The high highs and low lows for Eric Senseman
By Henry Howard
It’s been a few years of ups and downs for Eric Senseman since we last touched base.
After Senseman broke out with a victory at the 2017 JFK, he posed a rhetorical question about what you do when you achieve a lifetime dream. He said, "I answered it by saying you need to keep dreaming it. You need to keep dreaming and keep racing."
Senseman reflects upon his recent journey that has included the recent second-place finish at Black Canyon and a third-place finish there a year earlier mixed in with some disappointing outcomes at other races.
“I can look back and be really proud of the last four years,” he says. “A lot of ups and downs, but I've continued to achieve things that I wanted to, like racing in Western States. It's easy to keep dreaming in this sport, especially because even if you just ran the same three races every single year, you could still reasonably have new goals. Because even if it's the same course, the competition's different, the conditions on the day are different.”
For Senseman, he’s been an ultra runner for 10 years now. While he is still performing at a high level, he expresses a sense of urgency
“Of course, you won't physically be capable of those same things forever, but while I am physically in a place where I can go after these sorts of things, it's easy to get motivated and get out the door and train.”
Destination Western States
And that training paid off with the second-place finish at Black Canyon, earning a Golden Ticket back to Western. He’s had quite a storied history at trying to get into the historic race.
In January 2015, he attempted to get in at the Bandera 100K and didn't finish. Two years later, he ran Black Canyon for the first time and finished in third, seven minutes out of second place. In 2018, he tried again at Black Canyon but sickness jettisoned his race.
“I finally got into Western States for the first time at the Lake Sonoma 50-miler in April 2018, and have since gotten two more Golden Tickets and entries to Western States, at Black Canyon in 2019 and now this year,” he says. “It's been a long road, but I seem to have found the right sort of concoction to get myself ready for these Golden Ticket races and have success. I'm glad I'll get a third chance at Western States.”
That concoction includes a heavy dose of training on the Black Canyon course.
“I'm on that course a lot in the winter, really the last four years now,” says Senseman, who lives in Arizona. “I've run every stretch of that trail, probably 10 times or so. I know it super well. A race in February can be difficult, a trail race, especially training through the winter for a lot of folks. We're lucky in Flagstaff too. If the trails aren't available there in Flagstaff, we've got a variety of options south of us where there's not snow.”
Such training prepares the mind as well as the body.
“Being able to train on the trails and the course specifically makes a huge difference, for sure,” he says. “I think physically your body's much more prepared for the demands of a 100K on the trail. Then I think mentally too, having such knowledge of the course can really pay off in terms of your capacity to race it and to be smart, and just to have confidence in knowing that you know it all so well.”
And training with the other Coconino Cowboys doesn’t hurt either.
“I would say everyone I trained with was better than I am,” he says. “I think the more you do that, and the more you train with high-quality athletes, the effect is that you get better. I think it's a combination of those things.”
Patience and perseverance
At the end of the day, however, it was Senseman’s performance itself that earned him the Golden Ticket. His patience and strategy helped pave the way.
“My intention was to go out at the front and set a hot clip, because I know what that course can do to people who maybe don't understand the demands and how challenging the second half is,” he explains. “It's a net downhill of about 2,000 feet, but the majority of that is in the first half. In fact, you get to a point about mile 30 where you're almost at the same elevation as the finish, so that second half is really tough. You get more climbing in the second half.”
Senseman was running with four other runners during the first half of the race. None of them finished.
“My thought was that I could get some people in trouble, which I suppose proved true,” he says. “I don't think I was ever more than five minutes back of the leader in the first 60K. In fact, my largest deficit to the lead was at mile 50, after I went through a tough patch for 12 or 13 miles.”
He was experiencing cramping, which he’d never experienced before in a race. It was a really sharp pain from his hamstring up to the groin.
“I really had to back off and slow down. That was the only way to keep that from flaring up as much. At mile 50, I was maybe nine or 10 minutes back of first. Second place was right within a minute of first place.”
Senseman worked through the cramps, taking some Gatorade and an Advil at an aid station. Soon enough he was able to push hard once again.
“One thing you learn in this sport is a lot can happen, especially in the latter stages of a race,” he says. “Once I got things under control with that cramping, I was able to turn a page and go back to pushing and running harder. It paid off, of course.”
He finished in second, just 4 ½ minutes behind Tyler Green.
“It does go to show you that you can approach these races by using different gears, and being on the throttle and backing off,” Senseman says. “What you need throughout is just to be really strong mentally, and to believe that no matter how far ahead or how far back you are, a lot can happen late in the race. You've got to be strong enough mentally to convince yourself that what you've been doing is going to put you in a position for success, and that if you can just work through rough patches, you're going to get out of them and feel better. That was certainly the case for me in the later stages of Black Canyon this year.”
‘It means a lot to me personally’
With about two miles to go in the race, Senseman knew he had second place wrapped up and with it another ticket back to Western.
“I suppose maybe the novelty has worn off a little bit, because that's the third time I've done that, but no less exciting,” he recalls. “Even having done it for the third time, I think racing your way into Western States is, at least for me, a little bit of a badge of honor. It means a lot to me personally.”
In his previous appearances at Western, Senseman has had some rough days. In 2018, he finished in 78th place and the following year he took a Did Not Finish (DNF).
While Senseman has a handful of DNFs, they are due to health reasons, not packing it in on a bad day.
“When I line up for a race, I'm there because I want to win,” he says. “Those successes really are few and far between for almost everybody in the sport of running at large, and certainly in the sport of ultra running. You're asking a lot of yourself, both mentally and physically and in the demands of training and everything else, to get to a start line and be better than everybody else on the day.
“To bow out simply because you're not going to accomplish what you want to on the day, I think you probably don't have the right motivations to begin with, my personal opinion. Everyone might not share that, but I think that's important. I think having the right motivations for why you're out there both allows you to have your successes, but also allows you to roll with your failures.”
Looking forward to Western
In the past 18 months, Senseman notes, he’s hit a rough patch with training. The results have been disappointing to him. A 29th at the North Face 50-miler in November 2019, and then a couple of months later 14th at the Bandera 100K in January 2020.
“I've had more of those experiences than I like, certainly,” he admits. “I think ultimately, I've said all along that if you get on that start line, you should be convinced that you've got a chance to win. On the other side of that coin, if you're on that start line and you haven't convinced yourself that you can finish or that you should finish, sort of no matter what, I also think you're doing yourself a disservice. Because I've certainly had my DNFs where I've not finished, and there's always an explanation for it.”
With his Golden Ticket secured, Senseman looks forward to his third time at Western. And he understands the privilege of being able to run there, or frankly, anywhere.
“At the end of the day, you ought to do everything you can to try to finish a race. I mean, quite frankly, it's just a privilege to be able to try to push yourself, and to be on a straight line and be healthy and be able to spend a day out on the trails. At the end of the day, what I enjoy most is running. There are very few other things I'd rather spend my time doing.”
Name: Eric Senseman
Hometown: Flagstaff, Ariz.
Number of years running: “Since 2008. I started running during my second semester of college after reading that ‘anyone can run a marathon.’ I thought I'd try one and I've been running ever since.”
How many miles a week do you typically run: “In preparing for an important ultra race, I try to average 90-100 miles per week for 8-10 weeks prior to the event. My peak weeks often reach 110-120 miles.”
Point of pride: “Winner of the 2017 JFK 50 Mile and member of the 2016 USA 50K Team.”
Favorite race distance: “So far, the longer the better. The 80-100K has been my sweet spot so far, but I'm excited to try the 100-mile distance soon.”
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “GU Roctane Summit Tea is my preferred way to take in calories and electrolytes. It keeps me fueled and tastes great!”
Favorite piece of gear: rabbit thigh time. “The perfect pair of shorts for any adventure.”
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “Music while running? It's not for me! I like to enjoy my surroundings and my thoughts.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man's heart.” Albert Camus
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