The world of ultramarathons is a strange one indeed, a mysterious stratum populated by some of the species’ most elite athletes. While the rest of us struggle to get off the couch, the ultras run through the night with injuries, on blistered feet, alternately vomiting, hallucinating and crying. They consider your typical marathons mere training runs; they chortle at the 17-hour limit imposed by Iron Man triathlons.
Technically speaking, anything beyond a marathon’s 26.2 miles is classified as “ultra”; the most common distances are 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers and 100 miles, depending on the race. Clearly this isn’t a casual hobby, but it isn’t a particularly dangerous one, either. Dr. Gerald F. Fletcher, a Mayo Clinic cardiologist, says that running an ultra is fine, as long as you have the proper training and preparation.
“We don’t want to discourage these people,” Fletcher says. Muscular and skeletal problems are more likely for all runners; that said, while cardiovascular exercise decreases numerous health risks, there’s no magic bullet to avoid heart disease — not even ultramarathoning. “You can’t run away from heart disease. Heart disease will run with you if you have risk factors.”
It can be difficult for an ultramarathoner to know when to quit. Brandi Zakrzewski has to remind boyfriend Bruce Sung ho Choi, who is training for a 175-mile race, to climb down off the Stairmaster and seek some semblance of a work/life balance. Not surprisingly, the life-consuming nature of ultramarathoning can take a toll on relationships, too. “Who wants to date a girl who goes out and runs 100 miles for fun?” asks ultramarathoner Bambi Pennycuff. She’s single. By the same token, many ultras form lasting bonds with their training buddies — their “running family.”
While extreme endurance sports, including ultramarathoning, have become increasingly popular, this particular sport’s intensity keeps the field small. “You’ll find that the ultra community, it’s a very tight-knit group,” says Pennycuff. Chris Twiggs says that a new generation of minimalist runners have appeared in the 12 years since he started running ultras, particularly since Christopher McDougall’s book “Born to Run” was published in 2009.
Indeed, it is a young sport. The world’s oldest 100-mile trail run, the Western States Endurance Run, began at an equestrian race in 1974 when Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse came up lame and he decided to run the course himself instead. Twiggs recalled someone pointing at another runner at the starting line of an ultramarathon a few years ago. It was Ainsleigh. That’s how new ultramarathoning is: Twiggs had literally lined up with the person who started the whole thing.
Young though the sport may be, its competitors are not. Last year, the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research polled more than 1,300 ultramarathoners and found that the average age at which most competed in their first race was 36.
There is some competition, but ultramarathoners are usually more motivated to beat themselves — or just to finish — than the rest of the field. “It is not unheard of in an ultra for the first and second finisher to work together,” Twiggs says. “There are some instances of people crossing the finish line together.”
The difference between an ultramarathoner and other elite athletes isn’t measured in body fat; rather, it’s measured in shades of gray matter. “It really is about pushing yourself to a point where, physically, you don’t think you can go on and then making that decision, ‘I’m going to keep going,’ ” Twiggs says. In an ultra, it’s not a question of if you will start to lose your grip on reality; it’s a question of how you handle it when it inevitably happens.
It’s interesting to note that the most difficult aspect of running an ultra can be figuring out what and when to eat. Gels, powders, liquid nutrition, salt supplements, Chinese food, crackers, pizza, candy — you name it, an ultramarathoner has eaten it during a race. And probably thrown it up. The ultra runner has to find what works and stick with it.
For those with the endurance and dedication, however, ultramarathoning unlocks capabilities they never imagined they possessed. Pennycuff’s first 100-mile race “was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” She plans to compete in three ultras in the months ahead.