Steamboat Springs Fred Abramowitz, one of the organizers of Saturday’s Run, Rabbit Run 50-mile trail ultramarathon in Steamboat Springs, said if the sport were tennis, Geoff Roes would be Roger Federer.
Tennis isn’t ultramarathon trail running, however, and that much was obvious Friday morning as Roes and Joelle Vaught — not quite Serena Williams, but maybe Venus — introduced themselves to a group of about a dozen media members and sponsor representatives ahead of Saturday’s big race.
“So,” Roes said to a Steamboat local, “what’s tomorrow’s trail supposed to be like?”
Maybe it’s hard to imagine Federer sitting in the locker room at the All England Club and looking over to a local to ask, “So, what’s the deal with grass courts?”
Both Roes and Vaught said life in the spotlight — even that of a smaller sport such as ultramarathon running — has been hard to get used to.
Still, the excitement on the faces of those in attendance for an easy 5-mile out and back on Spring Creek Trail backed up Abramowitz’s words.
“It was great,” said Matthew Raterman, who traveled from Missouri for Saturday’s race and ran in Friday’s group.
Roes “was just like a normal guy,” he said. “He was really nice. We asked him about how to approach some things, and he was really helpful.”
Rise in running
Roes shot to trail running fame mostly within the past year, a rocket ascent sparked by his success in 100-mile races. He’s run seven in his career and has yet to lose.
His crowning achievement came in June when he won the Western States 100-miler in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, finishing the course in 15 hours, 7 minutes, nearly 30 minutes faster than anyone else ever had completed it.
That result was part of a four-race undefeated series that led him to Steamboat’s doorstep. His other wins were in a 25-mile race and two 50-milers.
In 2009, he won three 100-mile races, a 25-miler and a 50-miler and set course records in all of them.
He received this decade’s ultimate sign of fame, his own Wikipedia page, late last year, but things didn’t start getting crazy until he lit up the Western States 100.
“I was a little overwhelmed,” Roes said. “It took about five weeks after Western States before I didn’t feel like I constantly had multiple correspondents in my mind that I needed to get back to people on.
“At first, it was kind of nice, to talk about it. Then, eventually, it was, ‘I want to crawl into a hole and die.’”
Vaught can sympathize on some level. Friday’s media meet and greet was her first since signing on three years ago with Montrail, one of the lead sponsors for the Steamboat Springs Running Series and the sponsor of the ultra-trail running series that Run, Rabbit Run joined earlier this summer.
“There is some pressure to perform running as a sponsored athlete,” she said Friday.
Neither was at all worried about adapting to the trail that awaited them at Saturday’s 6 a.m. start. Both, however, had to learn to adapt to life as a well-known runner.
“I was running a race in Sun Valley (Idaho), and a woman just came up to me and goes ‘You don’t know me, but you’re my hero,’” Vaught said. “That’s kind of weird to get used to sometimes. It’s kind of nice.”
Roes said the media cyclone that followed his Western States victory was exciting at first but eventually became frustrating.
He’s learned to deal with that aspect, as well as legions of runners at different events who look to him for advice.
“I’ve never been super comfortable talking about myself,” he said. “I know they want to hear my advice on this or my perspective, but I like to get to know them and their stories. Where are they from? Why are they running the race? I try to turn it around.”
Roes said he first took notice of Steamboat’s ultramarathon after it was added to the Montrail Ultra Cup series.
After a recent move from Alaska to Boulder, the race popped back into his mind and he decided to give it a try.
That quasi-random set of events turned out to be great news for local organizers, who quickly sold out all 150 race slots and stand to benefit for years to come from Roes and Vaught’s Steamboat run.
They were a big hit Friday, running with those who gathered at the Spring Creek trailhead.
Raterman and the Mich Ultra Runners from St. Louis — Raterman, David Pokorny, Sam Labrie and Tom Whalen — have long been huge fans of Steamboat Springs races, with a varying combination of the foursome having participated and excelled in June’s Steamboat Marathon for the better part of a decade.
They participated in their first Run, Rabbit Run event Saturday, however, and were thrilled to kick off the weekend with Roes and Vaught.
Roes “told us that sometimes in a race you needed to just worry about what was happening in your body not what was happening in the race,” Pokorny said. “That’s cool because I’ve noticed the same thing.”
Even Steamboat Springs Running Series Director Cara Marrs found herself slightly starstruck running alongside Roes, Ultra Running Magazine’s 2009 athlete of the year.
Famous? That’s surely not the right word, but Steamboat’s running community was awfully happy and plenty inspired after meeting their Roger Federer.
“I was just chatting with him about running,” Marrs said. “It was great because no matter what your level, if you love being out there on the trails, you have something in common.
“I am very inspired by what those men and women do.”