100 miles down: Montville coach tackles grand slam of distance running

Montville High School cross country coach Steve LaBranche is attempting the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning this summer and will run four 100-mile races in four months.  He finished his first race in California in June in 27 hours and his next race is July 15-16 in Vermont. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
Montville High School cross country coach Steve LaBranche is attempting the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning this summer and will run four 100-mile races in four months. He finished his first race in California in June in 27 hours and his next race is July 15-16 in Vermont. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)

Montville — With about a mile to go, Steve LaBranche started crying.

What he already had accomplished at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run was so awesomely monumental.

He already had 99 miles down on the trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif. Over the nearly 28-hour period, LaBranche would burn 15,000 calories. He would run 16 miles in snow, followed by 100-degree heat, followed by darkness. He would need medical attention for the skin on the bottoms of his feet.

And then he started to cry.

“My pacer said, 'Will you stop?'” LaBranche said recently with a laugh, going over his trek memory by memory. “'I don't want to be running with someone who's crying.' I have a picture of my wife (Heather) and I holding hands crossing the finish line. She ran over across to me with 100 meters to go."

“I was really emotional.”

And he's about to become more emotional.

LaBranche, 44, of Oakdale, the head boys' and girls' cross country coach at Montville High School, has undertaken the unenviable task this summer of finishing the nation's Grand Slam of Ultrarunning: four 100-mile runs in a year.

That requires LaBranche to complete the Western States run, which he accomplished in 27 hours, 47 minutes, 54 seconds on June 24-25; the Vermont 100 Endurance Run, which is this Saturday and Sunday; the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado on Aug. 18-19; and the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in Utah on Sept. 9-10.

The feat originally was being attempted by 32 runners this year; that number is now down to 19 after Western States. Vermont has the highest dropout rate, with many Slam participants experiencing the back-to-back events for the first time. Leadville, “The Race Across the Sky,” is considered the hardest, climbing to an altitude of 12,600 feet.

Only one runner from Connecticut has ever completed the Slam: Jerry Turk of Guilford in 2009.

One.

“Stupid is a matter of perspective,” LaBranche said with a laugh.

“There are pits of despair,” he went on, explaining the dynamics of a 100-miler, nicknamed a “hundo.” “You get to know yourself. Can you push yourself through severe discomfort and fatigue? Get it out of your head that you might drop. Get it out of your head. Once I start, I am on a mission to finish. There's never a doubt."

“You think, 'How long to the next aid station?' 'How long is this hill?' There's one race, Angeles Crest, held in August, that has a four-and-a-half-mile hill over a climb of 4,000 feet. You figure if you run 25 minutes a mile, you have an hour and forty-five left, 1:50, left, right, left, right, and you know that the other side is downhill.”

On a recent Friday, LaBranche spoke at one of his favorite spots, looking out over the track at Montville High School, where he once ran and now coaches. It was the first time he had been able to get his feet into a pair of running shoes since Western States the weekend before. LaBranche had three toenails removed during the week and had just come from a 90-minute sports massage to stretch out his leg muscles.

If he had to run right at that moment?

“I'd be hurtin',” he said. “My right quad, my right hamstring are tight.”

There is a 30-hour cutoff time for runners at Western States. Those breaking the 24-hour mark receive a silver belt buckle. Those from 24 to 30 hours, such as LaBranche, go home with a bronze buckle. Three hundred sixty-nine runners started at 5 a.m. Saturday at Squaw Valley, site of the 1960 Winter Olympics. There were 248 finishers, 67.2 percent of those who started the race.

“Steve,” wrote fellow high school coach and former opponent Chad Johnson of Norwich Free Academy on LaBranche's Facebook page prior to his colleague's departure for Western States. “I don't think many people understand what the Olympic motto, stronger, faster, higher, entails. This is one of the greatest tests of athletic strengths in our sport and you will go down in CT history as one of our greatest ever so I wish you the best of travels and continued hard work.”

“I don't know who said it, one of the elite ultra guys,” LaBranche said. “'Running 100 miles is 90 percent mental and the other 10 percent is in your head.' ... Don't think ahead. A couple times I started thinking about the Slam and it's like, 'Stop. Stop. Get in the moment. Embrace the good for how long you have good.'”

•••

LaBranche, a 1992 graduate of Montville, majored in civil engineering and ran in college for Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Upon his graduation, he served in the U.S. Air Force for four years and was assigned to special operations.

“I lived a Tom Clancy novel for four years,” LaBranche said. “Joint special ops, with the Army Rangers and the Navy SEALS. They picked me out because of my Type A personality.”

Ah, yes, the same mentality that placed him in the midst of a series of real-life spy novels for four years now fuels his desire to run for 27 hours straight, at times with only a head lamp to pick out the trail and a pacer to guide him.

“Maybe just growing up in town,” LaBranche said of where that mental toughness commenced. “I started at an early age, maybe 9-10 years old. I lived in the same neighborhood as Nate and Jon Plucker and we had the 'Cottonwood Olympics.' We always competed in something. Nate and I would play hours and hours of basketball. It was uber-competitive.”

LaBranche recalls that he ran for the cross country team in middle school under the late Charles Kaczor.

“He had an unbelievable cross country program,” LaBranche said. “It was a 1.4-mile course and if you could break 8 minutes, you got your name on the wall. One day, Nate tells me, 'You'll never, ever break 8:00; it's just not in you.' I think I went on to run the second-fastest time on that course. I wanted to be the best runner on the team.”

LaBranche has an affinity for coaching. He will enter his second season as head cross country coach this fall and also assists in indoor and outdoor track. A member of the boys' cross country team, Jayden Colon, will help pace him this weekend by running about 10 miles with him in Vermont, while a member of the girls' team, Annali Nelson, will serve as a member of LaBranche's crew.

“I want to be part of this,” LaBranche said of the Montville High School running community. “I think about it all the time. I don't know how much more running I want to do ... but coaching is where I really get excited. I love this high school.”

••• 

Something else LaBranche feels strongly about:

“I want people to understand you can do more than you think you can do. What is it you want to do? Go do it. It doesn't have to be running-related,” LaBranche said. “For anybody to think I wasn't scared to death when I did my first 50-miler, they've got another thing coming. I was scared to death.

“I did a solo attempt (without pacers) at Angeles Crest (in 2016). I did well. I keep challenging myself.”

And so LaBranche came across a film, “Unbreakable: The Western States 100,” which chronicles the four lead men in the 2010 race. And he became determined, obsessed even, with running in what is the world's oldest 100-mile trail race.

Runners, who must qualify for Western States at a distance of at least 100K (62.1 miles), are chosen by lottery, with the race capped at 369 entrants. For 2017, there were 4,248 qualifiers. First-year qualifers are given one ticket into the lottery. The number of tickets doubles every year the runner is not selected.

LaBranche, who began applying in 2014, served as a pacer for good friend Sean Greaney of New Canaan at Western States in 2015. It was with only a couple of names left in the 2017 lottery that one of LaBranche's eight tickets finally was chosen.

“They said, 'from Oakdale, Conn., Steven,' and my daughter screams,” LaBranche said.

It is only through getting into Western States that an individual may participate in the Grand Slam. LaBranche decided to go for it, the only New England runner still eligible for the achievement, which has been conquered just 334 times in history. The prize for the feat is a sculpture of an eagle.

As for the rest ...

“I eat, do a lot of math,” LaBranche said of the actual process of traversing 100 miles. “I know it's going to hurt.”

And so he ticked off the Western States landmarks: Robinson Flat, Miller's Defeat, Devil's Thumb. He was paced by friends David Dye and Shannon Rae Sharpe, both from Smyrna, Tenn., who were allowed to join him one at a time beginning in mile 54. LaBranche wore sleeves filled with ice to combat the soaring temperatures and sat in streams and rivers to keep cool. Also at the mile 54 aid station, Michigan Bluff, he received medical attention for his feet.

He ate, he estimates, 150 calories every 45 minutes. He did math, once panicking that he wasn't far enough ahead of his pace to meet the cutoff time, without figuring in the 16 miles of snow through which he had slogged.

LaBranche and his wife, whom he has known since high school and whom he describes as “patient,” have two children, 14-year-old Matthew and 10-year-old Brenna. He works at Electric Boat as a systems engineer.

LaBranche takes nothing for granted, knowing that there is no guarantee his body will hold up for three more 100-mile races during the course of a single summer. Yet it's something he feels he must try. It's the adventure of a lifetime.

“I've been dreaming about this,” he said.

Only three hundred miles more to go.

v.fulkerson@theday.com

Steve LaBranche, after receiving ice at Robinson Flat at the 30-mile mark, prepares to embark on the final 70 miles of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run last month in California. (Photo courtesy of Steve LaBranche)
Steve LaBranche, after receiving ice at Robinson Flat at the 30-mile mark, prepares to embark on the final 70 miles of the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run last month in California. (Photo courtesy of Steve LaBranche)
Steve LaBranche enters Robinson Flat at 30 miles looking for ice (the sleeves on his arms are for ice) as temperatures climb to more than 100 degrees during the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run last month in California. (Photo courtesy of Steve LaBranche)
Steve LaBranche enters Robinson Flat at 30 miles looking for ice (the sleeves on his arms are for ice) as temperatures climb to more than 100 degrees during the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run last month in California. (Photo courtesy of Steve LaBranche)
Steve LaBranche, back left, takes part in a snowball fight before the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run last month in California. Participants ran through approximately 16 miles of snow at the start of the race, which began in Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Steve LaBranche)
Steve LaBranche, back left, takes part in a snowball fight before the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run last month in California. Participants ran through approximately 16 miles of snow at the start of the race, which began in Squaw Valley, home of the 1960 Winter Olympics. (Photo courtesy of Steve LaBranche)

READER COMMENTS

Loading comments...
Hide Comments