Exclusive Interview: World-Class Mountain Climber Melissa Arnot Runs The Catalina Island Conservancy Marathon

Lucky number 4! Mountain climber Melissa Arnot placed fourth in her age group in The Catalina Island Conservancy Marathon, and she’s been to the top of Mt. Everest four times. (Photo Credit: Kent Harvey/Eddie Bauer)
Lucky number 4! Mountain climber Melissa Arnot placed fourth in her age group in the Catalina Island Conservancy Marathon, and she’s been to the top of Mt. Everest four times. (Photo Credit: Kent Harvey/Eddie Bauer)

With four Mt. Everest summits under her climbing belt, Melissa Arnot holds the female record for most ascents on the world’s most challenging mountain. But she takes that achievement in stride, referring to herself as an “ordinary woman with extraordinary accomplishments.” Her latest endurance feat: Completing the Catalina Island Conservancy Marathon on Saturday, March 9, 2013. I caught up with Melissa after the race to chat about training for her first marathon in ten years and her plans for summiting Mt. Everest again this season.

How does it feel to be done? After deciding to do a marathon, completing all the training and actually staying healthy enough to race, I feel great. It’s a long goal to work towards, but I’m a used to working towards things like that.

Are you happy with your time? I wanted to finish under 4:30 and not be disaster at the end. I came in around 4:16 and I finished strong, so I’m really happy about that. I didn’t want to be a mess at the end. As a climbing guide, I see so many clients push really hard to get to the summit, only to completely flail on the way down. I didn’t want that to be me. I’m thrilled that when the race was over I felt like I could keep running, and I was able to enjoy the afternoon with my family and friends.

Why did you pick the Catalina Marathon? The timing was perfect—I’m leaving for Everest in a week, and I wanted to be able to train through the winter along with my normal training for climbing. It’s a beautiful course on dirt roads and it looked challenging online. I know I can run for 26.2 miles, but I wanted to be to push myself even more. This course was great for that.

Catalina is a small island off the California coast. What was it like getting to the start line? It was definitely an adventure. I traveled from my home in Idaho with my husband and two of our friends, Ivana and Neil, and our first flight was cancelled. We scrambled to get out on another one from a different airport, and finally got to California around 9:00pm. We slept for a few hours, and then caught a 2:00am runners-only boat to the island. I somehow managed to fall asleep again in the choppy water, but my husband felt seasick for the entire 2-hour ride. At Avalon, he disembarked with the other spectators and the boat continued on for another hour to the race start. It all felt like a weird dream, and I was relieved to finally see the start line and get moving.

Wow! Were you tired during the run? Surprisingly, I felt great. I wasn’t tired despite the crazy travel arrangements, and I was prepared for the challenging course because I’d researched it ahead of time. The first four miles were up a big hill. Ivana passed me and I ran solo for a bit, but the island was so beautiful that my spirits were high. By mile thirteen I was really hot and starting to lose my good mood, so I took the advice of a friend and dedicated that mile—and each difficult one after—to someone special. I spent the entire mile thinking about how grateful I am to know that person. Soon all the pain went away, and I was running happy again.

Runners love talking about food. What did you eat before the race? Nutrition was tough for me during training. I don’t typically eat a lot of complex carbs—I’m into fruits and vegetables, so I had to make some changes. On the way to the start line, I had a homemade whole-wheat scone with strawberries. It was the perfect amount of food to get me going. Mid-run, I fueled up with a special energy gel that I’m helping to develop, a few squares of dark chocolate, and a handful of gummy bears from an aid station. Those were good choices for my body. I think people can get anxious at races and end up over-eating. I know my body really well, and I gave it enough to get by, without giving it the additional task of digesting too many snacks.

What’s the funniest thought that popped into your head during the run? I actually wrote a poem—which is something I really enjoy doing, and said it all out loud as I ran. It was in one of those gratitude dedication miles. There was no one around and I was just sort of laughing to myself.

What’s tougher: Summiting Mt. Everest or crossing a marathon finish line? That really isn’t a fair question, because they aren’t the same at all. Summiting Everest is extremely dangerous and it takes everything you have for a ten- to twenty-hour day. A marathon is only a few hours of pain—it’s difficult, sure, but in a very, very different way.

That’s fair. How is training for an Everest trek different from training for a marathon? This is something I really think people should know. Over the years I have climbed with clients who’ve had marathon backgrounds and they were often too cocky. They thought if they could run 26.2 miles, they could do anything. That’s a great attitude for life in general, but it’s dangerous when altitude is involved. The training needs to be very different. For climbing, I train by hiking uphill for an hour, three times a week with a fifty-pound pack on my back, and I work out at the gym to keep all of my muscle groups balanced. For marathon training, I run. Running doesn’t give you an advantage for climbing. Sure, the cardio can give you a slight endurance edge, but it’s important to train specifically for what you are doing. It would be like riding a bike to train for a marathon. Your legs might be strong enough to get you to the finish, but your body would pay for it after the race.

Melissa Arnot ran four days a week on trails near her Colorado home to train for the Catalina Island Conservancy Marathon. (Photo Credit: Mark Oliver)
Melissa Arnot ran four days a week on trails near her Idaho home to train for the Catalina Island Conservancy Marathon. (Photo Credit: Mark Oliver)

What did you do to train for this marathon? I don’t love running the way I love hiking, so my training was a lesson in discipline. When I was out for a run, I would remind myself that being out there was important even though there were things I’d rather be doing. I started marathon training in November, with three days of 3 to 5 miles per week, plus a long run on the weekend that started at 7 miles and gradually increased. My longest runs were 18 and 20 miles. I also hiked three days a week, practiced yoga, and hit the weights twice a week. I took two weeks off in January to guide a climb on Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa, which gave my legs a nice break. It’s not the typical training plan for a marathoner, but it worked for me.

Aside from reaching the top, do you have any other goals for 2013’s Mt. Everest trip? This year I’ll be working with the Juniper Fund, a non-profit organization I started with my climbing partner. We are helping to provide supplemental life insurance and rescue support for Sherpa guides who become injured or killed while tirelessly helping tourists climb in the Everest region. It’s a project that is very personal and important to me, and I’m excited to watch it unfold!

Melissa heads to the Himalayas next week and will be attempting her fifth summit of Mt. Everest. Coincidentally, this year marks the 25th anniversary of the first female to reach the top. Way to go, girls!

Everyone has a seemingly insurmountable goal that can be attained through hard work and training. What’s your Everest?

For more on Mt. Everest, check out the recap of my Himalayan Adventure.