Tag Archives: ultrarunning

Relentless Forward Motion

The second her feet hit the track, she felt like a movie star. She became conscious of human noises –cheering, clapping, other feet falling into step beside her. After thirty-six hours, she had done it: Carolyn Hennessey had completed her first one-hundred-mile Western States Ultramarathon run.

She had spent half the night in the dark woods, the only sounds the owls, her footsteps, and her steady breath. She stopped occasionally to vomit–her body’s reaction to her attempts to consume food along the trail. The time pacers faded in and out, providing her with enough strength and encouragement to continue on. Relentless forward motion, she reminded herself.

The competition was solely internal: a personal commitment to accomplishment. However for Hennessey, finishing also meant overcoming mental and physical obstacles and fighting to keep control of her body while pushing it to the extreme. Despite the pain, discovering and defining her personal limits thrills her.

“I’m always curious about how far I can go and how long,” she says.

Meet the Runners

The category of ultrarunning encompasses a variety of races of different terrains and lengths. Technically, the distance is “anything over a marathon, which is 26.2 miles” according to Hennessey. Typically races range between fifty kilometers and fifty-miles races to one hundred kilometers and one-hundred-mile races. However, the longest ultrarun in the world is the 3,100-mile Self-Transcendence race in Queens, New York. Runners make 5,649 laps around the same city block, taking about a month to complete the race.

Although the concept of running for hours on end does not at first seem like a form of relaxation, individual runners learn to love logging these continuous miles. Hennessey started this practice young, beginning to add mileage to her high school softball team’s required two-mile warm-up before practice.

“I think I just liked that running made me feel free and got my heart beating,” she explains.

Growing up in the Mojave Desert, Hennessey appreciated the sagebrush and other parts of the breathtaking landscape she could see while on long runs. Running became an addictive form of self-competition, and she continued to add more miles to test her endurance.

“You find something in yourself that makes you keep going,” she says.

Carolyn Hennessey runs with her dogs for companionship and safety.

Carolyn Hennessey runs with her dogs for companionship and safety.

Hennessey ran her first hundred-mile ultramarathon in 2010, but it didn’t go exactly as planned when she began experiencing stomach issues at mile thirty-seven, vomiting for the next forty miles.

“I was so determined to finish the hundred-miler that it never crossed my mind that I would stop,” she says.

Although racing is often a personal journey, Hennessey values the time she trains with others. She and Kristin Zosel, whom she describes as a “kindred spirit,” met haphazardly on a trail when Zosel mistook Hennessey for someone else. The connection was instantaneous and they began running together.

This type of friendship is common in the ultrarunning community, According to Zosel. The sport brings together people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, ages and experiences that build unique friendships.

“You go through a lot of different emotions on the trail, you see each other when you are having some tantrums . . . maybe you’re working through some things in life with that run,” she explains. “And it seems like the bond that you form with those people is just stronger.”

Much like Hennessey, Zosel explains her relationship with running as a “slow love affair” that developed after playing sports all her life. Zosel never thought about running until she was in college and, looking for a way to stay in shape, she realized that running might be the best match for her.

“I did the Stairmaster every day and after a year of that I decided I was not going to be sticking with that for a lifetime.”

Running, on the other hand, she could.

Small laps on the road turned into large loops on mountain trails. “There was more a moment with trails where I discovered that, oh my gosh, why would I ever run on roads when I can run on trails?”

Zosel ran her first ultramarathon in Alaska–a fifty-mile long trek with no road access for miles. “That was the race where I discovered just how badly you could hurt but how incredibly euphoric you can be at the same time.”

She parked her car at the start, committing herself to a run of at least thirty-eight miles to the nearest road. Since then, Zosel has run a total of thirty ultramarathons, having most success with hilly fifty-kilometer and fifty-mile distances.

A Note to the Avid Runner

While Zosel and Hennessey continually run fifty-plus-mile distances, the journey they experience along the trail is not for the feint of heart. Longer races can take over a day to complete, and runners tend to encounter an unavoidable point of misery somewhere in what Zosel refers to as the “middle miles.” According to Hennessey, to achieve that coveted runner’s high, you have to first hit a “runner’s low.”

Zosel and Hennessey run hill repeats at 5am on the trails around Mt. Pisgah. Running early in the morning allows them time for family and work later in the day.

Zosel and Hennessey run hill repeats at 5am on the trails around Mt. Pisgah. Running early in the morning allows them time for family and work later in the day.

“You really have to test your limits,” she says.

On the trail, runners remember three common phrases to help them through the roughest miles:

One: Beware the chair. As runners approach aid stations along the trail, their mind welcomes the food, warmth, and people as a sort of salvation. But this can also be dangerous. Runners must not give in to the welcoming comfort of taking a seat because it can cost them valuable race time.

“The chair becomes this all-encompassing thing that’s pulling you in and you don’t want to leave,” Zosel describes.

Two: It never always gets worse. As the night drags on, fatigue–both mental and physical–sets in. One way to combat this is with the phrase “it never always gets worse.” In this way, runners find motivation knowing that the pain will not last forever, but for Zosel, it is also important to remember that the good feelings will not last, either.

“If you’re feeling terrible, you usually drink a little bit, take in a few calories, adjust your electrolyte intake, and within fifteen minutes, you’re back on top of the world,” she says, noting that it’s all about taking care of your body to maintain the runner’s high of feeling “on top of the world.”

Three: Relentless forward motion. The pit of despair, the deepest, darkest part of the journey where Zosel says she feels like giving up and stopping the race. At this moment, she says it is best to remember the phrase “Put your head down and go.”

“It may not be glamorous, it may not be fast, but as long as you’re taking steps forward you’re getting closer to the finish line,” she adds.

Zosel sees a strong metaphor between her everyday life and this fundamental aspect of racing. If life is moving forward, it is going somewhere progressive. The middle miles, or the part of the race where adrenaline has worn off and the runner begins to realize just how far he or she has to run, are the toughest to work through. The struggle becomes more mental, and the motivation to push oneself decreases.

Not Only a Runner

Life is a marathon, not a sprint. In running, Zosel and Hennessey embrace the trail one mile at a time. “I never think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to run fifty miles today.’ It’s always, ‘Okay, the first-aid station is in six miles so I’m going to run six miles.” In their own lives, the same concept applies.

Zosel works as a physical therapist, in addition to raising a 4-year-old son. The answer? Get up early. “Sometimes the alarm clock has a four on the front, sometimes it has a five on the front, but that way I get my time in,” Zosel says.

At first, Zosel worried about how becoming a mother may affect her running. “From the time you become pregnant, you start worrying about whether you’re running too much or if you’re not running enough . . . or if it’s safe or if it’s not safe.”

Sensitive to her body’s needs, she continued to maintain her fitness during her pregnancy. “There’s no manual anyone can give you about how to treat your body,” she realizes. She enjoys time with her son, Jacob, who likes to bike with her and chase geese in the park.

In addition to running, Kristin Zosel values spending time with her son, Jacob, and encouraging him to pursue his passions.

In addition to running, Kristin Zosel values spending time with her son, Jacob, and encouraging him to pursue his passions.

Hennessey, a stepmother of three children, manages to incorporate family time into her work and running schedules. The time she spends on the trail running gives her time for personal reflection and balances her time with family.

“Running is a way–on a daily basis–just to clear my mind and process things. It’s a way to get closer to myself,” she explains.

While running may seem extremely separate to this part of her life, the individual benefits actually help connect her to the people around her. Her family members function as her pit crew for races, pacing her and providing encouragement along the trail.

Working in human resources and licensed as a family and marriage therapist, she makes time to travel with her husband and stepchildren in their Volkswagen Eurovan. On weekends, she sometimes rises early to fit in a run, then returns around 10 a.m. to join her family for brunch.

“The things that happen when you’re a runner only make you a better mom, I believe.”

A Couple Hundred Miles, But Who’s Really Counting?

[caps]T[/caps]he distance between Portland and Eugene is about 100 miles. Imagine running it—in only 24 hours. Nathan Blair would happily take on that challenge, but he might need some recovery time first.

He’s fresh off his first ultramarathon, the Hundred in the Hood 100 Mile endurance run. Its trail stretches from Oregon’s Timothy Lake to Frog Lake to Breitenbush Lake and back. It’s total elevation climb is 12,448 feet. Only a week after completing the course in 27 hours and 58 seconds, Blair already went out for another run, despite painful pink blisters lingering on his feet.

“I could only run three miles,” he says. “My body was uncoordinated, disconnected. I felt like a pre-adolescent.”

Wobbly legs, in lieu of the potential health risks long distance running presents, are practically embraced in the ultra community. It seems as if weakening themselves to childish clumsiness is standard for ultrarunners, who complete distances of 30, 50 and 100 miles each race. Men’s Health contributor and author of Born to Run Christopher McDougall describes the sport as “the fitness version of drunk driving.”

“You could get away with it for a while, you might even have some fun, but catastrophe [is] waiting right around the corner,” McDougall says.

At the very least, these athletes subject themselves to dehydration, nausea, vomiting, blistering, ankle sprains, abrasions from falling, and altitude sickness during races. When they push themselves even harder to the finish, they put their hearts at risk.
In 2009, Men’s Health reported that the combination of muscle injury and inflammation during intense prolonged activity significantly increases one’s risk of heart attack.

Before he began training for ultrarunning, Blair completed a full physical and stress test to ensure his heart’s endurance. Confident that blisters are his only major concern, he’s already planning to run his next ultra, with wider shoes this time.

“I’ve got the bug,” he says calmly with a grin. “And I’ve got a bigger purpose.”

Blair’s motivation to run surpasses reaching personal athletic goals; he’s got a lot of people riding on his miles. Since his first marathon in 2007, he’s logged 243 miles to raise $2,537 for EDURelief, a nonprofit development organization supporting education in rural Mongolia. Despite the existence of schools, EDURelief founders noticed that they lacked many of the materials they need, and their remote locations prevent access to radio and television programming, so the organization recently started raising funds to build new libraries in these secluded areas. It only takes $2,000 to sponsor a new library, which Blair believes is pivotal to these communities. “The books are reaching broader audiences than just the students themselves. They go beyond school to families and friends.”

Blair’s international conscience might be the outcome of his diverse upbringing. Growing up with missionaries as parents, he lived wherever there was church work to be done. He was born in Uganda and then moved to Hawaii. Blair spent his high school years in Kazakhstan, learning Russian with his graduating class of eight international students.

Blair’s classmates barely made up an entire sports team, so athletics fell on the academic backburner. It wasn’t until he began his second major at the University of Oregon, where he met professor Craig Thornley, that Blair discovered his passion for ultrarunning. Thornley sits at the center of the ultrarunning niche in Eugene. He’s been running ultras since 1997, and he co-founded Oregon’s Where’s Waldo 100km event. It’s hard to determine what’s most inspiring about him: the fact that he has run eleven 100-milers in the past 12 years, or just that he’s so modest about it. He says his ultra count is somewhere around 75, but he’s not quite sure.
“I love running, whether it is a mile or 10K or 10 mile or 50K or 100 mile,” he says. “I would refer to myself as a runner first and an ultrarunner second.”

No matter the distance they run, Thornley and Blair train each week with their running group. At only 26, Blair is the youngest member of the crew, his age just about infantile compared to the average ultrarunner. Cindy Billhartz Gregorian of the St. Louis Post profiles ultrarunners in her 2007 article to report that the typical participant is about 45 years old. She quotes ultrarunning veteran Jan Ryerse, who’s run twelve 100-mile races in his 61 years. He says, “older runners have an advantage over younger ones because they’re more patient, which is crucial for pacing.”

Blair sits calmly against a coffee shop wall with his hands folded over his stomach. His latté is likely freezing as he’s neglecting it to field questions. He certainly seems patient. And he seems to fit the rest of Gregorian’s profile of an ultrarunner. She says they are often well educated. Blair received his first degree in Russian studies and now he’s back participating in the product design graduate program. He even tried journalism for a while, which is what he says makes him such a good researcher.

Gregorian states the obvious when she characterizes ultrarunners as highly motivated, a quality that allows Blair to compensate for his youth and novice to the sport. He finds inspiration from his running team, whose members are all at least a decade older than he.

“When someone is 20 years older than you and kicking your butt, that’s awesome!” he exclaims as he leans into the table. “These guys are gung-ho about running. They’ve helped me along and taught me the ropes. I will, down the road, get to the point when I can do the same for others. It’s all about sharing what you love to do.”

But imparting the running culture upon others doesn’t fit the typical ultrarunning model, or at least the traditional one anyway. Some of the original ultrarunners, the 400-year-old Tarahumara tribe of Copper Canyon in Mexico, prefer to live isolated, making no spectacle of their running feats. They wouldn’t even go so far as to call themselves runners. For these cliff dwellers, fast-paced striding isn’t sport, it’s simply a part of their day. In Born to Run, McDougall reports that this tribe faces off in running races, and each competitor often completes more than 300 miles in 2-day periods. He even cites Mexican historian Francisco Almada, who says a Tarahumara once ran 435 miles in one stretch.

Despite their epic accomplishments, the tribe remains extremely private, almost mythical, hidden away in the depths of the cliffs. “The Tarahumara are so mysterious, in fact, they even go by an alias,” says McDougall. “Their real name is Rarámuri—The Running People.”

These running people do not undergo intensive training like Blair and Thornley, and their primitive lifestyle doesn’t exactly include treadmills for endurance testing. They build stamina trekking up and down steep trails in the canyons that have been formed by the feet of their own ancestors. While most racers guzzle water the day before, the Tarahumara hydrate with a different liquid: lechuguila, their homemade tequila. McDougal calls the Tarahumara’s preparation for running “The Mardi Gras Approach.” They do not train, rebuild between workouts, or even eat much protein at all. Instead of water and Gatorade, they choose tequila and corn beer. Come race day, “they just stroll to the starting line, laughing and bantering… then go like hell for the next forty-eight hours.”

Two days of running is cake for the Tarahumara, a stretch for modern-day ultrarunners and seemingly outlandish for the 5K racer. For the subjects in the Running the Sahara documentary film, it was only the beginning. In November of 2006, Charlie Engle, Ray Zahab and Kevin Lin began running in St. Louis, Senegal, with a camera crew at their heels. They were headed east to the end of the continent.

Physically speaking, Engle and Lin were more prepared for the run than Zahab. Engle has been running for 30 years, and Lin just won the first 150-mile race across the Atacama Desert in Chilé. Conversely, Zahab’s running philosophy aligns more with that of the Tarahumara—just wing it. A chronic smoker and beer-drinker until 2004, Zahab believes that running abilities exist more so in the brain than in the body.

“Training 30 to 40 kilometers per day does not really prepare you for that kind of mileage,” he recalls in the documentary’s blog. “We got there and hoped and prayed our bodies would hold up.”

And their bodies did. One hundred eleven days, six countries and 4,300 miles later, the three ran through the sand in Egypt to feel the calm waters of the Red Sea between their toes. The run not only represents personal, athletic journey, but also a triumph in solving the water crisis throughout Africa. Running the Sahara filmmakers founded H20 Africa, a clean water initiative to complement the feature film. The campaign continues to raise funds to build clean drinking wells along the runners’ path.

It’s this runners’ path that Sahara runners, the Tarahumara, Thornley, Blair and all ultrarunners can find commonplace. No matter the location, destination, distance traveled, training, preparation, or even publicity gained during the run, it seems to be that ultrarunners alike find their zen when their minds conquer their bodies, propelling them further along their journey, in whatever wild environment they may find themselves in.

Safely tucked in the pro-running environment that Eugene fosters, Blair is tamer than most ultrarunners. His sport has yet to take him to a barren desert or hunting for myths in cliffs. For now he runs in Amazon Park and practices speed work at South Eugene High School. In between workouts, he’s designing furniture for his product design degree.

“I think running and design complement each other,” he claims. “If you have a deadline for a project, it’s similar to a race. It’s all about the buildup, working through it, and finishing strong.”

Blair has proven to himself that he can finish the 100 miles strong. He went into it with no expectations, which he believes helped him to conquer the distance, a huge percentage of which he says is mainly a psychological challenge. With a love of running and the mental stamina to keep one foot in front of the other, Blair will continue his route, unconcerned with technicalities along the way. “If you look into the future it’s easy to get stressed out about the details. I’m from Hawaii, so no worries.”