Interview With UltraRunner Jess Kolko

By Dr. Jessica Tranchina – June 1, 2023
Photo Courtesy of Nick Danielson

I’ve known Jess since 2011 and ever since I’ve known her, she has been a beast! She has always been someone I admire, look up to, and am proud to call a friend. There is no adventure or long distance race she has been afraid to conquer. I’m excited to have this opportunity to dive deep into her training regimen, routine, and nutrition strategies before, during and after her races. Let’s jump right in.

Jess, tell us a little bit about yourself and your running history. What got you interested in running and when did you start running longer distances?

I started running in 2006 when I was working as a chef and trying to quit smoking. I thought if I started running and enjoyed it it would help give me the motivation to finally quit a bad habit. It worked and I’ve been running ever since. I moved to Austin in the summer of 2007 and didn’t know anyone so I joined a Rogue Running to meet people and train for the 2008 Austin Marathon. I’ve added time and distance ever since including some full and half Ironman triathlons, self supported stage races, a 100 miler and a bunch of distances in between.

Where are your favorite races and running trails and why?

I love to do anything that gets me out and exploring areas that not many other folks are able to access. I did ~100 miles over 4 days in Yosemite in 2021 and that was epic in terms of getting into the backcountry where we didn’t see another tourist for days. I think my all time favorite was my circumnavigation of Mt. Rainer on the Wonderland trail. The hikers thought we runners were nuts, finishing the trail in three days. The scenery was stunning and diverse–I even saw several bears enjoying the blueberries–from a distance of course.

What is your favorite pre race meal?

I’m a huge potato fan so I try to incorporate them into all of my training and racing meals. I favor savory over sweet so things like toasted everything bagels with hummus and veggies, salted baked potatoes with plant based plain yogurt, leftover pasta are my go to items.

What is your favorite post-race meal?

I really love Chinese or Thai noodles post race. Something about the salt/carb/protein combo is really satisfying. The saltiness helps trigger me to rehydrate as well.

Do you have a specific meal plan you stick to when you are preparing for a race? If so, do you mind sharing?

I’m a plant based eater and love to cook so I don’t really change much when preparing for a run or race. What I do focus on is the timing of my meals and making sure to get a recovery drink right after the long or really tough workouts and continuing to fuel my recovery with a balance of carbohydrates and protein through the rest of the day. I do love dark chocolate and those Justin’s nut butter cups after dinner. When we do go out to dinner I enjoy what sounds good and don’t worry about counting calories instead listening to my body’s fullness signals.

Can you walk us through what training is like building up to a big race?

It’s long! Ha! Depending on the event, training can start 6 months in advance. It’s a serious commitment so be sure that you really want to do the work to get there. For really long events I build up to back to back long runs on the weekend–up to 6 hours on a Saturday with another 3-4 on Sunday. Thank goodness for Monday off days!

During the week there will be shorter runs as well as track workouts, fartlek or tempo runs. I also strength train. When on a big build that is about 2-3 days a week, I focus on run specific strength; I do more strength training when I’m not in a big run build. I really find this is the key to having the stamina over long distances and big mountains.

Do you have to have a support crew for races?

It depends on the race or event. For my 100 mile race in Oregon I had a great crew who fed me and kept me on track. My two pacers Molly and Scott kept me sane during the dark of night through the finish line!

For the Trans Pecos Ultra out in West Texas the race crew was awesome. While we had to carry all of our food and sleeping gear they had aid stations with a great medical crew, water and motivation. They moved camp every day and had the teepees and hot water ready for us when we arrived each afternoon/night.

What is a must have piece of equipment?

A running vest/pack for hydration, food and safety gear! I always carry a first aid kit. In the backcountry I carry a lot more due to the chance for unpredictable weather or conditions. A really good pair of running shoes is super important. Your feet swell a lot after a lot of miles so think about sizing up a half size for later in the race or in the later days of a multi day event.

Trail Running

Courtesy of Scott Maddeaux

Trail Running

Courtesy of Zandy Mangold with Trails Roots

Trail Running

Courtesy of Zandy Mangold with Trails Roots

Does your husband, Jon, or Aussie, Daisy, ever join you for runs?

Jon is super supportive and was crew chief for my 100 miler. But he said ‘never again’ for that job! I get it…it’s not a super fun time seeing someone you love go through what it takes to complete 100 miles!

Daisy is a great running buddy! While I haven’t run any ultras with her, she’s a constant on my shorter runs. I’ll take her out for 7 miles on my long run days then drop her at the house before I refuel and head back out to complete the rest of my run. It’s a nice way to break up a long run a bit.

Which race has been your greatest challenge?

I think Yosemite was a huge challenge for me. We had GPS course files but given all the exposed granite we were running on, adding navigation to the mix was a challenge. That being said, it was also a deeply satisfying run! I felt very accomplished afterwards.

Is there anywhere you haven’t yet raced, but would like to?

I went to Chamonix last summer and ran on some of the UTMB course which was my first international trail run. I’m kind of hooked. I’d love to explore more international trails for sure. There is a ton of the Rockies to explore as well–I haven’t spent too much time there. So many amazing races out there. I’m really tempted to do the Moab 240 but I think that might be a couple years out for me.

What’s your favorite running route in Austin?

I’m a huge fan of the Barton Creek Greenbelt. It’s about 5 miles running to the trailhead from my house so I’m able to string together some really long runs when I run there from home.

What is your favorite thing to do in Austin (besides running!)?

I love being in nature so exploring all the cool outdoor things there are to do here is a big part of what I love about Austin. I do love a good cocktail on a patio with my dog and husband.

What tips do you have for our Austin runners?

Focus on the process, not the outcome. There are a lot of things you can’t control on race day. If you focus on the process and do the work to get to the start line you have done what you can which is the most important part.

For those who want to go longer…practice your fueling during training!! I can’t stress this enough. Fuel early and often!


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