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David Laney taking his ultra-running success to the roads

Finishing third at the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, the best finish ever for an American, was cause for celebration for David Laney. Nike/Andrew Maguire

There are times when David Laney lets his mind drift into Fantasyland.

There, Laney sees himself running the race of his life to qualify for this summer's Olympic marathon in Rio de Janeiro. The visions come late at night or as he's putting in the miles training for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon on Feb. 13 in Los Angeles.

Yet, in the bright light of reality, he knows it's a long shot. With a personal best of 2 hours, 17 minutes, 2 seconds, he expects to finish somewhere in the top 40 or 50.

"I understand the nature of the marathon and how fast the (Dathan) Ritzenheins and (Luke) Puskedras run," says Laney. "But yeah, I definitely dream about winning. I think everybody on the starting line has at one point."

Ritzenhein, a three-time Olympian, has a best of 2:07:47. Former Oregon standout Puskedra ran a 2:10:24 in Chicago last October, the fastest time for an American in 2015. Also at the trials will be 2014 Boston Marathon champion and 2004 Olympic silver medalist Meb Keflezighi, Ryan Vail (2:10:57 PR) and heralded marathon newcomers Galen Rupp and Sam Chelanga.

Laney, on the other hand, has run just three road marathons and expects the trials champion to come in around 2:09. He's hoping to run 2:16.

"But who knows," he says, laughing. "If there's bad weather it would definitely favor me."

Bad weather would be a blessing. So would high altitude, rough and rocky trails, huge elevation changes and more miles -- a lot more miles. For Laney, the 2015 Ultra Runner of the Year, those would be perfect race conditions.

At 27, he's the youngest ever to win the award. For him, the challenge of racing 26.2 miles isn't strength or stamina, but speed. Double the marathon distance -- or triple or quadruple it -- and Laney would be right at home.

For now, though, Laney is all-in on the marathon, eager for the experience and excited for the challenge. It's been his focus for close to three months of training in Ashland, Oregon, where he lives.

"It's finally coming around," he says. "Finally feeling like I can run fast, being in that competitive marathon-type feel again."

From roads to trails

By the time he was 6 or 7, Laney was running five to six days a week. As a middle schooler in Portland, Oregon, he ran a couple of half-marathons. He competed in high school track and cross country, then moved on to Southern Oregon University in Ashland, where he was an NAIA All-American, running the 5,000 and 10,000 meters in track and 8K in cross country.

He competed in road races after graduation while also coaching, but grew frustrated with his progress. Then, while working for a running-shoe store in Ashland that he calls an "ultra-running, trail-running hub," he opted to change direction into longer distances on trails.

It wasn't exactly a new idea.

Since he was a boy, he had two goals. One was to someday qualify for the Olympic marathon trials. The other was to run and win the Western States 100, California's granddaddy of 100-mile trail races. It wasn't what most young runners dreamed about, but it had captured his imagination.

So in 2012, he ran his first big trail race, the Lithia Loop Trail Marathon in Ashland, and won it in 2:38.26. In 2013, he won the Chuckanut 50K in Washington in 3:40:17 and Oregon's Waldo 100K.

Finally, he felt he was running races that suited his talents. He'd always had a special gear to shift into when he was exhausted.

"I always expect to do well, because I feel like I train well and prepare well," he says of those first ultras. "But I guess I didn't expect to win and I don't think other people expected me to win. So that was kind of a wake-up call, like maybe I should stop banging my head against a wall at the 5K and see if something else could be equally as rewarding."

In 2014, he entered Western States for the first time. He finished 20th and calls it "an epic blowup."

"Over the last 20 miles I think about 20 people passed me," he jokes. But, it was a learning experience.

That December, he qualified for this year's marathon trials, finishing 10th with his 2:17:02 at the California International Marathon in Sacramento. Then came a breakthrough year in 2015.

In January, he won the Bandera 100K in Texas (the U.S. Track and Field 100K Trail Championship race) in 8:35:46, followed by another win in the Chuckanut 50K (3:40:20). In his second try at Western States he finished eighth, cutting his time from 18:18:25 to 17:01:37.

Then he morphed into a mountain man.

For nearly two months, Laney drove the highways of the Northwest, mostly camping or sleeping in his car, to run trails in the Enchantments and northern Cascades of Washington, down through Bend in central Oregon and Mammoth Lakes in California. He had his eyes on the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix, France, a 170K (105.6-mile) race through a tough, up-and-down loop course circling 15,776-foot high Mont Blanc. Each year it draws big, enthusiastic crowds.

"I knew Mont Blanc would take around 22-24 hours, so I found terrain that matched the course and spent a lot time out on the trails," he says. When he flew to Europe for the late-August race, he felt fitter than ever.

"I felt like my technical running ability was really strong and I was just really excited how everything was going," he says.

He started the race conservatively, hanging back before turning it on during the last 35 to 40 miles.

"A lot of other people had worn themselves out and I was just starting to come on," he says. "So that last 50K was great. Everything went perfectly. I was obviously tired, but I was feeding off the crowd, feeding off the energy."

He finished third -- the highest finish ever for an American -- in 21:59:42.

That result helped Ultrarunning Magazine select him as its Male Ultra Runner of the Year. Laney was surprised -- "There's so many guys who had great years," he says -- but believes his versatility was a factor. He doesn't specialize in shorter or longer ultras.

"I like them all," he says.

Now, with the success and knowledge gained from 2015, he enters 2016 confident about his chances at Western States in June and at Mont Blanc.

But first comes his test on the streets of Los Angeles.

Need for speed

Recent windy, cold conditions around Ashland have made training for the trials a challenge.

"A lot of my friends are like, 'Oh, it makes you tough. It makes you strong and tough,'" he says, laughing. "I'm like, 'I ran 100 miles this summer. I'm not worried about being tough and strong.' I just don't have the leg speed to hang with these guys. I need to be running fast. So that's been a little challenging."

He's incorporated more strides and speed-based workouts on the track. Now, he's feeling good.

Ryan Ghelfi, for one, is confident Laney will run well. Ghelfi was a teammate of Laney's at Southern Oregon and has competed against him in road races and ultras. Now the two have a business together, Trails and Tarmac, in which they coach all types of runners.

Ghelfi says only a few runners are capable of being as successful as Laney over such a variety of distances and conditions.

"There's been a (misperception) that once you've run a 100-miler that you instantaneously lose your ability to run fast again," says Ghelfi. "I mean, you're not going to run a really fast marathon in the midst of 100-mile training or right after a 100-mile race. But if you shift gears and adapt your training for three to six months, you can get back to at least as good if not better than you were previously at something like a marathon."

Still, Ghelfi believes ultra-distance races are where Laney will excel. He cites Laney's discipline, training regimen and perseverance. He says Laney knows how to battle through exhaustion and turn a bad race into a good one.

"David's certainly learned that many times," says Ghelfi. "You don't give up and you push through the really tough, hard times in the race because you know it's probably going to turn around if you do."

As race day in Los Angeles nears, Laney acknowledges it will be a huge upset if he can hang with runners "who are a minute faster in the 5K than me." But he knows he'll be in the running when Western States rolls around again in June.

"To compete with those guys in the marathon is really, really challenging," he says. "I might just not have what they have. But at States, if I have an on day, I don't think there are that many people that can beat me. Maybe not this year; maybe it takes a few years. But yeah, it's definitely where my mind goes to.

"I love the whole environment of it, win, lose, or draw. If I have a good day or a bad day, there's something special watching people struggle through 100 miles."