Ultramarathon: Pushed to the limit

  • Article by: PAM SCHMID , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 13, 2011 - 9:10 PM

Ultramarathon runners, who can cover 100 miles in a single race, know how to push themselves to the limit.

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Sixty-odd miles into her most recent 100-mile race, Valeria La Rosa viewed a slide show in her head.

She saw herself lying on her couch watching TV. She saw herself in her comfy bed, reading a book. She saw herself anywhere but where she was just then, slogging up hill after hill somewhere near Desolation Lake in Utah's Wasatch Mountains with little idea where the finish line was.

Then she got over it.

"It's not that you don't want to keep going," La Rosa said. "You will; you've gone that far. But you're just tired."

Being bone-tired is a hallmark of running ultramarathons, the term for any race longer than the standard 26.2 miles. But those who take part in them prefer not to dwell on aches and pains, rotten weather or how sleepy they sometimes become along the trails. Instead, they talk about being in nature, the stunning views, the camaraderie and the volunteers who help them keep going.

"You need to love doing it. There's no point going through it if you don't enjoy it," said La Rosa, 36, a native Argentine who lives in Plymouth and runs a half-dozen ultramarathons a year. "I just get so much joy out of it. It's my hobby and a big part of my life. I feel blessed that I can do it, actually."

Ultramarathons, or ultras, usually take place on trails, where the footing is softer and more forgiving. There are wooded ultras where participants dodge rocks and roots, and mountainous ultras where the air thins. Some ultras are run on fire trails, and others wind through the desert. Ultras can feature extreme heat and cold, altitude and hail, all in the same day. They have names such as Dances With Dirt (in Michigan), Hellgate (in Virginia) and Surf the Murph (in Savage).

Their popularity is apparently swelling. John Storkamp, 32, who has served as race director of several Twin Cities ultras, including the Afton Trail Run and the Zumbro 100 Mile, said ultras never filled up when he began running them seven years ago.

"Now, field limits are met early," he said, "and you better get signed up."

Sometimes, runners drop out

Success for ultra runners can be defined by whether a sore ankle was addressed the right way at the right time, the number of falls taken, how long it took to finish or simply finishing at all.

Dropping out of a race "is frustrating, but it's just part of the deal," said John Taylor, of Minneapolis, who completed his 36th ultramarathon, the Surf the Murph 50-miler, last month but has lost track of how many he failed to complete through the years.

Taylor, 49, considers himself compulsive, but in a good way. When running an ultra, he constantly monitors his body, knowing that one mistake can mean the difference between finishing and dropping out. Should a sore ankle be left alone? Does a throbbing calf call for salt? Does dizziness mean he's low on electrolytes or sleep deprived?

"There's a big phrase in ultra running: the study of one," Taylor said. "It's what works well for you, whether blistering or nutrition. ... What works for one person doesn't work for another."

Take food, for instance. For ultramarathoners, it's crucial, and each runner takes a different approach to ingesting the right mix of carbohydrates and proteins. Taylor buys maltodextrin, a complex carbohydrate, in 50-pound bags and makes a gel, adding a little cinnamon and salt and carrying it in a flask while he runs.

Helen Lavin, who has completed 31 ultramarathons, favors commercial gels and pretzels or chips, sometimes mixing in fruit, a granola bar or salty chicken broth.

And every race is different. In 2007, Taylor failed to complete the Arrowhead 135, a particularly grueling race along the Arrowhead State Snowmobile Trail in northern Minnesota. The reason? His insulated shoes stiffened up in the 40-below wind chills, and his hands became frostbitten trying to adjust them. After finding better shoes, he has completed the race the past two years.

Runners handle adversity

Ultramarathoners must be willing to deal with a little, or a lot, of discomfort. They must be expert problem-solvers, often making adjustments on the fly. They need to have tenacious work ethics and be OK with lots of alone time. They have to look at the glass as half full -- even, according to Taylor, "when the cup is bone dry."

They also must be prepared for the mental highs and lows that come with just about every long race.

"The whole ultra thing is up and down. ... You don't worry if you feel terrible, even at 20 miles, [because] a few hours later it gets better," said Lavin, 34, who lived in Minneapolis for seven years before moving to California earlier this month. "You know you've felt like this before and can keep going. But if it's your first ultra, that can be really hard to deal with."

Lavin's first 100-miler, the Superior Sawtooth in 2008, was like that. Because she didn't have a pacer to keep her company, she ran alone most of the night. She lost track of the time. She wondered why she was putting herself through so much torment.

She kept going, though, and nearly 27 hours after she started she was the first woman to cross the finish line.

Taylor counts among his toughest races the Tahoe Rim Trail ultra, a 100-miler consisting of two 50-mile loops. Barely halfway through, he realized he had started too fast. He was hot and dehydrated. His knee hurt after a fall. He had a blister on the ball of his foot.

But Taylor found a reason to continue when he noticed a runner at the midpoint aid station who seemed even worse off than he was -- and was heading back out anyway.

"I thought, 'If he's going back out, I can do it, too,'" Taylor said.

That's the thing about ultramarathons: There's always somebody else even worse off than you.

"So much of it is the journey and pushing the limit and seeing how far out there you can go," Taylor said. "I've always been surprised at how far you can push yourself."

Lavin echoed that sentiment.

"For every bad moment in a race, I'd say there are five or 10 great moments," she said. "When you've trained really well for something, it's the sense that you feel very strong, mentally and physically. It's a real sense of accomplishment."

Pam Schmid is a Twin Cities freelance writer.

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  • John Taylor (No. 67) was among the runners awaiting the 6 a.m. start of last month’s Surf the Murph 50-mile run in Savage.

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