Going the distance

Ultramarathoner Di Wu is running the trails
Ultramarathoner Di Wu is running the trails

By Todd Mordhorst, Office of the Provost

Two days before the start of WSU’s fall semester, Di Wu staggers down a rugged trail in the towering Sawatch Mountain Range in Colorado. He wheezes with every breath after loping, hiking, and toiling for nearly 50 miles—his training ground in Pullman had done little to prepare him for the suffocating, thin air.

Wu crosses 12,000-foot Hope Pass, a rigorous day’s hike by itself for most. Faced with the prospect of continuing back over the pass, and on to the finish of the Leadville Trail 100-miler, Wu realizes his weary legs are not up for the confrontation. Exhausted and defeated, he drops out, determined to try again next year to earn the sub-25-hour silver Leadville finisher’s belt buckle he covets.

The outcome at Leadville was not all that surprising. Wu’s mind, and all too often his body, is busy preparing research proposals, and constructing his new course on Nanostructured Materials in Chemical Engineering. His wife Yuanyuan Cui is herself an assistant research professor at WSU in the Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience, and their son Feifan is a bustling two-year-old, commanding attention at all hours of the day. It all left Wu ill-prepared to cover ungodly distances on foot, at two miles above sea level.

“My legs are tired, they felt heavy,” Wu says. “I’ve had stomach issues in the past, but my stomach felt good all day. Leadville was really enjoyable, but what killed me was my legs.”

Throughout 2017, he spent months training on lonesome Palouse roads and isolated Moscow Mountain trails. Unlike major road marathons, runners like Wu receive little fanfare at 100-mile footraces. The races themselves present brutal physical, mental, and emotional challenges.

Wu lined up for not one, but five 100-milers in 2017. He registered for the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, a lineup that just a handful of runners in the world finish each year. The fairytale ending sees Wu crossing finish line after finish line, cruising toward the glorious completion of his goal.

So far, Wu has yet to finish a race, though he remains upbeat.

In May at the Old Dominion 100 in Virginia, Wu made it about 80 miles before he grew dizzy and faint, and was unable to continue. At California’s historic Western States 100in June, he covered less than a standard marathon before illness cut his day short. And at the Vermont 100 in July, a wrong turn near mile 70 cost him more than two hours and spoiled what had been a brilliant day to that point.

Wu landed his position as an assistant professor in the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture in the summer of 2016. Fresh off a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, he had high hopes for his research proposals but, like 100-mile races, best plans are sometimes dealt unforeseen setbacks.

“I did not finish (the Vermont 100) and I think the critical reason was, I was not patient,” Wu says. “It’s like in my research. After a couple of rejections of proposals last year, I did not submit anything this spring. I was reanalyzing my failed proposals and trying to write new ones. Currently, I’m focusing on proposals for the fall and spring submission window. Patience is key, in running, life, and work.”

Wu grew up in a small town in Jilin Province of China, where he discovered his slim legs were more ideal for running than one of the most popular sports in his chilly region—speed skating. He clocked speedy times in high school in the mile and the 400 meters. In graduate school at the University of Akron he discovered the trails of Cuyahoga National Park, and began running longer and longer distances. His first U.S. race was the New York City Marathon.

He caught the ultrarunning bug in 2010 at the Stevens Creek 50k (31.2 miles) in California.

More than half a million Americans finished a marathon in 2013. That same year, just 5,500 finished a 100-miler. But ultrarunning is rising from obscurity with more participants, more sponsors, and more exposure.

Dozens of ultramarathons are hosted each weekend throughout the United States. In 2017, more than 4,200 people entered a lottery for just 369 starting bibs that would enable them to compete at the Western States 100. The sport is even bigger in Europe. Chamonix, France, hosts the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc and a number of associated races at the end of each summer, bringing more than 10,000 runners to the Alps.

“Running is my release from pressures of work,” Wu says. “Running on the trails, I’ve had some nice ideas for research.”

He teaches in WSU’s Gene and Linda Voiland School of Chemical Engineering and Bioengineering, and researches the interaction between surfaces and material chemistry. Its applications include energy storage and energy efficiency. Wu’s hobby also centers on efficiency as he churns out between 60 and 90 miles each week, depending on his training cycle.

“You want to have the body of a Civic, but the engine of a Mustang on race day,” Wu says.

His quick smile hides any dismay he may harbor over his 2017 race results. He’s already plotting race plans for years to come.

The goal isn’t glory or fame, but rather to see his hard work, determination, and patience translate to magnificent days on the trails.


(This article originally appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Washington State Magazine)