Pocatello athlete finishes 8th in world in endurance race in Italian Alps
POCATELLO — Luke Nelson was fighting back hallucinations 82 hours into an epic footrace, covering 231 miles and climbing more than 90,000 vertical feet through the Italian Alps.
As he ran atop a mountain ridge with a sheer drop on one side and a talus slope on the other, Nelson repeated a mantra in his mind: “Keep it sharp. Keep it sharp.”
The 38-year-old Pocatello man would maintain his focus and prove his mettle on a world stage, placing eighth overall in one of the most grueling competitions in sports, the Tor des Geants. His finishing time was 85 hours, 23 minutes.
Just 530 of the 934 world-class athletes who entered the trail run even finished. One competitor tumbled down a rocky slope and broke both arms early in the race.
Throughout the mid-September race, Nelson slept for just 2 hours, 21 minutes, knowing the clock still ran while he dozed. Nelson admits he was “sleep running” through a small portion of the course.
“It feels dreamlike. Your brain has a hard time processing reality versus fiction,” Nelson said, describing his mental state during the race’s final technical phase. “Everything feels mushy around the edges.”
Nelson, who grew up in Blackfoot and has lived in Pocatello for the past 18 years, earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Idaho State University. He works as a physician’s assistant at Idaho Sports & Spine. But he’s made a name for himself globally through extreme sports.
Based on his athletic achievements, several top companies in extreme sports approached him to become sponsors, including Patagonia, Gu Energy Labs, Suunto, Zeal Sunglasses and La Sportiva. His sponsors have been integral in providing him gear and helping to cover racing expenses.
After deciding to tackle the Tor des Geants last November, Nelson ran “several thousand miles” on Pocatello’s mountain trails in training. He insists he never doubted that he’d finish.
“I went to Italy to compete in the biggest event I’ve ever done in terms of physical challenge,” Nelson said. “On a personal level, my goal was to explore what I considered possible and impossible and discover that personal boundary.”
Nelson has also excelled at ski mountaineering racing, a sport in which participants must trek up slopes, as well as skiing down them. He won a national championship in the sport and has represented the U.S. in world championships in Italy in 2012 and in France in 2014.
Locally, he’s been the director of the Pocatello area’s endurance trail-running event, called the Scout Mountain Race. The event started six years ago as a 50-mile run. Nelson has added a 100-mile race, and the event now draws about 300 runners annually from throughout the world.
Nelson has also broken his share of regional records. Until recently, Nelson held the record for fastest climbs of Idaho’s nine peaks above 12,000 feet.
Nelson made the round-trip hike up and down Idaho’s tallest summit, 12,662-foot Mount Borah, in 2 hours, 21 minutes. The sign at the Borah trailhead warns hikers to be prepared for a 12-hour round trip.
Earlier this year, Nelson’s training partner, Cody Lind, broke his record for climbing Idaho’s tallest peaks. Lind and his girlfriend, Brittany Peterson, are also local professional trail runners ranked among the top 10 in the world in the endurance-racing distances in which they specialize.
Nelson still holds the record for fastest hikes of Utah’s 19 peaks above 13,000 feet.