Carlton native Brittany Peterson was high in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains on June 29 in the beginning stages of the Western States Endurance Run, a prestigious and exclusive 100-mile ultramarathon.
Running in third place, Peterson was concerned she had gone out too fast in the race, where temperatures in the latter stages can reach 120 degrees.
The race features a number of technical obstacles throughout the course, which means there is little or no trail and features challenges like snow and ice in the higher elevations, steep descents, boulders and even roots — all of which can cause slow runners down or cause injuries.
“I was in third fairly early in the race and there are 20 different women that could have won that race,” she said. “I was afraid that starting out in third that I was going too fast too early, but I was feeling good about how I was running and what my body was telling me at that point.”
During the 2019 race, however, the famed heat of the race never materialized, with highs reaching only the mid-80s.
“I had been training for over 100-degree temperatures and thankfully, it was actually a cool day, which was leading to course records being broken on the men’s side and fast times on the women’s side,” Peterson said. “It’s really who takes care of themselves the best and doesn’t blow up and suffer at the end of a hundred miles that wins.”
Peterson completed the race in 17 hours, 34 minutes and 29 seconds, finishing second overall.
It was Peterson’s first attempt at Western States, a race that caps the number of runners at 369. Many runners spend years hoping to get a spot through the race’s lottery system, but the race offer a “Golden Ticket” to each of the top two male and female finishers of five races earlier in the year. Peterson grabbed a coveted Golden Ticket by winning Texas' Bandera 100K race in January, finishing in 9:26:59.
Peterson, a 2004 graduate of Carlton, credits Vern Johnsen — her cross-country and track coach for the Bulldogs — with teaching her to enjoy the technical aspects of off-trail running.
“Technical running is just part of what we grew up doing in Carlton. I think the big thing is that when I was in high school we ran through Jay Cooke State Park all of the time,” Peterson said. “That framed me nicely for the running that I do now even though there aren’t any big mountains in Minnesota. Technical running is just part of what we grew up doing in Carlton.
"That’s why I attribute so much to Vern," Peterson said. "Our long Saturday runs we would run up a creek bed and wade through waist-deep water. We had some gravel pits nearby and we would climb to the top for some of our hill workouts. You are getting a phenomenal workout in, but you’re doing something fun.”
She first ran Grandma’s Marathon as a 17-year-old and competed with the track and cross-country teams while attending the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth.
“I feel like that helped me always keep mileage up and then doing the marathon younger kind of helped me see beyond cross-country and track distances,” she said. “Once I finished college, I think it was just the timing that trail running started to become really popular.”
Peterson’s success in the past couple years, including a third-place finish in the World Skyrunner series and a win at the Pirin Ultra 66K race in 2018, earned her a sponsorship from Nike Trails.
She now lives and trains in Pocatello, Idaho, with her boyfriend, Cody Lind, and her coach — and Cody’s father — Paul Lind.
Peterson is also an occupational therapist who teaches in the associate degree program at Idaho State University. She said she typically runs 60-70 miles per week, and increases to 100 miles per week when training for longer races like Western States.
“I’ve been in academics for a year now, and I made that move because I do run professionally, but I do have a career on top of that,” she said. “Academics is super flexible and they are very willing to accommodate my travel schedule for the racing season.”
The Nike sponsorship, along with breaks the academic field provides, have allowed Peterson to travel all over the world. She’s run in the Scottish Highlands, the Italian Alps and in extreme northern Norway as part of the World Skyrunning series.
Peterson and Cody are also trying to promote skyrunning — technical trail running at an elevation above 6,600 feet — with a camp in August in Idaho.
“In technical running, I think about trails that aren’t so buffed out,” she said. “There are creek crossings, boulder fields and other things that make it more challenging. Living in Idaho, I am excited to get people to the camps to explore their own backyard. There are things that you can do to build skills and be more confident running in the outdoors.
"Running off-trail is about gaining confidence, whether it is power hiking, hopping on rocks across a river or running down a rocky hill," Peterson said.