One of the country’s top ultra runners walks through the parking lot of a Panera Bread in Louisville, Kentucky on a Thursday afternoon. She has a faded tattoo around one ankle, sunbleached hair, the type of tan one gets from spending hours outdoors, and most of her toenails, at least for now.
Traci Falbo is well-known in the ultra-running scene, but can have lunch at this restaurant completely undetected, despite the fact she’s earned a place on four U.S. national teams. Traci, 44, specializes in races of 100km (about 62 miles) and up. On Nov. 27, she was part of the bronze-medal winning women’s 100km road race World Championship team, comprised entirely of master’s women. In 2017, she’ll be representing the U.S. at the 24-hour World Championships in July.
You might think she was always a gifted athlete, and that a long list of athletic achievements started during her childhood. But Traci, like several of our Saltines including myself, is an “adult-onset” runner, and her story is an inspiration.
From Couch to Marathons in Every State
Just 13 years ago, Traci started running to lose weight. She was 31 years old and the mother of two. Over the course of 15 months, she lost 80 pounds and decided — this might sound familiar — that she wanted to run a marathon. From 2004-2006, she ran a marathon a year.
“Then I stopped, because I didn’t like the long runs,” she said. In fact, she didn’t even know ultras existed at the time.
But then she began a quest to run a marathon in all 50 states and ended up running some back-to-back marathon days to achieve her goal.
“If I’m going to fly all the way out to Washington, I might as well try to get Oregon while I’m out there,” she said. “And one of my friends said if I could do back-to-back marathons, I could probably do a 50 miler.”
As of the end of 2016, Traci has run 103 marathons (not including ultras) — one in every state along with 21 first-place finishes. She broke three hours for the first time this fall, at Steamtown Marathon in Pennsylvania.
“That was my last original running goal,” Traci said. “Now I have to make some new ones.”
Indeed, Traci had a solid 2016, achieving all the running goals she had set for the year: running sub-3:00, making the 100k team and running the 100k championships. Not only did she meet those goals, but she won the national championships for 100km and helped her team to a bronze medal at the world championships!
Traci’s first foray into ultra running was in 2011, and she made her first Team USA in 2013. “I didn’t know I would be good at going longer,” she said, but by trying new distances and terrains, she found her niche.
That niche includes being the American Record holder and World Indoor Track Record holder in the 48-hour event: 242.093 miles. Yes, you read that right, slightly more than 242 miles run on an indoor track!
Considering how quickly she became one of the country’s top ultrarunners, Traci is refreshingly down to earth. Despite holding world records and having represented Team USA, Traci doesn’t think of herself as an elite runner.
“I guess I’m classified that way,” she jokes. “I think of myself as a normal person. It feels weird on the rare occasion that someone comes up to me and asks me if I’m ‘Traci Falbo’ or asks for a picture with me.” (Although she admits to doing that recently to some of her own running idols!) “But, there are A LOT of women who can and do kick my ass,” Traci said. “So, I feel happy to run well and be competitive for as long as it lasts.”
2016 100km Championships in Spain
For the 100km championships in Spain, Traci was just one of three American women who made it to the starting line. Typically, the U.S. fields a team of seven, including two alternates. This year, two of the qualifiers couldn’t go, so the team was already down to five. Then it dwindled to three due to injuries and illnesses. “Everyone’s time was going to count,” she said. No pressure.
The trip itself started off a little crazy for Traci, who forgot her driver’s license and had to have her son take it to a local rental agency and fax over a copy. And then she parked her car in what turned out to be the race corral area, and it was towed. But the day before the race, the teams participated in a parade through the town. The community was very supportive, Traci said, and they had a chance to wear their podium gear and hand out U.S. flags, the quintessential national team experience.
Traci said she didn’t get much sleep the two nights before the race, which was unusual for her. But since she couldn’t sleep, she was able to figure out that her car had been towed early!
The race started at 7 a.m. and used a 10km loop course in Los Alcazares, along the coast of the Mar Menor.
Traci’s “A goal” was to break the eight hour mark and was on pace until about 70k when she started to slow. Even with some walk breaks mixed in, she finished in 8:10:23 (7:53 minutes per mile!) in 16th place.
Her teammates Pam Smith (12th place) and Meghan Arbogast (13th place) finished in 7:56:48 and 7:58:22, respectively. With a spread of four places and 12 minutes, the women brought home the bronze medal for Team USA.
The race also served as the World Master’s Athletics Association world championship. With an average age of 47.5 years old, the American women brought home that title as well. Traci and Meghan earned the WMA championship titles for their age groups, while Pam placed second in hers.
Traci credits her success in ultra running to burning out on marathons. When she took a break from running marathons, she had a chance to add variety to her running. Traci encourages other runners to explore the possibilities, too.
“It is cool to be inspirational to other people especially when I hear that someone has lost weight, gotten healthy by getting in shape, or tried new distances that they once couldn’t imagine,” Traci said. “That’s always AWESOME to hear.”
And running an ultra is less intimidating than one might think. Her training is not much more than what many marathoners put in, 50-60 miles a week and occasionally 70-80 when training for longer races. She supplements her training with strength training for her hips, core, glutes and hamstrings three times a week.
“I think branching out in running is a good thing,” she said. “You can be too serious about running and take the fun out of it — you don’t have to do everything better every time.”
Can you relate to Traci’s story?