The dirt roads and forest trails of Boone County are where ultra distance runner John Baldwin prepares for races as long as 100 miles. The 33-year-old schoolteacher recently completed his first 100-miler and has plans to do try even more extreme events.
MADISON, W.Va. -- To finish his first 100-mile footrace, John Baldwin played mind games with himself.
"Instead of thinking of it as having to complete 100 miles, I thought of it as completing several shorter runs in a row," he said. "If there was an aid station six miles away, I figured I could run six miles easily. After I reached that distance, I set a goal for another short distance and went for that."
One would be hard-pressed to find a better metaphor for Baldwin's return to fitness. Goal by goal, the 33-year-old Boone County native has climbed the distance-running ladder, shedding 40 pounds of fat and a blood pressure problem along the way.
It all started on a spur-of-the-moment whim.
Baldwin, a former basketball player and cross-country runner at Scott High School, had let his fitness slip during his college years and his first few terms as a schoolteacher.
"I weighed 155 pounds when I graduated from high school," he recalled. "But from 1998 to 2007, I basically took a decade off.
"I didn't run. I played a little basketball for fitness, but my weight gradually crept up to about 210 pounds. I started having trouble with my blood pressure, and the doctor wanted me to start taking medications for that."
About that time, Baldwin and some friends were hanging out at a Charleston-area fast-food restaurant and spotted a flyer advertising a five-kilometer race.
"We all agreed to do it," he said. "That got me started running again."
He was teaching at Van High School at the time, and some of his students wanted to start a cross-country team. Since he had cross-country experience, Baldwin became their coach.
"Instead of just telling them to [go on training runs], I ran with them," he said. "And I kept doing 5K races. Then I decided to see if I could finish the [15-mile] Charleston Distance Run. Once I knew I could run 15 miles, I figured it was just a matter of altering my pace to run a marathon."
Running increasingly longer and tougher races stirred something inside Baldwin.
"As a runner, you want to push yourself to where you've never been and see how you hold up. So after I'd done a few marathons, I started thinking about trying a 50-miler," he said.
Since many "ultra marathon" events of 30 to 100 miles involve running on forest paths or dirt roads, Baldwin stopped running on pavement and started training on Boone County's extensive network of unpaved mining and logging roads. He soon discovered a few things that hadn't dawned on him before.
"I found that I was no longer a slave to my watch. When you run shorter distances, you're always worried about your time. So mentally, running ultras is easier on me. Also, in ultra training, you don't have to do speed work like you do in marathon training."
Instead of dodging traffic, Baldwin dodges wildlife.
"With ultra running, you have to worry more about running into bears than about drivers sending text messages," he said, laughing.
In a typical week of training, Baldwin combines short weekday runs with much longer distances on weekends.
"I like to do a 30-mile run on Saturdays and a 50-miler on Sundays," he said.
West Virginia is home to several ultra-level trail-running races, many of them sponsored by the West Virginia Mountain Trail Runners Association. Competing in those helped Baldwin prepare for his first 100-mile race, the Umstead 100-Mile Endurance Race held earlier this month near Raleigh, N.C.
After nearly 23 hours' worth of steady running and mind games, Baldwin finished the Umstead race -- and immediately started wondering what he might do next.
"I'm looking at doing some of the 'mountain hundreds,' races held at altitude," he said.
Baldwin acknowledges that most people consider ultra-level running an "extreme sport," something only elite athletes can do. A few short years ago, he felt the same way.
"I used to think [ultra running] was insanity," he said. "But once I got back into running, I started enjoying the challenge of pushing myself to run longer distances. I'm not a fast runner; there are lots of guys faster than me. But you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who has more fun at running than I do."
Reach John McCoy at email@example.com or 304-348-1231.