Salem’s Joseph Teh may be the most laidback ultra athlete you could find. Yes, he does ridiculous-distance races, but he cares much more about the experience and the scenery than his times, which are measured in days.
You walk up the Appalachian Trail to McAfee Knob from Va. 311 and then back down, you get to feel OK about your day’s exercise, right?
My wife and I have certainly felt so over the many times we’ve made the hike over the last 10-plus years.
At least until the most recent of those years, when every time we go up, we see the same runner on the trail. One day, after seeing him once again, I commented to him as we were about to cross: “What, third time up today?” I said, hoping my smile would make it clear I was joking.
“Yep,” he said simply, and then paused to chat a moment, noting that he often does the 7.8-mile up-and-down three times each on Saturday and Sunday.
“Well, I live in Salem, so it’s close,” was his first answer. He is also an ultra runner, and uses the route to prepare for races of 100 miles and up. Teh, 37, is firmware engineering manager at GE in Salem.
One such race was the Tuscobia Winter Ultra in Wisconsin, a 150-mile run that began on January 1 of this year, where Teh’s camera “died in 30 seconds” in the zero-degree conditions.
The Tuscobia event earned him a case of shinsplints, which changed his plan for the 350-mile Alaska race in March from running to biking. Which, given the Alaskan terrain and weather conditions, would also mean a lot of pushing the bike rather than total riding.
Teh, who displays no ego at all about his accomplishments – “I’m there for the experience and the scenery, not a time” – completed the grueling race in just over eight days, 37th among the 44 finishers, only 11 of whom were on foot.
“It was even harder than what I thought it would be,” he says.
“Well, the weather was milder than usual, but there were several sections where I had to separate the gear from the bike, drag the gear up a 70-degree slope, and then go drag the bike up after that.
“The second hard part was that there was not much snow, and on the tundra you came across these exposed tussock plants, which are about the size of basketballs, and not possible to cycle over.
“And third, the trail was soft in the relatively warm weather – temperatures well into the 20s most days – so you could sink in and crash.
“And then on the last day, when the cold front finally moved in, I lost the trail in a whiteout with 40- to 50-mile-per-hour winds.”
How does a person come to be invited to endure the Alaskan winter on a fat-tire bike for more than a week? Not to mention actually going and undertaking it?
In Teh’s case, it was a fairly rapid progression, as he did not run his first half-marathon until 2004. By the next year, he had settled on trail running, and by 2006 was undertaking 50-milers.
“Trail running just seemed right to me,” he says. “I enjoy the outdoors, I like getting exercise, and I found out I could go a long way.”
A long way, yes, but at his pace.
“I’m just not competitive,” he says, “and I don’t track my mileage.” He says that general perspective applies to the majority of ultra runners. “Ninety percent are out there to have fun – it’s just a few who are competitive repeaters and end up with sponsors.”
Teh says his wife, Kili, accompanied him to only one race.
"There just wasn’t a lot for her to do,” he says. “She’s studying food science at Virginia Tech, so she’s pretty busy anyway.”
Teh, who moved to Salem in 2008 from Idaho to take his current job, is of Chinese decent, and grew up in Malaysia. In addition to his work and an average of 60 miles a week of running, he is also taking environmental science and engineering courses through Johns Hopkins University’s online programs.
The Alaskan Experience
While there were at least half a dozen other competitors finishing within a few hours of Teh’s finish, he kept mostly to himself on the journey, meeting up with others at the checkpoints, where many participants spent the night. In that context, he met and befriended a prosecutor, a bicycle mechanic from Australia and two pharmacists. Still, he stayed mostly on his own pace and preferences.
“I mostly slept outside,” Teh says, citing the milder-than-expected weather as one factor.
“I was also slow,” he says with a smile, “and I just like being outside. There were nights when it was so still that you could not hear anything. Just no sound at all, which made for peaceful sleep.”
He says the race was an overall great experience, but not without its wear and tear on a body averaging about 50 miles a day through conditions and geography that completely overwhelm any idea of speed or efficiency.
“It just really wore out my knees,” Teh says. “I don’t know how much ligament I have left in there, but I do know it got so painful toward the end that I would ride 10 minutes, stop for two, ride 10, stop again for two, and so on. It got tough.”
The immediate reward at the finish was a giant pancake cooked up by a German man and his wife. who are fixtures at the end of the race each year.
“He was a good guy and a great cook,” Teh says.
And would he do the Iditarod again?
“Not that same one,” he says. “But maybe the Yukon Arctic Ultra next February.”
That event, it should be mentioned, has a simple, matter-of-fact subtitle: The World’s Coldest and Toughest Ultra.
Just right for the glutton-for-the-hardest Joseph Teh. And which puts those weekend runs to McAfee in a bit of context: maybe somewhere near “walk in the park” for the guy who pedaled, pulled, pushed, sloshed, crashed and butt-scooted his way through the Alaskan winter a few weeks back.
But hey, I happen to know he uses the forest road sometimes!