Ultramarathon runner and professional chef Justin Blais ’97 pushes the limits of human endurance.
Sitting in the den of his home in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire, where he’s the corporate executive chef for a high-end hospitality group, Justin Blais ’97 is quick to say that running isn’t really his thing. “I love biking, I love hiking, I love swimming,” he says. “Running is not something I’m super fond of.”
And yet run he does. For shockingly long distances over some of the gnarliest backcountry terrain in North America.
An accomplished ultramarathoner, Blais has completed more than two dozen races of 50, 100, even 200 miles. He has run up and down mountains, wound his way through Louisiana bayous at night with only wild hogs and alligators for company, and crisscrossed the legendary canyonlands of the American Southwest —for 30 straight hours. In 2019 alone, the last full year before the pandemic monkey-wrenched the world of extreme sports, along with everything else, Blais completed more than 50 races. A full 20 of these were ultras—events that exceed the official marathon distance of 26.2 miles, long the gold standard of distance running.
“I actually ran my first ultra before ever doing a marathon,” he says with a shrug. “The Big A 50K on Mt. Agamenticus up in Maine.” Officially, 31 miles. Unofficially? “The thing about trail running, you’re not on a road. You’re going up and down hills, through woods. It’s not city blocks,” he says. Factoring in all the twists and turns, 50 kilometers measures out to significantly more. On Agamenticus, the distance featured some 6,000 feet of elevation gain, along with rocks, roots, fallen logs, and other hazards. The worst part might have been all the water from a soaking rain. “It was the first time I ran with wet feet for eight hours,” Blais recalls.
That was in May of 2019. The marathon came in October on Cape Cod. In between, he reeled off a different event every weekend, including a triathlon he threw in “just so I could say I had done one.” All this while helping raise a young son and working in a profession notorious for stress and the physical and emotional issues that come with it, including high rates of substance abuse.
A recovering alcoholic himself, Blais took up running after getting sober six years ago. Along with the miles, he has embraced an open-book policy about his battle. “I’ve become brutally honest,” he says. “There’s nothing to hide for me anymore. There are a lot of people out there who are struggling and you don’t know it. We can all make our lives look like whatever we want on Facebook. Being vocal about my addiction is a way to hopefully let people know they’re not the only ones.” He competes as a brand ambassador for a couple different recovery programs, including Addict to Athlete and Recovery Strong. If someone sees his jersey and is encouraged to approach him after a race, he is always ready to hear their story.
His own began with a car accident. After graduating from Williston, where he played baseball and soccer (“not track and field—I despised running”), he entered Seattle University on a soccer scholarship.
He had barely arrived in the city when a car slammed into the one he was driving.
Blais required extensive surgery, including spinal fusion. At age 19, his soccer career was over. The scholarship went away. To make matters worse, the driver who hit him was not fully insured. Faced with enormous medical bills, Blais spent the next eight years cranking out 80-hour weeks in the restaurant industry. He was very good at the work and steadily climbed the ladder, eventually becoming executive chef at Overlake country club in Medina, Washington, the exclusive enclave whose members included Bill Gates and other tech tycoons.
Along the way he picked up a drinking problem. “The norm was to hit the bars every night after finishing work at 12 a.m.,” he says. “I didn’t see the snowball building.”
While he continued to do well in his career, moving back to the East Coast and taking a series of prestigious positions, his personal life slowly unraveled. By 2015, his marriage had broken up and his health was in serious jeopardy. Determined to turn things around, he stopped drinking and started a new job at a place whose partners insisted he find some work-life balance. They knew his history.
“As an executive chef, that’s something you get told constantly,” he says. “Work-life balance. But if you cut back from 75 hours to 70 one week, you feel guilty. These guys meant it. The problem was, if I stayed home, I knew I was just going to be thinking about work. I needed to get outside my head.”
So he decided to climb a mountain. He chose Mount Pierce, a 4,310-foot peak in New Hampshire’s rugged White Mountains, and found the experience to be so exhilarating that he immediately began planning his next outing. Soon he was bagging peaks every few days, often setting off at 2 a.m. with a headlamp so that he’d get back in time for work.
In White Mountain climbing circles, there’s a thing called the Four Thousand Footer Club. Membership consists of a select group of individuals who have scaled all 48 of the range’s 4,000-foot-plus peaks. People spend decades chasing the goal. Blais accomplished it within a single calendar year.
“As addicts, this is what we do,” he says. “We do everything to excess.”
Having conquered the mountains as a solo hiker, the logical next step seemed to be to start running up and down them. Like all experienced ultrarunners, Blais brings extra pairs of shoes to a race. He knows his feet will swell by several sizes from the relentless pounding and that Advil and other anti-inflammatories are ill advised: kidneys begin shutting down long before runners reach the finish line. Other hazards of the sport are gruesome but relatively benign, such as lost toenails. Few ultrarunners have any left at all.
“You know you’re going to take a beating,” Blais says. “Every fiber of your body will be telling you to stop. You start looking for excuses. ‘I don’t need this. I have a family.’ The mental toughness required to keep going is exactly the same as what it takes to be in recovery. I was miserable drinking for decades, so what’s 30 hours on the trail? I can do anything for 30 hours.”
With sanctioned races up and running once again, he looks forward to new challenges. His schedule includes a “fast” 100-miler in Texas and a 200-mile trail run in Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains that features a mind-boggling 65,000 feet of elevation gain—2.5 times the height of Everest. After that, he intends to complete the Iditarod Trail Invitational, a 350-mile-long monster named for the legendary Alaskan wilderness dog race. In this version, humans pull their own sleds.
But before then, he and his son and fiancée are going to kick back on vacation in the Canary Islands. While there, Blais hopes to get the fastest known time of Grand Canaria’s classic 50-mile route.
—Justin notes that he’d be happy to speak with other alumni about his journey. You can reach him at justinjblais (at) gmail (dot) com or (802) 839-0216.