Ultra-runner Jenn Shelton's quest for legitimacy

With how lightly she carries herself over the rugged terrain, it would be easy to mistake Jenn Shelton, 27, for a wood nymph. Sprightly, swift and sloe-eyed, the Ashland, Ore.-based runner virtually floats down the trail, leaving puffs of dust in her wake, a bright grin spread across her face. It's clear she loves to run.

Now, compare this elfin vision of Shelton flying across the hills of a 100-mile ultra-run to that of her other image: a party animal who can down dozens of cocktails in a sitting, then rise before dawn the next morning to trounce the male runners she drank under the table the night before. After all, there are two sides to every story.

Shelton first shot to national prominence as the 22-year-old bad-girl heroine in Christopher McDougall's 2009 national best-selling minimalist running manifesto, "Born to Run." In the book, McDougall describes Shelton as a beautiful, earthy and fearless wild child who happens to be a gifted endurance athlete capable of running with the fastest and strongest ultra-distance runners in the world.

McDougall, who interviewed Shelton for "Born to Run," invited her to race an elusive tribe of endurance-running powerhouses called the Tarahumara, in Copper Canyon in northern Mexico. Shelton was the only female athlete on the trip, and subsequently the only female character in the book that followed. As for her party-girl image, Shelton wasn't pleased.

"Being written about [that way], it's not super ideal. I'm not loving it," she said. "As far as whether [the book] was an accurate description, I wouldn't say anything was blatantly inaccurate, but I also would not say that was how I would describe [the experience]."

Yet the Copper Canyon trip proved fruitful to Shelton's running, as it was an unparalleled experience for her to develop her ultra career and gain national attention. For the former high school runner who stumbled into ultra-running at the age of 21, a new goal has taken shape. Shelton hopes to qualify for the U.S. marathon trials for the London Olympics.

Shelton draws chatter on Internet discussion boards frequently as a polarizing figure in running. She has enormous talent, many believe, but she's also criticized for her thin focus on training. Her Olympic trials goal has stirred new debate. Some people have interpreted her stated goal of qualifying for the Olympic marathon trials as an arrogant or ignorant assertion that Shelton is convinced she can make the Olympic team and compete in London.

But Shelton's well aware of the work cut out for her. Her fastest marathon time -- 2:54:23 in the Deseret News Marathon on June 24, 2010, in Salt Lake City -- is more than eight minutes off the U.S. trials qualifying time of 2:46:00. There's an even less likely chance she can make the subsequent leap between that "B" standard Olympic cut time and the times of the top runners in the event, such as American favorite Kara Goucher, who has already qualified for the trials with an "A" cut, running a 2:24:52 Boston Marathon in April 2011. While Shelton has the goal of qualifying for the trials, she doesn't believe she can make the Olympic team for 2012. For Shelton, the goal of competing in the trials is less about the Olympic berth and more about personal validation.

"It's hard to explain, but as an ultra-runner who didn't run in college, I sometimes don't feel like a very legitimate runner. I feel like qualifying for trials would make me a little more legit," she said, with a nod to the incredibly talented field she would face at the trials. "It'd be cool to line up [at the start] against your idols."

Perhaps, too, the Olympic trials might quiet the inner demons of her need for legitimacy, after her portrayal in "Born to Run" as a brilliant runner who didn't always make wise choices. The first of several drunken incidents noted in the book has a scantily clad 21-year-old Shelton wandering a hotel lobby at 3 in the morning while on a trip to Mexico with her boyfriend. "Things are different now," Shelton said. "I'm definitely not 21 years old anymore! I'm not getting in much trouble."

But still, the image sticks -- and stings. Because of her portrayal in the book, Shelton has largely avoided interviews, claiming, "I always look like a [expletive]" in the resulting article. But her desire to be recognized as a "real" athlete now transcends her wariness of the media. Shelton views the marathon as a means of marking her talent. Despite the steep qualifying times and her slim chances of Olympic qualification, Shelton is motivated by two ideals: "I want to be fast. I want to be a real runner."

In what may be her last opportunity to qualify for the Olympic trials, Shelton will run the California International Marathon in Sacramento on Sunday. "It's a long shot, but I'll just spend the next few weeks seeing if I can convert mountain fitness into a solid road performance," she said, a few weeks before the race. "I'm healthy and strong after a long season [of ultra-running], so the worst that can happen is that I'll fail and get a tan."

If the trials don't turn out in Shelton's favor, she'll head back to the trails and keep going the distance in ultra-running. In the end, the quest for self-improvement is legitimate in itself. "Let me put it this way," Shelton said of her Olympic trials and running future. "When I'm out running in the mountains and I get that fear that a cougar is following me and I'm going to die, I think, 'It's OK if the cougar eats me because I've done some really cool things.'"

Elaine K Howley is an open-water swimmer and freelance writer in Boston.