LaBranche completes Grand Slam of Ultrarunning with time to spare

The song. Steve LaBranche had been running for 31 hours, 15 minutes, so by the time he finished Saturday afternoon, he couldn't remember the name of the song he was listening to early on, when he was struggling.

It was by U2. And it involved looking up and seeing the beauty around you.

LaBranche did just that.

He spent time enjoying the beauty of Utah's mountains, made up some time sprinting through the downhill sections of the course and finished the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run at about 2:30 p.m. Saturday on the East Coast.

It was the fourth 100-mile race in four months for LaBranche, 44, of Oakdale, who became just the second person in Connecticut history to complete the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.

LaBranche, the Montville High School boys' and girls' cross country coach, completed a journey that was equal parts physical and emotional. He started with the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in California on June 24-25 (27:47:54 seconds) and continued with the Vermont 100 Endurance Race on July 15-16 (23:06:47) and the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado, nicknamed "The Race Across the Sky," on Aug. 19-20 (28:13:22).

The slogan for the final leg at Wasatch is "100 Miles of Heaven and Hell." Wasatch, which features a cumulative elevation gain of 24,000 feet, has a 36-hour cutoff.

"This was the hardest by far," LaBranche said by telephone, speaking of the four races. "Leadville, most people think is the hardest one because of the altitude. The difference is, Wasatch is more climbs, but still has the altitude. The hardest was the first 10 (miles) and the final 10."

LaBranche said he struggled with motivation early, perhaps because he just ran Leadville three weeks ago.

"Maybe it was fear," LaBranche said. "What if I fail? I don't know. All I know was I was listening to U2. There was a song, 'Look up around you and all the beauty around you.' ... I was surrounded by mountains all day, unbelievably scenic. I thought, 'Just get through this. Use the scenery around you as motivation.'"

LaBranche described the difficulty of the course.

"There were trails that weren't trails. They were trenches in the ground with trees overgrowing it. I had to take my hands and move the leaves and branches away from my face. How the leaders figured it out, I don't know. By the time I got there, the grass was beat down."

LaBranche was paced to the finish line by good friend Sean Greaney, just one of a number of support personnel LaBranche had throughout the summer, including his wife Heather.

LaBranche said he stopped running with about a half a mile to go when he thought the finish line was closer and it was Greaney who reprimanded him, spurring him to the finish line.

"I've never been out that long before. ... It was by far the hardest race I've ever done, the hardest series I've ever done," said LaBranche, who joined Jerry Turk of Guilford (2009) as the only Connecticut runners ever to complete the Slam.

"... At one point I thought, 'I have the ability to do this. Enjoy the friends you have here. Let's get the job done.'"

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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