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Sky Running Marathoner's Goal:
To 'Inspire Others'
n September, Lykens man ran in the Rut Mountain Race in Big Sky, Montana, a 50K ultra marathon considered one of the hardest in America

Clayton Bouchard maneuvers scree (broken rock fragments at the base of an incline) during the 2015 Rut Mountain Race in Big Sky Mont. during Labor Day weekend. (Photo courtesy of Clayton and Chantel Bouchard)

If one were to talk about a person who combines humility with the ability to inspire others, the conversation might shift to Clayton Bouchard of Lykens. 

A passionate runner, Bouchard not only has displayed determination but is committed to his physical pursuits no matter what the price.

The typical person in their lifetime may have thought about running a marathon – or maybe done a few. But Bouchard has not only run many marathons, but recently added a new chapter in his phenomenal career by crushing one last obstacle – that of the brutal thrill of sky running, considered to be one of the hardest races to complete.

While running a marathon is a feat in itself, imagine running an ultra marathon, going one direction – up.

On Labor Day weekend, Bouchard participated in  – and completed – the Rut Mountain Race in Big Sky, Mont. He had participated last year but did not finish. Instead of just throwing in the towel, he returned with a renewed determination to go the distance.

“After I completed my first 50k in early 2013, my friend Chris – who lives in Big Sky –  told me there was a 50k near him,’’ Bouchard explained. ‘‘I watched the video of the race, and it gave me a rush just watching. Right then and there, I knew I’d have to do it.’’

I wasn’t able to make it out there for 2013, but I signed up for the 2014 race as soon as registration opened,’’ he added. ‘‘I went out there in September 2014 and ended up with a DNF (did not finish). I missed the cut-off time at mile 20 on the top of Lone Peak by four minutes. I was out on the course for seven hours and 49 minutes, and I was totally drained and worn out.”

‘‘Above the clouds and tree lines.’’ With almost 600 athletes competing from around the world, including professional mountain runners, this race took athletes across 31 miles and covered up to 10,000 feet of elevation, while putting harsh physical demands of going up and down a mountain. 

It is described as being pretty brutal, yet exciting, and athletes must be able to compete in altitudes of up to 10,000 feet or more. It is a testament to what a person can do at such altitudes and how they are able to push themselves while competing against the best mountain runners in the world.  

‘‘The ‘Rut’ comes from when the elk go into rut for the year in September,’’ Bouchard explained. ‘‘The race director blows an elk bugle to start the race. 

‘‘The course starts off at Big Sky resort at 7,510 feet above sea level, and the course climbs to its highest point at Lone Peak, 11,166 feet, and returns to Big Sky,’’ he said.

“I would definitely say this is the hardest 50k race I ever did because of the high altitude and huge elevation gain. It is much harder than most marathons (26.2 miles),’’ he said. ‘‘Skyrunning started in Europe and is the most extreme form of mountain/trail running with the tough technical climbs and descents. You are running above the clouds and tree lines.”

It has been said that to hike the Rut trails, it would take the average person an entire day to finish.  According to Clayton, the top finisher’s time was five hours and 16 minutes. 

Believing he can. Some aspects of the race include starting the run at 6 a.m.; requiring headlamps for the first hour or so; running up over rocks in thin air, running down hills while standing on football-sized rocks and trying to find foot placement; mountain running at elevations while in the heat and cold and wind, with the body definitely pushing its limits.

“The race starts early to allow the participants enough time to finish the race in 11 hours and get off the mountain before dark,’’ Bouchard said. ‘‘The race allows up to 600 runners on the course on a first-come, first-served basis. I believe it sold out in its first week of open registration.’’

For most participants,  competing in the Rut is a personal challenge to try and test and push through one’s own boundaries and mental toughness. For Bouchard, the challenge  was believing in his heart that he could, and would, finish this race. With his wife, Chantel, there to support and cheer him on, he persevered through it all. 

‘‘I was extremely pleased with myself after finishing. I just wanted to finish,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m sure that, like most extreme races, there were a few people who didn’t finish.’’

With all he has accomplished, Bouchard has become an inspiration to all those around him. Not only does he bring a level of competitiveness that inspires others, he has the attitude that he can – and will – do the task at hand.  That ‘‘no quit’’ belief and attitude was the recipe for success this time around. 

In the Rut, most participants describe a ‘‘high altitude’’ adrenaline rush despite the extreme weather conditions.  

‘‘I believe I had ‘runner’s high’ the entire time I was running the Rut,’’ he said. ‘‘I never felt like quitting once in 2015. In 2014, I remember wanting to quit several times.’’

In ‘‘better shape’’ than in high school. It didn’t actually start out like this for the 42-year- old Elco High School graduate from Myerstown, Lebanon County.

“In 2009, I was a smoker/chewer and eating fast food daily, playing video games for hours and leading a sedentary lifestyle,’’ Bouchard said. ‘‘I was out of shape, weighed 210 pounds, wore arm braces to work and was always feeling down and unsatisfied and never left the valley.”  

But he decided enough was enough and wanted to change the way he was living. 

“I’m currently under 160 pounds and have some of the greatest adventures of my life and loving every minute of it,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m leaner now and in better shape than I was in high school. I owe it all to getting out and getting moving. 

‘‘We have over 30 miles of single-track trails to ride or run/hike on right here in the valley, and most people like me didn’t even know it existed,’’ Bouchard added. ‘‘I owe a huge thanks to the guys that took me out there a few times a week and groomed me to get in better shape. 

‘‘The Rattling Creek Single Track group of Lykens (a bicycling club) can be found on Facebook for anyone who would like to find out more about the trails,’’ he explained. ‘‘There is also the Millersburg Velo Club also found on Facebook, which caters to all levels of cycling. They have several rides a week that my wife and I try to attend when we can. It really helped getting my cardio better, going for a tour around the valley on a pedal bike.”

Race Day. Bouchard began preparing for the Rut very early in the morning.

“I woke up in Big Sky at 4 a.m. and had some Greek yogurt and raisins for breakfast,’’ he said. ‘‘I got my gear on and headed out the door 10 minutes before the race started and walked a short distance to the start line. It was 31 degrees with a very light dusting of snow at spots. 

‘‘I started in the second wave at 6:05 a.m. because this was single track so they have four waves to divide us up, so the trails don’t get bottlenecked right away.”  

“The first 10 miles, I felt great,’’ he recalled. ‘‘I had a game plan to go keep my heart rate around 145 beats per minute. I skipped the first aid station at Mile Five and took a cup of water and a handful of peanut M&Ms at Aid Station Mile 11. By then, I knew I was having a good day and still felt strong.”  

After mile 11, Clayton began the second climb of the event.

‘‘Our second climb started at 8,000 feet and didn’t get out above the tree line until about mile 15 at 9,000 feet,”  he said.

But at that point,  Bouchard only was half-finished with the climb. 

“The next half was brutal, with a 1,000-foot climb up in under a mile,’’ he explained.

‘‘We were totally exposed to the elements. The gusts of wind were insanely strong, and I lost feeling in my fingers from the wind chill. I saw some people had to stop and huddle down to try and get warm.  I just made myself push on, knowing it would get warmer as we descended the other side,’’ he said.

‘‘I really started to warm up on the descent. The sun was strong, so I was able to shed two layers,’’ Bouchard recalled. 

‘‘The Mile 19 Aid Station was right before the last and biggest climb of the day. 

‘‘I grabbed new water bottles from my drop bag and headed up Bone Crusher toward Lone Peak where I did not finish last year,’’ said Bouchard. ‘‘I knew I was going to finish the race at that point, being only four hours into the run and at Mile 19 and still feeling strong. In 2014, it took me over seven hours to get to the same point. 

‘‘To summit Lone Peak is a grueling 2,000 feet in one mile on a knife-edge ridge on scree (a gathering of broken rock fragments at the base of an elevation) the size of dinner plates.” 

According to Bouchard, this was where a runner can begin to feel the effects of the high altitude.

“About halfway up, it really hit me. I was feeling drained and had some stomach cramps,’’ he said.  ‘‘But with knowing I was way ahead of my time from last year, I knew I had to get to the finish line this year, so I just pushed through the discomfort. 

‘‘Hitting the Lone Peak summit had to be one of the biggest rewards in my running history,’’ he added. ‘‘I had gone 20 miles in four hours and 30 minutes. I’m sure I was smiling from ear to ear. Last year I had to take the ‘Tram of Shame’ (transportation for participants who DNF) down, so I didn’t know what to expect on the descent. 

“For the next three miles, it was the scariest descending I ever did. I thought to myself, ‘Take it easy and don’t fall.’ Falling and getting hurt is the only way that could stop me from finishing, and it felt like a very real possibility.

‘‘I played it safe, and I got back down into the tree line, stopped and emptied my dirt out of my sneakers.  The next nine miles to the finish were so rewarding that I never got down mentally and started to think of a finish line,’’ he added. 

‘‘I thought to myself:  Could I finish with a sub-8?  Maybe even beat last year when I didn’t finish at 7:49.  I was so happy to cross the finish line at 7 hours and 40 minutes!’’

Training since January. While Bouchard tries to get in as many events as his body can handle, preparing for such a rigorous, demanding race takes one’s training to a whole new perspective. 

“I enjoy riding mountain bike, road riding and trail running,’’ he said. ‘‘I like to stay in the mountains whenever possible, so I can take our two Rhodesian ridgeback dogs with me. I don’t have a set training schedule. I train hard when I feel good and rest when I need to. 

‘‘I like to have one or two main events to really focus for the year,’’ Bouchard explained. ‘‘I enter many other events and consider them training for my main events. I like everything from 5Ks to 50Ks..  It takes a different mindset and strategy leading up and during the events.” 

For Bouchard, the biggest challenge was preparing to run thousands of miles toward the sky in an area without much elevation.

‘‘Living here at sea level, there is no real way to train for high altitude other than just getting in better shape,’’ he said. “Getting the DNF in 2014, I had to re-evaluate myself and improve and make changes to increase the chances of success in 2015. 

‘‘So I made my mind up to get healthier and train better,’’ he continued. ‘‘That included eating healthier, getting leaner and pushing myself harder. I have a great group of friends who gave me advice and helped me push my training further. 

‘‘Every day since I registered for the Rut in January, I would think about this race, and whether I was at work (Ritescreen in Elizabethville) or out on the trails, I would say ‘‘Focus on the Rut.’’ Every event I did up until the Rut, I considered it as training.

‘‘To train around here for elevation is simple: Find the biggest, steepest mountain and run up and down it as many times as you can,’’ Bouchard said. ‘‘Most climbs around here are 750 to 900 feet of gain, so I would do repeats on them five to 10 times, which takes several hours.’’

Bouchard will be the first to say that his wife Chantel, who has also participated in 50Ks, marathons and trail running, is a great inspiration to him. 

‘‘My wife is great, putting up with all my training runs and cooking healthier for us and always being supportive at all my races,’’ he said. ‘‘My mom and dad also come out to most of our runs for support and to cheer me on.’’

‘‘The Rut was an amazing race,’’ said Chantel, who did the 11k during the event and, in her three years of running, has participated  in two 50Ks and five marathons. 

‘‘Clay is an amazing athlete. He trains hard for his events,’’ she said. ‘‘I too started running to get healthy and lose weight. I love to run the mountains on the trails with our dogs Nala and Zuri. In most races, Clay either wins or comes in as one of the top finishers.’’

Experiencing the muck. Clayton participated July 25 in the Allegheny Front Trail 50k run held in the Moshannon State Forest, an event that helped him train for the Rut as well. He was the top finisher, with a time of 5:17:05, four minutes ahead of the runner-up.

The first few miles of the race involves muck, where raised water levels from the rainy spring and summer create very muddy spots.  The race also involved short rollers with twists and turns. The course’s running water through the mud added a challenge near the end, according to Bouchard.

‘‘The last few miles brought more mucky and I caught a root in it and went down hard on a log and my right leg went into a cramp,’’ he said. ‘‘I hobbled a few minutes until it loosened up.

‘‘This race throws everything at you and lets you experience all that is trail running,’’ he added. ‘‘The muck was something new to me, and I’m happy I got to experience it.’’ 

Bouchard classifies September’s Rut race as one of his most memorable.

‘‘The Rut has been the most gratifying race ever to me,’’ he said. ‘‘My first 100 miler was also a great feeling of ‘I can do anything.’ But all my races feel like accomplishments. You always learn something new from them that helps you on the next race.’’

Bouchard plans for 2016 involve continuing to train the way he does now.  

‘‘I’ll do more of them, I’m sure. I don’t think I will change much. I will just keep riding and running and pushing the limit,’’ he said.

‘‘There is a run called ‘‘3 Days at the Fair’’ (in Sussex County, N.J.) where you run a one-mile loop for three days to see what kind of mileage you end up with,’’ he noted. ‘‘I might also try a 500k next year, but I really have to see how my winter training goes first until I commit.’’

His advice for others wanting to compete is simple: ‘‘Get healthy. Get lean. And train a ton!’’

As part of the ‘‘rugged look,’’ Bouchard sported a beard as part of his running ‘‘attire.’’

‘‘I had the beard because I thought that was the rule for running in the mountains – that you have to look like a mountain man!’’ he said. ‘‘Now, I just keep it because my wife loves it!’’ 

Despite his rough-looking, mountain-like exterior, there is the interior of an inspiring, compassionate athlete who is interested in the welfare of others. Bouchard does what he does because he loves it and wants to be an inspiration to others.

‘‘I would like to inspire other people to get out there and do something they enjoy and can have fun with, that will bring a little bit more happiness and healthiness to their lives,’’ he said.


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