by Christine Bishop
To meet Michelle Pratt you would never realize that here is a human dynamo who takes multitasking to unheard of levels. She is friendly, modest, quiet with a ready smile, but underneath her calm she is bursting with goals and energy. She has become a leading light locally in the trail-racing scene taking first place in many events in 2017 and placing in the top 90% of female trail runners in her age group. In addition she is matriculating for a Ph. D. in applied economics taking three - four courses a semester at the University of Minnesota and working for 20 hours a week at the Minnesota Population Center. If that is not enough, she has been carrying on a long distance, Minneapolis to Albany 1,225 mile, engagement with fiancé Josh Merlis, himself a leading, local runner and founder of the Albany Running Exchange (ARE). Michelle is currently signed up for five 50Ks between April and August and then is doing a 100K in October with the ultimate goal of running the Vermont 100 in 2019, which warns entrants on its website, “Do you have what it takes!! ” Regarding Michelle, Absolutely!!
Michelle slowly transitioned to trail running while living in Albany. As a child growing up in New Paltz, NY, she loved to hike in the Catskills with her parents and was active in sports in high school and college. Interestingly, around 4th grade, her parents told her that she had to choose between basketball and dance lessons, which she had taken since age three, and without hesitation, she chose basketball. After moving to Albany 5 years ago, she joined ARE and her first race was the Hairy Gorilla Half Marathon & Squirrelly Six Mile. This is where she met Josh. She ran the Squirrelly Six Mile having no distance agenda at that time and loved it. In the spring, she ran Dodge the Deer, another ARE trail race, and enjoyed it. This rapidly snowballed into running many trail events. An especially difficult one was Seven Sisters Trail Race in Amherst, Massachusetts, where runners race out over 7 knobs in the Holyoke Range and then return to the start for around 3,700 feet of climbing. It’s a grueling 12 miles of trail running that some call “pretty dangerous, with lots of rocks and holes especially going downhill.” A woman in front of Michelle at the race start cautioned her that it was more difficult than a marathon. Michelle, nevertheless, loved it and knew she was meant for the challenge of trail running. This was her sport.
She next tackled the Escarpment Run, in Windham, NY, that Trail Runner Magazine calls the “#1 trail race that you probably have never heard of” that flies under the radar but is a top trail race. She now has run it three times improving each time: 4:31/3:53/3:38. As Dick Vincent the creator of the race describes it: “Her time was excellent. She was 1 1/2 minutes behind at North Point (2.5 miles from the finish) but it is very technical from there to the finish with lots of down hill ledges. Katie O’Regan, who was leading, is a 2:50 marathoner. Michelle caught her and finished a minute ahead on her.” Michelle stated the many runnable sections of the race were easy but the non-runnable sections were really hard. The ledges were no problems because she loves running down hills. It was the going up sections that were tough and the Escarpment has a lot of ups. The trail goes over Windham Peak to start the race, a tiring experience with 15 miles left to go. One peak, Blackhead, is over 1,000 feet of climbing for a mile in usually hot and humid July weather with rain and mud sometimes added to the brew. The website describes the race thusly:
It is extremely rocky and a runner must expect to navigate over boulders, downed trees, gullies and hidden roots the entire distance. Contestants must be prepared to deal with any of the forest's natural barriers, such as bees, slippery rocks, porcupines, black bears (not probable, but possible) and anything else that can be found in the forests of the Catskills. There are numerous places where runners must climb hand over fist to scale a rise, conversely, extremely steep downhill sections add not only challenge to the course, but also a high degree of unwelcome danger. There are sections of the course that travel along cliffs. If you're not careful, you could fall to your death. Very few runners go the distance without taking at least one painful spill.
Michelle likes to run long distances and has the level of fitness to do that. She and Josh have run the 48 miles of Rim to Rim to Rim of the Grand Canyon in one day experiencing all the glory of the canyon. They explored the Badlands National Park, in South Dakota together and would wake up in the morning to go for daylong jogs savoring its rugged beauty and endless blue sky. While they never saw a bear they did see grazing elk, frolicking pronghorn sheep, scampering prairie dogs and a herd of buffalo. The buffalo were interesting. Michelle and Josh were at a remote camping entrance to the park and slept on a big open field packed with campers. The night was a camper’s delight with glittering stars, shooting stars, and a full moon. In the morning they were startled by a massive herd of buffalo staring inquisitively at them but fortunately from a distance. This was running and camping at its best.
After many successes in 2017 Michelle decided to up her game by signing up for five 50Ks from April through August in 2018 followed by a 100K in October. Trap Rock50 in Connecticut was the first in this agenda. The temperature on the day of the race on April 14 was abnormally high and after training in frigid, snowbound Minnesota, she was off her game and struggled in the second half of the race. In the end, she placed second in a time of 6:02:35. Her second scheduled race is the Superior 50K Spring Trail Race in Minnesota on May 19 where she lives when not visiting Albany! Her entrance in the race was by lottery which she takes as a favorable omen. Her third race on June 16 is the Vegan Power 50K in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. She has heard great things about it. Michelle was a vegan for several years but with her heavy training she has added fish to her diet. June 30 is her fourth race, the Finger Lakes 50K which she has run twice before while Josh timed the race. The course is a 25K loop covering single-track trail (85%), grassy pastures (5%) complete with grazing cows and cow pies, and dirt and paved roads (10%). Last year’s race where she came in first woman overall illustrates the difficulties trail running presents. When she ran the 25K in 2016 it was dry but last year there were torrential downpours with knee high mud to slog through. Her goal this year depends on the weather. The final 50K she is registered for is The Rut 50K in Big Sky Montana, which has a combined elevation gain and loss of over 20,000 feet. Last is the Javelina Jundred 100K, which is in the Fountain Hills of Arizona at the nearby McDowell Mountain Regional Park with peaks that rise to 3,000 feet, offering spectacular views of surrounding mountain ranges. The race gets lots of media attention because it is in late October near Halloween and runners are encouraged to dress in costume. Unfortunately for Michelle and Josh it’s the same day as the Hairy Gorilla, so he won’t be able to in Arizona to support her.
To prepare herself for self imposed challenges, in 2016 she ran the USATF New England Mountain Circuit. Every few weeks from May through July, she and Chris Chromzcak ran a mountain race somewhere in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, or Vermont. In the past two years, she has also added track workouts and more tempo runs. Beginning earlier this year, she has also received strength coaching from Mountain Peak Fitness coach Elizabeth Azze, who is an accomplished trail and ultra runner herself. At the University of Minnesota, campus is split up and covers lots of territory. She works a mile from her home while her classes are about 5 miles from there. She frequently runs back and forth getting in 10 ten miles loops weather and time permitting. On the ARE Running Log she consistently logs more miles than Josh and most other runners.
After she has finished this year’s running schedule, her next goal is to do a 100 mile race, and in particular, the Vermont 100. Also tempting is the Western States Endurance Run, the world’s oldest 100 mile trail race. Winning a Golden Ticket for entry would be a dream come true, but she plans to enter through the lottery once she has a qualifier. Her ultimate goal is top 10 at Western. I asked her if she achieved her goal and finished in the top ten, what could possibly be her next goal. She replied without any hesitation that in running there is always something more to achieve. For example, you can always run faster. Now that is the indomitable spirit that enables Michelle to excel at the multitude of tasks she sets for herself.
I asked Michelle to send me pictures for this article and she included a puzzling picture of a race that was obviously not in the United States. It turned out to be from the Transvulcania Marathon in La Palma, Spain, that is part of one of the hardest mountain ultramarathons in the world. About it she said:
That was my first (and only, to date) international race. I was so nervous, and I didn't know anyone! Language was an interesting barrier. I speak a little bit of Spanish, but I hadn't really thought about learning the phrase "on your left" before the race, so I had a lot of awkward moments trying to get around people (especially if they didn't speak Spanish!). But everyone was quite nice, the aid stations were AMAZING, there were SO many spectators all yelling "VAMO" (let's go!) and "ANIMO" (come on!), and we all had our country flag on our bibs, so it was fun when people realized I was from the United States. And the scenery is pretty epic.
She mentioned that she would love to go back to race the entire Transvulcania Ultra and then to do the Ultra Skyrunner World Series. As I stated, she is never at a shortage for thinking of new goals for herself no matter how hard the challenge. Her zest and idealism are an inspiration to us all. Michelle, keep running those rocky hills and following your dreams!!