It’s a rare person who gets excited reminiscing about a 100-kilometer footrace over narrow mountain trails made treacherous by winter weather. But Sophie Carpenter Speidel’s eyes light up and her voice quickens when she talks about her first Hellgate 100K, an ultramarathon held along the Blue Ridge in December.
“It was awesome. All the rocks were covered with ice,” she recalls. “It was my first year, so I didn’t know what to expect. Midnight start—OK. Middle of the winter—OK. Ice and snow—OK. That’s part of the deal.”
Now Speidel (Educ ’84, ’89) has five Hellgates under her belt, plus a handful of other ultras, ranging up to 100 miles. At the age of 47, she’s a role model for younger runners—athletes like fellow alumna Alyssa Godesky (Col ’08).
“It’s very inspiring to me,” says Godesky, 24. “I get comments all the time like, ‘I wish I was doing it at your age.’ And I say, ‘I hope I can develop and be as good as you are at that age.’ Women like Sophie are managing to have a family and a career, and still be able to be very successful as a runner.”
Speidel, mother of three and a school counselor in Charlottesville, and Godesky, an assistant branch manager at a bank in Maryland, share a passion that puzzles many people. The prospect of running hours and hours on remote trails, forgoing sleep while churning out the miles, braving the elements and embracing physical pain—they’re not everyone’s idea of a good time.
The appeal is complex. One part involves overcoming fear, says Speidel. Another is meeting personal challenges; another, the camaraderie of fellow enthusiasts. A huge chunk, both say, is a love of nature.
“I really enjoy just being outside, being on the trails,” says Godesky. “I just think there’s nothing else like it, to put your body through what it’s going through and really feel like you’re achieving something at the finish line.”
The women come to the sport from different athletic backgrounds. Godesky played soccer in high school, but at the U.S. Naval Academy (before transferring to UVA) she decided to join the marathon team. The only race left on the schedule, though, was the JFK 50-miler. She’d never run a marathon before, much less 50 miles.
“I just kind of jumped into that because they said, ‘If you do all that, we’ll take you on the team.’ I did well, and I never really looked back.”
Speidel, who was a lacrosse standout at UVA, took up running after graduating. Her appetite for distance grew until she raced in the Marine Corps Marathon in 1990. Motherhood intervened, and it wasn’t until 2001 that the lure of long runs on woodland trails beckoned. The Virginia Happy Trails Running Club provided support and a posse of running partners, so she set sights on her first ultra—the Holiday Lake 50K in Appomattox County in 2002.
She started well, but late in the event, increasing pain in one thigh—her iliotibial band—nearly hobbled her. “Finishing that race was the hardest challenge I have ever faced, three childbirths included,” she says. “But I did it, and, overall, I enjoyed it.”
Meeting such challenges depends on adequate training, and carving out time is tough. Speidel depends on support from her family, particularly her husband, Rusty (Col ’82). Fortunately, he’s an avid mountain biker, so he understands.
Being ultrafit pays off in different ways. For Speidel, it enabled her to complete a spectacular run through the Grand Canyon. For Godesky, it has led to another competitive arena—triathlons. In 2009 she qualified for the Foster Grant Ironman World Championship 70.3 (where the swimming, biking and running add up to 70.3 miles).
Also in 2009, Godesky notched her first iron-distance triathlon and completed the brutal Western States Endurance Run in California. The latter, which Speidel ran in 2006, entailed battling triple-digit heat running along trails used by miners in the 1850s. She spent more than 28 hours scrambling from peak to peak.
“My legs will never hurt as much as at Western States,” she says.
Despite that pain and her success as a triathlete, Godesky says ultras are her top priority. Not to say she doesn’t daydream about qualifying for the famous ironman triathlon held each year in Hawaii.
“Women like Sophie prove that I can keep getting faster. Hopefully, I’m on that track.”