This story by Patricia Koning originally appeared in the May 2023 edition of Spotlight, a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory publication.
Mechanical engineer Justin Galbraith likens himself to a Siberian Husky that gets into trouble without enough exercise.
“I’m very driven,” he says. “I appreciate a challenge, whether it’s pushing myself physically with trail running or intellectually with an intense design review. I am constantly testing my boundaries so I can earn my rest and relaxation.”
He has yet to find his physical boundary, but in the past year he’s come close. Galbraith is an ultramarathon trail runner, meaning that he regularly competes in multi-day races of 30 to 200 miles through challenging terrain.
He has been with LLNL since 2010, working in the NIF and Photon Science Directorate. He’s worked on the Advanced Radiographic Capability (ARC) petawatt laser, NIF target diagnostics, and on Department of Defense Technologies programs. Galbraith earned his master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of California, Davis through LLNL’s Education Assistance Program.
Currently, he’s the lead mechanical engineer for Advanced Photon Technologies, working on the DELPHI laser for the Matter in Extreme Conditions upgrade (MEC-U) project at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and on development of rep-rated, high peak- and average-power lasers that could be drivers for fusion energy.
In 2014, Galbraith completed his first ultramarathon—the San Lorenzo River Trail Run in Santa Cruz. An ultramarathon is defined as any run that covers a distance longer than a standard marathon of 26.2 miles. Ultramarathons typically start at 50 kilometers, or 31 miles and are often run in nature with significant elevation gain.
He ran his first 100-mile race in 2015, the San Francisco Endurance Run, along trails in the Marin Headlands. The following year he doubled that distance in the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run. Participants must cover the rugged terrain along trails and up and down mountains, circumnavigating Lake Tahoe in under 100 hours. Galbraith finished in 85.5 hours.
In 2017, he completed the inaugural Moab 240, a 240-mile loop through the desolate Utah countryside. Then in 2018, he completed the Bigfoot 200 in the Cascade Mountains of Washington state.
“The elevation change on the Bigfoot 200 is insane,” he says. “It’s like they never heard of switchbacks.”
That race covers 210 miles with more than 46,000 feet of elevation gain. For perspective, Mount Everest stands at 30,000 feet above sea level.
These three events make up the Triple Crown of 200s, although to earn that title one must complete all three in the same year.
“Completing a multi-day race really strips you bare,” Galbraith says. “It’s so overwhelmingly challenging, but if I can finish a 200-mile trail race, everything else seems manageable. And I love the adventure and camaraderie.”
For ultramarathon events, the course is set with sleep and aid stations along the way. It’s up to each participant to plan their own strategy to finish under the time limit. Galbraith learned that he needs to sleep for three or four hours in each 24-hour period. He alternates running and strategic power hiking in steep uphill sections to use different muscles, change his gait and lower his overall exertion level.
In October 2022, he won the 24 Hours From Home Challenge. During a set window of time, participants leave their place of residence and travel as far as they can by any self-driven means—walking, running, skipping, or stumbling. At the end of 24 hours, he had gone the furthest of any participant, completing just more than 100 miles total and finishing 91 miles from home as-the-crow-flies.
He’s also competed in several “last runner standing” events. In this format, competitors must complete a 4- or 5-mile loop once per hour until only one competitor remains. Typically, the time required for each loop gets progressively shorter in the later hours as the competition ramps up.
In January, he won the Survive the Night last runner standing competition held in Southern Illinois. “The event started at 9 p.m. and went through the night, so it was at or below freezing the entire time,” Galbraith says.
“These races are physical, emotional and spiritual tests.”
He became a runner in college. “I struggled with finding a comprehensive approach to wellness early in my life,” he says. “I lost 100 pounds in college. But running has become much more than a mechanism to maintain a weight set point. It’s a positive way to relieve stress and gain balance in my life.”
To train, Galbraith runs almost every day and completes about 70 miles per week. In 2022, he estimates he ran more than 3,000 miles and destroyed six pairs of running shoes. This level of commitment might seem crazy, but he’s not alone. The races Galbraith competes in typically fill up fast and have waiting lists.
One of his goals is to compete in the Western States 100-mile Endurance Run, the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race, which he describes as “the Super Bowl of endurance trail runs.” Last year, more than 7,000 people entered the lottery for 380 spots.
To be eligible, each applicant must run a qualifying race of 100 kilometers or longer within the last year. Applicants receive additional entry tickets for each qualifying race they complete and their entry tickets roll over and double each year they do not gain entry. Galbraith’s next ultramarathon is the Kettle Moraine 100-mile race in Wisconsin in June, which is a Western States qualifier.
He considers himself an advocate for trail running. “It gets you outdoors, exploring new places. And because you are running on softer surfaces and often mixing running with power hiking, your risk of injury can be less,” he says. “Trail runners are very chill and accepting of new people.”
“Justin Galbraith, Going the Distance,” NIF & Photon Science, October 2016
July 12, 2023