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Boulder’s Skyline to Success: Ultra-Marathon Running Lessons for Life

The “Boulder Skyline Traverse” is one of Boulder’s iconic mountain running trails that summits each of the 5 mountain peaks that etch the Boulder skyline. At 35 miles and 10,500 ft vertical gain, the out-and-back traverse provides a long day of physical and emotional ups and downs — not unlike life itself. As a health coach, I find my tools for achieving success on ultra-marathon mountain runs like the Boulder Skyline Traverse apply equally well to life’s often challenging and trying ups and downs.

AboutBoulder ultra-marathon mountain runner and health coach, Brenna Bray, PhD, ascends Bear Peak on the Boulder Skyline Traverse. “The Skyline – like life – is full of ups and downs, easy- and hards – some we can control and some we can’t,” Bray says. “But we can always control how we go through it and who we go with.”

So, without further ado, here are my top 10 tips for success that apply equally to ultra-marathon mountain running and life. Like any good ultra-marathon runner (and true to Boulder’s super-athlete form), I’ve included five bonus tips for extra credit.

1. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

    • Ultra-marathon running is a team event. Most runners use a coach, training plan, and supportive crew and pacer (or two) to accomplish their overall goals. Similarly, in life, we flourish with a supportive network of friends, mentors, and family. Don’t be afraid to lean on others when you need it; nearly every successful person I know does!

2. Break It Down

    • Facing a 30+ mile race or a significant life goal? Break it down into smaller, more manageable tasks. Conquer each part, one step at a time.

 

   

Whether summiting one of Boulder’s 14,000 ft peaks or tackling a new life challenge, “‘Teamwork Makes the Dream Work,’ and it makes everything more fun!” Dr. Brenna Bray, a local ultra-marathon runner and health coach, says. Left photo: Boulder locals Alex Belisle, Meri Antin, Brenna Bray, and Anthony Lee take a group selfie from Twin Sisters summit. Right photo: Belisle, Bray, and Boulder local Connor Zanin pause to refuel on a long run. 

3. Run the Mile You’re In

    • Taking a page from CO marathoner Ryan Hall’s playbook. Don’t get lost in the future or the past; neither are real. Stay where your feet are planted and run the mile you’re in.

4. Rest Time is the Best Time

    • Repair, recovery, and growth all happen during rest; rest is where the gains are made, both in training and in life. Embrace downtime as your opportunity for growth.

 

Boulder ultra-marathon athlete Joel Anderson (2018 Leadville Leadman Champion, 2020 Nolan’s 14 finisher) and Brenna Bray pause for sips, snacks, and smiles while ascending Hope’s Pass in Leadville, CO.

5. Keep it Simple

    • The vital basics for success in running are simple: sips, snacks, slumber, & self-care (hydration, fuel, rest). Sometimes, the simplest actions – a nap, a 2-minute meditation, a glass of water – make the biggest difference.

6. Embrace Small Changes

    • A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And then another and another and another. Great achievements are built through small sustainable acts of change. Start small, and build your way up to greatness.

 

Boulder locals Brenna Bray and David Trow share some laughs while running a local ultra-marathon in 2023.

7. Know Your Mountains

    • Before we can summit the metaphorical mountains in our lives, we need to know where they are. Think about your day tomorrow. What parts of the day feel insurmountable to you? What actions can you take to ensure success through these times? Before we can ask for help or receive it, we need to first know where we need it.

8. Enjoy the Journey

    • Joy is a powerful motivator and important to consider when identifying goals. Seek to find joy in the journey, not the destination; in the process, not the outcome. If you’re not finding joy at least most of the time, you may want to reassess what you’re doing and why.

 

Your mindset is your choice; choose wisely. Left: Boulder locals Krzysztof Danielewicz, Eduard Casas, and Connor Zanin celebrate a winter Sanitas summit with smiles, despite the cold. Right: Bray and Boulder local David Friedlander celebrate a summer Sanitas summit.

9. “Celebrate the Suck”

    • When life gives you lemons… Embrace the tough moments; they often make for the best parts of the story later on.

10. Your Mindset Is Your Choice

    • In running – as in life – we face many different challenges and curve balls – some planned, some not; some chosen, some not; some that force us forward, and some that cause us to pause. Often, we face circumstances we cannot control. But we can always control our mindset and how we carry ourselves through. Joy, endurance, gratitude, fortitude, and engagement are all mindsets and mindset is always a choice.

 

Whether huddling behind a rock for warmth or proudly ascending one for a view, any journey is better with two. Left: Local Boulder runners Brenna Bray and Connor Zanin take shelter behind a large rock while ascending Colorado’s Pawnee-Buchanan Loop. Right: Bray and sage runner Geoff Tweed pause for a photo atop Green Mountain during the Boulder Skyline Traverse.

11. Expect the Unexpected

    • To paraphrase Colorado ultra-marathon-running legend, Courtney Dauwalter: in training, we prepare for all the things we can think of that we might need to be prepared for. On race day, we get to find out what things transpire that we couldn’t have thought to prepare for — and then explore how we handle them. So when life throws its curve balls — and it will — step up to bat and take a crack at each one as an opportunity to learn and grow.

12. Speak Your Truth

    • There’s power in acknowledging our feelings – even when they’re negative. Acknowledging negative feelings can stop them from spiraling out of control and help us detach from them. So, even if your truth is that you feel like absolute poo, speak up! Saying this out loud can help you let go of it and you might find you’re not the only one!

 

Left: Boulder runners Zanin and Bray compete in a local backyard ultra race “one lap at a time.” Right: Boulder locals Bray, Friedlander, and Sam Maticka pause on a run to filter water from an alpine lake.

13. Feelings Aren’t Facts

    • Once while running up Pike’s Peak on a long hot day, my narrative went from “This is harder than I anticipated” to “I suck at life” in about 0.1 seconds flat. Luckily, when I turned around and started running down, my narrative did too — from “Hey! This is OK!” to “I’m the G.O.A.T.” The stark bipolarity taught me a valuable lesson. Your emotions will fluctuate, but they don’t define reality and you don’t have to identify in with them. Keep perspective, and don’t let feelings cloud your judgment.

14. Just Keep Moving

    • There’s a saying in the ultra-running community: “No matter how you feel, just wait; it’ll change.” Feeling great? That’ll change. Feeling crappy? That’ll change too. Your feelings and emotions will change, but your progress doesn’t have to. To quote Finding Nemo‘s Dori, “Just keep swimming.”

 

 

“To go fast, go alone; to go far, go together,” legendary ultra-marathon runner Liza Howard says. Left: Bray and 2022 USATF 100k Road Champion Kalie Demerjian support Kelaine Conochan in racing the Badwater 135-mile footrace, often touted as “America’s Toughest Footrace.” Right: Conochan’s Badwater 135-mile race team, heads out for a group run before the race.

15. The Power of ‘Me Too’

    • Once while finishing a long training run with a friend, our conversation started to twindle with about 3 miles left to go. I was rapidly losing steam and retreating into myself. Conversely, my friend seemed to be picking up the pace, which I did not appreciate. As my frustration grew, I said out loud “Boy, I’m really tired right now.” “Me too,” she replied. Her response changed everything for me. Suddenly, I wasn’t alone in my experience and if she was feeling the same as I felt, then I could pick up the pace too. Never underestimate the power of “Me Too.”
    • In ultra-racing and life, one of the most dangerous places to be is alone. We are tribal creatures by nature, and for good reason. When I start to feel like I’m meeting my limit – physically or emotionally, I often also start to think I’m the only one feeling this way, which can cause me to feel alone in my experience. When I share what I’m feeling with someone else, I am often met with the response “Me too,” reminding me that I am not alone in my experience, and if someone else has had my experience and gotten through it, then I can too. Me too.

Left: Boulder local David Trow chooses joy in his running and life. Right: The Boulder Skyline says goodnight.

In Boulder, we’re surrounded by natural beauty and a community that values endurance, both on the trails and in life. As you lace up your shoes and set your sights on the horizon, remember that each step is a lesson, each breath a chance to grow. Run with heart, Boulder, and let the skyline be your guideline. ✌️

Dr. Brenna Bray, a local health and wellness coach, stress researcher, associate professor, and avid ultra-marathon mountain runner, holds PhDs in Biomedical Science, Neuroscience, and Complementary and Integrative Health. Her journey through an eating disorder fuels her dedication to coaching, merging personal experiences with scientific expertise. Through her practice, Bray empowers clients to access and harness their innate healing abilities and achieve remarkable health and wellness transformations. Committed to community engagement and holistic well-being, Dr. Bray shapes a brighter, healthier future for all. Learn more about Dr. Bray at www.brennabray.com.

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