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Do it the long way

South Boston News
Aaron Slabach running this weekend in Georgia
SoVaNow.com / January 20, 2014
Old people have been known to tell young people — true or not — how as kids they would walk five miles each day just to attend school.

Aaron Slabach of Alton, a senior at Halifax County High School, presumably doesn’t get to his classes on foot. But he could if he wanted to.

When Slabach laces up his running shoes, long distances go by quickly. And his personal bests keep getting more impressive.

The 17-year-old completed his most grueling run yet this Saturday when he competed in an ultramarathon in Georgia. Not only did Slabach enter the race, he took first place — covering 56.55 miles, to be precise, in the span of 12 hours.

“Basically everyone runs for 12 hours and the person who runs the furthest wins the race,” said Slabach matter-of-factly.

The event — the 12 Hours of Hostelity, so named because it begins and ends at a trail hostel (a type of shelter for hikers) — drew some 35 to 40 ultramarathoners to the Hiker’s Hostel in Dahlonega, Ga. Starting at 9 a.m., the runners tackled a .65 mile trail loop through undulating forest with a maximum elevation gain of 100 feet. Temperatures Saturday in Dahlonega were stuck mostly in the 20s and 30s. The race ended at 9 p.m.

Slabach proved to be the hardiest, and youngest, of the field, finishing 87 circuits. He surmised that the second-place finisher was in his early 20s. (With his victory, Slabach pocketed a $100 gift certificate.)

Slabach ran more or less continuously for 10-1/2 hours, occasionally slowing to a walk for a minute or so before kicking back into full stride. Towards the end, Slabach was forced to let up a bit, yet he was determined not to let his lead challenger, then lagging behind by about a mile and a half, catch up.

It turned out Slabach’s lead was safe. The second-place runner gave out, and Slabach, his win secure, walked the final 45 minutes.

“I didn’t want to hurt myself,” he said.

As to how he came to venture to Georgia for an ultramarathon in the middle of the school year, that’s mostly the result of fortuitous circumstance. This summer, Slabach competed in his then-longest run, a 50-kilometer (roughly 30-mile) race in West Virginia. Sticking to his plan of running in three big competitions a year, he hoped to find an even sterner test sometime around December or January, roughly four months after West Virginia.

Slabach has a brother and sister-in-law living in Atlanta, not far from the Hiker Hostel. After they found out about the 12 Hours of Hostelity, the family laid its plans for Aaron (nicknamed “Butch” among family and friends) to travel to the area to join the competition.

Why seek out ever-longer distances? “After a while, I just got fascinated with how far I could [run],” he said.

He started running with his brother in eighth grade, “trying to get in shape,” and soon found he was good at it. In ninth grade, Slabach ran in some 5Ks and a 10K event, then stepped up to compete in 13-mile half marathons. He ran his first marathon, in Richmond, in 11th grade. Then came the next big challenge, the West Virginia 50K this summer before his senior year.

“I’ve kept on just naturally progressing. It’s been a sense of accomplishment seeing how I could go further,” he said.

To prepare for the ultramarathon, Slabach stuck to a three-part training program: long runs of 16 to 34 miles, interspersed with days in which he would do “speed runs” — sprinting for a mile, then slowing down to a jog, then doing more sprints. The weekly schedule also mandated recovery days — times when Slabach would take it comparatively easy and let his body rest. On those days, he would run “only” about six to seven miles.

Slabach doesn’t run cross-country track at HCHS, preferring to stick to much longer distances. He also has no plans to be a college runner after he matriculates this fall at Virginia Tech. (“The longest thing they do is six miles,” he said.) But he said he is intrigued by the idea of competing in 100-mile races, pointing to events in California as a future possibility. “That’s definitely something I want to do in my lifetime.”

Contacted Sunday at home in Alton — Aaron is the son of David and Gertrude Slabach — the triumphant but tired runner said he was “very, very sore. I’m hobbling but I can manage to walk.” Yet he expects the worst will come Monday when, luckily, he will be out of school for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. “They say 48 hours after an activity like this, that’s when you feel your worst. So my worst should come [Monday].

“You would think the worst part would be your legs, but in reality your whole body is sore,” he said.

Asked if his friends at school might think he was a bit nutty to compete in ultramarathons, Slabach good-naturedly concedes the point. “They respect it, they think it’s awesome and all that. But I won’t catch them doing anything like this,” he said with a laugh.







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