Lee Conner's love for 100-milers
By Henry Howard
After getting dragged to a Saturday morning run, Lee Conner quit smoking, eventually embraced the trail running community and later turned 100-mile races into a passion of hers.
“I smoked until I was 24 or 25, and when I quit I started running just to have motivation to not smoke because I'd gotten bronchitis and the doctor said, ‘Well you smoke, you'll get emphysema.’”
Conner focused on short runs and 5Ks for fitness while doing other sports like roller derby. At 37, she was still prioritizing shorter runs but was developing an interest in trail running. That’s when a challenge from women in her trail running group served as a catalyst for her journey into ultras.
In this Q&A, Conner and I hit on a wide variety of topics such as how she became a runner, the challenges females face in finding crew members and a new initiative to drive more women into trying 100-milers. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Question: How did you transition from the short runs to the longer ones?
Answer: “These women were signing up for an 8K or 15K, and one said, ‘Oh, you might not be ready.’ I had that personality that responds to that kind of thing with, ‘Well now I'm signing up.’ So I ran a 15K, almost 10 miles, the furthest I'd run in my life. I had a great time even though it was February and we had almost a foot of snow. After that I was hooked on trail running. And then I did a 25K, it went well, well it didn't go well. It went well up until mile 13 and then I barely finished. I staggered at the end. The next one went well. But someone said, ‘Oh you did so well. You know all the fast people were all in the 50K.’ And I glared, and then I signed up for a 50K. It was one of those things where my first 50K went poorly at the end, well it went well, I probably placed in it, but I was staggering at the end. The bottoms of my feet hurt, jogging hurt, everything hurt. It hurt to walk around for a few days, and then as soon as it didn't hurt to walk, I signed up for another one. And things just kept escalating. I got hooked.”
Question: What was that drive that kept you going after the pain or the suffering of a race, and then, what was that inside you that said, "I'm going to do that again"?
Answer: “I don't know. In the race it rarely occurs to me to just stop unless things have gone very badly south. A lot of times that's just pure stubbornness. There's something when you run real far, and you swear you'll never do it again for the last five miles of it, or depending on the distance, maybe longer. But at some point, you swear this is dumb, I'm not doing this anymore. You even tell people around you, ‘I'm giving up running.’ And then two days later you want to do it again. People are always offering up these explanations that sound very good on paper, but I'm not sure any of us truly know. It's something in our wiring.”
Question: Right. Your journey to running was unusual in that you participated in other sports as an adult before transitioning. Walk me through that.
Answer: “I've always been the person to jump feet first into everything, or head first, depending. I played rugby when I was younger. When I first quit smoking, the first sport I took up was boxing. In my 20s I boxed as an amateur several times. I actually got in the ring, which was an interesting thing to do. At the gym, there were only guys to spar with. With my personality, I figured I was just going to get punched in the head by a guy and I can hit back.
“With rugby, I saw it on television when I was in grad school. A woman at the bar was clearly watching it and following the game, and I didn't fully understand it. She invited me to rugby practice and I went two days later. That's how I started playing rugby. I played for eight or nine years.
“I played roller derby after rugby. But with trail running, I just hit a point where I wanted to do things that were a little more laid-back and sane. It's a lot to manage teams. You got people coming from a lot of different backgrounds. If you don't show up to a track workout, it does not affect my ability to do that workout. With team sports that could be a little different. It's a very good experience to have in your life, to learn to work with other people. But you can also hit a point where you'd like to be responsible for yourself and do your own thing.
“It should have been obvious to me. I always enjoyed backpacking, and would camp out of kayaks on the river sometimes. It comes as no great shock that I love trail ultras. My first 50K I thought was a completely insane thing to do. I know I told people it hurt, but I don't have any emotional connection to that kind of thing. I very quickly forget any kind of attachment to that kind of pain. So I just sign up for another one, because I can remember all the good parts.”
Question: What is it specifically about 100s — you said earlier you just finished number 54 —what is it about the 100? Why not just the 50K?
Answer: “100s are more fun. 50Ks are all right. You have to run fast, but they're over with right when it starts to get interesting. 50Ks you can run hard enough to make it hurt a little. But, there's something about going through the overnight for most of us. It's going to be a thing for us in the 100 miles, even if you can finish before the sun comes up. There's certain types of self-management that aren't really necessary for most people at shorter distances to the same degree. The highs and lows and managing that much nutrition. 50Ks are a lot of fun. 100Ks are fun. I just really like 100 miles as a distance. I like to be out there for an entire day and night. For some people a 100 becomes a slog and they feel like a zombie so they choose a 50K for just that reason. So generally for an individual I don't think it's the best distance, I just think it's my favorite.”
Question: You recently wrote a Facebook post about the challenges women face in getting crews/pacers for 100-milers. Tell me what makes that a challenge.
Answer: “The post comes from this ongoing discussion I keep encountering and getting pulled into, around how to get more women to run 100-mile races. It's well-known there are a lot of 50Ks that have maybe half women. In 50-milers, the percentage is still decent. But the longer the distance, the lower the percentage of women. And for shorter distances, the less anybody thinks about having crew or pacers.
“I keep encountering these surveys and people coming from all of the 100-mile pages, and the women's trail pages saying, ‘We're doing a survey. What do we do to try to get more women in running.’ In order to get more women to run 100s, you got to get more newer runners in 100s. And you've got to get women to run them a little more often. Because if you don't have that many women in 100s, and you want to balance it out, you need a bunch of new runners, a bunch of new 100-milers. And at this point I'm running into a lot of people who are evaluating doing a 100-miler and don't know it can be done without crew. Don't know how to evaluate a race for whether it's a good race to try to do without crew, and just are generally anxious about that and don't know how to get crew. It's more likely when you're a new runner that you don't have as many friends who are running 100s already, and if you're a woman it's even more likely because more of your friends are women, and there are few women running 100s.
“A lot of men are crewed by their wives, who somehow juggle the kids out on the courses. I know some women who are crewed by their husbands but it's less common. A lot of time women are using their primary childcare person for child care and not for crew, and women who ask each other to crew are often asking someone else for their kid and get some child care and come crew.
“It’s not something I expect anyone to fix for anyone. That's just societal dynamics. But it's a fact that if you're a race director and you want to know how to get more women in a 100, you can't reasonably be getting child care. I have no idea about the insurance on that. It's a great thing that there are some races that are holding more spots for women until closer to the race day in order to try to give women more opportunity to register, and it's really great that there are more races aware of the fact that periods can happen at any time with no warning, and it's nice to have aid stations that have things to help you with that instead of just battling with the chaffing.
“For new runners who are trying to spend an entire year training, and a high percentage sometimes of their paid time off and recreational income in order to plan for this event, it's real discouraging to be trying to find out where aid stations are and have other people involved in the race say, ‘Oh, they'll be about every 8 miles, don't worry about it,’ or ‘We'll post it close to the race.’ If women pay $350 dollars and filed for PTO, and try to arrange child care with people three months ahead, and then you are telling me that something isn't even going to be feasible for me, I don't feel welcomed. Races that make that information available sooner in an organized fashion are going to be races that are easier on new runners, and therefore, going to attract more new women runners.”
Question: What are some races you would recommend for a first 100-miler for females who don’t have resources for a crew?
Answer: “There's a list of them. Hallucination 100, which is in Michigan, runs a 20-mile loop, or 16-something, and it's got drop bags by the end of the loop. So you've got so many drop bags and it's well-marked, so it's easy to put extra stuff in your drop bag. It's an insane amount of drop bag availability.
“The Wild Goose 100, which is part of Squatchayanda Trail Fest in New Jersey. There are loops, you got a central area, so you get frequent drop bag access, well-marked trails, and very good support. They've got a very involved race director, Kim Levinsky. It has generous cutoffs, they're definitely trying intentionally to be a first-time 100-miler for a lot of people.”
Question: I interviewed Kim earlier this year. She's awesome.
Answer: “She's very awesome. Hurt 100 would be if it weren't for the cutoffs. You definitely don't need crew. They've got drop bags everywhere but I don't think it's very beginner-friendly given the amount of gain and the course difficulty and the tight cutoff. Unless you're a very fast runner, there's too much else that could go sideways.
“No Business is a pretty good race. It's on the Kentucky-Tennessee border. It also has very frequent drop bags, very good course marking. There's a little bit of chaos at one of their aid stations sometimes, but they've got very experienced aid station people, frequent drop bags, and their aid stations are ready to help out. They've also got at least a handful of people at each aid station who have run 100s or at least have run 50-milers or have crewed for other people running 100s.
“They're really are a lot of them out there. I think one of the best things people can do is pick a race that's been around at least two years, and then just Google it because you'll get a whole bunch of race reports to read.”
Question: For those who want to focus on environmentally friendly races, what would you recommend?
Answer: “I'm sure you've noticed the cupless phenomenon at races. More races are going cupless, meaning you carry your own cup. All of the one's I've been at recently, will give you a cup that you can clip onto your race vest or crumple into a pocket somewhere. A light, collapsible cup. And that's for environmental impact. But what about the environmental impact of all of the crew cars? If I drive a whole smacking car out of town six hours, and then that car drives all about the course looking for me, that also will be an environmental impact. Ultimately, it's kind of pro-environment to also try to reduce crew, I would say. I could be wrong, I have no way to measure that. It's not a scientific guess, but if it's worth skipping the 1,000 cups or so that a 100-miler generates, then it seems it might be worth also making it easier to really encourage runners to run without crew. Runners without crew will support each other more, will look out for each other more. I've had people who have offered to crew and I tell them to just volunteer at one of the aid stations and help everyone who comes through.”
Question: Lee, tell me about the Women's 100 Miler Project.
Answer: “It is actually not my brainchild. It is my fiancée’s, Karmell, brainchild. But I wound up involved because I've been running a lot longer and I want to do most of the coaching. She had the idea of trying to get a handful of local women to try to run their first 100 and coaching them through it. She thought it would be hard to find people to do it. She trained about 13 months and ran The Bear for her first 100. She was kind of remarkable to watch. She said, ‘Well I could do it, I have scoliosis and these other things. Let's see who else wants to do it. Let's help people.’ There was so much interest from people locally so we made a Facebook group that went from 15 people to a couple hundred people really quickly. We ended up making a YouTube channel for the Women's 100 Miler Project and giving them training plans that were a little generic but had strength training included for staying healthy. We've had a lot of women finish first 100s through it. Karmell’s now almost done building a new website for it. It's been an adventure.”
Question: How do women sign up or find out more about this?
Answer: There's a website now called Women's 100 Miler Project. There's a Facebook group but you got to apply to that because we're trying to limit that to only people who are newer, because there's already a Ladies Running 100 Miles Facebook, which is more of a people who already have experience. The YouTube channel for Women's 100 Miler Project, which has a couple of playlists. One of them is all of the exercises, and then another one of the playlists is more how to make drop bags. And it's got videos. These are videos on how to make your drop bag - this is what they look like, this is what goes in them, this is how it breaks down, this is how you would look at a chart and calculate what to put where. All of that stuff is available to anyone, it's just a free YouTube channel.
Question: Lee, this has been great. Anything we didn't talk about that you want to mention?
Answer: “I wish more people would just be brave and dive head first. When I was younger I would always wonder why women just didn’t go do stuff. I had much less empathy. I thought exactly what the guys usually think, ‘If you really want to do it, you just do it.’ The older I've gotten, the more I've realized that you just don't know what someone else's struggles or backgrounds are. And if you really want to encourage other people you have to appreciate that their life experience may be very different than yours. To just say, ‘Well everyone has challenges, so suck it up’ is not particularly encouraging. That is a real lack of empathy. It's really important to try and keep some perspective on the fact that you never know what someone else's struggle or path has been, and at least not be discouraging. If you don't have it in you to help them, at least to not be discouraging or negative.”
Name: Lee Conner
Hometown: Cleveland. Number of years running: “I started trail running in 2010. Before then I ran two to three days a week to stay in shape for other sports.” How many miles a week do you typically run: “I don't run very high consistent training miles because I like to run five to seven 100-milers a year. In a two-month gap between races, 55-70 miles a week. But weeks can vary in terms of focus. Consistency with some specific strength exercises is more important.” Point of pride: “Proudest race? No idea. My most impressive finishes from the outside are races where things went well. I'm proud of the planning and training that goes into running 100s well, especially solo. So maybe Bighorn 2018, Cruel Jewel 2018, Eastern States 2019, Western States 2014 and a few others. But then there are finishes that aren't as impressive on paper but took a whole lot more effort to get to because things didn't go at all to plan. Either way, going out and trying and being decent to the people around me is the main thing.” Favorite race distance: “100 miles. Mohican was my 54th 100-mile finish.” Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “I use a variety of gels. For races, I always use grape flavor Roctane for base calories because I love the flavor and convenience. I never use it in training though.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “I don't have any particular mantra. I like running. I do sometimes sing loudly late at night in 100s if I'm alone. Or also curse at rocks. Or have out loud conversations with myself.” Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/lee.shane.16
• Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/lshaneconner/