Ultra-marathon enthusiasts brave a long, painful road to the finish line
Cindy Billhartz Gregorian
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS – It’s a sport so grueling that even marathoners scratch their heads in bewilderment and ask, “What? Running 26.2 miles isn’t enough?”
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The answer: Nope, not for some people.
Extreme fatigue, black toenails, hallucinations … that’s when those people know for sure that they’ve met their challenge.
Recent years have seen the ballyhoo surrounding ultramarathoner and author Dean Karnazes, who once ran 350 miles virtually nonstop and recently finished 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days. But Karnazes isn’t the oddity that he’d have you believe.
Gwen Heist-Hall ran her first marathon in 1997 and says she felt great at the end.
“I thought, ‘Let’s see what I can do that’s harder than this,’ and I found it,” she said.
Heist-Hall, 40, of Wildwood, Mo., was referring to the Brew-to-Brew ultramarathon, a 44-mile romp from a microbrewery in Kansas City, Mo., to a microbrewery in Lawrence, Kan. Since then, she’s run dozens more ultramarathons, including three 100-mile races.
Jan Ryerse had run several dozen marathons when he decided they were becoming too competitive for his taste.
“Then I heard about these people who were doing longer runs than marathons, and around that time U.S. Track & Field held their U.S. Championship 50K (about 31 miles) race, so I signed up. That was December 1989,” says Ryerse, 61, of Manchester, Mo. The extra five miles were so hard that Ryerse didn’t revisit the ultradistance for several years. Seven years later, he gave it another shot and has run more than 50 ultramarathons, including two dozen 100-mile races.
“People tend to be less competitive in ultramarathons; they go at it at a relaxed pace,” he says. “When you come to a big hill, you don’t run up the hill, you walk up the hill. It’s more of a personal challenge because you’re not competing as much against other people as you are yourself.”
Ryerse and Heist-Hall are among a growing number of marathoners who have joined Karnazes in ultrarunning.
Some ultramarathons are based on pre-determined distances. The most common are 30-, 50- and 100-mile events. Other races give runners specified amounts of time, ranging from a few hours up to several days to cover as many miles as possible. The runner who goes the farthest wins. They run on roads, trails, tracks, even treadmills. Some run through deserts and up into high altitudes.
`Older might be better
To outsiders, ultrarunners might sound nutty or obsessive. But most are highly educated and highly motivated individuals. David White, who took over the St. Louis Ultrarunners Group and has run about 20 ultramarathons, says the average age of ultrarunners is 45 and that almost as many women as men run them.
“Women seem to do better over longer distances than men,” says White, 47, of Chamois, Mo. “It’s not unusual to see women win ultramarathons or to place in the top five.”
Ryerse, a professor in microscopy at St. Louis University, says older runners have an advantage over younger ones because they’re more patient, which is crucial for pacing. He typically starts an ultramarathon at 5 to 5.5 miles an hour.
His patience has paid off.
Three years ago, Ryerse won a 72-hour run in Phoenix called “Across the Year,” which starts a couple of days before New Year’s and finishes the morning of Jan. 1. For a while, he also held the USA Track & Field distance record for masters for running 121 miles in 24 hours. It’s since been broken.
Heist-Hall points out that no one is going to win an ultramarathon in the first 10 miles, but a runner can certainly lose it there by going out too fast and then hitting the wall three-quarters of the way into the race. She thinks the pacing aspect can be hard for younger runners to accept.
“Plus, most of them don’t want to put in the training you need to finish one of these races,” says Heist-Hall, a veterinarian. “Honestly, if I had small children at home and was trying to get a family started, it would be difficult to devote the amount of training that you need to do these races.”
Heist-Hall and Ryerse acknowledge that their first ultramarathons were much harder than they had anticipated. For one thing, there was little information on how to train. Today, there are books, magazines and Web sites with training schedules and nutritional advice.
Ryerse, who runs as many as 85 miles a week during peak training for a 100-mile race, says the lengths of his long runs each weekend ebb and flow. One week, he’ll do a 25-mile run, the next weekend, a 40-miler and then a 25-mile run the third weekend. Other weekends, he’ll do several back-to-back long runs.
“I might do 15 miles on Friday, 30 on Saturday and then 15 on Sunday. But I don’t do that every week,” he says.
Getting the body used to eating and digesting while walking and running is a key part of training. This is especially important for runners who want to finish a 100-mile race in less than 24 hours, which is considered really good.
“You can spend a lot of time in aid stations, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” he says. “Some people even lie down and sleep.
“But if you have a specific goal, you need to keep moving.”
In a typical 100-mile race, Ryerse will drink 40 to 60 ounces of fluids each hour and eat sandwiches, soups and fruit at aid stations, which are about six miles apart.
Loopiness is one of many side effects of pushing the body to such extraordinary limits, and it’s only the start of what happens when sleep is ignored in pursuit of an exhaustive physical goal. Many runners hallucinate.
Ryerse remembers a 48-hour race in which he thought he saw snakes slithering through cracks in the track and sparkly lights coming from a grove of trees.
“One guy fell asleep while running, and rather than turning on the curve of the track, he went straight into a field,” he says.
Because ultrarunning is so new, researchers have yet to figure out the full effects it has on the body. What they do know comes from studying marathoners.
Todd Cade, assistant professor of physical therapy and medicine at Washington University, says distance running promotes cardiopulmonary health while lowering blood pressure and lipids. It also raises HDL, the good cholesterol, and has a powerful positive effect on bone-mineral density and body mass index.
“But once you start running more than 10 miles at a time, there are some negative effects,” he says. “Evidence suggests that there’s musculo-skeletal damage, cartilage damage and increased whole-body inflammatory markers. The immune system is weakened immediately after a marathon, and there appears to be cardiac muscle damage and diminished cardiac function immediately afterward. Liver enzymes also increase, which can lead to liver damage.”
Cade says no one knows yet whether there’s a sustained long-term effect, nor whether there’s an exponential impact on the body the farther one runs.
Ryerse, Heist-Hall and White have been derailed by typical running injuries, including plantar fasciitis, tendinitis and lower back pain. Heist-Hall suffered a stress fracture so bad that she had to quit running for several months.
“It’s like auto racing,” Heist-Hall says. “You never know what redlining is until you reach it. You think that if you train harder, you’ll do better, but I found my breakdown point. I’ve tempered my training since then.”
Ryerse, who estimates he’s run more than 50,000 miles, also says ultrarunning gives him a profound sense of well-being. It helps him sleep better and raises his energy.
But, he says, an ultrarunner’s body will do some strange things in an ultramarathon. For instance, hands and feet swell to the point where a runner might have to change into larger shoes. And they frequently lose toenails.
“They get black from pounding into the top of your shoes,” Ryerse says. “I have a toenail necklace. From a distance, it looks kind of nice. It looks like it’s made of seashells.”
The shared experience of mentally and physically battling the incomprehensible, Ryerse says, keeps him coming back for more.
Breaking down a 100-mile race
Jan Ryerse, 61, has finished more than two dozen races of 100 miles or more. He describes how he feels during a typical 100-mile race run in good weather:
It’s 6 a.m. and Ryerse starts to run at a comfortable pace of 5 to 5.5 miles per hour. His goal is to finish in under 24 hours. He must resist the urge to run faster and forces himself to walk, rather than run, up hills. He drinks 40 ounces of fluid (water or energy drink) every hour and also eats pieces of banana for potassium, salty chips and crackers for sodium and a couple of energy gels for carbohydrates.
Ryerse is now loosened up and running easily. His pace of 11-minute miles feels like a crawl. Closer to 20 miles, he starts to feel a hint of fatigue in his legs.
It’s about 9:30 a.m. and his legs are starting to stiffen up a tad. He begins to take an electrolyte capsule each hour to replace sodium lost in sweat. Closer to 30 miles, he starts to feel a dull ache in his legs.
He passes the 50K mark and the third-of-the-way point, which is encouraging. But his hamstrings and quadriceps are quite sore, so he pops three ibuprofens. His fingers are also starting to swell. He begins to grab more substantive food, such as sandwiches, soup and ramen noodles, at aid stations, and he eats it as he walks.
It’s now about 1:30 p.m., and the day has warmed up. Ryerse increases fluid intake to 60 ounces every hour, and from here on out will eat at all aid stations, which are about five miles apart. The ibuprofen has helped, but he’s running in short bursts of half a mile or less interspersed with short walking breaks. It’s becoming more and more of a mental game. “My body is saying it’s tired and wants me to stop running.” He tries to focus on the passing countryside as a distraction.
Ryerse sits down at the 50-mile mark as a small reward and, if need be, to change shoes and clothes and reapply petroleum jelly to prevent chafing. He also refills supplies. Getting out of the chair is hard. “Beware of the chair” is an old ul tra-runners admonition.
It’s now about 6:30 p.m., and the sun is setting. Ryerse picks up his flashlight and headlamp at the 60-mile station and switches them on when it gets so dark that he can’t see. The pain in his legs isn’t intense , but it’s uncomfortable and persistent. He starts to wash down his energy gel with Red Bull for the energy and caffeine.
Ryerse feels himself slowing down. He’s moving at about four miles an hour. He’s feeling a dull ache in every part of his body, and his legs don’t want to run for long periods at a time. He takes more ibuprofen. He tries to alternate walking and running, a quarter-mile at a time. He also starts to drink cola for its sugar and caffeine.
It’s now almost midnight, and the last 20 miles took almost five hours. Ryerse’s feet have started to blister, his toenails are sore from hitting the front of his shoes and his calf muscles are knotting up, so he stops to stretch. Some runners get into a “survivor shuffle” at this point, but Ryerse’s body isn’t rebelling that much. He can still jog at a pretty good pace between walking breaks.
It’s now past 2 a.m., more of a mental struggle than a physical one at this point. Ryerse continues to eat, but it’s hard to make himself run when walking feels so much better. He starts to think in terms of familiar distances, such as how many four-mile loops of Queeny Park he has to run and then how many loops on the quarter-mile track are left.
About 5:30 a.m. and with 30 minutes to spare, Ryerse crosses the finish line.
“It’s a moment of total exhaustion and exquisite relief,” he says. “The feeling of jubilation doesn’t come until later.”
All he wants to do is lie down and put his feet up.