INDIANAPOLIS – Inside the densely wooded area inside Eagle Creek Park there is no shortage of scenery.
Trees and other plants line a running path of dirt that starts just outside a parking lot and continues into the heart of the park, the sun coming in thought pockets of air that weren’t covered by leaves or trees.
Even with all of his competitions in his marathon career, there is something simple about scenes like this on a Saturday afternoon that make it all worthwhile for a very active Ben Davis High School teacher and cross-country coach.
“I love being in the scenery,” said Nick Balbach when asked why he gets into running long distances whether for competition or recreation. “I like that you’re not competing against other people, so to speak, it’s more of a community and people genuinely care for each other in the sport of ultra-marathoning.
“Really just testing yourself to see where the limit is and how far you can go.”
Balbach wasn’t kidding when he took up his most recent challenge in his running career–perhaps the most challenging he has tackled in his life.
This past weekend, Balbach took to the Sierra Mountains in California to participate in the Western States 100-one of the most difficult ultra-marathons in the country for the first time. He earned the opportunity first through achievement and then through luck but then had to leave nothing to chance in training.
“I did not feel like I won the lottery,” said Balbach of being selected from a blind draw as one of the 400 participants in the race after his name was put into the running after completing a qualifying race. “Both excited and a little bit scared.”
That’s expected when looking at the specifics of the race itself. It begins in Squaw Valley, Calif., and ends in Auburn, Calif., with the path covering 100.2 miles through the Sierra Mountains with 18,000 feet of elevation gain and 22,000 feet of decent.
Balbach qualified for the Western States 100 in 2013 but wasn’t selected in the lottery. He got the chance this year after completing the Land Between the Lakes 50 mile race, giving him an 11 percent chance to be selected in this past November’s drawing.
But watching online, he heard his name called and the preparations began.
“Since January 1st I’ve run over 1,100 miles averaging close to 50 or 60 miles a week. The longest mileage I’ve run in one day has been about 31 miles,” said Balbach. “I’ve done several five-hour runs and then several back-to-back long runs where you go out on a Friday night and run for three or four hours and then you turn around Saturday morning and run another three.”
Of course there is one thing in central Indiana that is tough to prepare for in this particular race and that is elevation. Almost nothing in the central Indiana area could prepare Balbach for what he would run in June out in California so he tried to do his best to prepare for what’s ahead mentally more than physically.
“I think more than anything it will be a mental battle,” said Balbach of the race in the Sierras. “One hundred miles is a long way but if you break it up sections it goes by relatively quickly. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
He followed the philosophy well this past weekend when he found a way to conquer the 100-mile race. In hot conditions and high elevations, Balbach managed to get to the finish line in 28 hours and 22 seconds and did so in the final stretch with his wife Amber by his side.
“She allows me to get out the door for all those long runs,” said Balbach of his wife, whom he thanked for helping him to achieve his running goals.
Now that he returns to central Indiana, he hopes that his efforts to complete this endurance race will help him when working with his own cross-country runners this upcoming school year–especially now that he was able to complete it.
“I think they’re inspired by it,” said Balbach. “I think they see the dedication that I put into it and hopefully it reflects into their running as well.”
Whether it’s in the Sierras or in between a collection of trees on a path in central Indiana.