Ultra Far, Ultra Fast

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Robie cup

Salem resident Pam Smith is a top competitor in ultrarunning, which includes any race longer than a marathon. Photo by Jesse Farrah.

Minto-Brown Island Park is Smith's favorite place to run in Salem. She typically runs 10 to 12 miles every weekday morning, plus the equivalent of a marathon every weekend. Photo by Jesse Farrah.

Smith balances ultrarunning with her career as a pathologist and her role as a wife and mother of two. Photo by Jesse Farrah.

Smith competes at the 2015 Western States Endurance Run in California. Smith won the women's race in 2013. Photo courtesy of Pam Smith.

Smith poses with the Robie Cup that she earned after winning the women's race at Western States in 2013. Photo courtesy of Pam Smith.

Most people Pam Smith meets can’t comprehend what she does. And we’re not talking about her day job as a pathologist — once you know that she studies tissue under a microscope to help diagnose diseases, it’s not hard to wrap your brain around that.

It’s the South Salem resident’s other persona — ultrarunner — that leaves people stunned when they hear about it. She runs really, really far, as in 100 miles at a time. That’s like going from Salem to Sisters. On foot.

And she does it really, really fast. Two years ago, she won the women’s race and took ninth overall at the Western States Endurance Run in California, considered the Super Bowl of ultrarunning. She went 100 miles over mountainous trails that climbed more than 18,000 feet and descended nearly 23,000 feet, through temperatures that soared north of 100 degrees. And she did it in 18 hours, 36 minutes. Smith’s feat landed her on the cover of Ultrarunning Magazine and snagged her a blurb in Sports Illustrated.

“For a lot of people who haven’t run much in their life, running even one mile is painful, so they think, ‘Why would I want to run a hundred of them?’” Smith says. “So they’ll say things to me like, ‘You must be the biggest masochist on the planet if you want to put yourself through all that pain.’”

In some ways, maybe she is. She heads out at 5 a.m. on weekdays to run 10 to 12 miles before work, then runs the equivalent of a marathon every weekend. She prefers running uphill — “I like to get in that one low gear, and go go go,” she says. The same year she won Western States, she ran 403 times around a 400-meter high school track — around and around and around for 14 hours, 11 minutes, 26 seconds — and set a world record for fastest 100 miles on a track. Somehow she balances her extensive training and frequent trips to faraway competitions with her doctor career and her role as a wife and mom of two.

She’s 40, but far from finished, she says. Her next goal is a race where you run as far as you can in 24 hours; she notes, with a gleam in her eye, that some women are getting close to 150 miles. This Saturday, she’ll compete as part of the USA Track and Field team at the 100-kilometer World Championships in the Netherlands — it’s her fifth time to make the team.

“Pam is one of the most tenacious people I’ve ever met,” says her husband, Mac Smith. “Once she sets her sights on achieving something, she doesn’t stop until that thought or action is checked off of her list. … Whatever she decides to do, she does, without fail.”

A Running Start

So how does one decide to run 100 miles? For Smith, the path to ultrarunning started back in junior high with the President’s Physical Fitness Test.

She did well on the running portion, and her dad, a 5K and 10K runner, invited her to join him in a 5K race when she was in ninth grade.

“It was this very rainy day, and nobody showed up, so I ended up winning a medal at the race because there were so few participants,” Smith says. “But my dad was very proud of me because he said he’d been running his whole life and had never won a medal, and I won a medal on my first attempt. … I was a little sick afterwards, but I guess the pride takes over and pushes that aside.”

She joined the cross country team at her high school in Arcadia, California, and she competed in both track and cross country at Williams College, an NCAA Division III school in Massachusetts. After graduation, she headed to Temple University School of Medicine in Philadelphia for her MD. While there, she ran off and on, mostly in the 10K fun-run scene.

During her final year of school, in 1999, she ran her first marathon — she has now completed nine, plus 60 ultramarathons.

“I’ve always loved doing longer races,” she says. “I think the longer distances are a bit more cerebral than some of the shorter distances, where it’s everything all at once and you have to act on instinct. … I like being in my own head and thinking about the paces and the times I have to hit for different splits.”

Smith took a bit of a hiatus from running after that first marathon. She moved to Oregon with her husband to complete her residency at Oregon Health & Science University. They relocated to Salem when she got a job at a pathology office here. She had a baby girl, Megan; and two years later, a baby boy, Liam.

She still ran occasionally, completed a marathon here and there, but didn’t take it seriously until 2007, after Liam was born. “I said, ‘I’m done having kids. It’s time to find stuff for me again, and to get back into shape,’” she says.

She returned to marathons at first, but she didn’t like the intense focus on trying to hit specific finish times. When she first heard about ultrarunning — which includes any race longer than a marathon — she was intrigued.

“After I did my first ultra, I loved it and wanted to do more,” she says. “The addiction with ultras is after you complete one distance you keep moving up to another and another. You do the 50K and then the 50-mile and then the 100K and then the 100-mile. It gets out of control, too, but fortunately I loved it and wanted to keep going.”

Smith ran her first 100-miler in 2009, an Oregon trail race called Hundred in the Hood that started and ended at Timothy Lake. Her only goal for that race was to complete it in less than 24 hours. She crossed the finish line at 19 hours, 7 minutes.

That kind of result is not surprising to those who know her. Dennis Gamroth, another Salem ultrarunner who trains with Smith, puts it this way: “I kid Pam that she is different when she pins on a race bib. I can keep up with her on most all of our training runs and workouts, but I can’t hold a candle to her in a race situation. She is beyond tough.”

Becoming a Winner

Ultrarunning meshes well with Smith’s science- and math-oriented doctor side, she says. She thrives on the numbers involved in planning a good race — figuring out how many calories she should ingest along the way, deciding and tracking her pace from mile to mile, monitoring her heartrate, calculating how altitude affected everything.

She eventually developed her own strategies for how to be the quickest. Ultras include a number of aid stations along the route where runners can pick up food or water, rest, change gear or do whatever they think they need to get them through to the next station. Smith typically doesn’t spend more than two minutes at each station; she quickly grabs a snack and water and powers on without resting — impressive considering her longest races can last nearly 24 hours.

“Pam excels at planning her races,” her husband says. “She’s also an excellent impromptu thinker. When things go south in a race, lots of people, myself included, tend to shut down and enter their own heads and kind of just give up. But not Pam. She works the problem, identifies the possible causes, and attacks each cause until her problem is solved.”

When Smith won Western States — finishing 44 minutes ahead of the second-place woman — she became a mini-celebrity in the ultrarunning scene. Media across the country called her for interviews. She got 500 new Facebook friend requests from people who wanted to follow her.

And when she returned to the event in 2014, everyone was watching her as one of the favorites. Her mindset changed. “In 2013, all I wanted to do was have a great race,” she says. “I was not concerned about beating anybody; it was just about me and the time. But in 2014, I wanted to go back and win.”

She trained hard that year — too hard. By the time the race started, she already felt burned out. “I wasn’t doing it for the right reasons,” she says. “I still had a decent race — I ended up in fourth — but it wasn’t the time I wanted. I was slower, I felt like I was working really hard all day and I didn’t enjoy it much at all. It was a big disappointment, and not even because I didn’t win, but because the race wasn’t fun and I didn’t feel like I’d lived up to my own expectations.”

Instead of slinking off to weather her disappointment, Smith went right back out five weeks later to run Angeles Crest, a major 100-mile race in southern California. She gave it her all, and she won, setting a course record in the process.

But after two difficult 100-milers so close together, Smith’s body felt “destroyed,” she says. Back in Salem last fall, her body ached when she ran, and she lost her motivation for the sport. “I thought, ‘I’m burnt out. My body is telling me it’s tired. I’m not gonna run Western States this year. I’m done,’” she says.

For four weeks, she didn’t run at all. She slept in and enjoyed her time with her family, her job, her vegetable garden. When she finally got back into her running shoes, she felt transformed — her legs didn’t hurt and the sport was fun again.

Despite what she’d told herself earlier, she decided to compete at Western States anyway. But this time, she didn’t worry about winning. “I think I just had to get over my own ego and be like, ‘Some days you’re not at your best, and some days you have to accept your own circumstances, and just do it for yourself.’ …

“Once I accepted that, I was fine. I didn’t have a great race — I had my second slowest time there because I didn’t put much effort into making or following a meticulous plan. But I was doing it for fun, I enjoyed the people there and I enjoyed the majority of the race.”

It’s that kind of attitude that makes Smith an inspiration to other runners, says Susan Gallagher, co-owner of Gallagher Fitness Resources, Salem’s running store.

“Pam inspires through her commitment and determination to hang in there and persevere, even when training and racing are tough,” Gallagher says. “She’s very transparent about the challenges of ultrarunning. Her honesty and humor are simply refreshing in a way that inspires and motivates you to just get out there.”

Smith has two people in particular who she hopes will learn from her example: her children.

“I want them to see that if they have big goals, they can go after them,” she says. “Even if it’s stuff that people might see as crazy or out of the norm, it doesn’t matter. It’s about what they believe in. I want them to know that they’re capable of big things, of doing more than they think they can do.”

Pam Smith’s Stats

Age: 40

Profession: Pathologist and competitive ultrarunner

Family: Husband, Mac; daughter, Megan, 10; son, Liam, 8

Biggest running accomplishment: Holds the women’s world record for fastest 100 miles on a track: 14 hours, 11 minutes, 26 seconds.

Other biggest running accomplishment: Won the women’s 100-mile race at Western States Endurance Run in 2013.

Number of ultramarathons she’s completed: 60; 11 of which were 100-milers.

Favorite running shoes: La Sportiva Mutants for trail running (La Sportiva is her sponsor); Scott T2Cs, Nike Air Pegasus or other racing flats for road running.

Typical meal before a 100-miler: The night before, she eats white rice, an avocado and a meat such as chicken breast. The next morning, about an hour and a half before the race, she throws back two packets of instant oatmeal, an Ensure nutritional shake, a banana and a liter of water.

What she carries on a big race: Hydration vest with several water bottles; energy chews or bars; headlamp for early morning and late evening; sunglasses; light windbreaker rain shell, beanie and gloves if bad weather is expected.

Favorite place to run in Salem: Minto-Brown Island Park

Blog: Keep up with Smith’s running on her blog, The Turtle Path.

After interviewing Pam Smith, Salem Is editor Sarah Evans felt she no longer had any good excuses for not running — she plans to compete in her first 10K later this month.

Jesse Farrah is a Salem-based photographer with a passion for film photography. Check out more of his work at www.facebook.com/jessefarrahphotography.