|Jan/Feb 2013 Nonfiction|
When most people hear that I've finished the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run twice, they think I'm either a liar, insane, or both. Most people don't know it's physically possible to run 100 miles, or that there are organized events that allow people to do so. They're also surprised to hear that ultra marathons—any distances over a marathon's 26.2 miles—have become so popular in the past few years that many of the events have lottery systems so that only a hundred or so "lucky" runners are guaranteed a spot on the trails by state and national park services. To add another level of disbelief, people can't imagine running in the elevation, wilderness, or mountains where most of the runs take place. For example, the Western States 100 starts at a ski resort in Squaw Valley, California, at an elevation of 6200 feet, and in the first four miles, runners head straight up a mountain to 8700 feet, then zigzag their way through forests and rivers until they reach the town of Auburn at 1290 feet, for a cumulative elevation change of 38,000 feet. Runner and writer Dean Karnazes has compared the Western States course to running 50 football fields straight up into the air or climbing and descending the Empire State Building 15 times. So, how does one run 100 miles? Every runner and human body is different, so there's no simple or single answer. But from my experience, the answer is as follows.
Why the hell would anyone want to run 100 miles? Each runner has his or her reasons. I'm partially aware of mine.
I was never an athletic kid. In fact, I hated sports because they made me feel like a failure. I was never good at hitting a ball with a bat, tossing a ball into a hoop, hurling a ball across a field, or kicking a ball into a goal. Plus, I didn't "get" sports. Other kids could recite hundreds of stats, name players traded from one team to another, quote legendary coaches, and enjoy watching big guys in colorful costumes throw, kick, and catch a variety of balls; but to me, listening to anyone talk about sports was like hearing Swahili—I didn't understand, and I had no desire to become fluent. Until I was 14, I just wanted to sit around. Play video games. Watch TV. Eat.
Then something strange happened. I began to read some of the books my parents had lying around the house—books on literature, philosophy, religion, and human potential. A combination of what I read motivated me to do more with myself, and that included training my body as a way to train my mind. Reluctantly, I started doing pushups and some light running. I liked how I felt after each workout, and I liked how I changed. I had more energy, a better attitude, and a sense of accomplishment. I kept the same routine for 15 years with no interest in running more than four miles.
Then I neared 30, and I reviewed some of the things I wanted to achieve with my life. One of those things included finishing a marathon. I read a book on marathon training, spent months pushing my body beyond its limits, ran the San Francisco Marathon, and thought I would die when I crossed the finish line. But instead, something changed in me forever. Call it confidence, call it a new consciousness, call it coping with adversity, call it I don't know what. The result was that I felt like a better person. A few days later, even though I swore I would never run a marathon again, I wondered if I could finish with a better time.
I ran another marathon, shaved half an hour off my time, then ran another and shaved a half hour off that time, too. I learned how to become a better runner by making a million little mistakes along the way. During the process, I started to consider myself an athlete—a silly word I once reserved for ancient Greeks—because they thought molding the body molded the soul; and that's the best way to describe what had accidentally happened to me.
During my years running marathons, I heard about people who ran even crazier distances, but I thought that was myth until I started reading their books and meeting them at marathons. The fact that other people had gone past the marathon distance helped me believe that I could, too. Plus, there was something contagious about the character of ultra runners, especially when I witnessed their events and watched them cross finish lines. They seemed humble, content, laid back, comfortable with themselves, and wiser than other people. The reason I wanted to run past normal was because I thought, like Hindu ascetics, that some sort of holy knowledge would be bestowed upon me after I nearly killed myself.
You might be able to get away with slacking off during marathon training, but you could easily kill yourself if you don't train adequately for the 100 mile distance. Your muscles, tendons, joints, bones, digestive system—especially the kidneys—must adapt to withstand up to 30 hours of continuous pounding on trails. The only way to help the body acclimate to the stress is to mimic the conditions before they happen. That means you have to run. Run again. Then run some more.
While training for my first ultra, I asked an accomplished runner how he trained for a 100 miler. He said, "You just fucking run." Well, I've learned that there's more to it than that. It takes patience, too. I had the good fortune to meet Gordy Ansleigh, the guy who founded 100-mile running in 1974, and he told me to train for the 100 mile distance by years. "Before you attempt a 100 miler," he said, "Spend a year running marathons, then a year running 50Ks, then a year running 50-milers."
No matter how you calculate the training, it takes a lot of time: it's like having a part time job. Most nights after work, I spend an hour and a half at the gym. Plus, I do a long run every weekend, which can last anywhere between two to five hours. The trick is to push your body to the point where it's about to break, then stop for a day or two and let it repair and strengthen itself.
You also have to spend time building up muscles beyond your legs. The body is a system, and if you let one part atrophy, then the entire system can fall apart just like a flat tire can render all of the systems of a car useless. So even though my sport is running, I lift weights, strengthen my back and abdominals, and ride a stationary bike. I only spend three days a week running. I also spend 30 minutes walking to work each morning, as well as 40 minutes walking home from the gym each night.
To an outside observer, all of this exercise can sound like a waste of time. However, while working out, I listen to audio books, train with friends, and think about solutions to problems at work and at home. To me, it's quality time that helps me interact with life instead of watching it pass by on TV or the Web. Plus, when I go to the doctor for an annual checkup, there's never anything to report other than incredibly low cholesterol and blood pressure. To me, exercise is like an additional health insurance policy or an investment that pays dividends.
Needless to say, all of this time exercising can only be done with the help of friends, family, and loved ones. There's no way I could have reached any finish line without the flexibility of my girlfriend, the support of my friends, and the praise of my parents. Running is a solitary sport, but I don't think many runners are alone. Nothing gets us through the 20, 30, 50, or 90 mile mark like seeing our loved ones alongside a desolate road or unmarked aid station. Plus, every race is staffed by incredible volunteers, and without their help and encouragement, ultra marathons wouldn't exist.
Every running magazine and running store sells as many products as a drugstore. If you had no experience running, you'd think you need as many gizmos as Batman has in his Bat Cave to finish a few laps around a track. I think the most useful accessory for running is your mind. When you move into distance running, you have to learn how to shut off the part of your brain that tells you to stop. That might go against common sense, but doing anything uncommon requires new patterns of thought. Of course, you have to determine if your brain is telling you to stop because you have an injury—in that case, stop!—or if your brain just wants to give up because your body is sore and tired. For the 100-mile distance, ultra runners have a saying: run the first 50 miles with your body, and the next 50 miles with your mind.
Of course, I wear clothes and shoes when I run, but you'd be surprised how many people don't. Each to their own; whatever works. Personally, it would be difficult for me to finish any run without music. I wear an MP3 player that's the size of a dime, and it helps me meditate past the pain and tediousness of endless hours of movement, especially in the middle of the night. I also wear a headlamp for night running so that I can see any obstacles in front of me, but it's always jarring to see the bright eyes of unknown animals lurking beside me in the foliage. No matter when or where I run, I carry a water bottle or two, and my pockets are stuffed with gels so that I have more calories to burn.
I've never tried to be the best runner in the world. Plenty of runners have beaten my times on the Western States trail, and numerous runners have finished courses far more challenging than anything I'll ever do. I know there's always someone better than me at nearly everything that I do. That's okay. But I want to participate in life instead of watching others live. Think about something you've always wanted to do, but thought impossible. I never thought it was possible for me to run four miles, let alone 100 miles. It started by putting one foot in front of the other.