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Monday, February 18, 2008
Updated: February 21, 1:24 PM ET
Are these runners ultra-tough ... or ultra-crazy?

By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2

While you were still sleeping, Scott Jurek ran 30 miles, up a trail that climbs 3,600 feet. While you shuffled to the kitchen for Cheerios, Jurek spent two hours strength training, working his entire upper and lower body. He's not done yet. A core routine follows, as Jurek works his abdominal muscles until they burn. That's easily remedied by his preferred method of therapy -- jumping into a tub full of ice water to soak away the day. In between, he'll prepare, cook and munch on an array of vegan foods. The day after a peak training session, he'll pound down an obscene amount of whole grains, raw veggies and wheat germ drinks: about 6,000 to 8,000 calories, give or take a lentil or two.

Scott Jurek
A lack of prize money and endorsements doesn't deter hearty souls such as Scott
Jurek from ultrarunning.
Just a ho-hum day of training when you're one of the best ultramarathon runners in the world. Jurek is one of a growing legion of (ummm … thrill seekers? masochists?) individuals willing to put their bodies and minds to the test by running extra-long races, often in grueling conditions.

"Winning a race, or even finishing a race, you get this intense high, this great feeling of self-satisfaction," said Jurek, a 34-year-old former Nordic ski racer who ran his first ultra in 1994. "The struggles I encounter throughout a race can sometimes seem insurmountable. Heat, distance, altitude -- you've got to get through all of that. A lot of getting through and feeling good afterwards is ego. But on a deeper level, pushing one's body to those extremes, like in life … sometimes the most difficult times bring the most clarity."

An ultramarathon is defined as any race longer than the traditional 26.2 miles of a marathon. The most common distances in U.S. races are either 50 or 100 miles, with some pushing 150 miles. There are also timed races: See how far you can run in 12 hours, or 24 hours, or six days. More and more people are embracing the challenge of ultra running. According to UltraRunning magazine, 354 races were run in the U.S. and Canada last year, with a total of 25,816 finishes. In all, 14,251 runners of all ages completed an ultra; nearly 30 percent of those finishers were women. Participation in ultra races has jumped more than twofold over the past 20 years.

Some of the world's best-known ultra races have become legendary among runners for the challenges and punishment they dish out. The Badwater Ultramarathon takes racers through 135 miles of hell. The course starts 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley, Calif., at the lowest point in the continental U.S. It ends 8,360 feet above sea level, more than halfway up Mount Whitney -- the highest point in the contiguous 48 states. The race usually happens in July, when temperatures routinely hit 120 degrees in the shade.

Valmir Nunes
Punishing temperatures and elevation gain make Badwater the best-known ultramarathon event.
At least the ground is softer when it's that hot out. In the Arrowhead Winter Ultra, racers must cover 135 miles in the hinterlands of northern Minnesota, running on terrain that's often frozen solid. Only 27 out of 50 racers completed the circuit this year, yet that was the highest percentage in the race's history. Last year, only 10 finished the race, from a starting group of 46. No wonder. Temperatures in the Arrowhead region of Minnesota can drop as low as minus-60 Fahrenheit.

Then there's the Spartathlon, one of Jurek's favorites. When the Persians landed in Marathon, Greece, in 490 B.C., the Greeks dispatched a messenger named Pheidippides to Sparta, more than 240 kilometers (150 miles) away, to seek help. According to legend, Pheidippides then ran 40 kilometers (26 miles) from Marathon to Athens to announce the Greeks' victory against the Persians, before dropping dead. The shorter 26-mile route became the blueprint for the modern marathon, a distance now regularly run by well-trained athletes and weekend warriors alike. Since 1983, an ultramarathon covering 153 miles has been run in honor of Pheidippides' longer run. But while marathon races are run all over the world, the 153-mile Spartathlon happens only in Greece, along the same Athens-to-Sparta road traversed nearly 2,500 years ago. Jurek has won the race two years in a row, clocking two of the fastest times in history.

The four fastest times on record all belong to Yiannis Kouros, perhaps the most famous ultra runner of all-time. Kouros holds many broader records, running the fastest times for a 100-mile road race, 1,000-kilometer road and track races and a 1,000-mile road race, as well the longest distances covered for timed races lasting 12 hours (road and track), 24 hours (road and track), 48 hours (track), and six days (road and track). Kouros, who turned 52 last week, holds nearly as many nicknames as he does world records. His long list of monikers includes "Running God," "Golden Greek" and "Pheidippides' Successor." Though he's one of the sport's best-known ambassadors, Kouros would be the first to tell you that ultra running isn't for everybody.

Spartathlon
Great Britain's James Zarei won the Spartathlon in 1995, and believe it or not, he didn't
grow this beard en route.
"Ultra running is a metaphysical event," Kouros explained. "If you don't have that kind of idiosyncrasy, you will never become an ultra runner, even if you train all your life. I am one of those people who recommend and try to inspire people to get involved with running. But ultra is not a fun-running sport -- it's only for unique souls."

Kouros, like Jurek and other ultramarathon runners, doesn't practice the sport for a living. Originally from Greece and now living in Melbourne, Australia, Kouros dabbles in poetry, songwriting and other pursuits, with two vocal and two orchestral albums to his credit. Jurek lives in Seattle, where he works as a physical therapist and trainer for ultra runners and more casual types. (Full disclosure: I took something called stride-perfection classes with Jurek two years ago in Seattle. I'll still never be confused with someone fast, and the longest race I've run is a 10K, but the lessons still helped a lot.)

Twenty years ago, the Western States 100 and other big-name ultra races gave out prize money to winners. Today, few races hand out cash prizes; the sport has shifted toward a noncommercial slant. That suits Jurek fine. Without a lot of money in the sport, there's much less temptation to turn to the kind of performance-enhancing drugs that have cast a dark shadow over cycling and other sports. Some ultra runners won't even pop an aspirin for joint pain, preferring to keep the sport as pure as possible.

Yiannis Kouros
Yiannis Kouros owns many ultrarunning records, including
the fastest times for 100- and 1,000-mile road races.
Still, ultra running, like any sport, involves fierce competition and plenty of ego. In 2007, Dean Karnazes won an ESPY award for Best Outdoor Athlete. Karnazes gained recognition for running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days and also was named one of Time Magazine's 100 most influential people in the world in 2006. His ESPY win sparked controversy in the ultra-running community, with some questioning why the award would go to Karnazes instead of an ultra runner with more wins to his credit. Jurek has asked that question himself publicly, sparking what some followers of the sport consider a budding rivalry.

Talk to Jurek or Karnazes now, though, and they'll quickly deflect the topic. Karnazes ran his first ultra-length race under weird circumstances -- drunken circumstances. After having a few too many on his 30th birthday, he decided he'd run 30 miles right then and there. A competitive runner in junior high, Karnazes had launched a career in marketing and hadn't run a race in 15 years. He started raising the stakes from there, setting out to run a 50-mile race, then 100, then whatever else he could find. The first time he ran the 135-mile Badwater race through Death Valley, he trained by doing push-ups and sit-ups in the sauna, anything he could to replicate Badwater's brutal conditions. But about halfway through, he collapsed.

"I failed miserably," recounted Karnazes, author of the book "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner" and a frequent motivational speaker. "But it also lit a fire in me. I thought, 'I've got to go redeem myself, to prove to myself that I can do this.' It gets in your blood in a big way."

For all the rivalries in the sport, friendly or somewhat less so, a bigger question remains: Who is the world's best ultra runner? In a team sport like baseball or an individual sport like golf, success is easily measured by both statistics and championship trophies. That's a tougher task in ultra running, since racers compete in only a few major events per year, often different ones than their counterparts on the other side of the ocean. There's no uniform point-counting or prize-money system to determine a clear-cut top dog, let alone settle arguments over career accomplishments.

Dean Karnazes
Dean Karnazes won an ESPY award for running 50 marathons in 50 days in 50 states. But that doesn't mean he's considered the best in ultrarunning circles.
In 2007, UltraRunning magazine named Jurek and Nikki Kimball winners of the men's and women's North American runners of the year awards, respectively. Jurek earned the honor thanks to his wins in the Spartathlon and Colorado's Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run. Kimball pegged her award largely on wins in the Western States 100 Mile race and the Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc, Europe's largest ultramarathon. On the men's side, Jurek is considered one of the world's best current ultra runners. Kouros is widely regarded as the sport's all-time king. By and large, though, there always will be a debate.

Less debatable are the steps top ultra runners will take to keep going in the middle of a race. Karnazes can share some mind-boggling stories from the road. An 81-hour, 350-mile run in Northern California stands out. Karnazes ran for three days and three nights. Exhausted from the effort, he fell asleep at one point -- in the middle of the run. He figures he ran a good 60 feet while fast asleep, without falling or even drifting off course.

A few years ago, Jurek sprained his ankle during the Western States 100 Mile, then ran the race's final 50 miles on it. He went on to win that race, one of seven straight Western States wins on his résumé. Last year, Jurek was slated to run the Hardrock Hundred, a treacherous trek through the Colorado mountains that forces runners to dodge frequent lightning storms while running at nearly impossible upward-sloping angles. Three days before the race, Jurek sprained his ankle during a charity soccer match, this time severely. Having stayed in Colorado for a month, training at altitude and preparing his body for the run, he watched in horror as his ankle swelled to the size of a softball. Leading up to the race, he couldn't even walk, let alone run. Determined to see things through, Jurek toed the starting line and started running, the first 25 miles ranking as the most painful stretch of running he'd ever done. Jurek not only won the race -- he also set a course record.

Many of the biggest ultra races cover long stretches on trails, winding through deep woods and into the wilderness. Racers report having to hurdle rattlesnakes and scorpions during some of the more arduous desert races. Running the Western States in the Sierra Nevada mountains five years ago, Jurek recalls running along a trail, a few lengths behind another racer. Suddenly the runner in front stopped cold. Standing in front of them, no more than 20 feet away, was a brown bear looking right at them. Jurek raised his arms, started yelling, and prayed he wouldn't get mauled. The bear considered his potential lunch for a few seconds, then shuffled away.

"That was scary, but it's also part of why I prefer trail running," Jurek said. "Nature reminds us that there's a greater force out there, and you have to respect that. It makes you feel pretty small."

Jonah Keri is a regular contributor to Page 2 and the editor and co-author of "Baseball Between the Numbers." You can contact him here.