Run 100 miles - What Does it Take to Take on an Ultramarathon
(MCT) - Jennifer Frahm's first couple of laps went pretty well. "It was like a normal, nice little run," recalled the 28-year-old.
On the next couple of laps Frahm tried to think more about the run itself - until she found herself singing children's songs. "'The Wheels on the Bus,' 'Bingo' - to take my mind off things."
Mile 68 or so, midway into her fifth lap, after she'd been running 14 hours and it was starting to get dark was when the pain started kicking in ("My feet were burning"). On the seventh lap, phantom trails tried to lure her into the forest. By the eighth and final lap?
"I swore up and down all during the eighth lap that this was the craziest thing I'd ever done," said Frahm, who holds a doctorate in chemistry. "Why would anyone ever want to do this again?"
"This" being to run 100 miles. At one time. Without stopping.
The question seems a logical one, yet 234 runners stood in the dark under threatening skies at Umstead State Park eager to run 100 miles. To head out in the dark, run till sunrise, run throughout the day, run into the evening, run into the night. The fastest ones would be able to finish in time for the evening news. Most, though, would plod on throughout the night and into the morning, wrapping up about the time many folks were getting out of church.
Running continuously, from Saturday morning cartoons to Sunday dinner.
In a world of crazy endurance events - from Ironman triathlons (swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, then run 26.2 miles), bike races across the U.S. (3,000 miles in eight days) and adventure races that include every event under the sun over the course of a week or so - ultramarathons are among the craziest. Crazy, but catching on fast. The esoteric event has gone from being the pastime of a fringe few to the next logical step for runners seeking a new challenge. According to UltraRunning magazine, last year saw 354 ultras (defined as races of 31 miles or longer) in North America. The magazine didn't report the total number of people who entered the races, just the number who finished: 25,816.
The Umstead 100 Endurance Run epitomizes the popularity of the ultra.
"We could easily get 500 or 600 runners if we didn't have a registration cap," says assistant race director Joe Lugiano.
As it is, the ceiling of 250 runners - to keep the race manageable within the confines of 5,500-acre Umstead - was reached three days after registration opened in September.
Until 2003, Jennifer Frahm was pretty much a gym rat. One day, leaving the gym in Rochester, Minn., where she worked at the Mayo Clinic, she picked up a flier for a half-marathon. Some friends ran and it looked like fun, so she signed up. Then she thought, oh, what the heck.
"I'm going to be running all these miles anyway," she reasoned, "why not get my one marathon out of the way?"
She had such a good time in the 5 hours and 2 minutes it took her to run the Chicago Marathon that she signed up for another, then another. After 20 or so, and after getting her time down to 4 hours, she decided she needed another goal. So last year, she did the Umstead 100's 50-mile option, which only made her want to do the full 100.
A common thought process, says Richard Keefe, a sports psychologist at Duke who counsels Blue Devil athletes.
"Some people just love to set a goal, then work hard to reach it," Keefe says. When they achieve one goal, they need to move on to the next, which is common in any number of areas, says Keefe, be it work, your kids, video games. What's slightly different for athletes is the accompanying buzz they get, the oft-touted endorphin high.
"It's very rewarding," says Keefe, a former maratho ner, of the neurohormones that he calls a "natural opiate."
Like trained monkeys or drug addicts, some athletes will do whatever it takes for more.
Curiously, those euphoria-causing endorphins are produced in response to pain. At some point, though, doesn't the pain exceed the rush of endorphins?
Pain and Pride
For 49-year-old Chris Clausen of New York, that point appeared to come as he contemplated his last lap from under a wool blanket inside the main aid station. It was 6:45 in the morning; he had 12.5 miles to go. Ten friends and family members who had flown from New York to cheer him on gathered around him as Red Cross volunteer and Wake EMT Bridgette Mulder salved and bandaged his badly blistered feet.
"I'm having feet issues," he said quietly. Realizing that time was working against him, that there was a cutoff after which runners would be forbidden to start another lap, he asked, "What's the cutoff for going back out?"
"Eight o'clock," answered Sally Squire, one of 150 race volunteers.
Turns out, his pride was hurting more than his feet. Last year, his first attempt to run a 100-miler was thwarted by hypothermia at mile 75. "I swore I would come back and finish the race the next year."
Now, he was staring down the possibility of another incomplete century run.
For Andy Cable of Connecticut that transitional moment came at "6 a.m. on the dot. At that moment I realized I had six hours to do 18.15 miles, or just under 20 minutes per mile." That meant no more short breaks to tend to the blisters that began developing on his feet around mile 30.
In Frahm's case, glow ceded to grimace midway on her fifth lap, with nearly a third of the race remaining. Walking the longest hill on the course - her strategy from the start had been to walk the hills, run everything else - she said she was doing "good." Later, though, she would admit that her feet "were not happy with me."
"I had some soreness in my legs," she said going into Lap 5, "but nothing real significant. It seemed like I could work through it."
But then it started getting dark - psychologically a rough time anyway for most 100-milers - and the blisters became an issue. They slowed her pace, making her realize that she probably wasn't going to meet her goal of finishing in under 24 hours. (Not finishing, on the other hand, wasn't an option: She was wearing the coveted No. 100, given to the first-time hundred-miler deemed to have the best chance of finishing.)
She'd changed socks every other lap to this point and may have changed running shoes once ("I can't remember"). She picked up a pacer on Lap 5 but was reluctant to mention her aching feet. "I didn't want to complain."
Finally, though, she did. Her pacer asked if she'd taken ibuprofen. She'd been reluctant, fearful that it might upset her stomach. But at the midcourse aid station she relented. Along with her saltine crackers and Pepsi, she popped a pill.
Whether it was the ibuprofen, the snack or the start of the inevitable cycle of euphoric highs and crushing lows common to long distance athletes, her lot improved.
At least until Lap 7, when those imaginary trails tried to lure her into the woods, and Lap 8, when the race-long drizzle turned into a downpour, a downpour that, in the 50-degree weather, put an instant chill into her bones.
That's when she started asking, Why? Why would anyone do this once? And why on Earth would anyone do it a second time?
Why they do it
Why do people put themselves through such things as the Umstead 100 knowing that there will be a good deal of suffering involved? Well, there's that endorphin thing. There's a sense of accomplishing something that few others would or could (one in 181,522 North Americans finished a 100-mile race in 2007, according to UltraRunning's figures). And, says Keefe, the Duke sports psychologist, there's that simple urge common to many of us: meeting a goal.
"They aren't that differe nt from the rest of us," Keefe says of the ultra athletes.
For Andy Cable, the why of the Umstead 100 boiled down to a rock and a stick. As the last finisher - with six minutes to spare before the noon cutoff - he won a walking stick (custom made by Race Director Blake Norwood) for being the last guy across the finish and a rock for being the last runner overall. (Race winner Serge Arbona of Maryland, who finished in 15 hours, 53 minutes and 9 seconds, won a gold belt buckle.)
For Chris Clausen, the answer was less tangible.
"It is hard to fully describe the feeling at the finish line," said Clausen, who finished his last, blister-plagued lap in 3 hours and 15 minutes. "Relief. Pride. Love. Humility."
And for Jennifer Frahm, who found herself asking why repeatedly on the last 12.5-mile leg of her 100-mile run, and who was so eager to just get the thing over with that, aching feet and walk-the-hills strategy be damned, she ran the entire last three miles?
You might think that it was just to say she had run 100 miles. Once.
After enduring a stabbing pain in her legs - "the worst pain I've ever felt" - the Sunday evening after the race, after being relegated to a stiff shuffle for two days after the race, and after laboring through a one hour and 15 minute, 5.5-mile training run - possibly the slowest she's ever run - a week and a half after the Umstead 100, Frahm is rethinking her motivation.
"I would like to do it under 24 hours," she said Monday. "I'm not making any promises. I didn't have fun the whole time. But it was a great accomplishment."
Frahm plans to take on another endurance first in September, an ironman triathlon.
"You never know where your life is going to go."
© 2008, The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.).
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.