There are different levels of runners.
There are joggers and speedsters, weekend warriors and endurance elites, pavement pounders and off-road devotees.
And then there’s Jesse Holden.
The 36-year-old St. Johnsbury resident likes to run far and fast, up and down mountains, through minefields of roots and rocks. He’s a long distance, trail running fanatic with big plans for this summer.
That’s when he aims to tackle his biggest challenge yet: The 100 Mile Wilderness, a remote section of the Appalachian Trail cutting through northern Maine.
Holden doesn’t just want to finish it. He and his friend RJ Thompson want to break the speed record of 34 hours, 11 minutes, 55 seconds set last year by Witt “El Matador” Wisebram. That record is for unsupported trekkers who receive no outside assistance.
It will be grueling. But Holden is looking forward to it. He draws a special kind of satisfaction from pushing himself and testing his limits.
“I can fake a 5K, not train and still finish, but the longer objectives … you can’t fake them,” he said. “I have to put in the work and that reveals my potential, what I can accomplish as a person.”
Raised in Newark, Holden was a three-sport athlete at Lyndon Institute (Class of 2001), suiting up for the Vikings’ football, basketball and outdoor track teams.
He went on to play hoops for “a couple of years” at Lyndon State College before turning his attention to solo endeavors. That transition began when he started training with friends at XIP Training Systems in Lyndonville.
Seeking a purpose for their workouts, Holden signed them up for the 2011 Spartan Beast at Killington Ski Resort, a punishing event featuring massive uphills, steep downhills and thousands of feet in elevation gain. That year he powered through the 13 mile, 30 obstacle course and finished 59th overall. Encouraged by his success, he trained even harder for the next year’s race, and placed 36th.
“That’s when I knew I had a knack for getting up and down mountains,” he said.
That began Holden’s passion for trail running. His training regimen grew more ambitious — including 30-mile runs across the Presidential Range — and he sought out increasingly longer and more difficult races.
Nowadays he enters around a dozen races a summer, mostly trail runs ranging from 10 to 50 miles. Earlier this month he completed The Wapack and Back 50-mile trail race in Ashburnham, Mass.
He fits running into a busy life. He’s also a husband (his wife, Kerra, is also an avid hiker and outdoors lover), a father (to a 12-year-old daughter, Aubriella), and member of the faculty at St. Johnsbury Academy, where he’s a physical education instructor and the faculty advisor to the outing club.
Next month he leads a student trip to Oregon, which will revolve around running. He and two other faculty members will take students on daily runs through Oregon’s mountains, trails, roads and beaches.
Once the trip is over, he will begin final preparations for his trek through the 100 Mile Wilderness. That will include more high-mileage workouts — including some back-to-back 20 mile runs, to prepare himself for running on “super tired, sore legs.”
“It’s not as important to run 100 miles in a week as it is to learn to run on tired legs,” he said.
The training doesn’t just prepare his body.
Sometimes it gives Holden time to think. In recent years he suffered multiple tragedies (the sudden deaths of his mother Audrey in 2015 and father Jerome in 2018 and a fire that destroyed his home in 2011) and running has doubled as therapy.
“A lot of stuff happened in a short period of time, I was really in need of a time and a place to process these things, and nature and the mountains have always been that place for me,” Holden said.
Other times running is a distraction. When Holden is running downhill at 10 miles an hour, on steep trails dotted with rocks and roots, there’s no time to think about anything else.
“When I go downhill, I go really fast, so I can’t think about anything except for what’s 10 feet in front of me,” he said. “You have to be in the moment.”
Holden had thought about doing a 100 miler for his 40th birthday. Thompson, the executive director of the Vermont Huts Association, convinced him to try something sooner.
They won’t attempt the 100 Mile Wilderness until early August, so that Thompson can serve as race director for the Mansfield Double Up on July 28.
Holden described the route through the 100 Mile Wilderness as desolate.
“It’s a 100 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail up in the middle of nowhere, Maine. There are no road crossings, no huts, no houses, no signs of civilization, nothing,” Holden said.
Keeping packs light will be a must.
“We have to carry all the food we’ll eat in a 35, 40 hour period. Our packs will be 10 to 15 pounds,” Holden said. “For us to [break the record], it has to be pretty much perfect conditions. If there’s rain or anything, it would require us to carry more stuff.”
Trekking through a remote area is tough enough. But Holden and Thompson have added another wrinkle. They will be going unsupported, completing the journey with no outside assistance or supply drops.
In order to break the unsupported record for the 100 Mile Wilderness, Holden and Thompson must maintain a pace of approximately 20 minutes per mile, non-stop through the night. (The “supported” record is 30 hours, 22 minutes, approximately an 18:20/mile pace).
It won’t be easy. But that’s why Holden wants to do it. Even if he doesn’t break the record, he’ll have an impressive accomplishment to his credit. Either way, he will have pushed his limits.
Admitted Holden, “It’s a pretty lofty goal.”
Notes: On Sunday Holden will run in the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington to help raise money for the Easter Seals. Donate to the cause at https://secure.easterseals.com/site/Donation2;jsessionid=00000000.app275a?df_id=18306&mfc_pref=T&18306.donation=form1&NONCE_TOKEN=5F263FDD6051CE7F010E0FECA2B59458