Going the distance, and then some
After nine years of running marathons, Glenn Butcher hit a wall. The seasoned racer felt burnt out from endless miles and qualifiers, and the constant training for the speed required of competitive marathoners had left him with nagging injuries.
So, to get his groove back, Butcher decided—oddly enough—to take up ultramarathoning.
He ran his first 50-kilometer (31-mile) race, the Long Island Greenbelt Trail 50, in 2003. On the course, he allowed himself to slow down and enjoy the scenery. “Once I did that, I really fell in love with it,” says Butcher, 44. He’s run five ultras since, including the Viaduct Trail Ultramarathon in Pennsylvania last year, a 100-miler that lasted nearly 24 hours.
“I just couldn’t stay awake—I was weaving, walking through weeds on the side of the trail,” Butcher says. Eventually, he sat down on the roadside and slept for a couple of minutes, before finishing the race.
Some runners have strong opinions on going even one toenail farther than a traditional marathon: Crazy. Nuts. Why? But a growing number of runners like Butcher are embracing the ultramarathon, which is loosely defined as any race longer than 26.2 miles, to return to what they say is running in its simplest form—and to escape the explosive popularity of marathons in recent decades.
In 2008, over 17,000 people in the U.S. finished at least one ultramarathon, a 20 percent jump from 2007, according to Tia Bodington, editor of UltraRunning magazine. Last year 503 ultra races were held all over North America, the majority of them in California. They can have a handful of competitors or, in the case of the annual JFK 50-Mile race in Maryland, as many as 1,000. While almost three-quarters of the runners are men, female competitors are becoming more common.
“It’s kind of like the new frontier,” Bodington says. “So many people have done a marathon, it is like, what is next? What is it like to go further? Where would my brain go?”
Ultra distances usually range from 50 kilometers to 100 miles, but there are no limits. Some races are based on a time limit—with some as long as 48 hours—rather than a fixed distance.
“For some people, something like a marathon is just not going to provide the stimulus that really gets their systems going anymore,” says Marvin Zauderer, a sports psychology consultant in San Francisco.
Thomas Wong ran his first ultra, the Knickerbocker 60K in New York, in 2008. Slogging through the drizzly, chilly, and sparsely attended loops, he knew he was hooked on something greater. “It’s not the speed that matters to me,” says Wong, 39, who hopes to complete the Canadian Death Race, a brutal 125K ultra with an elevation gain of over 17,000 feet in the Canadian Rockies, this August. “To push yourself to finish those distances takes a different mentality.”
Compared with the emotions involved in running a traditional marathon, Wong says, in which one feels a predictable cycle of pain and elation over the course of a few hours, a zen-like “nothing” overtakes his mind during an ultra. “Hope,” he says, is the only “driving force.”
But ultra-racing indicates not just a different mentality, according to Zauderer. He believes the rise in the sport’s popularity has coincided with an overall increase in physical ability. “We as human beings and athletes are growing in capability,” he says. “We’re living longer. We’re in better shape—some of us. When we wreck things on our body, many of them are more easily repaired.”
Pete McCall, a physiologist with the American Council on Exercise, says he’s seen a tendency toward extremes across athletics, from the X Games, an extreme sport tournament, to a greater frequency of hard hits in the NFL, to more explosive performances in track and field. Whereas people used to train gradually for one or two years leading up to a marathon or ultramarathon, McCall says, today they do so in months, even weeks.
A case in point: Thomas Wong ran the Knickerbocker ultra just two weeks after running his first marathon.
Ultras are usually held on trails rather than roads—“It’s kind of like a long walk in the woods,” says Bodington, “except you’re running and you’re focused and you’re with a group of like-minded people”—and many are put on by volunteers. There are minimal crowds and no schwag bags. More often than not, trees outnumber bystanders. For its devotees, the ultra is a refreshing return to the basics.
“It’s been said that, in a marathon,” you come to “know a lot about yourself,” says Lucimar Araujo, 52, who took up running as a sport shortly after moving to New York from Brazil in 1997. “When you do an ultra, I say, you learn about yourself and you know about everybody else.” Araujo has run more than 20 ultras since. They provide a special camaraderie, she says. The runners talk to one other, offer support and encouragement, take breaks together. Araujo herself likes to hug trees along the way, a practice she says renews her energy levels.
Ultras are often grassroots affairs. Last fall Glenn Butcher decided he wanted to host his own 100-kilometer race in New Jersey. He began heading out on training runs with a GPS unit to chart a suitable course. He put together a Web site and forwarded an e-mail to running friends. Butcher expected to attract about 30 runners, but so far 65 have registered for the inaugural South Mountain 100K, which will be held on three, 20.7-mile loops within the South Mountain Reservation in Essex County this May.
“Each one,” he says of ultramarathons, “is a great adventure.”