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Ultra Runner, Baby Boomer Sees World One Race at a Time

Liz Merritt
July 14, 2017
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Jeff Pettett tells the story of his first marathon 10 years ago in excruciating detail. Below-freezing temperatures, a horrible cold, and a crown that fell off his tooth halfway through the race pretty much sums up the suffering.

“I was debating, do I run it or not?” he says, as he conveys every detail of that day. “I had put in all the training. So I just said, ‘Let’s just see if I can do it.’”

Wise move? Potentially not. But he finished. “And I thought, alright, I never have to do that again,” he laughs, sensing what my next question will be. That memory seems so indelibly etched in his brain that I wonder why he would ever contemplate another marathon.

This 56-year-old ultra runner explains that instead of clicking a miserable marathon off his bucket list, the experience motivated him to explore his running limits.

Today, with 67 marathons and 79 ultra-marathons under his belt, Pettett is on a running journey that has taken him to some of the most beautiful trails in the world, and he has no plans to stop.

Consistency & Passion of an Ultra Runner

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Pettett on the course at the 2015 Ultra Adventures Tushars Marathon in Utah.

Pettett’s story speaks volumes about dedication, consistency and passion for a sport that he once considered a casual endeavor. “I would run maybe 3 to 5 miles occasionally, one or two times a week from my 20s on. But it was nothing intense,” he says.

What his first marathon taught him was that his body is capable of so much more. “I may be an ultra runner, but I’m not fast by any means,” he says.

“I just want to finish. And the older I get, the more I recognize how important it is to do the things you can.”

As far as marathons go, it took two years for Pettett to sign up for another. This time, he was in good health and the picturesque backdrop of the Southwestern desert spurred him on to a faster time than his first.

The cavalcade of marathons that followed have one thing in common: scenic courses. Pettett combs running magazines for once-in-a-lifetime races. And his work as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines makes travel readily accessible.

And so it goes. Pettett’s destination marathons began with the Big Sur Marathon in California. “You start in the redwoods and end up in Carmel,” Pettett explains. “It’s just beautiful along the coast, running across the Bixby Bridge and seeing a guy at the top of the hill in a tuxedo playing a grand piano. It’s iconic, so of course I had to go do it. From there, everything took off.”

Mid-Life Challenge Met

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The camaraderie and community of ultra-marathon running, drew Pettett to the sport. Pictured here, Pettett runs the McKenzie River 50K in Oregon.

For his 51st birthday, Pettett decided to push his running limits a little farther. That year, he signed up for his first ultra-marathon after a friend suggested they do an alien-themed nighttime event in Las Vegas called the ET Midnight Marathon. The 51K course (or just under 32 miles) was a fitting symbol for turning 51. “This one was a road ultra,” Pettett says. “It was perfect for my first ultra.”

It wasn’t long before Pettett was perusing ultra running magazines for bigger and better goals. “Ultras are just marathons on steroids,” he says. “You’re out there just a little bit longer, and sometimes whole lot longer. But because it’s more trail running, I found it was a better natural fit for me.

“I really like the vibe of the trail ultra because each one is unique,” he continues. “You have to be so much more self-sufficient. Sometimes, the aid stations are 10 miles apart. So there’s more of a natural camaraderie because we have to take care of each other out there.”

Fine-Tuning

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Pettett (center) and some of his colleagues at Southwest Airlines.

For the last five years, Pettett has settled comfortably in the 50K zone, with the exception of a handful of 40-mile races and three 50-milers.

He averages one or two races a month and has explored some of the world’s most spectacular scenery along the journey. Running has taken him to 17 states, Canada, France and England.

Like most runners, he is meticulous about statistics and data in order to track his progress over time and understand his body’s optimal race nutrition.

He closely monitors injuries and remains injury free. “I’m fortunate to have a super duper sports doctor who is helping this body run way beyond what I could have done on my own,” Pettett says.

Training mileage varies each week, depending on his flight schedule and what city he may be staying in. Generally, training runs range from 5 miles to 15 miles up to four times a week.

Asked what keeps him going, he offers four tidbits of advice. First, find a community of people who share similar goals. Secondly, make good nutrition a priority and supplement if necessary. He’s a believer in glucosamine/chondroitin and fish oil supplements for runners.

Lastly, try to push yourself to new achievements, but also respect that proper recovery and rest time becomes more important as we age. “Take a day or two or three off,” he says. “Listen to your body and back off if something doesn’t feel quite right.”

Happy Trails

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Pettett runs because he loves the outdoors and views trail running as a great way to see the world.

Pettett makes a point to reiterate that he’s not the fastest runner out there. He’s just a guy who loves the outdoors and sees trail running as a great way to view the sights and see the world.

“I just love the trails and being outdoors. Some of these runs are more like a fast hike,” he laughs. “Last weekend I was an hour outside of Denver running in Golden Gate Park. I love the views; they are just gorgeous. This is why I run ultras.”

So what’s next for a guy who clicks off 30+ mile races every month or so without batting an eye? “Going from 50K to 50 miles was plenty challenging for me. But I might dip my toe into a 100K next,” Pettett says. For the record, that’s just over 62 miles.

“It’s exponentially harder the longer you go,” he explains. “When you wake up in the morning, knowing today I’m going to run 50 miles, it’s a different mindset. You recalibrate your thinking.”

Two international races are on the top of his to-do list as well. The Laugavegur Ultra 55K in Iceland and the Tarawera Ultra 102K in New Zealand. “They both look amazing, super scenic and worth the effort to get there,” Pettett says.

Pettett definitely sets his sights high and has goals at 56 that he could not have imagined as a younger man. “It’s kind of funny how your expectation drives what you end up doing in life.”

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