Ultrarunner Clare Gallagher On Mileage, Diet, and How We Can Make a Difference

Clare Gallagher rocked the ultra running world by winning the 2016 Leadville 100 in her first attempt at the distance. And now she’s giving her best advice to us!

Clare Gallagher ultra runner

Photo by Brendan Davis

She recently sat down to discuss training, diet, and more with Strength Running’s content specialist Anya Mullen. Her approach to running is refreshing and she attributes her light-hearted training to her running success.

About Clare Gallagher

In 2014 Clare Gallagher ran her first ultramarathon, an 80K race, in Thailand where she was teaching English after graduating from Princeton. She had a collegiate running career but had never ventured into any race distances above a 10K prior to moving to Thailand. She won that first race, as one of two women finishers.

In 2016, Clare moved back to Colorado where she grew up and settled in Boulder. Surrounded by a thriving and supportive running community, she continued to train and signed up to run her first 100-mile race, the Leadville 100. She surprised the ultrarunning world (and herself) when she won and set the second-fastest women’s time on the course.

Clare has many other running highlights, most notably:

  • 2017: Winning Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc 101k in France and setting the course record
  • 2019: Winning Western State 100-mile race and setting the second fastest time

Clare is a passionate environmentalist and uses her running as a platform to advocate, inform, and call everyone to action on the climate change crisis. She is a trail running ambassador for Patagonia and gives one percent of her income to 1% for the Planet.

Clare is joyful, passionate, and inspirational! I think we can all take something away from her wisdom. Check out the full interview below and follow Clare for updates on her running.

Importance of a Healthy (and Simple) Diet

Anya: I want to start out with my favorite topic – food. I know you are vegetarian and a celiac, so you have to avoid gluten. You have a pretty simple diet at home, but how do you manage it when you are traveling?

Clare: I used to be frugal with everything, it’s just how I was raised. That included food, so I would try to spend as little money as possible on it – which is not ideal for anyone, even if they aren’t professional runners.

In the last few years I made a conscious effort to spend a much larger portion of my income on food. It’s taken a lot of mental hurdles to get over that while traveling, but I finally just said f*ck it, there’s really nothing more important than healthy food. And I have zero regrets.

I try to buy organic while grocery shopping and get locally sourced food items, if possible. I usually travel with people who know which local restaurants are good and I’m not shy to ask them for suggestions.

Being a celiac kind of sucks, honestly. I have to be on it, especially if I’m racing. It’s a different element than ‘eating healthy’. When I’m traveling, I have to swallow my pride and ask about how food is prepared.

On the whole, I really, really hate to be a pain and I don’t want to be rude. So especially when I’m in Europe, I will bend my vegetarian tendencies. I’m actually 99% plant-based these days but my dad has chickens in his backyard so I’ll eat those eggs.

Overall, I try to be honest with myself. This really matters so the time, money, and energy to get good food is worth it.

Anya: Is most of your emphasis on personal health or performance? Of course those go hand in hand, the more you nourish your body, the better you are able to perform athletically.

Clare: With travel, I need some semblance of normalcy and routine – food is a great way to have that. I’ll usually bring my breakfast with me, like gluten-free oatmeal or loaf of bread and have peanut butter and jelly. Pretty simple! Breakfast is really important when I’m traveling.

Anya: How do you fuel before and during your long runs?

Clare: I eat the same thing before all runs, just a normal breakfast. Usually that’s oats and coffee. If I’m running a 100-mile race, which is about once a year, I might eat a 100 extra calories.

I’m not a morning person so I’m usually in a rush to get to group runs. There’s been a handful of long runs when I’m starving midway.

During the runs, I’ll eat Honey Stinger gels and chews, some of which have caffeine. I rely on caffeine a lot during hard efforts.

On Training: Low Weekly Mileage and Speed Work

Anya: You tend to do pretty low weekly mileage, considering that you are a professional ultra runner. What does a standard week look like for you?

Clare: Typically I’m running anywhere between 50 and 80 miles. About twice per year I may have two 85-mile weeks, leading up to a big race. But I often get injured right around the 80-mile mark. I post all of my runs on Strava so you can see all the details there. Realistically, I average around 60 miles. In the winter, if I ski on the weekend, I miss my long run and have a 45-mile week.

It’s been amazing though. Mostly because of my coach, I don’t really care about the numbers. I don’t freak out if I missed a 20-mile run. It’s great mentally to let go and not think about the numbers.

I’m amazed with my competitors at how much they run and how much they can run. I would be face down in a ditch if I tried that mileage. I love running so much that I’m afraid of getting injured, so pushing that line is not worth it to me.

I’ve been running competitively for well over a decade and I know that showing up on a start line healthy is way, way more important than showing up really fit.

Anya: Do you think that road runners can benefit from that same approach of doing low weekly mileage?

Clare: Absolutely! If you look at the women’s marathon trials field, there are tons of elite women who are in the 2:20 range and don’t run high mileage. Like Nell Rojas, who runs really low mileage, probably with tons of cross-training.

Anya: What is the most important feature of your training?

Clare: I think the most important part of training is speed work, which I only do it once a week. That’s usually a variety of intervals. A classic one is 10×1 minute with 1 minute rest or a 5-4-3-2-1. I did a 20 minute tempo run the other day. Another common workout is 5×3 minute hills.

As long as you stay fast and healthy, that’s the most important.

For an ultra runner, these are really short workouts. I don’t know about the science and philosophy behind this, but that’s why having a coach works out really well.

Anya: Do you do any cross-training that is running specific?

Clare: Not really, I swim but I don’t go too hard. I’ll go for 20 minutes or so, I really love it. It’s more of a mental exercise, like a meditation.

I’m really into freediving as well, even though I live in Colorado. I used to do it a lot in Thailand too. It’s basically meditation with activity – like doing underwater breath holds in a pool. It’s my once a week secret life, I get to go and practice with a friend.

There’s so much that you can get from mental exercise, as I do from freediving and my relationship with swimming. For ultra running, that’s extremely beneficial.

If I can’t run or I’m injured, then I’ll suck it up and do an actual swim workout or, god forbid, get on a bike. But I’m not obsessed with exercise, I’m obsessed with running.

Clare Gallagher on Coaching

Anya: You won Leadville 100 in 2016 prior to having a coach. Can you share more about that?

Clare: Yes, I was basically coaching myself since graduating college in 2014. I was dabbling in ultra running back then and was completely making it all up before the summer of 2016.

I got Krissy Moehl’s book Running Your First Ultra and I think it’s one of the best resources for people trying to run trail and ultras. She has training plans from 50K to 100 miles and I took a few of those workouts and it worked for Leadville.

I had met David Roche that summer and really liked his running approach. Him and his wife Megan are super fast. I really dug their philosophy because they have a great aerial view about running and life.

In January 2017, after Leadville, I started writing out my own plan again. I wanted to qualify for Western States but I found it all to be really overwhelming. I didn’t enjoy thinking about it and I wasn’t prioritizing my running. So I decided—ok, this probably means I need to get a coach.

Anya: How has your training changed once you started working with a coach?

Clare: A big part of David’s philosophy is doing strides. Those a 30 seconds sprints at 90% effort with full recovery, done towards the end of a run. Those are so fun! They remind me of playing lacrosse or soccer as a little kid.

There’s nothing better than running fast for really short bursts of time. Lo and behold – they work!

Anya: Do you think a recreational runner can benefit from having a coach?

Clare: Yes, absolutely! If anyone resonates with the reasons that I got a coach: you don’t have the time and you don’t want to prioritize the reading and thought that goes into building a training plan—then hire a coach.

I also think it could be beneficial for someone who has an unhealthy relationship with running. Like being really, really obsessed with it to the point that it become detrimental in their everyday life.

Having a coach that you can trust and have mutual understanding and respect with can help people get to a more healthy place in their relationship with running. I’ve seen coaches be able to do that.

How Runners Can Make a Difference

Anya: I know you’re always encouraging everyone to vote and get involved in their local communities. What are some things that runners, in particular, can do to make an impact?

Clare: Honestly, voting is the biggest thing we can do. Especially in local elections, not just every 4 years when it’s big and fun and sexy.

Runners in particular have a unique opportunity to be experts on topics related to the environment. If you find yourself running on public lands often – what are you seeing? Are you not breathing as well? Tell someone, don’t just bottle it up.

The more I get involved in local and state politics, the more amazed I am at how little our legislators know. Most of them aren’t running outside every single day. So it’s important for runners to speak up in a hearing, write an op-ed in a newspaper, write a blog, or put something on social media.

For example: “Hey, the air quality is really bad in Denver in the winters and in the summer I struggle because I’m an asthmatic. This has really changed my quality of life.

Runners can also talk about what they are witnessing like erosion or forest fire degradation or increased oil and gas activity. We see a lot and I encourage us to speak up and educate ourselves about who is making decisions that impact our environment.

Training Q&A with Clare Gallagher

More fun Q&A with Clare Gallagher from Gear Junkie!

Anya: Do you have any rituals that you do on a daily basis?

Clare: Nothing in particular. I like coffee!

Anya: What would an ideal, 10/10, day look like for you?

Clare: A summer day running in the mountains for 8 hours. That’s my ideal – waking up at a trailhead and running far and long. I’m extremely privileged to get to do that.

Anya: You’ve said before that you learned far more from races that you didn’t finish than from races that you won. One example I’m thinking of is your DNF (did not finish) in Western States in 2017. Can you share some of those lessons?

Clare: I think that not finishing a race or getting injured or having a breakdown of sorts makes me question why I run.

Why am I doing it? Is this for me, is this for someone else, is this for a brand? And that race in 2017 really made me sit with those questions because I was pretty immobilized for a few weeks. It was July, the height of summer running in Colorado, and I just had to sit there and think.

I decided that I’m only racing if it’s what I want to do and what really resonates with me. Because at the end of the day, no one is saving lives here. Running is such a privilege. So if I’m not having fun, what is the point?

I’m not going to go run 100 miles because someone wants me to. That wasn’t the case in 2017 either but it has changed the way that I approach racing. I race a lot less than many of my closest competitors, and I’m ok with that.

Anya: What advice do you have for an average runner, like myself, who is training for a race?

Clare: Make sure you are enjoying the process. The process is everything because, ultimately, you can’t really control what happens on race day.

If you are happy with 99% of the journey, which is the process leading up to the race, you cannot lose.

That’s not to say that every day is going to be easy. But if you find yourself with a couple of days or weeks where you’re not liking it, I would suggest you take a step back.

Take a few days off, journal a little bit. Make sure that running is a source of pleasure and challenge. That’s what I think running should and can be.

Anya Mullen is an avid adventurer, entrepreneur, and mom to her daughter and rescue pup. After working for a decade as a professional mechanical engineer, she shifted gears to researching and writing about wellness topics including running and veganism. Originally from Siberia, Anya loves winters, spending time outdoors, reading, cooking, and making jewelry.

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