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Seth Ruhling tackles heart issue, CCC and JFK in same year

Seth Ruhling won the JFK 50 in 2019 and 2023.

By Henry Howard

Perhaps more than almost any other ultra runner, Seth Ruhling has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows in the past 18 months.

Right after a victory at the 100K Greenweez MaXi-Race in France in May 2022, Ruhling suffered a setback.

“The race was sweet,” he recalls. “It was my first international race, first international win. I was really, really stoked and then two weeks later, I got this IT band syndrome. Everything in that area was super inflamed. I couldn't run a step because my knee would actually lock up. It was super strange. I couldn't run for three months.”

Ruhling is no stranger to injury but the long layoff was unique to him. Once healed, he built back up and returned to racing in late October of last year. His third-place finish at the UTMB 100K in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, was not only his ticket to CCC, but memorable.

“I vomited my brains out,” he says. “It was the last bit of the race. Then after the race, I ended up going to a hospital and getting IV fluids. I was so dehydrated, because I just could not stop vomiting. There were so many people that ended up with stomach bugs vomiting after that race.”

Then came a potentially serious health ailment.

Dealing with pericarditis

When something just felt “off,” Ruhling didn’t hesitate. After all, he was trained as a nurse and was familiar with the symptoms he was experiencing.

Cheers, Seth Ruhling.

The diagnosis confirmed pericarditis, which is inflammation of the lining around the heart. Although pericarditis can be long-lasting, most people recover within weeks.

“There was something about how the pain and discomfort presented itself to me,” he says. “I knew this isn't right. I think most people who have had pericarditis say the same thing, you know instantly, ‘I need to go to the hospital. This feels serious.’”

That occurred in June 2022, just five days before he was supposed to fly to the World Championships, jettisoning his plans to compete for Team USA.

“I thought I was having a heart attack. I went to the hospital and they hooked me up to the EKG monitors and the machine read out that I was having a heart attack, but they're like, ‘Well, this doesn't really make sense.’ With the symptoms I was having, it’s the best possible diagnosis.

Ruhling was fortunate. Others who are dealing with pericarditis experience setbacks when they try to do cardio.

“In the beginning, I couldn't run, I couldn't do any cardio, anything,” he recalls. “They didn't want me to get my heart rate above 90 for two weeks. Then for two weeks after that, I couldn't get my heart rate above 120. It was a month of no exercise. Actually, I got lucky because often people have it way worse and their chest hurts for two weeks. My chest hurt for one day.”

It’s unclear if pericarditis is hereditary but it is something that Ruhling will have to monitor.

“A common cause is just having a bacterial infection for way too long,” he says, adding he had strep just before the heart issue. “The reality is for people who have pericarditis, there's a one in three chance that you get it again at some point. I don't think about it very much on a daily basis anymore but there's definitely a reality that I could end up getting pericarditis again.”

Once he was cleared to resume training, only eight weeks remained until CCC.

“It was pretty condensed. It was a lot of shooting, aiming to do big training or whatever and then just not quite being able to complete the training. It was a pretty rough little stint there, but ended up working out all right at CCC.”

‘Pretty big for America’

Ruhling placed sixth at the 2023 CCC, behind fellow Americans Dakota Jones, who placed third; Jonathan Rea, who took fourth; and Drew Holmen in fifth. Ruhling trains regularly with Holmen in Boulder, Colo., which is also where Rea lives.

“It was cool,” he says. “I wouldn't have been mad to be the top of the American contingent, but it was pretty sweet to see. I was pretty aware during the race, because I was actually in that top two, top three for a lot of that race.”

Seth Ruhling runs for The North Face.

As the other Americans passed Ruhling, he thought, “Sweet, this is pretty big for America over at CCC. It was just super cool. It was funny when we all finished. One of the race organizers, in a French accent, said, ‘We've been waiting for you guys, the Americans, to show up and actually do well at this race.’"

While there are ultra championships that pit countries against one another, CCC is an individual race. So even though a quartet of Americans finished in the top six, they didn’t necessarily work together.

“When I got passed by John and Drew, I was having a pretty low moment, so it wasn't like there was much conversation nor were they with me for very long. They just blew right by me,” Ruhling says. “Then when I almost caught up to Drew, he was having a bad moment. It's definitely different than cross country where it's a team thing, because at the end of the day, especially at a race as big as CCC, I think we all wanted to beat each other quite bad, because it was still an individual thing.”

Ruhling actually considered his fellow North Face sponsored runners — Jonathan Albon and Jiasheng Shen, who placed first and second, respectively — to be his teammates.

“It's a weird dynamic in ultras,” he confides. “I'm sure if we were in a place where we could have helped each other out, we probably would've but when you're having that low, you're right in that low moment it's hard to even hang with somebody who's barely jogging and vice versa. If you're in a good moment and you're running really well, you got to take advantage of it and just try to blow past people and get as much time as you can. It’s different than the old cross-country style.”

A return to JFK

After CCC, Ruhling won the JFK 50, which he also did in 2019, elevating his profile in the ultra running community.

This past November’s race would be different, however. Ruhling trained for the 2019 version in Tennessee but now lives in Colorado. And, of course, he was unknown before his first JFK but this year was among the pre-race favorites.

Seth Ruhling won the JFK 50 in both his attempts at the historic 50-miler..

“I liked being the unknown for sure,” he answers when asked to compare the two scenarios. “It's a little more fun, and that's how I am when I go race in Europe. There's a lot less pressure. It's fun being the underdog and having something to prove versus maybe you're supposed to win.”

Another difference: this year Ruhling didn’t race JFK in a cotton T-shirt from his favorite coffee shop. He also had a better understanding of how to approach the race.

“I was genuinely scared of how long it was,” he says of his first 50-miler. “My training leading up to JFK in 2019 was really focused on just being able to handle running for five hours. I would do quite a bit of slower trail runs just so I could make sure I was on my feet for enough time.”

As he was leading that race, he paused to eat chips at some aid stations and walked. “One of the volunteers said, “This is wild. We never have the top runner stop at our aid station.’”

While Tennessee doesn’t have the elevation of Colorado, it has more similar trails to the AT section of the JFK course.

“Training in Tennessee, actually, was quite good for JFK,” he says. “This year was a little different where I didn't quite have the best lead up. I was a little banged up after CCC, but this year was a little bit more focused on trying to run fast. I wasn't worried about racing for five hours. I just wanted to go run a fast time.”

While he came up a bit short of the course record, held by Hayden Hawks, Ruhling did have a successful day.

“It was a little bit more pressure but it turned out all right,” he says. “I ran the race much better. I didn't have to walk or stop at an aid station, and I ran 10 minutes faster. It was sweet.”

What’s ahead for Seth Ruhling?

With two wins in two tries at JFK, is there anything left for Ruhling to prove there?

“I don't know. It'd be fun. It still would be fun to go get the course record, but I don't see myself doing that anytime too soon. But we'll see. I also did not plan to come back to JFK this year and I ended up going back, so never say never.”

Seth Ruhling has overcome an IT band issue and a heart ailment.

Whether Ruhling returns to JFK or not, he does seem inclined to keep testing himself at longer distances.

“It's probably about time for me to jump up in distance,” he says, referring to 100-mile races. “I am actually starting the year doing Trans Grand Canaria, which is something like 80 miles. I've done a couple 100Ks, so it'll be definitely the longest I've raced. We'll see if that goes really well, maybe I try to do UTMB, the full loop around Mont Blanc or maybe not, depending on how it goes.”

As far as his first 100-miler Ruhling doesn’t hesitate.

“If I did a 100-miler, the first one would be UTMB for sure,” he says. “But I do feel like I have some unfinished business at CCC, but I'm also opening up to the idea of doing 100 miles, especially at UTMB.”

That’s in contrast to his peers who often see Western States as their first and/or a goal 100-miler.

“Oh, man. Western States is sweet. In my mind, it seems a lot harder to grasp or be excited about than UTMB. I don't know. There's something about UTMB and the fan base and the huge stage that it is that Western States has is just smaller. But the point to point at Western States is very, very appealing too.”

Ruhling got a taste of Western States when he crewed Adam Merry this year.

“It just looks so hard and hot,” he says. “You're in the sun the whole time. Would I rather race for 15 hours, 14 hours, whatever, in the heat of Western States in one of those canyons or would I rather race on a nice grassy breezy countryside of France?

“I probably choose the latter. I think Americans who aren't enthralled with UTMB, especially pros that I know, most of the time because they haven't been there. It’s too crazy, too good of an experience to pass up.”

Speed drill

Name: Seth Ruhling

Hometown: Chattanooga, Tenn., and Boulder, Colo.

Number of years running: 15

How many miles a week do you typically run: “Depends on the week, but usually around 70 to 90 with cross training on the bike or skis.”

Point of pride: “Pretty proud of the group of friends I train with here in Boulder. People have called us the Boulder Boys, but we're just good friends that train at a high level.”

Favorite race distance: “I have never lost a 50-mile race, so probably that.”

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “Coffee. Sucker for a good pour-over coffee, and I haven't gone without a pre-run coffee in years. Even if it is a late evening run.”

Favorite piece of gear: “Shoes! Currently loving the new The North Face Summit Pro. Responsive and fast feeling shoe.”

Who inspires you: “Really inspired by my training mates here in Colorado: Drew Holmen, Adam Merry and Matt Daniels. They carry themselves with such class and perform so well on the world stage.”

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “Ooof, anything by Catfish and The Bottlemen gets me stoked to run.”

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “I always find inspiration in taking ownership of what I am doing. So I like to just remind myself that no one is forcing me to run. If things get tough in a run or race, I just remind myself that this is actually what I want to be doing. I find that thought process powerful.”

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

Instagram: @sethruhling

Strava: Seth Ruhling


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