After shattering the speed record on a mind-numbing 21-day trail, ultrarunner Annie Weiss eyes the iconic Badwater 135
In high school and into college, Annie Weiss despised running. She'd do anything to slither out of it.
"My nickname was 'Weasel' in high school soccer because I would try to get out of running," she says. "It was so uncomfortable."
So these days when she bumps into a former soccer teammate in Milwaukee -- where she grew up and still lives -- their response is "you've got to be kidding" when they discover Weasel is an ultradistance runner.
"It's just unreal," she says, laughing.
Last year, Weiss, a 34-year-old registered dietitian, set the fastest-known time (for men or women) on the 1,200-mile Ice Age Trail across Wisconsin, completing it in 21 days, 18 hours and seven minutes. She's run multiple 50- and 100-milers, including finishing eighth in the famed Leadville (Colorado) Trail 100, and has wins in races from 38 to 50 miles over the past eight years. On Monday, she'll get a different kind of challenge, when she makes her debut at the Badwater 135, an annual race from just below sea level to 8,300 feet through the summer furnace of Death Valley.
It will be a test for Weiss, who says she's never liked to run in the heat and considers 50 to 60 degrees to be her ideal for success. Temperatures could be twice that. Yet, she's looking forward to it. "What better way to challenge myself than going to the hottest place in the world?" she says.
Weiss became a runner by accident. At Mount Mary University, where she played soccer, she still didn't like to run. She recalls once going with a teammate to the gym to run on a treadmill. She quit after five minutes. But one day, shortly after college, she felt like getting some exercise because the weather outside was beautiful. She put on her "department store" tennis shoes and took off for a jog. For the first time ever, she didn't feel uncomfortable. She savored the sights, the movement, the freedom.
"I thought, 'This isn't so bad.' I enjoyed it," she says. That led to more casual runs and the idea to try a half marathon.
At that race, the Oshkosh Half Marathon, she earned an age group award. "When you don't know any better you think an age group award is like winning," she says. "I thought, 'This is the coolest thing in the world.'"
Eight months later, she did her first marathon. In 2011, at 26, she qualified for the Boston Marathon (marking one of several times she has qualified) and ran 3:05:23.
About that time, too, she discovered trail running. Twice in 2011 she took first in Wisconsin trail races, a 50K and a 38-miler. Trails and longer distances became her thing.
"You do a couple of trail runs and you can't help but fall in love with it," she says. "It's a totally different experience. ... It's a great connection to the Earth, the wilderness."
Over time, Weiss ran races on portions of the Ice Age Trail and began to think about running the entire route and going after the fastest-known time (22 days for men, 35 days for women). She and her husband, Brian Frain, also a runner, planned it out and gathered a support crew, and Weiss attacked it in 2017.
The trail begins near St. Croix Falls, on the border of Minnesota, and includes 600 miles of trails and 600 miles on the roads. But Weiss had to pull out about a third of the way through because of a bacterial infection in a leg. Though the decision was prudent, she hated it. She thought every day about how she had "failed."
So, she and Frain knew she needed to try again. In September 2018, she completed it in record time, averaging about 50 miles a day. The first 400 miles through the section -- which she calls the "North Woods" -- was tough, however. It took 10 days.
"It's rugged, there are trees down, there's vines, there's roots," she says. "It's just something you've never seen. It's the hardest trail I've ever had to run on."
Plus, she could hardly sleep. She'd be on the trail for about 12 hours, starting at 7 a.m., and get to bed by 8 or 9 p.m., but would sleep maybe four hours because her body was hurting -- even though she'd sleep in a hotel each night for maximum recovery comfort. But the second two-thirds of the trail, on paths and roads, was easier on her body, and she began to get into a rhythm and sleep better, too.
The hardest part of doing a 1,200-miler, she says, is coping with the psychological grind. After seven to 10 days was the toughest mental challenge she faced, because she knew she still had so much more to do. So, she had to reframe her thinking to, "Well, think about how far I've come."
Plus, she says, she felt obligated to finish for the people who donated time, food and services. In the end, it was incredibly satisfying. "It was hard during, but I knew that's what I wanted to be doing," she says. "I wanted to race against myself, essentially, versus a clock ... and really challenge myself to do something no one has done."
Weiss believes completing the Ice Age Trail marked a turning point in her running career. She's confident she can tackle anything after 21 days of grinding. Though she knows the Badwater 135 will hit her with a wall of heat and discomfort she's never felt, she has a deeper well of success from which to draw.
"You know, if I can do that, I can do 135 miles," she says. "If you're smart about it, you can truly set your mind and make it happen."
She'll have basically the same crew and her husband to support her through it, and she's been training since March. She rises at 4 to 4:30 a.m. to put in miles before work and spends time in a sauna (doing exercises such as core work, yoga, Pilates, lunges and squats) for 20-75 minutes about five days a week. They have detailed plans to mitigate the heat and cool her core temperature -- with ice, cold slushies, spray bottles, light-colored shoes and clothing.
"I don't think you can make Badwater comfortable, or easy," she says. "I think you can put yourself under stressful situations in training and know that if you work through it you'll be OK."
She's also getting more comfortable eating on the run. As a registered dietitian, she believes fueling is one of the most important things she can do in an ultra. But her approach is different from that of many other ultrarunners.
On the Ice Age Trail, she loaded up on carbohydrates and fat, with some protein. She consumed gallons of milk, pizza, hamburgers, bakery goods, cereal and processed food such as Twinkies and white bread. One of her favorite treats was flatbread covered with avocado and beef short ribs, followed by chips.
Many other runners will stick to gels and lighter foods during races, but Weiss says this works for her.
"We should be eating constantly," she says, and asks, why should a runner eat less during a 135-mile run than she would during a normal workday at home, with three meals and snacks?
"At Badwater, carbohydrates are going to be my best friend, because carbohydrates hold on to water," she says.
She's not going into Badwater with any expectation but to finish. However, if she's feeling strong 70 to 80 miles in, she'll try to push for the podium. After Badwater, she has other goals. She'll go to Europe later this year for an ultra through the Alps. Other items on her wish list: multiday stage racing in South America, the Western States 100 in California and the Comrades Marathon in South Africa. In 2020, she'd like to go after the fastest-known time on the 800-mile Arizona Trail.
The Ice Age Trail has opened doors to new possibilities, she says. Says Weiss: "That's a feather in your cap that sets you up for so many things."