one especially was a lesson that is still paying off today.
Earlier in her career, she dropped at the Spring Desert Ultra 50. In 2013, an injury forced her out of Run Rabbit Run (RRR).
“There are always reasons for not finishing a race or having to drop out for either physical or emotional reasons,” Piceu says. “It’s a great lesson. It’s the idea that you have to fail in order to succeed. It’s always a good reminder that when I have had to DNF, that feeling I had afterwards — I don’t want to have that feeling ever again.”
She recalls that at the Spring Desert race, which was somewhat new at the time, aid stations had run out of some items. “It was due to the fact that I didn’t want to continue suffering and enduring what I am feeling right now. It’s not wanting to have that feeling of DNFing because that is typically worse than anything. At Spring Desert, I felt like I needed these things at the aid stations. It was really hot. But when I got to the aid stations, there was nothing. Everyone was still trying to figure out ultras at that point. The disappointment that I felt afterward was not something I wanted to feel again.“
Her only DNF since was due to knee pain at Mile 30 of RRR.
“I knew it was a pain that was not a good kind of pain,” she says. “I knew it was a pain that I could not push through. It was a pain that I knew could cause some real damage.”
Through the years Piceu has been a model of consistency, routinely finishing strong in some of the toughest and most prestigious races. This year she will head back to the Hardrock Endurance Run, where she has seven first or second place finishes since 2010.
What does she credit her successful longevity to?
“Sheer determination,” Piceu says simply. “I don’t know if it’s an ability to endure and suffer a lot. Not that I think this works for everyone by any means, but I don’t take training too seriously. I also don’t train at very high mileage at all. If anything, my mileage is really low compared to most ultra runners.”
She says that’s what explains her longevity — not overtraining, not logging too many miles in between races.
“I would say quality over quantity but to be honest I don’t have that many quality workouts either,” Piceu admits. “Training for me is about keeping myself physically and mentally happy. Having something to look forward to is helpful in getting me out the door but for the most part I get out the door for the everyday benefits, feeling like I am a more patient mom and more focused at work.”
As 2018 fades into 2019, many elite ultra runners like Piceu are also winding down and decompressing until the new year — and new challenges — dawn. It’s a period of somewhat low activity and low motivation.
“That fluctuates for me,” she explains. “Some days I’m like really motivated. And the next day is totally different. It’s really helpful to have races on the calendar. I always try to have something on the calendar and that helps keep me motivated. Right now, I am sort of justifying it by the season I had — winning four 100-mile races. I’m super proud of that and I am feeling really unmotivated right now. But I am giving myself a grace period since I am not motivated to get out. It’s also harder as the days get shorter and it’s cloudy and windy. The trail conditions may not be great. It’s important to take the time off when you are not feeling motivated. I’m trying to give myself a bit of a break and then ramp back up in the start of the year.”
Piceu takes her down time seriously.
Though for an elite, down time still means getting a daily workout but at this time of the year the intensity is in hibernation. She continues to run, but not far or intense, based on her standards. Other days, she will get to the gym for core work or other strength training. Other days, it’s hitting the slopes.
She doesn’t track her mileage or minutes running. “I’m really just a day-by-day person. I don’t have much data,” she says with a laugh.
Keys to recovery
In addition to her cross-training, Piceu swears by foam rolling and monthly massages. When it comes to diet, she focuses on moderation, though she hasn’t eaten meat since she was 17. Piceu follows a vegetarian/pescatarian lifestyle and admits that she enjoys wine and sweets.
Perhaps her most serious piece of advice when it comes to training is getting proper rest.
“At the top of the list for recovery is sleep both in training and after racing,” she says. “It’s the one thing that people end up skimping but it is the most important piece in terms of recovery. Diet plays a role there. Eating healthy well balanced meals us important.”
For post-workout recovery, Piceu uses First Endurance’s drink, Ultragen. “I think it’s the best recovery drink I’ve ever used,” she says. “I use it in training runs and after races.”
How she defines success
Piceu has considered joining others who have tried a 200-miler, saying the only time she has attempted that distance was when she ran the John Muir Trail. “I have definitely contemplated it but I am not sure which one. There are some other things I want to do before then.”
Tour de Geants is one of those races she wants to do before doing a 200-miler. But in the coming year, she is focusing her attention on the Hardrock Endurance Run, where she has three victories and four second-place finishes since 2010.
“I’m so happy to have another opportunity to be in the San Juans, running with the community of friends who are like a second family to me,” she says. “I’d love to get 10 finishes at Hardrock, and 2019 will hopefully be number eight. Two more to go!”
As Piceu goes through her end-of-season maintenance routine, I ask her to think about how she would define success at the end of her career.
“I have had a ton of success in running in terms of that I have won a lot of races,” she says. “But I have always had this feeling that there has to be more meaning in it for me. I’m still trying to figure out — after 18 years — what that is. I am becoming an advocate for women in our sport. And I want to be a role model for my daughter. Success to me really is doing something for the greater good.”
Name: Darcy Piceu
Hometown: West Bloomfield, Mich., but I’ve been in Colorado for 25 years.
Number of years running: 19
How many miles a week do you typically run: I don’t log or track my mileage
Point of pride: My daughter, Sophia
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: oatmeal and a banana (race day) or hard boiled eggs and a smoothie.
Favorite piece of gear: HOKA One One Speedgoats.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I’m Alive by Michael Franti.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Where can other runners connect or follow you: darcypq on Instagram and website, darcypiceu.net