Tell us how you first became involved with running and what compelled you to pursue ultra-running specifically? What were a few highlights of your more competitive ultra-running days?
I ran in high school to get in shape for basketball and football but not real running. I ran one season of cross country and track in college. However, I did not start to consistently run until the spring of 1977. My Physiology of Exercise teacher was into running and he challenged me and others in class to run and also to be an example for the students that we would be teaching. I ran a marathon while I was still a student at the University of Ark., the Hogeye Marathon. I came to Liberty University in the fall of 1978 and over the next couple of years starting running a few marathons. In November of 1978, I ran the JFK 50 miler for my first ultra finishing in 7:43 for 24th place and LOVED it. Thereafter I ran some more 50 milers then Old Dominion 100 Miler. Later I won OD 100 four times. I set the speed record on the Appalachian Trail in 1991, averaging over 40 miles per day for 52 days and 9 hours. In 1995, I ran the Trans-America Footrace placing 3rd place overall, averaging 45.4 miles per day. In 2001, Blake Wood and I became the first Americans to finish the Barkley 100 Miler in 58 hours and 23 minutes. I set the speed record on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2005, 2650 miles. I ran my last ultra in October of 2009, the LeGrizz 50 Miler. In 2011, I completed the Tour Divide mountain bike race from Banff Canada to Mexico, 2700 miles in 25 days and two hours. I ran somewhere around 160 ultras and a little over 113,000 miles. <--- absolutely incredible...yes!
Can you tell me a little bit about your recent transition from competitive ultra-running to competitive mountain biking? What differences have you noticed?
I took up mountain biking in August of 2010. I had to do something because I had bone on bone in my right knee and walking was and is painful. I like mountain biking but I liked running better. Part of it is because I was better at running than I have been at biking. I don’t like the cost of biking either. It is much more expensive than running and I think the crashes are more damaging as well. I use to really like running in the winter, mountain biking in the winter is a REAL challenge. Mountain biking has provided a way for me to continue to be engaged, and especially to continue to set an example for the students I teach. I much prefer the trails over roads.... there's nothing that quite compares to being out in the mountains and nature.
What are you currently doing ensure continued longevity in endurance sports?
Consistent running (33 years and 33,000 miles or more) allowed me longevity… Getting back into shape is always harder on the body. I am continuing to stay active and compete as a biker. I am STILL an ATHLETE. Don’t ever stop… Consistency is key, getting back in shape is always harder than maintaining it.
Can you walk me through the process of the diagnosis of your heart condition, surgery and recovery?
Regarding his heart surgery in 2012: In mid-fall, for 3-4 weeks during extended hard efforts I felt a gaseous feeling under my xiphoid process. I mentioned it to a fellow teacher medical doctor who recommended a stress test. I scheduled the test immediately… while many receive submaximal stress testst (up to 85% of maximal predicted HR, I was given a maximal stress test instead because of my athletic background. This was key because I didn't show symptoms until upper heart rate levels (~170) which showed a potential blockage in L side of my heart. The MD recommended I keep my HR below 138, follow a heart healthy diet and start medication treatment. I sought a second opinion. Just prior to Thanksgiving I requested catheterization (and stent placement) and came out of surgery realizing my condition was MUCH worse than we all originally thought. At that point I was recommended to have bypass surgery, which I scheduled a few weeks later after directing the Hellgate 100k. I received 7-way bypass surgery on December 10, 2012 and 3-4 months later I felt good as new, as if nothing happened.
My comment: Overall, Horton emphasized the importance of knowing and listening to your body when something is not right, and being your own health advocate in terms of seeking the treatment you need.
How did your heart surgery change your perspective towards nutrition? Are there any major changes you’ve made in your daily diet since your surgery?
The only risk factor that I really had prior to my heart surgery was that my mother had 10 brothers and sisters who ALL died between 41 and 70 years of age. I ate relatively healthy before and have continued to eat the same way. My blood values are all very good now with taking a cholesterol lowering agent. My LDL is approximately 80-85, HDL 40-45, Total cholesterol about 150 after 6 months on Provostatin. While increased muscle soreness is a common side effect of cholesterol lowering medications, I have personally not experienced this and am thankful that I can continue to train hard as I did in the past.
You plan to undergo knee surgery later this spring. After taking appropriate time to recover, what personal athletic goals do you plan to pursue?
Regarding my need for knee surgery: I was running 6 days after my 60th birthday and all of a sudden I had a pain in the medial side of my left knee. I thought it was a torn meniscus and it was. I had surgery here in Lynchburg and then rehabbed and tried to run again and KNEW something wasn’t right. Later I went to a running doctor in Charlottesville and he tried a Synvisc injection. It did not work and a MRI revealed that I had more tears in my meniscus. Surgery then more rehab followed and I tried to run and could not. This past fall I went to Richmond and got PRP and Stem cells and they did not work. Right now, I am planning on total knee replacement that will happen in May at the Mayo Clinic.
After knee surgery this summer, I want to return to biking ASAP. If I think I can, I would also like to start running some again. I would like to finish at LEAST one more ultra to have completed an ultra in 5 different decades.
My comment: What a stellar example of the perseverance that endurance athletes exhibit in other areas of their life, and what an example of Horton's dedication his athletic achievements.
Tell us a little more about your role as a professor at Liberty University, specifically your running class and how that had affected you and the community of runners in your area?
I work in the Exercise Science department at LU (~25 years of teaching) and have been teaching a beginning and advanced running class. In the fall the advanced class has to complete a marathon. The spring class must complete a 50K or longer in the spring. This constantly is creating NEW NEW ultra runners and athletes. I have had 100’s of new ultra runners coming from my class over the years.
My comment: Horton not only teaches these students about running and building endurance, but of the importance of being engaged in the ultra/athletic community and in maintaining and building new trails. His athletes and students are often found volunteering out on the course of his races or doing trail work on weekends, which is much appreciated by the athletic community!
What advice do you have for individuals who may be interested in ultra-marathons but are intimidated by the thought of running 30-40-50+ miles?
Runners should NOT be intimidated by running a 50K. Actually, completing a 50K is a LOT easier (and easier on the body) than racing a marathon. If someone wants to run a 50K, they need to get with someone else who has already completed on and learn from them. OR, take my running class.
As a race director of many ultra-marathons, what is the biggest obstacle you see athletes face in the pursuit of success or improvement?
I think the majority of ultra runners don’t run enough miles. There is no FAKING the deep down strength that you get from running a lot of miles.
How has your perspective towards the role of nutrition in endurance sports changed throughout your career? What would you say is the most important lesson you’ve in regards to nailing down a winning race day fueling strategy?
Learning what you can eat and tolerate is and was the most difficult thing that I faced as an ultra runner. I still think we have a LONG way to go and a LOT to learn in the area of what you can and should eat in ultras. If you are doing multi-days, it is usually not a problem. 50K to 100 miles is the tough area to deal with and nail down the correct nutrition combination for optimal performance.
We all know that the pursuit of excellence in endurance sports can be a very individual, time-consuming endeavor. Tell us how the support of your family has shaped your athletic career, and how you achieve balance between family time and training time.
Learning balance as a teacher, a biker, a Christian, a father, a grandfather is a delicate issue. You really have to learn good time management, and if you desire to be the best or very good, you have to be a little selfish sometimes. I know that I have not always had a good balance but I work at it.
Thank you Dr. Horton for being an inspiration to SO many athletes and for all of your contributions to the ultra-running community: as a race director, teacher, mentor, advocate for the sport and friend to many.
Read about his 2005 Pacific Crest Trail record attempt here. He finished the 2,666 mile journey in a little over 66 days, averaging approximately 40 miles per day.
Of course, check out his website here, and feel free to sign up for one of his crazy races while you're at it :)
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and endurance athlete residing in southwest Virginia alongside her husband and dog. Through this blog she aims to share favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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