© Hillary Biscay
She’s an American pro triathlete and ultra-runner – and as of July last year, the FKT record holder for the Vermont Long Trail – yes, Alyssa Godesky is in the house! Last year, Alyssa successfully completed her fastest known time (FKT) attempt, negotiating the gnarly 273-mile stretch and 67,500ft of elevation in a record-breaking 5 days, 2 hours and 37 minutes, only sleeping 17-18 hours in the process.
During her career, Alyssa has chalked up an incredible 45+ ultra-marathon finishes and more than 30 iron-distance triathlons. When she’s not competing, Alyssa is a triathlon coach and also co-hosts the super-cool IronWomen podcast, which is dedicated to female triathletes, so I’m thrilled to have her on the blog.
N.B I recently interviewed Alyssa solely about her FKT attempt for Red Bull. The feature includes lots of juicy details which we don’t cover here – head to the link at the end of this interview to have a read.
You started your endurance sports career with a 50-mile race in 2005. Were you a prolific runner leading up to that?
Not really. I was definitely an athlete – I grew up playing competitive soccer, though I was the goalie, so not too much running there! I also played some seasons of lacrosse, tennis, and track through the years. Growing up, my dad would enter me in local running races – from 5Ks to 10 milers – to run with him. Because of all these things, I was definitely an athlete and I had certainly developed a competitive mindset, but in terms of specialising as a runner, that didn’t come until after 2005.
How did your move in triathlon come about?
In college, I had raced a couple of Olympic-distance triathlons, but my main focus was on ultra-running. When I moved to Baltimore after I graduated from the University of Virginia in 2008, I realised that running trails was not as easy in Baltimore as it was in Charlottesville. I also realised that if I wanted to have a social outlet with athletes my age, ultra-running was not the place to find it at the time. So, I started to run with a local running group in Baltimore that also included some triathletes. I signed up for Ironman Louisville as well, and loved that. I began to take a look at some of the female professional triathletes at the time – names like Hillary Biscay, Kate Pallardy, Haley Cooper-Scott… and I couldn’t help but wonder if with some more focused work, I could get to that level. I knew I needed a coach to get there, and when I reached out to Hillary Biscay (former Ironman world champ) about that in 2010, it was an instant match.
How did Hillary help you turn pro and move into coaching?
Knowing my ultimate goals, Hillary was an amazing mentor. While we were focused on the process and each stepping stone in terms of my racing abilities, she also encouraged me to begin to save some money and build a network that might allow me to leave my corporate job at some point.
By 2013, I was seeing progress in my racing that indicated I’d be able to pursue racing as a professional within the next few years. I continued to save money and make plans for how it would work, including taking on a few athletes to coach, under Hillary’s guidance. I ended up leaving my corporate job at the end of 2013, and moving down to Charlottesville, Virginia. In the beginning I was working as a contractor for a race production company, and also nannying, in addition to the coaching. As I continued to race and train, the number of athletes I was coaching grew, and by the end of 2015 I was full-time coaching and racing to support myself.
You co-host the IronWomen podcast. Can you tell me about this?
There’s a stat out there that women’s sports receive only 4% of the media coverage! Can you believe that? 4%! Truthfully, it wasn’t until I was a professional athlete that this really hit home for me. As women we’re training the same amount and racing the same course, yet our race isn’t getting nearly the same amount of coverage. Among other things, this puts us in a tough spot when we’re trying to validate our exposure for sponsors and contracts, and that means it can be much harder to make a living as a female athlete. IronWomen was created by former professional triathlete Sara Gross, who recognised this and wanted to take action to help fill that void in the media coverage. I co-host with fellow pro Haley Chura, and we record a weekly show where we interview and share the stories of professional female triathletes and other inspirational women in sport.
Last year you set a new FKT running Vermont’s Long Trail– congratulations! What inspired your attempt?
Thank you! I think the inspiration for this was planted in seeds over the last few years. Going back to 2011 when Jennifer Pharr Davis set the overall FKT on the Appalachian Trail, this made me aware that things like this even existed. Then when I watched Finding Traction(a documentary about former record holder Nikki Kimball’s Long Trail FKT attempt) in 2014, it stuck with me. Nikki Kimball’s message in the movie that she was not only out there to set a record, but to get the overall record, was inspiring. And not only that, but she wanted other women to take on this challenge and do it too.
When I watched the movie, something just stuck in my brain: that I could do it, that this would be something I was good at. It went onto the ‘bucket list’ though — potentially just a dream I thought I might be able to attempt after my days at competitive triathlon were done. But in 2017, after completing over 30 iron-distance events and over 45 ultra-marathons, there were no races that were getting me out of bed and excited to train. I needed something new and I felt like it was the right time to try it.
How far in advance did you start training for it?
I really feel like the training for this started well before I ever discussed the Long Trail specifically with my coach Hillary. I think the fitness that was required was definitely from a very solid training block, but ultimately was the result of years of hard work and consistent structured training. Since the Long Trail was more about strength and consistency than pure speed, the fitness I had built over the years from many sports translated into the strength needed on the trail very well. The specific Long Trail training began a couple weeks after racing Challenge Taiwan at the end of April 2018. This allowed for just about a 12 week period where the focus was all on the Long Trail.
What’s the terrain of the Long Trail like?
Whenever I think of the LT terrain, I think varied and rugged. It is often very steep and technical in places and there are very few switchbacks in all of the trail, even as it crosses Vermont’s highest peaks. It’s also notorious for the mud – many people refer to the southern 100 miles which are shared with the Appalachian Trail as ‘Vermud’. But between those challenges there are so many hidden peaks and balconies to get sweeping views of the Green Mountains that are ahead – it’s simply breathtaking.
Were there any low points mentally that stuck out?
The third night was really, really hard. This was one of the few sections of trail that I hadn’t previewed. It was raining for part of it, the trail was very rough, and hiking into the night is very, very difficult on little sleep. This was also around the time that my crew was getting very tired, so they were trying to battle through their own fatigue to help me too. It was a rough combo and definitely a very, very long 18 miles. The only way to work through it was to rely on each other. We all acknowledged that this was very hard, but they kept me sane. Patience, persistence and staying positive [got me through]… and literally just putting one foot in front of the other.
You’ve said you have a ‘willingness to exist in a very uncomfortable space’ – do you have a good aptitude for mental and physical discomfort?
I think I must! I’m a very competitive person and I’m certainly very fit. But I’m not known for my speediness and it’s rare times in my athletic career where I’ve been the fastest. I think I realised early on that sometimes, in order to win, it’s about outlasting the others rather than speed. It could be about just being able to stay the course when things are really uncomfortable and difficult. Speed can certainly be trained, but after a certain point your genetics are only going to allow you to become so fast. But that willingness to stay when it gets hard? I do think that the bounds for enduring that are much greater if you’re willing to do the work it takes to train yourself.
You only slept 18 hours in 5 days. How did the sleep deprivation affect you during your FKT?
Sleep deprivation definitely made me feel like a crazy woman! It was so all-encompassing, I really struggled to think about anything other than wanting to sleep, how I could finagle some sleep, etc. Luckily for me, I had at least one crew member with me at all times so they were making the decisions for me. I think the only decision I wanted to make was to take a nap, and if it was up to me I would have! It also definitely made me more emotional. The last 14 miles were a really long, muddy slog. There was a mile or two in there where I am pretty sure I was cry-hiking. And when a blister exploded at one point that set me off into a pretty solid breakdown. The sleep deprivation just made everything feel so much heavier — emotionally and physically — than it would have been in any other situation.
What did you find the most challenging aspect of your FKT attempt?
The lack of sleep really takes the cake. I had an amazing crew who, while I did a lot of the planning in advance, were able to execute things and troubleshoot any issues that came up flawlessly. I’m pretty sure I don’t know most of what they had to deal with over those five days. The physical aspect of the trail I think I had mentally prepared myself well for. While the physical side was harder than anything I had ever attempted, because I’d [previously] finished 100 mile races and many Ironman events, I had a small window of insight into what I would feel physically and how to prepare for that. But because there was no way to really know what the sleep deprivation to that extent would be like, I was entering it pretty blind. And it’s really hard to overcome something so intense when you haven’t seen it before, and haven’t assembled any tools or tricks that will help you get through it.
You had nightmares for a few months after and you turned to acupuncture – did this help?
I think it did. The continued sleep issues and nightmares surprised me; I just didn’t expect that to be an effect. If anything, I thought I’d sleep for days afterwards and never want to wake-up! It was clear to me that this effort had thrown all the body cycles a bit out of whack. I’ve used acupuncture in the past and found it helpful, so I went back. Charlottesville also has an amazing community acupuncture program which is done in a group setting in reclining chairs, for a much more affordable rate. This allowed me to go 2-3 times a week on consecutive weeks. After going to a few sessions, I started to feel like things were turning around, my body was becoming more centred again, things were just getting more in tune. Is it the acupuncture? I do think so. But even if it was just an extra nap in the middle of the day with some meditative components, then it was worth it!
Are you back full-swing into triathlon training now?
I am. It was a good two-and-a-half to three months before I really felt inspired to train for something specific again, and when I did, it definitely wasn’t for something too long! But by the end of October 2018, I was doing specific training again for a half-iron distance triathlon (Indian Wells 70.3) which was in December. I actually ran my fastest half-marathon ever off the bike in that race, so maybe the Long Trail miles sat well with me after all!
What were your must-have items of kit for training and racing?
I was fortunate enough that as a winner of one of the Trail Sister’s adventure grants, Camelback supplied me and my crew with all the hydration packs we needed. It was so helpful to have a variety of packs so that I could wear the minimal [amount] and they had plenty of room to hold all the food/hydration for each segment. I also was rarely without my Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles — they are super-lightweight and are very helpful over the steep climbs and descents of the Long Trail.
During the run I was rotating between five pairs of shoes and could not have done it without the Altras and Sauconys that were in rotation. I also used many pairs of Injinji socks which I think helped keep my feet in the best condition possible over that wet terrain for 5 days. And I think my last crucial piece of gear was my Ultraspire waist lamp!
What’s next on your bucket list – will we see you do more running than triathlon?
I’m definitely not done with triathlon just yet, so I’m going to continue to try to balance both running and multisport. In the early season this year I’m focusing on ultra-running and trying to get some points for the UTMB lottery. I’m running the 110km Basque Ultra Trail Series Bilbao-Gasteiz (Alyssa came second in this) and the Marin Ultra Challenge (50-miler) for some points there. Then I’ll transition back over to triathlon-related racing with my main goal being Ironman Copenhagen in August.
Next winter, I will have to do a final race for the UTMB points, and will hopefully find myself on that start line in the next couple years! I’m also continuing to hone in some of my navigation and map skills with some orienteering and rogaine events, as I’d love to get into the Barkley Marathons one of these years too.
Are you sponsored by anybody right now?
Yes! I have several companies who have stood by me through ultra-running, triathlons and FKTs. A huge shout-out to Smashfest Queen, NUUN Hydration, ISM Saddles, Adaptive IMS and Cadence Running Company. I would also like to thank Sound Probiotics and Final Surge who also sponsored the Long Trail project specifically.
You can follow Alyssa and find out more about her training via her social media channels: www.instagram.com/alyssagodesky and www.twitter.com/alyssagodesky, and via her website: www.alyssagodesky.com.
To read my Red Bull interview with Alyssa, which goes into detail regarding her FKT attempt training and planning, click here.