Sunday, October 26, 2008

Going to extremes

Ultra athletes embrace the pain

Robert Towne competes in the MacDonald Forest 50K. Photo courtesy of Robert Towne (Photo courtesy of Robert Towne )

More than a month after completing his first 100-mile race, Robert Towne was feeling the effects on his body – and plotting an ultra ultra.

"Maybe it's my age," the 56-year-old Bureau of Land Management employee said. "I can't get enough rest. The first couple of days I was pretty numb, physically and mentally."

That doesn't stop him from entertaining the notion of completing the Grand Slam of distance running.

"That's four 100-mile runs in 21/2 months," he said. "They're the historic ultras."

The runs are spread out, from California to Vermont to Leadville, Colo., and the Wasatch Mountains in Utah.

"I enjoy the challenge," Towne said. "I look at myself in an aloof sort of way, a lab technician watching a hamster in a cage. How far can it go? I almost go third person."

Why, why, why?

The men and women who run 30 (and generally more) miles nonstop on a regular basis or pedal a road bicycle for 200 (or more) miles know "crazy" is the first thought outsiders have.

Why else would you endure hallucinations from sleep deprivation, encounters with menacing wildlife – or humans – during all-night workouts, terrain that changes from high mountains to desert valleys or extreme weather changes?

"Good question," said Gunhild Swanson, who started running 30 years ago when she was in her 30s. "Because they can?"

Swanson is retired from Safeco and is on the sidelines because of an injury. The inactivity has made it difficult to cope with the recent death of her husband.

"There's really not a very good answer," she said. "It's challenging your mind and your body, seeing if you can do it. It's an adventure more than anything."

"It's terrible for you, anything in excess is not good for the body," Eastern Washington creative writing professor, author and ultra runner Rachel Toor said. "But often times it's good for the mind.

"(Runners) do it for different reasons. It's more out of pathology than passion. Look at them, what are they running away from? It may not be healthy, but it may be what they have to do to be healthy."

"It's not good for you in the sense that the body breaks down in multiple ways," Lisa Bliss, a local doctor who just returned from a 153-mile run in Greece said. "The interesting thing is studies show that the body really does adapt, it really does fight hard to maintain … and (it) comes back to normal."

For many ultra athletes such as David Blaine and Roby Treadwell, it's about the challenge.

"I know there is a lot of talk about the mental aspect of it," said Blaine, a chef at Latah Bistro who prefers ultra mountain bike races. "And I do think that's important, but some people's body will give up on them after a certain period of time. Anytime you get into the category of ultra you end up doing more damage to your body than doing it any good.

"I know it's not about fitness. I wasn't attracted to it because I was a fitness nut but because of the challenge. And I got to eat a lot of junk food."

"In bike racing you test yourself against others," said Treadwell, 44. "In an ultra event it's you against you. There is going to be a winner, and I don't have any illusions the winner is going to be me, but crossing the finish line is going to be a win for me."

'Shut up, brain'

Describing the Furnace Creek 508 as a challenge is an understatement. It's been described as the toughest 48 hours in sports. Solos, tandems or relay teams have two full days to pedal 508 miles with more than 3,000 feet of climbing through high mountain passes and descents into deserts, including Death Valley.

"It's a challenge to see how far you can push your body," said Mike Emde, who won his third straight Furnace Creek 508 earlier this month in a record time of 27 hours, 28 minutes and 1 second.

"The first 12 hours you need to get through and still feel fresh," he said. "The next 12 hours will be hard, the hardest effort you've ever done. The last four hours are the most intense pain you'll ever go through. That's all willpower, keep on your bike and keep in a forward motion. You have to focus on pedaling and tune out everything else."

Cat Berge, a veterinarian researcher who is leaving Washington State to get married in Belgium, was the top female finisher (29:43.01) at Furnace Creek for a second time.

"You go from extreme highs to extreme lows in a very short time and once you realize that, it's (all) physical," Berge said. "You've learned your brain will play with you. You have to control that. Sometimes you have to tell your brain to shut up."

Berge, 42, said she slipped into it by mistake.

"I didn't realize (Furnace Creek) was a 500-miler when a friend asked me (in 2001) if I wanted to do a tandem, (but) I don't back out of things I promise," she said.

She was then living in California, having moved from her native Switzerland. When her tandem partner couldn't go, she remained committed to ride alone and finished second overall, first among women.

"I discovered a whole great world of people out there that are a bit extreme, a little unique, but very great, from all over the world," she said. "That's what kept me in."


The intrigue is why someone starts ultras or how such a simple thing morphs into an obsession.

"For me it was kind of a lifestyle change that got me into running," retired city worker Dennis Clute, 55, said. "Once I got started I kind of went off the charts, as I did with my previous lifestyle. That was more self-destructive. It had more to do with recklessness, drinking and smoking."

Toor, 46, is promoting her latest book, "Personal Record."

"It's about how I went from being an intellectual couch potato to being an ultra runner," Toor said.

She started running to keep up with her dog that was being exercised by her boyfriend. She found out she liked running, entered a race, won her age group, and eventually moved up to marathons.

"Once you start you keep thinking, 'Can I go farther?' " she said. "After you run a marathon, 50K is only 6 more miles. That's not that big of difference. The next thing you know, people think you're a lunatic."

Going to extremes was just a natural evolution for retired psychologist Steve Heaps.

"We ran all the marathons and other distances," he said. "It started out, and still sometimes has been, trying to do something you weren't quite sure you could do, something to scare you. I signed up for the first one and chickened out."

Two weeks ago he participated in his 27th La Grizz, a 50-mile run in northwestern Montana.

For ultras, a simple workout is a marathon. Families received a lot of credit for their understanding.

"Training, I know I need to ride five to eight hours," Emde said. "The riding part is the easy part. My family takes a huge sacrifice in giving the time up for me. When you go, finishing is the main goal. You know a lot of people, your closest friends, family, people at work, have made sacrifices. If I would not finish, I would let my family down. Finish and they're a part of your success."

"In trying to master (ultra riding) you have to pay more attention to little details in all aspects of life," said Treadwell, 44, who trained with Emde for the Furnace Creek 508. "You can't train 30, 40, 50 hours a week without making sacrifices. It really makes you take a look at everything, not just one aspect. I think I'm a better person for it."

Togetherness, loneliness

Dennis and Mary Ann Clute became ultra runners while their children were young but still don't train together as empty nesters.

"The logistics were hard at first," said Mary Ann, a sociology professor at EWU. "We both couldn't go out for a long run. … He can walk faster than I can run, so I banished him from running with me. I told him he was bad for my self-esteem. I'm more of a social runner. I run to talk, just to get away. We have different running philosophies."

By both participating, they each have to find a third party to be their crew, distributing food and drink (taken on the fly), dry clothing and shoes, medical supplies, flashlights and extreme doses of encouragement. Some runners don't use a crew but depend on a drop bag with key supplies to be at aide stations. Many runners use a non-participating pacer, especially through the night and near the end when they are exhausted and their minds are playing tricks on them.

For bikers in the 508, a three-person crew is used. There is a van driver while the others have various responsibilities: navigate, dispense food, clothes and encouragement, switch out bikes and make repairs.

For all, that social aspect is an important element, although there is a loneliness quotient.

"I've always enjoyed the company of people doing the events – there's a certain kind of like-mindedness," said Blaine, 38, whose current project is planning a 100-mile mountain bike race for next summer. "But there is definitely an aspect of the sport that involves being alone for a long period of time, being alone in your thoughts. There's a balance between the social aspect and being comfortable with your self."

"There is a bond that transcends the superficial things in the world," said Bliss, 40, who had to abandon the Greek run after 120 miles because of an ankle sprain suffered a couple of days before the start. "It's humans trying to survive. Granted, we put ourselves in that position, but that's why we respect each other so much."

Beautiful scenery, wildlife, solitude and companionship – what's not to like?

"For me, I think it is just fun," Toor said. "I like to go to beautiful places. It's a small community, you know people. It's like going to a backyard barbeque – you run then hang out. I love being with people who don't think you're crazy."

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