Ultramarathons are categorized as races farther than 26.2 miles, and they often take place on desolate mountain trails, immersed in nature. They’re a test of strength, endurance and willpower, and for athletes like elite ultrarunner Michelle Barton, it’s an experience unlike any other. “Ultrarunning is like living a life in a day because you go through so many emotions—it’s a trip,” Michelle says. “I can’t really explain it unless you do it yourself. … It definitely changed my life. Running is healthy and fun, and now I can’t imagine life without it.”
Born and raised in Orange County, Michelle currently lives in Laguna Niguel and fondly calls the nearby trails of Aliso and Wood Canyons Wilderness, Laguna Coast Wilderness and Crystal Cove State parks her home training courses. In fact, she holds the inaugural Whoo’s in El Moro 50K course record at the latter after a 3:58:00 finish in 2010. The race will once again challenge runners to either 25 or 50 kilometers through the ultra-hilly backcountry of El Moro Canyon on Oct. 24, but Michelle is admittedly pouring much of her current efforts into training for The Javelina Jundred 100K at McDowell Mountain Regional Park in Fort McDowell, Ariz., Oct. 31 to Nov. 1. We recently spoke with Michelle to learn more about ultrarunning and procure a few tips for taking on local trails.
Laguna Beach Magazine: Do you have a favorite local trail?
Michelle Barton: The one I do the most is the Aliso Summit trail [starting in Laguna Niguel]. … The main part is 4 miles, but you can easily make it 18 miles by adding other pieces to Badlands [Park] and take it out to Aliso Peak and connect to run down to the Montage [Laguna Beach], and run Nyes [Place] to Aliso Woods. It’s really easy to connect a lot of trails around here.
What advice would you give to someone who is starting out in trail running and aspiring to a 50K and upwards?
When you first start out on trails, you’ve got to have the right shoes—the right tools for the job. It uses a lot more, different muscles than road running, so I would advise strength training in addition. Trail runners’ bodies are a lot different than road runners; we have a lot more muscle to get ourselves up and over a mountain. I would say to really make sure you have good form when you’re running, too. Concentrate on landing on your forefoot, don’t heel strike (hitting the ground heel-first) and just a good, nice, quick cadence to get you up and over the rocks and routes, twists and turns.
What kind of shoes do you wear?
I run in the Vivobarefoot Trail Freak. It’s super minimal with zero drop, super lightweight [and] flexible, but you have to build up slowly because it’s like a gym for your feet and legs. Your muscles and tendons have to get stronger. … If you’re a brand-new runner, it takes time to build up the strength, but I always like lightweight shoes. … I like to feel the ground.
When people get into those high miles and start to feel pain, what advice would you give them to carry on?
Ultrarunning is pretty much all about pain management. It’s like the brain moves the legs. … You might hit a really low point, and you might just have to take a salt pill or have some calories. … You have to decide if it’s constructive pain or destructive pain, … and you have to stay positive and know it’ll get better—it’s normal. … [Pain] is just part of the sport. You have to become friends with pain.
—Written by Karlee Prazak