The running life of ultra champion Jeff Ball
Jeff Ball is living, breathing and enjoying a life dedicated to running. His day job focuses on working with The North Face Endurance Challenge Series on promotions and social media. In his spare time, he trains and competes in ultra races, mainly in his home state of Texas and in the southwest United States.
The native of Virginia started out running track and cross-country in high school, then competed for Christopher Newport University, a Division III school in the commonwealth.
“I've always liked running, always enjoyed running, really had a good time doing it,” says Ball, who also played soccer in high school. “It was kind of something where I just wanted to do it a little bit more and kind of see what times and things I could run and see how I progressed.”
After college graduation, he missed the acts of running and bonding with teammates. He trained for half marathons and enjoyed the longer distance. As fate would have it, his job with Publicis
Experiences lured Ball into even longer races.
“Through my job, I started working with the North Face Endurance Challenge Series (ECS), which our advertising agency helps produce,” he explains. “I decided to get into longer distances just to understand what our participants were going through. That's kind of how everything evolved for me.”
Join me at a North Face race
I’ve run two previous North Face races, both at the Wisconsin event. One year I did the marathon and followed that up with a 50K the following year. This year, I plan to either return to Wisconsin or try something new, namely the 50-miler in San Francisco. Runners cross the Golden Gate Bridge to finish that race, which sounds incredible.
Up next in the series is the Massachusetts event, June 8-9; followed by Wisconsin on Sept. 14-15 and capped off by San Francisco, Nov. 16-17. For those wanting to run in Massachusetts or Wisconsin, use my discount code HH20 that is good for 20 percent entry to any distance in those events during 2019.
Race distances cover all the standard distances from the 50-mile version down to 5Ks. The races are held over two days, so conceivably a runner could do a longer distance on the first day, followed by a shorter distance the next day.
In addition to the great volunteers, awesome atmosphere and overall experience, another thing that I love about the ECS is that there really is an option for all runners. And that was part of the vision when Dean Karnazes helped create the series.
“The whole idea was to get people challenging themselves,” Karnazes says. “If you can run a 5K, try the 10K. If you tried a 10K, go for a half marathon. But it’s also, to get people on trails and off the roads. This event has grown every year, so I'm really proud of what we've accomplished. Both through the growth, and how many people we've brought into trail running.”
Seeing a race from a different perspective
Publicis Experiences is a full event production company for the North Face ECS. “We do everything from sourcing all the vendors to marking the course to doing marketing and their social media and then actually setting up at the race,” Ball says. “We basically do everything in regards to the race. It's really fun to get out of the office and actually experience an event from the other side versus running it.”
Ball’s role focuses on marketing for the series, including social media, registration management and more. While some ultra races attract elite athletes and others cater to old-school ultra runners, the ECS welcomes trail runners of all levels and experiences.
“The race series really offers something for everyone,” he says. “Whether they've been in the sport for a really long time and they want to test themselves in a 50-mile race or if they've never done trail running before and just want to see what it's about, they can familiarize themselves with the sport and learn what its really about.”
In addition to the three upcoming races, ECS also includes events in Washington, D.C., and New York. “There's always opportunity for expanding in the future. But right now, those are the five events that we have.”
Different races, different terrain
While Ball travels to work The North Face races, the races in which he competes are generally around his home base of Dallas. He usually does flat and fast races but has completed mountainous races like Western States in 2017, thanks to earning a Golden Ticket at the Bandera 100K.
“I definitely really enjoy some of those harder, more climbing races, because I think it's fun to mix things up,” he says. “I like to do a lot of different distances and different terrains and things like that just to keep myself interested and see what I can do in different arenas.”
Earlier this year, Ball won the Brazos Bend 50-miler.
“I've run a lot of miles out at that park,” he says, adding that was his third Brazos Bend 50-miler win. “Trail Racing Over Texas puts it on. They're also the company that sponsors me as a runner, I'm a part of Team Trail Racing Over Texas. I do a ton of their events every year and love all their events. I’d recommend them to anyone looking for great trail events from an excellent organization.”
Ball set a goal of breaking six hours. “The conditions weren't necessarily ideal, but I thought fitness-wise I was ready to take on that challenge,” he says. At the start, it was about 70 degrees with 98 percent humidity. “Conditions took a toll on a lot of people throughout the race.”
The race is three 16.67-mile loops. Ball’s first two loops were consistent — 1:55 and 1:57. On his third loop, nausea set in around Mile 40. He had been averaging 7 minutes flat up until Mile 38.
“It’s something that I've run into in other races,” he says. “But this was a pretty severe case of it. All of a sudden I couldn't run more than — I don't know — a quarter mile without stopping and throwing up, which went on for the next 10 miles. My pace severely dropped over those 10 miles. My goal of finishing under six hours kind of went out the window. I really went from hitting a time goal to just finishing.”
Ball experienced similar stomach issues at Kodiak 100 in Big Bear, Calif., last year. It’s the only time he had a DNF (Did Not Finish).
“I don't take the races that I run lightly,” he says. “I always go into them expecting to finish or really wanting to finish. I had really bad stomach issues (at Kodiak) where I threw up for four hours plus I just couldn't keep anything down. That's kind of the same thing I was running into at this race. But luckily, Brazos Bend is very flat, so it's much more forgiving than a mountainous type race.”
Not only did the Brazos terrain help Ball, family and friends were there too. His wife, Tracie Akerhielm, paced him for the final part of the last loop.
“Definitely having her there helped me plug along and take my mind off of things,” he says. “I had another friend, Justin Lange, who was out there with me for the last 10 miles. Definitely having people out there, friends helping and supporting, definitely kept me going.”
Running with the gators
A unique aspect of the Brazos races is the presence of alligators.
“No matter what year I've been out there, I've seen at least five or 10 per year,” Ball says. “Normally, when I see them, they're off to the side. They're in the water, or they're at the very edge of the water. I did see one pretty big one that was on the outskirts of the water. For those, you've just got to be really cognizant of what you're doing and pay attention the whole time. You can't really zone out too much, unless you want to be scared and potentially put yourself in danger.”
Park rangers address the runners, offering recommendations, the day before the race.
“Don’t let yourself be between the alligator and the water if its mouth is toward you. They recommend passing, if you can, on the tail end. Or they say that you still can pass in front of them on the mouth side. But to be, obviously, cautious as to where they are. Normally, they don't lay out on the trail when there's that many people running back and forth. It's really kind of first thing in the morning or later in the day when there's not many people on the trail as when you kind of run into some of those probably more cautious scenarios.”
Up next for Ball is another Trail Racing Over Texas event, Possum Kingdom, a 17-mile race. In December, he will do the Brazos Bend 100-miler.
“Same trails, same park, same loop, except for this year, the 100-mile race is the USATF 100-Mile National Championship, so that was a big part of why I signed up for that race,” he explains. “That's kind of my big goal race for the end of the year. Hopefully, I can take some lessons that I learned from running the 50-miler this year and fix and tweak that so I can go into that race feeling confident.”
Taking aim at the roads
While Ball aims to be a competitive trail and ultra runner, fast road races also intrigue him. With the Brazos 50 behind him, he’s looking to do a fast road half marathon.
“And then I’ll cycle that into a fast road marathon just to see what I can run,” he says, noting that he’d like to finish around 2:30, which would best his 2:39 at Fort Worth last year which was his first road marathon. “I've never really raced to my full potential in a road marathon. I'd really just like to see what I can do on the road and then take that fitness, shift that back into Brazos Bend 100 at the end of the year.”
Tunnel Hill, a flat and fast 100-miler, appeals to Ball, though traveling to Illinois makes it harder.
“I do enjoy running the races in Texas,” he says. “I do find it a little bit harder to travel, just with work and everything, to do out of state races. But once or twice a year, I love to get out of the state and travel and do some other races. That one's probably on my list.”
Ball, who did the Black Canyon 100K earlier this year, does envision getting back to Arizona.
“I really loved that race, and am looking at potentially doing some of the other Aravaipa races, or at least choosing one of those for next year too,” he says. “I really like the trails in Arizona. That type of terrain always intrigues me.”
And, in Arizona, he would not have to keep one eye out for alligators on the course. The same goes for the North Face ECS races, although each presents its own set of challenges.
“What you will find in D.C. is going to be vastly different from what you find in New York, which is going to be vastly different from what you find in our California race,” he says. “They're really unique trails and just a really fun experience all around.”
At the same time, there are common themes around the individual races in the series.
“Everything on the course is designed to be a good time, and once you get to the finish line, we do have a much bigger setup than you'll find at your traditional trail race,” he says. “That's another thing that's different from the North Face events as some of the other ones out there. If that's something that you're into, definitely check out one of the North Face Endurance Challenge races.”
Name: Jeff Ball
Hometown: I lived in Chesapeake, Va., for the majority of my life before moving to Texas for work. I currently live in Cedar Hill, Texas.
Number of years running: 19, started with track in middle school.
How many miles a week do you typically run: According to Strava, I averaged 72 miles a week in 2018. I typically run 70-80 miles on easier weeks/during base building phases and push up to 90-100 miles for high volume training blocks.
Point of pride: Earning a Golden Ticket to Western States at Bandera 100K in 2017
Favorite race distance: 50 Mile/50K
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Peanut butter and jelly sandwich or oatmeal with a banana and peanut butter
Favorite piece of gear: Altra Lone Peak 4 (best shoes out there) and VaporKrar Waistpak (go-to race gear)
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: My favorite song to run to lately has been Dying in LA by Panic at the Disco
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I don’t have a mantra or phrase that I use during my races. I like to think of all of the training that I’ve put into preparing for a race and my family/friends while running to help push me.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
@ExploreEndure on Twitter and Instagram