Encinitas runner Jeff Hooker competes in international ultra-marathon

Encinitas runner Jeff Hooker competes in international ultra-marathon
Jeff Hooker runs through the Alps in the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, a 101k (63 mile) race through France, Switzerland and Italy. Due to rain, Hooker was unable to complete the race, but he still covered about 45 miles of the trail. Photo courtesy of Courmayeur Champex Chamonix

ENCINITAS — It’s a gray morning in late August on the Tour du Mont Blanc trail in the Alps. A cloudy haze has settled over the mountaintops, and the sound of cowbells echo like wind chimes in the distance. On the ground, Encinitas resident Jeff Hooker is pounding through the trail, his feet rhythmically hitting the dirt as they carry him toward an aid station about nine miles ahead.

Hooker was just getting warmed up. He participated in the Courmayeur Champex Chamonix race of the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, a 101-kilometer (63 miles) race passing through France, Switzerland and Italy in the Alps mountain range. In training, he calculated the exact pace he’d need to keep to finish the race in about 23 hours total.

“For the first half of the race, I was literally within minutes of my pace,” Hooker said.

Then, about 20 miles in, the rain started. Living in Southern California, Hooker wasn’t used to running in the rain. He tried to push through, but was quickly cold and soaked, and needed to change clothes at the aid station. Dirt on the trails transformed into mud, which made it difficult for Hooker to keep his pace — still, he said the mud was no excuse.

The world famous Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc race takes runners through France, Switzerland and Italy. Photo via Twitter

“We don’t get a lot of training in mud-puddling here in San Diego,” Hooker said half-jokingly. “But that’s why it’s called an endurance run. You’re supposed to endure those types of things.”

Because of the weather, Hooker did not officially finish the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. He was about 45 miles in when the staff closed up the aid stations, signaling the end of the event. About 25 percent of the runners did not finish, including prominent ultra-runners like American Jim Walmsley and Spanish superstar Kilian Jornet.

The loss was devastating for Hooker. To even qualify for the event was a feat — Hooker had to compete in several qualifying races and was then entered into a lottery to run. He also ran the race in 2015, but an unfortunate case of jet lag caused him to withdraw. He’s grateful to have had the opportunity and ability to run this year, but he said it was upsetting not to achieve his goal.

“When you have a goal and you don’t meet the goal — whether it’s to go 63 miles or five miles — if you don’t accomplish that, it’s still a disappointment,” Hooker said.

Training for a race like the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc is tough, too. Hooker had spreadsheets that mapped out his pace, when he would eat and how long he would stop. Depending on the mileage of the race and pace of the runner, a 101k can take anywhere from 11 to 23 hours to complete. The runners carry a backpack with food and gear to get them through, and they stop at aid stations along the trail to access other necessities.

Still, the greatest challenge isn’t the physical component, but rather the emotional and mental elements. Hooker said he does not allow himself to be overwhelmed by the distance.

“I can’t think about 63 miles the whole time, but I can think about four or five or eight miles at a time,” Hooker explained.

Hooker is an active member of the local ultra-running community through organizations like the San Diego Ultra-Running Friends. Over the years, he has competed in several other major races, including a few 100 milers like Western States. His wife Charlene and his 17-year-old daughter Theresa are also runners, and they along with the rest of the extended family are always supportive of Hooker’s efforts. At the end of the day, Hooker said the most valuable part of running is the time it gives him to reflect on his family and his life.

“I think about my daughter, I think about my wife, I think about what I’ve accomplished as a person,” Hooker said. “To me it’s a good way to disconnect from daily life and appreciate the things I want to focus on.”

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