Dave Shanahan wants to make one thing clear: He doesn’t want to do ultra marathons.
“I need to do ultras, they’ve just become a part of who I am,” says Shanahan, who in 2019 ran three 100-mile races, including one on a treadmill.
“My ‘why’ is to maintain a sense of self and also as a way to manage challenges with mental health,” explains Shanahan, who is a fellow member of Bigger Than The Trail (BTTT). “I’ve found that big goals on the calendar help to pull me through the really rough patches in my life and keep me moving forward on the days when I don’t want to get out of bed.”
BTTT is a community of trail runners dedicated to raising awareness about mental health issues.
Dave the runner
Shanahan’s running journey began innocently enough. He had been a casual runner but found some extra motivation one Valentine’s Day evening, shortly after he left his first stint at the Army National Guard.
“I was feeling listless and went out for a two-mile run,” he recalls, adding that he progressed incrementally to running half marathons and then his first full marathon, New York City, that November.
After years of starts and stops, Shanahan found the motivation he needed in April 2016.
“A good friend had just passed away from complications following a bone marrow transplant,” he said. “He and I went to high school together so it was definitely a gut check on life. I happened upon the Barkley Marathons documentary on Netflix. At that point I hadn’t run a marathon since 2010 in Boston. I’d since become a husband and a father, which were both great things, but I was also longing for some of the identity of what made me Dave the individual, not just Dave the father, or Dave the husband. “
The Barkley Marathons film changed everything.
“The doc really awakened the runner I knew was in me,” he says. “I signed up for a marathon that fall and since then I’ve been doing seven or eight events of a marathon or greater a year.”
The Dreadmill Challenge
In 2019, those endurance events included the Dreadmill Challenge.
Shanahan admits being a “huge wimp” when it comes to running in cold weather. Living in New England, he has embraced treadmill running. He was looking to his do something epic when he discovered the Dreadmill Challenge.
“It was basically the framework of what I wanted to do on my own so I figured why not join in,” he recalls. “I posted about it on social media hoping to maybe get a friend or two to join me for maybe an hour here and there. But Marie Gryszowka, a friend who I’ve made through local races, said, ‘That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard, I’ll sign up and we can do it together.’”
The race director required participants to take a picture of the distance displayed on the treadmill and a time stamp every time they stopped. The distances would be tabulated and verified to ensure runners reached 100 miles within 48 hours.
Shanahan and Gryszowka approached a Planet Fitness near where they live. “Once we convinced them we knew what we were doing and they wouldn’t have to have an ambulance on standby, we got the thumbs up.”
He recalls that the first 24 hours “went really well” but then he experienced feet issues and the final 30 miles were tough.
“My friend was really great with talking me through the rough patches and vice versa. Her mother who also does ultras came and crewed for us most of the second day which was amazing. I kept moving and finished up just before 5 a.m. on Sunday right around 45 hours after I started.”
Shanahan won’t soon forget the Dreadmill Challenge.
“It was definitely the most challenging event I’ve done to date. I think mentally it was much harder to want to keep going. I am not sure this will be something I repeat but I am glad I did it.”
A ‘pilgrimage’ to Tennessee
Also in 2019, Shanahan met the man who indirectly helped him charter his course for running ultras. He signed up to run Strolling Jim, a race put on by Gary Cantrell better known as Lazarus Lake.
The race is just over 40 miles of roads “but with plenty of signature Laz torture in the form of relentless hills, especially on the back half of the course,” Shanahan says. “It really was a pilgrimage for me. That documentary and his race changed the trajectory of my life so getting to meet him was an incredible experience.”
The self-proclaimed “back of the pack guy” admits he lacks the speed to make many cutoffs and doesn’t have the time to train enough to reach that level. “It’s something I’ve made my peace with,” he says. “So for 100s I look for multi-day loop races.”
His first was Notchview, a 72-hour race in western Massachusetts, put on by BURCS (Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service) and race director Benn Griffin. The two-mile loop through a nature preserve encompasses a “FATASS” ultra feel with a minimal entry fee and potluck aid station.
“I finished that race in around 52 hours for my first 100,” Shanahan says. “Learning nothing from that experience I signed up for Beebe Farms 48-hour, another gem of a race in Vermont in September.”
He finished that one in around 43 hours. “It was a year of proving to myself that although I am not going to win any races, I have the strength inside me to keep moving forward.”
Joy in the BTTT community
Shanahan draws strength from BTTT, which he learned about on Instagram.
“At the time I had just lost another soldier I had served with to suicide,” he says. “My unit was relatively small but our losses to suicide are nearing double digits. I wanted to be able to speak openly about my mental health struggles in order to let others know they weren’t alone and there was no shame in reaching out for help.”
He wasted no time in applying to be an ambassador. “I was honored to be chosen. I feel like being associated with the group give me the confidence to share my story and the access to direct others to readily available resources.”
While Shanahan is a relative newcomer, he’s already experienced the support of other BTTT members.
“The community is awesome, so welcoming and supportive,” he says. “The biggest thing I appreciate about it and what has helped me most is that people are so open and honest with their struggles and reaching out for support. We aren’t alone in this and there are people out there who truly understand the challenges we face with mental health.”
Shanahan loves running for what it brings him.
Running isn’t easy but that’s sort of the point,” he says. “Running is a form of tough love in my life. It’s the friend that forces you to do something outside your comfort zone, to do something you wouldn’t do on your own but are glad you did after.”
While it may not be the solution for all of those looking to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, Shanahan says it’s worth trying.
“It’s an interesting relationship between running and mental health in my life. During my day to day, I need running as an outlet to get through and keep me balanced. Deep into an ultra when I am hurting and miserable, my experiences with mental health make me realize that I can get through this because a large number of days I am not feeling my best but find a way to function at work and at home. The two go hand-in-hand and I would highly recommend anyone give it a real shot.”
Looking ahead to 2020, Shanahan is targeting the Dam Yeti 50-miler in June and the Notchview 72-hour again in July. “I am also toying with the idea of reuniting with Laz at A Race for the Ages in September,” he says. “I am turning the big 4-0 this year so it seems like an appropriate 40th birthday gift to myself. “
As to what the future holds, Shanahan says he would love to do Vol State — a race that essentially mimics his 2019 accomplishments of three 100-milers, back-to-back-to-back.
Name: David Shanahan
Hometown: Auburn, Mass.
Number of years running: 12.
How many miles a week do you typically run: 30 to 40.
Point of pride: Three 100-mile finishes in 2019.
Favorite race distance: 48 hour.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Tailwind.
Favorite piece of gear: Max cushion shoes.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I love the energy of Avicii.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: A ship in harbor is safe but that’s not what ships are made for.
Where can other runners connect or follow you: On Instagram as runninggator14