Most of us enjoy going to dinner, having a backyard barbecue, or going camping with friends. However, James Boler (42) and Gibson Kelley (37) have a unique way of spending time together—one that formed over their love of running distances as long as 100 miles. 

Meet the Runners

James was a natural athlete from the start. He’s excelled at baseball and competitive softball throughout his life. Running is a more recent passion that developed three years ago when he was 39. It’s a passion he balances with his roles as a father, husband, and Production Shop Manager at Signworks.

Gibson, on the other hand, has been a lifelong runner and did track and field at the collegiate level. She’s tackled long-distance running for the past 11 years, managing her training with being a mother, wife, and Project Manager at LightEdison. 

Like many good running friendships, they met at a group run, hosted by Breakaway Running, that met every Saturday morning for six- to 16-mile distances. They also participated in local half and full marathons.

Gibson shared her training regimen that incorporated tempo runs to build speed. “She was doing training runs that I wasn’t experienced in, so I asked to join her.  We met every Tuesday and Thursday at 5 am so we could be home by 6:30 to get our kids ready for school,” James says.  Those early morning sessions were the start of something greater.

Setting Their Sights Higher

One hundred miles is a feat for any person, and James says, “I wanted to see what we were capable of as humans and athletes.” Gibson put it plainly, “We’re both extremely competitive, and we wanted to push ourselves to see how far we could go.”

Fueled by challenge, they signed up for the April 2021 Seven Trails Ultra Festival in Virginia. Participants have 36 hours to complete the 100-mile course, which consists of 13 7.7-mile loops.

Giving themselves plenty of time, they kicked off training in January 2020. A typical week included long runs, speed and tempo work, and cross-training. On Friday evenings, they would meet at 6 for a long run of up to 30 miles to get comfortable moving in the dark. They met on Saturday afternoons for a second long run, which ranged from 15 to 18 miles and got them accustomed to running on tired legs.

Gibson explains: “Running is a mental game. If your body is in shape but your brain isn’t, you won’t be able to finish.” 

Race Day Never Goes As Planned

James and Gibson went into the race with a strategy. From start to finish, they planned to run the first three-quarters of a mile then walk the final quarter. Ambition got the best of them, though. “The weather was perfect and we felt good,” James says, so they decided to run as far as they could before walking. 

They finally slowed down after mile 30. “Our original goal was to finish in 24 hours, but mid-race we set a new goal to complete 60 miles in 12 hours,” James says. After each loop, they stopped at the aid station for food and hydration but kept their breaks to four minutes to meet their goal time. 

When they reached mile 60, James had to slow down because his knee was swelling. He encouraged Gibson to push ahead without him. At mile 80, she was facing painful blisters on her feet. 

Gibson says, “Running on your own at night when you’re cold and in pain is where that mental aspect kicks in.” On the last half-mile of the course, runners have views of an arched bridge. She continues: “When I saw those arches, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It was the most humbling and empowering experience of my life.” 

Gibson completed the race in 22:18. James finished 30 minutes later at 22:50. They crossed the finish line around 3 am, exceeding their 24-hour goal by over an hour.

Going Further Together

Although they didn’t finish together, they still credit one another for their success. “We completed more than 200 runs together and finished every workout, no matter how hard or hot it was. We are extremely competitive but have strong mutual respect. I couldn’t have done this without her,” James says.

“It’s rare to find someone willing to take on this big commitment with you. We bounce ideas off of one another and learn from each other. Our spouses and children are close. We are really lucky,” Gibson adds.

Their families were also crucial to their success. They agree that they could not have completed the race without the support of their spouses and kids. Their encouragement and cheering throughout training and the entire race kept fuel on the fire.

Looking Ahead

After a few weeks of recovery, they’ve already talked about what’s next. Other races are on the schedule— a triathlon for James and a 50K race for Gibson. They are both participating in the St. Jude Marathon this fall, and Gibson will co-captain the Breakaway Running fundraising team. And James says casually: “Who knows? We might even sign up for a 200-mile race.” 

By Morgan Stritzinger

Photo by Tindall Stephens