Exhaustion, boredom, pain and blisters are the inevitable
by-products of running upward of 50 miles at a stretch, but
overcoming these bedevilments is more a matter of inner grit than
athletic prowess. The long-distance runner's need for calories,
however, can't be willed away. It's theoretically possible--if
not doctor-recommended--for a marathoner to finish a standard
26.2-mile race without any food or fluid intake. But there's no
way ultrarunners can store all the energy needed to keep muscles
moving for 50 miles or more.
This is an article from the Aug. 4, 2003 issue
Refilling the tank is no simple task for an ultramarathoner.
"Learning to deal with aches and pains is a matter of callusing
the mind," says Kevin Setnes, a veteran of 65 ultra events and
the coordinator of USA Track & Field's ultrarunning team. "The
biggest hurdle we face is figuring out how to eat and drink
without getting sick."
The runner's body must be stoked with a steady supply of
high-energy carbohydrates. That means an in-race diet based on
the usual array of performance foods: energy bars and Gu;
bananas; plenty of water and sports drinks saturated with carbs
and electrolytes. But as the miles mount, the sports-engineered
noshes tend to lose their appeal, and the body begins to crave
comfort food--chicken soup for the soles. The aid-station food
spreads at most ultra events resemble early-bird buffets. Broth,
turkey-and-mayonnaise and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches,
mashed potatoes, fruit, cookies, cola and hot chocolate are
staples. Some competitors' cravings run to the bizarre. Chad
Ricklefs, UltraRunning Magazine's 2002 ultrarunner of the year,
has a crew of attendants to hand him cheese quesadillas, grilled
cheese sandwiches, baked potatoes smothered in salt, and potato
chips as he runs. (Salt aids in the absorption of water.) "The
only time I'm allowed to eat most of this food is during a race,"
says Ricklefs, who works as an environmental planner in Denver.
"You'll never catch me eating a bag of chips at my desk."
Keeping the food down requires strict body temperature
regulation. Running too fast overheats the system, diverting
blood flow from the gastrointestinal tract to the skin surface
and muscles. The digestive system shuts down, and any food or
water that's ingested is sent back whence it came.
Elite ultrarunners avoid excessive upchucking by setting a
leisurely pace, at least compared with top-notch marathoners. A
world-class ultrarunner will average between six and seven
minutes per mile on road courses and upward of nine per mile on
more rugged terrain. Essential to any long-distance runner's
training regimen is learning how to feather the throttle for a
given course and find a pace conducive to digestion and a decent
Slower paces require less oxygen intake, so ultrarunners' lungs
aren't necessarily the fire-breathing machines you might expect.
There haven't been any rigorous scientific studies done, but
David Martin, a USATF sports science committee member, suspects
that the capacity of the average ultrarunner's aerobic system is
similar to that of a college-level endurance runner. And because
strength and endurance are as important as speed, many
ultrarunners veer from the stereotypical marathoner's slight
build. "I remember when I saw my first ultramarathon in 1983,"
says Setnes, who is 6'3" and 160 pounds. "I couldn't believe how
average-looking these people were."
Other than impeccable biomechanics--which help them avoid
injuries--and deep reservoirs of desire and focus, ultrarunners
do not fit the profile of the classic elite athlete. "These
people aren't off the charts at all except in the ability to run
much farther than anyone else," says Martin. "They're ordinary
people who do extraordinary things." --Stephen Cannella