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Aug 05, 2022

Middletown’s Andrew Messina Completes Ultra-Marathon, Looks Ahead to Another

By Shanna O’Mara

Photo by Facchino Photography

Whether you call him superhuman, competitive or just plain crazy, you can’t deny the sheer grit of Andrew Messina. A Middletown resident who took up running just a few years ago, Messina has since competed on some of the world’s largest stages, trekking astoundingly difficult courses, including one this summer.

The Western States Endurance Run is a 100-mile ultra-marathon that takes place each summer on the trails of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains. On June 25, nearly 400 runners laced up and took on the 30-hour challenge. Messina, the only New Jerseyan on the course this year, completed the grueling competition within that timeframe to earn a coveted bronze buckle. 

Knowing he would have to qualify for this event, Messina trained for years, competing in other ultra-races in 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2021 to collect lottery tickets as he looked ahead to Western States. When his number was finally called in December 2021, he began training with a coach to build up endurance and prepare for the conditions he would face months later. He spent time in a dry sauna to simulate the Californian weather, increased his mileage and trained on hills, knowing he would have to hike up mountains during the competition. 

“You start at about 6,500 feet elevation. Living in Jersey, I live at 65 feet elevation,” he laughed. “As soon as you start, they’re yelling, ‘Ready, set, go!’ and there’s all this excitement – and then you’re basically climbing up a mountain for four miles. It’s a 3,000-foot climb. It’s kind of anti-climactic because you’re hyped up, you want to go, and then you’re just walking.”

After ascending the 3,000-foot mountain, runners work their way through the Californian wilderness, leaping over tree roots, funneling into overgrown channels, dipping into deep canyons and even crossing rushing water. At 78 miles, runners must wade through the American River, assisted by course volunteers and fellow participants. 

Photo by Facchino Photography

“The river starts at your ankles and goes up to about your waist,” Messina said. “There are volunteers. There’s a rope there. It’s extremely safe, but it’s a little funny. When you’re in a 5K, it’s go go go, but with this, it was like, ‘Everybody stop. Jump in the water. Step on this stone. Now step over this stone, and you’ll fall into the water a bit more.’ It’s like a 10-minute process. The experience of going through a river in the middle of a race was awesome. I loved it.”

Messina said he felt at ease throughout the run knowing the event staff was there to ensure each participant was accounted for and safely traversing the land. Still, the area is remote – most of it only accessible by foot, horse or helicopter – and nature supplies its own threats.

“You do have to worry about wildlife,” he said. “I was running through this tunnel of woods at one point, and I see a guy waving his arms at me. I’m like, ‘Yeah! Let’s go!’ He looks frantic, so finally I asked him what’s up. He points behind me and says, ‘You just ran right by a rattlesnake.’”

Messina ran through day 1, that night and the following morning to complete the Western States Endurance Run. He admits there were moments he contemplated giving up and fought with himself over whether to swear off running altogether. However, he persevered and crossed the finish line in 28 hours and 19 minutes.

“It puts life in such a different perspective,” he reflected. “I can look at the races I’ve completed and say, ‘I’ve done this. Now I have a client yelling at me or I’m having a bad day, but I’ve been through worse.’ These races really change your mindset.” 

On Friday, Aug. 26, Messina will compete in the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 100-mile race through one of the most difficult parts in Europe. Roughly 40 percent of participants each year do not finish the race, and of the ones who do, many run through two consecutive nights.

“It is the biggest event in my sport,” he said. “This is going to be a tough one. You start in Chamonix, France and run around the Alps into three different countries. You go to Italy, then Switzerland then back to France. If you have ever skied the Alps, that’s what we’ll be climbing. I have 46 hours and 30 minutes to finish, and it’s 30,000 feet of climbing.”

Despite the pressure that comes with competing, Messina is genuinely excited to hit the trails and enjoy the scenery. 

“If I went to France on vacation, I would never see what I’ll see doing this race. I’m going to see these huge mountains that are beyond belief. I’m really looking forward to it.”

He also looks forward to representing Middletown and showing his 12-daughter and 8-year-old son what determination and hard work can amount to.

“I want to do it for myself,” he said. “I want to do it for my family. I want my kids to see this and say, ‘Wow, look at Dad. I want to try that.’ There’s a good crowd out in the world, including my kids, who know I’m a little crazy for doing these things.” 

Three things to know about Andrew Messina:

1. His favorite local trails are at Huber Woods, Thompson and Hartshorne Woods Park.

2. He believes that like pain or hunger, demotivation comes in waves. He has gotten “comfortable being uncomfortable” and accepts that there will be times he wants to quit, but stays strong enough not to. 

3. After a big race, he craves a cold beer and a decadent burger.