Ultra runner: Academy at Charlemont senior Will Draxler completes 100-mile senior project

  • The Academy at Charlemont senior Will Draxler runs in Hawley during Mile 34 of his 100-mile ultra marathon over the weekend. Draxler ran the distance for his senior project. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/27/2021 8:13:18 PM

There are a lot of different things high school seniors choose to do for their senior project. Some design a model, some do a presentation.

Others do things not many people in the world would ever consider doing. 

At The Academy at Charlemont, seniors are tasked with coming up with an independent senior project on something that will stretch themselves in many ways. The hope is to learn something new about themselves, while also giving back to the community. 

An avid distance runner, Will Draxler decided to do a project centered around his passion for running. With an interest in distance running, his hope was to not only challenge him physically, but also mentally. Having worked his way up from marathons, to a 50-mile course and eventually 100-kilometer (just over 62 miles) courses in October, the Heath native decided to run an ultramarathon for his senior project. That would be a 100-mile run. 

“I started getting into ultra running, I was interested in that. One of my teachers suggested doing something running related and I put the pieces together,” Draxler said. “Seeing local ultras and 100-milers, I could mix those together and accomplish a huge goal of mine while completing the senior project. Everything lined up where it worked." 

After six months of training and planning, Draxler set April 17 as his running date, but New England weather threw a wrench into the plans.

Instead, he delayed a week and began his run on Saturday in Charlemont, starting off on his first of 100 miles at 6 a.m. The trail he mapped out ran all around western Franklin County, looping through Heath, Colrain, Rowe, Florida, Hawley, Shelburne and Buckland as part of a big loop, trying to link as many trails as possible. 

The training to prepare was rigorous. Draxler ran five days a week and reached up to 95 miles in a single seven-day span just a few weeks before his official run. 

Around the course he had different points set up where friends and family could give him whatever he needed and offer support. Draxler timed out when he would reach each point so his support group could be there. 

Originally he had wanted to run a traditional 100-mile race, but due to the pandemic, he was forced to map out his own course. It wound up making the journey even more personal. 

“It was a very unique style of ultra running," Draxler said. “Having my friends and family around made it more memorable and more personal. I got to run through trails I know that are just a couple miles from my house and spend time with my friends and people I love. It was amazing and so generous of everyone for helping." 

Having never run an ultra before, Draxler brought in a local expert to serve as a project adviser. That would be South Deerfield’s Amy Rusiecki, an experienced ultra runner, who helped talk him through what the experience would be like. She also served as one of his pace runners during a portion of the final 50 miles to help him out. 

“She was very knowledgeable,” Draxler said of Rusiecki. “She gave me a ton of good input. I couldn’t have done it without her. My only experience with anything close to an ultra was the 100K, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. She gave me good input on the technical side of it. She made sure to remind me to slow down and enjoy the whole thing. She wanted me to be present which was a great thing."

The run went on into the night, but there was never a moment Draxler considered stopping. One of his lowest moments came around 3 a.m., but he was surrounded by friends and family who helped him continue on. 

“There were some moments where it got really tough,” Draxler admitted. “I don’t think I ever really considered quitting. Just talking to people and going through shorter, but still long, runs, most of the low points you experience are temporary. I went through one of those low points, I knew it would get better and it did. There were a couple points where it felt bad and I would jokingly think ,‘I could quit and wouldn’t have 15 more hours of running left,’ but I never really considered it. I put in so much time to prepare so I just had to push to the finish, both physically and mentally.” 

Draxler was still pressing forward as the sun rose on Sunday morning. He took the time to process that he had been running since the sun rise the day before. 

After training for nearly six months, he was confident in his physical ability to finish the race. The hardest part for him was managing the mental aspect, knowing that he was so exhausted to the point where if he lost focus for even a second, he felt he would fall asleep. Having a pace runner with him during the night helped ease those concerns, knowing that as much as he wanted to mentally check out, he couldn’t let himself. 

So why is it someone would want to push themselves that hard, both physically and mentally? 

“I don’t know where it comes from or why I enjoy doing it but it just makes happy," Draxler said. “I enjoy the long runs so much and using running as a tool to explore local areas and trails. The idea of seeking discomfort to have a more fulfilling experience is something I agree with. There’s a part of it that if I just endure this discomfort, I can reap the benefits after.

“You learn to deal with the discomfort a lot through running where that kind of thing is something I’m happy to deal with in return for the reward I get from it,” he continued. “The conscious mentality of seeking discomfort is something I’ve developed but it's something subconscious that works in my favor." 

Finally, at 1:30 p.m. on Sunday afternoon — 31½ hours after he set off — Draxler completed his 100 mile run.

“It was surreal,” Draxler said of the finish. “After so much preparation time to actually be done with it, it’s overwhelming. To finish with so many people there, many who had been on the course and saw me at the finish, it was really, really nice.

“I didn’t have a huge reaction, I was just too exhausted. It didn't fully hit me how special the moment was. I was just appreciating it and I just sat down and tried thinking back on all of it. The feeling of knowing I was sitting down, not needing to get up and run another 10 miles or having to run again at all that day was a nice feeling.” 

His advisor for the project, John Schatz, said he had no doubt Draxler would be able to complete his task. Schatz felt the planning that went into it — six months of mapping out the course, figuring out where his stops would be and where to set up his support crew — was just as important as the run itself. 

“Will has proven to be an accomplished, humble, determined, and reflective outdoors-person and athlete,” Schatz said. “His feat — both the physical accomplishment and the organizational aspect — is truly impressive and inspiring. It’s really mind-blowing from an athletic perspective.”

Despite completing the run, Draxler admitted he was hoping to finish earlier than he did. His original goal was to finish in 26 hours, though he’s not disappointed he didn't stay on his exact schedule.

“That was a little bit hopeful but as I started going I realized if I pushed really hard I could have achieved that time but I wanted to relax and enjoy it as much as possible,” Draxler said. “I wanted to enjoy being outdoors. As it got later, I was feeling the effects of the exhaust and wasn’t able to push pace and make that time as much. I mostly walked through the night to feel better in the morning. I’m not too upset I missed my goal because I still finished.”

While the run was the main aspect of the project, Schatz made sure Draxler incorporated the community into it. Going forward, Draxler said he’s planning to work on the trails in the area, hoping to clean them up and preserve them. 

“Will has proven to be an experienced and skilled runner in cross country,” Schatz said. “He really wanted to pursue running 100 miles, but that alone didn't encompass the senior project. He connected with local conservation routes to learn more about trail maintenance and had already done work to maintain trails. He hopes to do a little this spring as well. That was his way of incorporating that into his project.”

There aren’t many larger challenges in distance running than completing an ultra, but Draxler hopes to keep pushing the boundaries of what his brain and body think he can accomplish.  

“Recently I’ve been happy doing a lot of slow paced running stuff,” Draxler said. “I might do more fast racing stuff but I’ll continue ultra running if I can. I’d like to go further distances, there’s always something further to challenge yourself.” 


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