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Coree Woltering perseveres through sickness, racism and ticks

(Coree Woltering setting the FKT on the Ice Age Trail. All Ice Age Trail photos by Kevin Youngblood.)

To say professional ultra runner Coree Woltering had an eventful 2019 would be an understatement. And it wasn’t just because of his first year as an athlete for The North Face.

First, there was food poisoning in Hong Kong. Then salmonella in Peru. At Ultra-Trail Mt. Fuji, he was at mile 92 with 14 left when snow forced the cancellation of the race. Later in the year, he ended up in the hospital at Broken Arrow.

“There just became a lot of opportunities to do some bigger races and some international travel for races,” explains Woltering, who I also interviewed a couple of years ago. “I would say that I probably tried to pack too many things into the first half of the year, but it was all an amazing experience.”

Woltering has been traveling almost nonstop for six weeks, leading up to Broken Arrow. He planned to do the Vertical K, the 26K and 52K over the weekend, starting with the Vertical K.

“I felt like I was pretty fit, ready to go and have a good performance,” he says. “But something felt off at the VK. And I don't really know how to explain it, other than it just didn't feel right. And I did not run very well.”

‘I'm not stressed!’

Back in his hotel room, Woltering was foam rolling and preparing for the next day’s challenge. That’s when his body called a time out.

“I ended up just passing out, had a tight chest, sweating, it almost felt like I was having a mini heart attack or something.”

At the ER, Woltering underwent a series of tests but everything came back fine.

“So the doctor says, ‘Well, it could just be stress,’” he recalls. “And I say, ‘I'm not stressed!’"

As the doctor point out his tone – "Did you hear how you said that?" — Woltering realized that the issue could have been the stress that built up through an endless schedule of training, running and traveling. After all, he had been to six countries by that point.

The doctor’s advice: "You just need to slow down."

But Woltering had his biggest adventure in just a few months: Eco-Challenge Fiji in September.

Entering Eco-Challenge

According to the website, Eco-Challenge is an “expedition race in which international teams of adventure athletes will race non-stop, 24 hours a day, across hundreds of miles of rugged backcountry terrain complete with mountains, jungles and oceans.”

Each team has four competitors, including at least one member of the opposite sex, plus one assistant crew member. Teams will use outrigger paddling, mountain biking, rappelling, climbing, whitewater rafting, pack rafting and paddle boarding to complete the 400-mile course. Participants must use problem-solving skills, maps and compasses.

Woltering faced a dilemma in training and learning the new skills. He was on a 24/7 heart monitor for awhile and was not allowed to do cardio for a month. When he was allowed to exercise, he had to maintain a certain heart rate. “That was hard because if they think that travel is stressful, think about learning six new sports that you're going to have to be you at a pretty high level, in a different country on very little sleep.”

Not only did Woltering need to acquire new skill sets in the different modes of transportation, he had to also learn about safety. That included a course in white water rescue and climbing. “You also had to learn things like jungle navigation and ocean navigation,” he says. “Teammates had to be certified in wilderness First Aid and CPR, just a lot of different moving parts.”

The series debuts on Amazon Prime on Aug. 14. Looking back at his experience, Woltering reflects on how his ultra running helped him during the challenge, especially races like Mt. Fuji and Superior 100.

“It was definitely a great lesson in moving forward when tired and you don't have to move fast,” he says. “You just need to be just a little bit moving forward and basically just be efficient, because like smooth is calm and calm is fast. With ultra running it's about the endurance and just being able to stay calm when things aren't necessarily going your way.”

The flip side of that is his experience at Eco-Challenge has helped him as an ultra runner.

“For me it was the first time I'd ever been pushed to the point of getting three hours of sleep in the first four days of the race,” says Woltering, who is a Coros athlete. “I had never been in that situation before, so I really had no idea how that would feel. And luckily I think I handled that well. That I feel really set me up for other races and events after that. Because if you can stay up for that long and do things that aren't even your specialty and if I can be doing those still at a high level then I think that when you finally get to the point that you're doing what you know or at least know, well, then you can do it better.”

A bright start to the year

In a way, the Eco-Challenge helped Woltering prepare for his Fastest Known Time attempt in June at the Ice Age Trail in Wisconsin.

As he focused his training on the skills needed for Eco-Challenge and adhered to his doctor’s orders, Woltering really didn’t run between June and October.

“That little bit of time off of running was probably a good thing,” he reflects. “I had a couple of very, very, very minor injuries that I was hoping would heal up. By not running every day, those actually got to heal. The mental strength or growth that you get from doing something like an Eco-Challenge and finally taking the time to do a smart buildup into a couple of races is what really kind of made the difference for this year.”

Woltering began the year by returning to the podium with a second place finish at the Coldwater Rumble 52K and winning Elephant Mountain 35K. Unfortunately, he got sick and had to DNF at Black Canyon in mid-February. Soon after, of course, the pandemic halted the vast majority of races.

“I have this fitness. I have the strength and I really haven't destroyed my body on anything yet this year,” he remembers thinking. “So I should just go for something big.”

Ticking him off

Woltering focused on the 1,147-mile Ice Age Trail. It was an easy pick for him since the Ottawa, Ill., resident frequently trains in the southern Kettle Moraine area, which is a 30-mile stretch of the trail.

And, after all, he had wanted to see the whole thing. Why not do it all at once?

He set the FKT with a time of 21 days, 13 hours and 35 minutes. He did have to push the final 157 miles in under 40 hours to finish, after he had a very early rough patch.

On day two, a swarm of ticks nearly ended his attempt.

“I'm going through all this stuff and it's day two — that’s the funny part about it,” he says. “The ticks and the mosquitoes are just so bad that I was moving slow toward the end of day one. On day two, I came out of the woods after being in for about eight miles and had 30 or 40 ticks on me. And it was just the most disgusting thing I've ever felt because I've been out in the woods a lot and I had never actually had a tick on me until this FKT started."

Woltering was ready to pack it in. Until an Instagram friend offered a suggestion: put Duct tape sticky side out and wrap it around your ankles.

“It did not seem like it should be that simple of a solution," he recalls thinking. “But we got some Duct tape wrapped around my ankles and sure enough, I'd come out of the woods and still have 20 or 30 ticks that'd be stuck to the Duct tape, but none of them made it past my ankles. And so after that solution I didn't even think about ticks for the rest of the FKT.”

Enduring racism, homophobia

The crew, including his husband, Tom, helped keep Woltering focused and moving forward, before, during and after the attack of the ticks.

During Woltering’s training on the Ice Age Trail, he would spend a weekend running the trails while Tom would skydive nearby.

“Normally he's jumping on weekends and I'm normally doing back-to-back long runs on weekends or I'm racing somewhere,” says Woltering, who has not jumped yet but plans to do so. “It’s just really funny because in our house, running for three weeks straight or jumping out of planes multiple times a day, is just normal for us. We don't really think that either of them are crazy.”

As an openly gay black man, Woltering has endured racist comments and other forms of racism. Not on the trail or to his face, he says, but people sometimes send inappropriate comments to him in private messages. And, he notes, the frequency has increased in the past couple of months.

“At least once a week I'll get someone that says, ‘Oh, I was a fan of your running, but I don't like seeing you post all this stuff about race or your sexuality, so I'm going to unfollow you.’ And I'm like, ‘Well then why did you follow me in the first place? I'm pretty sure you could have picked that up in any post I put up.’"

Those comments do serve as motivation for Woltering.

“I've been in the public eye for quite a while now,” he says. “So I'm used to it and I guess if there are going to be comments being thrown around out there, I'd rather have them directed at me than some newer person that's getting into the sport and then they get messages and it scares them away from the sport, because you're not going to scare me away.”

Speed drill

Name: Coree Aussem-Woltering

Hometown: Ottawa, Ill.

Number of years running: 20 years — I started in fifth grade.

How many miles a week do you typically run: Six days a week with Monday off. 80 to 110 weekly miles.

Point of pride: Running 5:30:15 at Tunnel Hill 50 Mile.

Favorite race distance: Trail 50 miles, road half marathon.

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Pre-race, Kodiak Cake Banana Muffins. During race, Sword (Endurance Drink Mix).

Favorite piece of gear: Darn Tough Vermont Socks — Happy feet, happy running!

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Any song by Slipknot.

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: "One foot in front of the other."

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