Frantic mood swings, hallucinations and nausea—no, we’re not talking about the effects of the latest black market drug, but something much more intimidating: ultrarunning. Defined as any run longer than a marathon (26.2 miles), ultrarunners embark upon 50 and even 100-mile races.
“Ultrarunning is a funny side of running because it’s the opposite of your everyday 5K type of runner,” says Ron Gallagher, owner and operator of Maximum Velocity Physical Therapy, which claims to be Las Vegas’ only true running specialty clinic. Instead of speed, the goal is endurance.
For any reader who thinks long-distance running is insanity, Gallagher has a message: “You are absolutely a runner; it’s built into your DNA. We’ve evolved to be able to run 20 miles, you’ve just lost your ability to do that.” Gallagher’s stance mirrors the thesis of Christopher McDougall’s 2009 book Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen, which introduced the idea of ultrarunning to the masses. Instead of assuming that some people just aren’t built to be runners, Born to Run argues that humans have uniquely evolved to run long distances. No fancy equipment or special talent is required.
Back in 2015, Runner’s World magazine asked, “Is 100 Miles the New Marathon?” The article’s premise was that the 26.2-mile marathon distance no longer seems that much of an accomplishment now that it has become mainstream. Athletes who are looking for a real challenge must look to bigger goals.
Unlike the comparatively shorter road races, ultrarunning typically occurs on trails. Las Vegas—with its bountiful open spaces and trails—is a natural training ground for the sport.
• Find a local running group. Look online, Las Vegas has a ton of groups catering to all levels.
• Start slowly and be patient. It takes time for the body to harden bones and connective tissue, as well as build up the strength and range of motion to run long distances.
• Be safe. Drink water. Check with a doctor before starting a new exercise plan, and make sure to acclimate to the Vegas heat before jumping out there.
• Have fun. Think of running not as a punishment but as a joyous expression of our shared humanity. Barring that, make the best of your running time with a podcast or audiobook.
Run, but why?
It’s established that any one of us could theoretically join the ranks of ultrarunners if we have the extreme discipline to train. But why would people want to put themselves through such suffering?
“A huge appeal of it is seeing what your body can overcome,” says Heidi Dove, an ultrarunner, Clark County “gifted and talented” teacher and co-owner of Triple Dare Running Company. “You get the lowest lows and the highest highs.” She describes rolling runners highs intermixed with vomiting, the inability to eat and the feeling that you’re going to die. “It’s a sick thrill. You just get hooked.”
One of Dove’s running partners, Geoff Sage, has a different reason to endure grueling runs. “It sounds trivial, but why not? [I run] simply because I can and others can’t, says the Pastor of Giving and Generosity at Central Christian Church. The 58-year-old CFO has participated in endurance sports since 1995.
“I used to call myself an excessive compulsive personality. Over the years I found out that’s not OCD. It’s ‘obsessive,’ not ‘excessive.’ But what’s the difference, really?” says Sage, who plans to run a 50K in October and a 50-miler in March. “Running gives me an outlet that’s healthy, rewarding and acceptable, instead of drinking to excess or doing other things. My labs are good, my weight is good, my mental acuity is good—all these things are benefits of being in great physical shape.”
A mental and physical challenge
Until she found long-distance running as an adult, Dove says she was unathletic. For Dove, the mental discipline of running is what finally clicked.
“It’s more about being able to suffer and being able to hurt than being able to run,” she says. According to Dove, the hard work and adventure have a therapeutic effect. The sport draws recovering addicts and people who like extreme experiences. “A lot of [ultrarunners] have gone through something big in life. It’s a way to deal with stress, anxiety, depression.”
Jose Santos jokingly calls himself a “heavyweight” ultra-marathon runner. “Heartbreak set me into running. I basically got cheated on and accused of it happening because of my size,” he says. Santos channeled his anger into running to prove his ex wrong. “That anger became a confidence in myself, and I’ve been running ever since.” Santos lost 170 pounds in 3 1/2 years and started a website (run2improve.com) to chronicle his journey.
Sage believes that ultrarunning draws a unique type of personality: High achievers who possess incredible self-discipline.
“[It’s] a group of people who have faced and overcome some battles in their lives.” Sage says long-distance running requires extreme mental fortitude. “Without a tough mental capacity, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve physically trained; you’re not going to be successful.”
Vegas running community
When talking about their love for the sport, the ultrarunners all cited one specific perk: the community. “It’s like a family,” Dove says. It’s growing in Las Vegas but also transcends any one place. The sport draws such a niche crowd that runners see each other repeatedly at races throughout the country. “Everybody supports each other. It’s a whole network of people who like adventures,” Dove says.
Sage believes the ultrarunning community is bigger than the marathoning community because runners spend so much time together. “You’re out there for these extended periods,” says Sage, whose most recent race—a 64K in Utah—took him 11 hours and 42 minutes to finish. “Over the course of an event, you’re running with people and enjoying their conversation and company—it’s unique to this sport. People hang around more after races and engage with one another. There’s a tendency to help, encourage, support and care for one another that I have not seen in any other sport.”
Secrets of ultrarunning
Sometimes it takes extreme measures to survive in extreme sports. Here are some insider tips and gory details:
• Chafing hurts. Triple Dare Running Company co-owner Heidi Dove suggests lubing up before a long run. You have to apply powders or balms everywhere your skin is going to rub. “The worst feeling is that burning 50-60 miles into your run, when you still have hours to go.”
• Adios, toenails. Over the course of 100 miles, blisters can be severe enough to knock runners out of races. Toenails may also be collateral damage, becoming infected or falling off. Some runners get so sick of their toenails rubbing against their shoes that they have them surgically removed.
• Sh*t happens. When running through the wilderness for hours at a time, racers must rely on nature’s toilet. Add stomach issues to the mix—endless running interferes with digestion—and things can get messy. It’s not uncommon for runners to vomit and have diarrhea. Dove says she sees people start races with two socks and end with one.
• Psychedelic effects. Physical exertion combined with calorie deficits and sleep deprivation causes the brain to go haywire. Audio and visual hallucinations may occur. “I thought lizards were talking to me, and I was answering people who weren’t there,” Dove says about her last 100-mile race. “You’ll start to see things that aren’t there. You’ll think there’s a dinosaur.”
• Emotional rollercoaster. Even if ultra running doesn’t lead to a complete break with reality, expect to feel all the feels. “You’re sobbing one second because it’s hurting so bad, the next second you’re just laughing hysterically,” Dove says.
• Weird diets. Marathoners may subsist on sports drinks and energy gels, but ultrarunners need more substantial foods to run around the clock. Racers will consume everything from pickle juice (for the salts) to a sandwich bag full of noodles. To avoid stomach issues, local runner Jamie Schofield sets a timer to eat every 30 minutes, alternating between salty and sweet. Running can produce some intense feelings about food, Schofield says, “At mile 28, I once sang a song at the top of my lungs about a bean and avocado burrito because it made me so happy.”
• Pacers help. Runners can become delirious and start zigzagging, so they recruit friends to run alongside them for different legs of a race. Equal parts cheerleader, drill sergeant and nurse, pacers help keep the runner steady and remind them to eat and drink. About five or six pacers may help a single runner in an ultrarun.
• It’s somehow all worth it. “Ultrarunning is not glamorous—we stink, we throw up, we’re pooping in the bushes … you’ll see people running around bloody because they’ve fallen but don’t want to stop. It looks like a scene from The Walking Dead,” Dove says. “I feel most beautiful when I’m wiping puke off my face; I feel way more beautiful than when I’m in a dress and heels. I feel strong. It’s such a liberating feeling to be out there like that.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.