© Cary Johnson

I am so excited to bring you my interview with American ultrarunning legend Pam Reed! Pam was the first woman to win Badwater 135 outright in 2002 before repeating her outright win a second time the following year. Pam will be 60 in February and is still crushing (and winning) 100-milers – she has finished a mind-blowing 98 100-mile events. Her goal is to have one hundred 100-milers under her belt before her 60th birthday!

Pam, who lives in Jackson, Wyoming, was the first person on record to run 300 miles without any sleep and has broken American records in 24-hour, 48-hour and six-day running events. She really is incredible. I hope you enjoy our chat in which Pam recalls her Badwater days and shares more about her ultrarunning approach and achievements.

© Elaine Acosta

How did your running journey start, Pam. Were you always active?

I was in every activity in high school. I was a cheerleader, a gymnast, I did a very little bit of track – which I hated. And when I was 15, my tennis coach had us run to get in shape, so that’s when I started running. 

Later, in college, I taught the hockey guys aerobics. They were doing a 10-mile run and I said, ‘I can do a 10-mile run, I’ll beat you all’ and of course they creamed me out. That was the beginning, I did that 10-mile run and went on from there. 

In the early days, I would do 10Ks, 5Ks, which I absolutely hated. They were just so fast and I really just didn’t enjoy them at all. I did a half-marathon and didn’t enjoy that. I was also doing short distance triathlons back then and did a lot of those and I didn’t really enjoy that! But then I saw the marathon and I just fell in love with the marathon from the very beginning, it was great.

You went on to increase your distances and run ultras, some with your second husband?

We first did a marathon and an Ironman together. I had never even done a half-Ironman, I went from doing a small triathlon to the full Ironman. Then me and my husband did a 100K out of the blue – we went from a marathon straight to a 100K – and we were dead last. 

A little over a year later, my husband signed us up for the Wasatch 100-mile run. He got bad blisters on his feet, so he dropped at about 50 miles and I asked him, ‘Will we still be married if I keep going?’ and he didn’t say anything so I just kept going! I ran really, really hard and got so, so sick. I finished and it took me 34.5 hours to do it. 

Since then you’ve run an incredible 98 100-milers – plus further Ironman events?

Around 2008, I think, we started doing Ironman triathlon again. My next Ironman will be number 57. And right now, I’m at 98 100-mile runs. I’ve actually done more than that in 48-hour races – I did a six-day where I ran 491 miles – but you only get credit for one timed 100. 

You were the first woman to win Badwater 135 outright. Tell us about this?

That was in 2002. We started running 100-milers in ‘92 so I had been running 100 mile runs for 10 years. I had a really good friend that I would run in Tucson with every day with and she used to ride bikes with this guy, Chuck. He had been at Badwater in 2001 and a woman from Russia had broken the woman’s record by four hours. He said to me, “I think you could do this, I don’t think you’d break the record but you could do pretty well.” 

Ten days before Badwater, I did Big Horn, a 100K trail race in Montana. It was June and 104C-degrees. I was supposed to be practising eating and drinking because I wasn’t very good at it, and I had Ensure (liquid nutrition) and I threw it up. So I called Chuck and was like, ‘No way, I’m not going to be able to do this, I just threw up at 104-degrees, it could be 130-degrees at Badwater.’ He just said, just show up, we’re going to do this.

It gets so hot during Badwater that you can fry an egg on a car bonnet, but your crew had a new approach which involved spraying you with water to keep you cool, right?

Chuck is the reason why Badwater is what it is today, and why people can go so fast. He came up with the spray bottle idea, which was night and day. The other thing he came up with was crewing me every half-mile to ¾ of a mile. When we went to Badwater the first year, everybody was crewing every 2 miles, but they were crewing me every half-mile to every one mile, night and day. I was constantly being cooled by the spray bottle. They would drive the van up, get out of the car, spray me, give me something to drink, and I’d keep running.

People got to watch that, so the second year a couple more people figured it out and they picked up the bottle thing and from then on, the whole thing took off.

Since then they’ve changed the Badwater start time?

I’ve done it one time with the new time. It’s a start time in the middle of the night, so it’s just not the same. It’s only 105/110-degrees at night, not 130-degrees [like the old start time]. It might get to be 120-something, but it’s the second day and you don’t get a lot of it (heat) because by the time the day comes, you’re already going up to the 5000ft climb and then you drop back down to zero. And then you climb back up another 5000ft, so you’re not below sea level and it’s not as hot – at all.

It drives me nuts when people go, ‘Oh, heat training…’ I’m Finnish and I grew up in saunas, but I disagree with heat training in a sauna: you need to be under the sun. The sun is the biggest thing that gets you, and the heat obviously. 

So when it gets really tough in races, what mental strategies do you use?

[I do] Math. So when I was trying to break a world record in the six-day event, I was on a one-mile track in New York City and I was trying to run 512 miles against this other gal who had the record, which was like 510 miles. All I would think about was the math, the math, the math – that kept me going. 

We both killed each other on the first day – we ran 110 miles when all we needed to do was run 80 miles. But she came back and I think she broke the record again with 512 miles. I only did 491 miles, but that was an American record. I was so devastated because I knew I wasn’t going to make the 512 miles – I knew my body had got so far off by the third day, but what I was doing was the math [of my timing and distance].

© Elaine Acosta

For a long time, I also used to think about eating [during my ultras], because I was really bad at it and I really had to remind myself. But now, with my goal of doing one hundred 100s and knowing I have two more to go, that’s motivating for me. Like, I’m not going to drop out. I have dropped out of races before and it’s such a bummer! I don’t want to waste them anymore! I’m going to be sixty in February. I’ve just done my ninth hundred this year. I definitely am tired, I’ve got to say!

How are you able to run so many 100-milers? I’m guessing you have a really good body maintenance schedule? 

I do yoga. Right after this phone call, I’m going to do hot yoga. And then I swim, but it’s been really inconsistent, and I ride my bike, but that’s been inconsistent. But you know, the running is very consistent, I run every day at least 6-10 miles every day.

What kind of running – is it trails or road?

I go on roads and pathways. We have paved pathways in Jackson so I do some running on that. We have the dyke, along the river, and it’s dirt so I run on that. And then I run in the mountains. During the week though, I run on the path with my friends, because it’s simple and I have this routine with my dogs. 

Where do you get your energy from, Pam?

My mum and dad and even my grandfather had amazing energy. I just never, ever sit down. Ever. I don’t really like sitting down! I’m definitely ADHD; hyper-hyper. I’m either mowing the lawn, doing something around the house or taking the dogs out. If I get home and I don’t have anything to do, I’m like, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve got to go do something!’ I’m just blessed.

© Elaine Acosta

What fuelling strategy works for you during your 100-milers?

It’s funny because it’s changed many, many times throughout the years. Way back, I threw up when I ran. Every time. Then Badwater came along and I was just made for that kind of race, I think because you just sweat so much. I was able to take in the drinks; I mostly drank [calories] there. 

But right now, a friend of mine told me about nut butters, so I use those and Tailwind Nutrition. Tailwind is amazing because there are calories in it and electrolytes – I don’t even have to take electrolyte tabs. It’s been great. I had never believed in any of that stuff before.

During one 100-miler recently, I had a hamburger. But I was running really slow, it was flat. We had climbed about 14,000ft in the first 40 miles and then we went to flat pavements, so then I was able to stomach the food. And we also dropped some elevation because I was up on 9,000ft and my stomach is not great when I’m at high-high altitude. 

How do you manage sleep and tiredness during your 100-milers and longer distances?

When I did the 6-day [event] – which I really want to do again, but I’m not sure I can wrap my head around it – it became like a job. I would sleep for like, 40 minutes, get up and keep running for the next 24 hours or 20 hours. 

What’s happened in the last three 100s I’ve done is, I haven’t got tired [enough to sleep]. But I definitely have been crashing at 85 miles. Recently, I just had the hardest time with the last 10 miles. It was like torture. So that’s when I’m tired and so slow. And it bugs me so much that I’m that slow. My legs just don’t want to go, you know? But I have to keep in mind that I am getting a little older, although I try not to remember that part! I am not killing it in the beginning, I’m really a steady runner and my steadiness is 89-90 miles and then I suffer for the last 10 [laughs].

You were the first person to run 300 miles without sleeping at all. How did you manage that?

I used some caffeine – back then, I think I used Red Bull. And now I’ll drink coffee or tea, that kind of stuff. We’re not talking a lot – a couple of sips. But, again, I’m blessed. My dad didn’t sleep a lot. 

The hundred I did in August, I sat in my car, closed my eyes for literally ten seconds and then got back up running. I did the Moab 240 and I slept 2 hours total for that and the race took me 74 hours. And that was the same one that Courtney [Dauwalter] did. I totally won the women’s 100 by far, but she killed it by 12 hours.

Have you experienced hallucinations in any of your races?

Yeah, a ton. You just see things that look like other things. It’s funny because where they really happen is when I do the winter races. They take me 41 hours and it’s usually that second night and morning; you look at a tree and see a house. I’m looking at the tree, I know it’s a tree, but it’s a house. And I say, “Pam, that is a tree.” So I’m having this conversation with myself! It’s happened to me a lot where I see things.

© Elaine Acosta

Which would you say has been your hardest event?

The past winter, I did this race called The Drift which is an hour away from my home, and it’s pulling a sled. There were only 17 people in the event including people on bikes… but it was the weather and the conditions which were crazy. It started out and it was -6F which was perfect really because the track was really hard, it was frozen for 30 miles. We were just moving really fast, it was amazing.

And then we had to climb, pulling the 25lb sled up and down these hills. We climbed for 25 miles up at 9500ft and I was not feeling well. Then the weather changed. I sat out for an hour and a half and we had a blizzard. You couldn’t even see the trail. It was really scary because I didn’t even know where I was. Snowmobiles would come by and I would be like, am I going the right way? And they would say yes. Then the snow stopped and the 70mph wind came. It was nuts. It took me 42 hours.

Have you heard of that blindness that happens to people during ultras? I had it in a previous race. I wear contacts and I’m blind without them. In this winter race, The Drift, I forgot my eye drops. I had 20 minutes to go and all of a sudden I can’t see – anything – both eyes. I could follow footprints on the ground ahead of me because it was dark and I had my flashlight. So I followed the footprints to the finish where somebody had to help me go inside because I couldn’t see. And I didn’t get my sight back until 8am the next morning. Considering that was the second time that happened, I’ve got to be more prepared.

So now you’re on a mission to finish your last two 100-milers to make your tally 100. Have you any other big plans?

I was supposed to run across America and break a record when I was 50, and a gal just did that about two years ago. So now I’m thinking I might do something like that when I’m 61. Because when I’m 60, I want to try and go to Badwater to break the 60-year-old (age group) record.

And then I might do a 6-day race, I might even do that at Across The Years in Arizona. It’s so hard to make plans at the moment. 

You’re a race director too, aren’t you Pam?

I put on the Tucson Marathon which I’ve done for 28 years, and that’s in December. (Due to COVID, this year’s Tucson Marathon has been cancelled.)

Do you have any sponsors, Pam?

I wrote to Tailwind and said I’d like to work with you guys. I’m like an ambassador for Altra; I really like their shoes. But otherwise, no. My husband and I are my sponsors [laughs].

You can follow Pam via her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/pamreedultra and find out more about the Tucson marathon at www.tucsonmarathon.com and www.facebook.com/tucsonmarathon.