Rob Richard poses behind the bar at The Shop on Main Street.

by Dave Warner

I’ll start right out by saying that I’m one of those people that would call running 103 miles up and down the Swiss Alps crazy. That’s because I’m not a runner, but for people like Rob Richard – it’s what gets them high (pun intended).

Richard grew up in Little Falls and graduated high school here in 1994. He then went on to get a teaching degree in history and taught that subject for a short time.

He moved on to charter schools in Philadelphia and that’s his day job in the area now. “I work for an organization called Uncommon Schools. They’re a network of charter schools in the northeast and I specifically work with a team that does teacher professional development. We train our own teachers and we also train teachers for other schools,” said Richard.

Since Richard moved back to the community, he’s been involved with several different things – President of Main Street First and serving on a number of boards. Richard said “I’m really interested in helping Little Falls in any way that I can. I think it’s a great place and I’ve always wanted to live here. Even when I went away and did different things, I dreamed about coming back here.”

Richard has settled in now and feels very comfortable. “For me, part of it was growing up here. I believe strongly in having roots and staying connected to those roots and your friends. At 42, I’m still getting together with friends I made in middle school,” he said.

He says that he also loves the small urban feel where you can walk to everything. Richard said “I love being close to the Adirondack Park, but also love being able to get to New York City. It feels really right to me – right at home.”

While he’s at home here in Little Falls…well, it’s all about running. So much so that he even sets up Ted Talk style events for runners at The Shop. “You have to give the people something that they can do when they leave. It’s not just about the story or you talking about running, it’s something that they can practically do the next day when they go out and run,” said Richard.

It’s an informative and social atmosphere for those runners that attend. Richard stated “It’s something that I’m really excited about because people think we all know how to run, but there’s so much to know about running. How to get better and all things related to running.”

According to Richard, there’s a lot to think about when it comes to the sport of running. “I think a lot about how your mind can affect your running, other people think about nutrition, yoga or whatever.”

Richard wanted everyone to be able to get together in Little Falls and share their expertise and make everyone better, while still having fun.

Getting into running was simple for him, as he said he’s kind of uncoordinated and baseball and basketball didn’t work out. “I was good at putting one foot in front of the other,” stated Richard.

As the years went by, he was able to put those feet in front of each other faster and faster and longer and longer. According to Richard “I’ve been running for most of my life.”

Rob Richard explains the route to one of the runners.

However, it wasn’t until 2015 that he really got into the Ultra Marathon runs. “The way I got into it was I started thinking about running a marathon on a trail in the woods. I emailed John Gessler from St. Johnsville, who is probably the biggest running legend in the Mohawk Valley. He’s been at this ultra marathon thing for at least a couple of decades,” said Richard.

Gessler will sometimes just run around a track for 400 miles “Just crazy stuff,” Richard said. “To my surprise, he invited me out to run with him. We ended up running 27 miles that day, the farthest I’d ever done in my life.”

At that point, Richard was hooked. The next month there was a 50k and Richard signed up for it. He said “It was a disaster – I almost died, but I vowed then that I would just keep working at it and keep getting better and going further and it just kept going.”

As to the why? “I think a lot of ultra runners probably have their own different reasons, but one thing I think we all have in common is we’re just really interested in seeing what our limits are. If you can go 26 miles, can you go 50 miles, 75, 100. Can you go even further than that. What is the barrier of human endurance and within that, what is my barrier?” said Richard.

He’s interested in how you address things like the pain you’re feeling with your mind and whether you can turn the pain into momentum to keep going forward.

“It’s like a spiritual, physical and mental challenge all wrapped into one,” stated Richard. “That feels very gratifying to me to have that challenge.”

Rob Richard crosses the finish line.

Rob Richard crosses the finish line at the UTMB.

He likes competing with other people and that’s why he signed up for the UTMB. The UTMB begins in France and continues as a single loop through Switzerland and Italy, circling back to France. The event website describes the UTMB as “a mythical race, a unique experience,” and is presented by Columbia involving approximately 2,000 volunteers working day and night to help and comfort the runners.

Richard said “When I first started running these ultra marathons, I’d heard about the UTMB. It’s a run around the biggest peak in the Alps. It’s more than 100 miles and you have to climb almost 32,000 feet in elevation, up and down over the course.”

At first he thought that wasn’t him, that it was for people at a different level. In order to get into the UTMB you have to run a certain number of races in a two year time span leading up to the race, and each is worth a certain number of points.

“I did the Georgia Death Race, which is 75 miles and I did that twice, within a year and it wasn’t until my second time doing it that I realized I was earning points,” he said.

Next he did the Bear 100 out in Utah to earn additional points, which qualified him for the race. However, the points only got Richard into the lottery that’s used to select participants. “Believe it or not, there’s more people who want to do this race than they have room for. They only allow about 2,600 people to run the race.”

In January 2018, Richard got notified that he’d been selected. “I thought, well, I’ve done all the work for qualifying, I got picked in the lottery, so I better start saving my money and just go and see what happens.”

That race is all about the climbing, so Richard had to do a lot to prepare for that. “Going down is sometimes worse than going up. Hours and hours into the race when you’re coming down the side of a mountain, your legs are just pounding, pounding, on hard rock, dirt and pretty soon your quads are really sore. Then, it actually feels better to start climbing.”

Rob Richards poses for a quick picture in the Alps.

Before the race, Richard climbed somewhere in the range of 250,000 feet of elevation to condition himself, mostly in the Adirondack Mountains. There were also a lot of strengthening exercises that had to be done to get his legs and core ready for the climbing and descending.

Out of 2,561 participants, Richard finished the race as number 588. Runners are permitted up to 46 hours and 30 minutes to complete the course. Richard crossed the finish line after 38 hours and 36 minutes on the trail.

“I went in wanting to do something around 36 or 37 hours because I didn’t want to rush through the race. I’m in the Alps, it’s so gorgeous, I didn’t want to just ram through it. I knew I wasn’t gong to be in the top ten or something because the best runners in the world are in this race,” said Richard. “It’s like the Super Bowl of ultramarathon running.

In total, about a third of the people who started the race dropped out. “One of the things I try and focus on is finishing strong. The last eight kilometers of the race is almost all downhill. I passed about 25 people who were walking at that point because their legs were so beat up that they couldn’t go downhill fast,” said Richard.

“I was thrilled with it. To be able to participate in it, to finish well and to finish strongly, it was great. I was very happy with how it turned out,” he said.

Richard doesn’t have plans to go back to UTMB, mainly because it’s expensive. He’d rather focus on some other races and spend his money on them.

“The one I’m really focused on now is getting into the Western States 100, which is the oldest ultramarathon in North America. It’s kinda the most iconic race. It’s over 40 years old, which is very old for the ultramarathon space. This month, I’ll enter the lottery, so I’m hoping for that,” said Richard.

If Richard gets selected for that race, it will happen next June. But prior to that, he’s going to compete in an event called The Extremus up in the Adirondacks. It’s not a race, but a group competition where there are 15 people who do the great range traverse.

That early morning trek includes 8 or 9 of the highest peaks in the Adirondacks, goes through the night and the deep snow. “The goal is to get everyone from point A to point B, alive” said Richard.

“Last year the people who did it all had to stop,” he said. “The leader got frostbite, but he didn’t loose any digits.”

For Richard it’s endurance and mental toughness. Cold, tired and can you keep going. “I used to think it was crazy, and I used to think Jon Eastler was insane, but now I get it. I think we all have things in our lives that really attract us and pull us in. For some people it might be art, it might be their profession. When they’re doing that thing, they can’t do it enough, they will give up everything to do it and that’s what this is for me.”

“It consumes me when I do it, but it doesn’t seem that crazy to me,” finished Richard.