When Will LeMieux was serving as an Army field artillery officer in Afghanistan in 2011, he always looked forward to getting “Runner’s World” magazine every month and “read everything in it.”
LeMieux — now 29, an Army reservist and a masters student in clinical counseling at The Citadel — was particularly drawn to stories about ultra marathon runners, such as Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes and Pam Reed, and a crazy race called Badwater, a 135-mile run in California’s Death Valley in mid-July.
The ultra, considered among the toughest endurance races on the planet, starts 279 feet below sea level, in the Badwater Basin, and ends at the 8,360-foot Whitney Portal, the trailhead to Mount Whitney. The total vertical ascent is 14,600 feet. Temperatures are known to reach 120 degrees and authorities recently created restrictions to limit exposure to extreme heat.
LeMieux worked his way from 5Ks to ultra marathons (distances beyond the marathon), which he determined was his niche, and in 2014, served as one of two crew members when a veteran friend Brandon Purdeu ran Badwater.
That experience planted a seed in LeMieux.
“There was a 13-mile climb, a zig-zag road, from the town of Lone Pine to the Mount Whitney portal, and he (Purdeu) was crushed. Here was this infantry officer, with a Combat Infantry Badge (award), and he was crying,” recalled LeMieux.
“He had this look in his eyes. He was tired. He wanted this to be done. That was the moment I decided I wanted that feeling, too.”
But during that period, LeMieux found himself burned out on ultras and feeling frustrated about not having a long-lasting relationship with a woman.
After watching videos on YouTube of people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail and Appalachian Trail, LeMieux decided to hike the latter, against the current (North to South), last year.
On June 1, 2015, he was greeted by snow atop Maine’s Mount Katahdin, got to see and talk to one of his ultra heroes, Jurek, in Vermont, on his record-setting hike, and reached Springer Mountain in Georgia on Sept. 15. LeMieux’s hike took 105 days. But the accomplishment cost him delaying his entry to graduate school at The Citadel until January.
So what did LeMieux, who hails from Spruce Pine, N.C., do in the meantime? He ran his second of two Tarheel Ultras, a multi-day, self-supported, 367-mile footrace along the coast of North Carolina. The ultra starts in Carova Beach, N.C., and ends at Calabash.
LeMieux set a new record for solo run (those without a support crew) with a time of six days, 4 hours, 39 minutes and 13 seconds.
LeMieux thinks his performance at the Tarheel Ultra qualified him for Badwater, which only accepts 100 runners from around the world every year.
He and Purdeu had entered it with an understanding — “If he gets in, he does it. If we both get in, I’ll do it and he won’t do it. In either scenario, I would serve as crew again or run it myself.”
Badwater is not cheap. The entry fee alone is $1,300 due to the expenses of putting on the race in such a hostile environment.
LeMieux has relied on Purdeu to help him prepare for Badwater, which will be July 18-20. That training has not involved much more mileage than an elite marathoner, about 80-90 miles a week, including one long run of 50 miles during the heat of the day. But he’s also doing other cross training, such as swimming and biking.
“I’m relaying on high base mileage,” says LeMieux, in reference to years of logging miles and completing ultra races. “That will help me go into Badwater tapered and fresh.”
LeMieux adds that he’ll be interested to see how training in the humid, still heat of Charleston translates into enduring the dry, windy heat of Death Valley, which he compares standing behind a C-17 Globemaster transport plane in full combat gear at Fort Bragg in July.
“You feel like you’re in a massive hair dryer,” says LeMieux.
To listen to LeMieux talk and to witness his joy and motivations, most would never suspect that he had his own struggles after serving in Afghanistan, though he says it was not diagnosed as post traumatic stress disorder.
LeMieux can attest to the healing powers of running.
“I’m not running from anything … Running and participating in ultras, to me, is therapeutic. It helps me maintain a state of resiliency. If I don’t get my runs in, I dip below my baseline.”
In the past year, he has found a home at The Citadel and Charleston, enjoying life as a busy full-time grad student, teaching physical education classes, having a part-time job at a private practice, in addition to his reservist duties, and volunteering with The Citadel’s track and cross country team.
“I’m now in a happy relationship (with Citadel grad Lidia Bonnette). I have a great career and I get to work with these young runners. Everything’s going great.”