Valerie Abradi was just over 30 miles into the race when she saw the dark clouds roll in over the Rocky Mountains.
Soon, the first bolt of lightning streaked across the sky. The wind picked up, and it began to hail. She took cover under the trees, waiting for the storm to clear.
Afterward, she continued climbing up the mountain. However, it wasn’t long before a second storm rolled in.
At the previous aid station, she was so hot she eagerly ate an ice pop. During the second storm, she began to shiver uncontrollably. Wearing only a T-shirt and shorts, the storm left her soaking wet and cold with miles to go until the next aid station.
Three runners — who Abradi refers to as “amazing runner heroes” in her blog — shared their clothing and stayed with her until they reached the next checkpoint, despite her insistence they go on ahead.
With only 24 hours to finish the grueling Never Summer 100k (62.1 mile) race, participants have little time to waste.
Even though her companions were also cold, they recovered. Abradi did not. After she arrived at the remote checkpoint located at the midway point between aid stations, she still couldn’t get warm.
“I thought I was gonna have to quit, I was so cold,” she said. The guy who’s running the checkpoint gave me his hat and his gloves and (a space blanket), and nothing would warm me up.”
The volunteer offered to call a helicopter to transport her off the mountain. She refused and instead chose to make it to the next aid station, where she could drop out more easily.
“I thought I was done, and they thought I was done,” she said.
A mile out from the aid station, she found the determination to complete the last 30 miles of the race. After a medical checkup, warm food, and a hot water bottle to help warm her core, she continued on, finishing less than seven minutes before the 24-hour cutoff.
Abradi has run the Never Summer 100k in Colorado three times, finishing only once on that day in 2018. She was 58. With an average elevation of 10,220 feet, the difficulty of the race extends far beyond just the length.
This July, she plans to attempt the race for the fourth time.
“I’m hoping this will be my last time, because I want to finish it and finish it where I feel like I’ve done it the way I want to do it,” she said.
Abradi, who lives in Lisbon, is an ultra marathon runner, someone who competes in races longer than the marathon distance of 26.2 miles. Once considered a niche sport, ultra running has steadily grown in popularity in recent years.
Ultra runners are connected by a shared drive to push their bodies beyond conventionally perceived physical limitations. Races often last for 24 hours or more, leaving little time for participants to eat or rest in the process. By necessity, a significant portion of the race is run in the dark.
For many, the ultimate goal is simply to cross the finish line, regardless of time or placement. Resilience is the name of the game in these trials of physical and mental fortitude.
In other words, ultra running is an extreme sport in the truest sense.
MAKING THE EXTRAORDINARY SEEM ORDINARY
Ultra runners have an uncanny ability to make daunting of human feats seem possible. Not easy, but possible.
They casually mention their training runs that compare to completing a normal three-day backpacking trip in just a few hours. Abradi herself spoke of a time she ran 28 miles at Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston after her intended destination fell through.
Talk with enough of them and soon you too will believe that running the 100-mile wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail in Maine in less than 48 hours is just something people do.
Even more astounding, some ultra marathoners don’t even begin running until middle age, such as Mike Brooks of Lewiston. A retired Auburn firefighter, Brooks ran his first marathon at 49, having little previous running experience.
Brooks has run a marathon in every state not once, not twice, but six times each. His longest run was 491 miles over the course of 10 days.
In more than two decades of running, Brooks has completed more than 100 ultra marathons, 400 marathons, and 1,200 races in total.
“I don’t have any money, because I spent all my money on traveling” to different races, he explained.
Now 75 years old, he mostly sticks to walking these days. But he hasn’t quite left the mileage behind.
In May, Brooks participated in 3 Days at the Fair, a 72-hour event in New Jersey where participants run as many 1-mile loops at the Sussex County Fairgrounds as possible.
It was his 10th time participating in the event. His goal? To reach 1,000 cumulative miles.
He completed 53 miles in 53 hours, bringing his total mileage to 1000.8 miles. It wasn’t easy for him to get back out there, however. Although he needed a shot to the spine to reduce his pain, Brooks was determined to reach the milestone.
“I mean, the pain is really bad,” he said. “I got a couple of shots on my spine, which I don’t particularly like, but I did it so I could get my 1,000 miles in at this particular race. That was my last long distance goal. I wanted to get 1,000 miles in there.”
In some cases, the remarkable feats of ultra runners go beyond the physical demands.
Ian Parlin and Emma Barclay ran their first ultra marathons nearly 15 years ago. Even after having two children, both have continued training and competing in 100-mile races.
Long distance running requires a significant time commitment. Often, training runs are measured in hours, not minutes. Add full time jobs and raising a family into the mix, and it is a wonder they have time to run at all, let alone train for ultra marathons.
In order to balance their running pursuits with their other responsibilities, Parlin and Barclay often go for training runs at separate times so there is always one person to take care of the kids.
“We might have a date night where we run together. We’ll take a vacation day and do a really long run together. But I’d say the majority of time we don’t run (together),” Parlin explained.
Similarly, they sign up for different 100-mile races. This means that when one person is buckling down in their training, the other is there to help shoulder the responsibilities.
“Sometimes it’s hard when we’re both into this, but the good thing is we get it,” Parlin said. “I could imagine a couple where one person was a runner and the other wasn’t. And it might be hard to understand the need to go for an eight-hour run, whereas at least I understand when Emma is like, ‘Look, I’ve got to do a 30-mile run this weekend, so I’m going to be gone all day.’”
BUT . . . WHY?
Perhaps one of the most bewildering questions about this sport is why anyone who enters an ultra marathon would ever want to sign up for a second one. But they do!
Ask an ultra runner why they repeatedly put themselves through hours of exhaustion, pain, inclement weather and mental strain, and most will not be able to give a definitive response.
“That’s impossible to answer,” Parlin responded.
Some cite the uniquely close community that prioritizes camaraderie and collaboration above competition. Not even a marathon forges these kinds of deep friendships, Bucky Love explained.
“(In an ultra marathon) you could end up running with the same people for 70 miles,” Love said. “And so it’s really just the uniqueness that no other running event that I know outside of these extreme ultras where you can sort of really create this family unit, feel connected to other people during a race, and not really see them as competition.”
Several runners interviewed for this story spoke of races they would not have finished without someone pushing them along, to care for them when things get tough or remind them how hard they trained to finish the race. Sometimes it is a friend or a relative, but just as often it is someone they only met that day.
Brooks once met a doctor at a race who commented on how Brooks’ fingers kept “snapping up.” After the man learned that the cost of the operation was deterring Brooks from getting his hand fixed, the man offered to do it himself at their next race.
Armed with a small surgical kit nestled in a shoe box, the doctor operated on his hand with Brooks’ friends standing by.
“Now I’m not usually too wimpy but, you know, I could see my hand cut open and everything and he’s there doing it,” he said. “And I felt like I was gonna pass out. I said to him, ‘Hurry up, will you? I want this over.’ So he did, they took pictures of it and everything, and he sewed me up.”
Other ultra marathoners say they want to see just how far they can push themselves.
For Love, it was the realization that he could run farther at the end of a marathon, which motivated him to try running in an ultra marathon. First he ran a 50k race at Pineland Farms. Then later, he tried a 50-miler.
Last September, he ran 100 miles for the first time. He traversed the entire 100-mile wilderness section of the Appalachian Trail in 48 hours, completing a challenge set by Trail Monsters running club of which Palin, Barclay, Abradi, and Love are members, earning a belt buckle.
“The race was just a lot of fun for me,” he explained, referring to a 100-mile race hosted by Trail Monsters at Androscoggin Riverlands State Park in May. “I mean, I know it’s weird to say, for 100 being fun, but I didn’t really push myself out of my comfort zone on the race.”
Now, he said he is considering a 200-mile race as his next step.
The idea of pushing oneself to the limit is a common thread among ultra marathoners. These athletes don’t just tolerate, but rather thrive off of overcoming extreme conditions, mid-race breakdowns, bone-weary exhaustion, and nagging pains.
Abradi said she is training for her next Never Summer 100k again precisely because it is difficult. “Even though I didn’t finish (it twice), I grew up each time that I put myself out there,” she said.
When asked why she would return to a race she describes as her “nemesis” for the fourth time, Abradi referenced a short poem by Erin Hanso.
“There is freedom waiting for you on the breezes of the sky, and you ask ‘What if I fall?’ Oh but my darling, what if you fly?”
It is this question, more or less, which compels Abradi and other ultra runners to keep stepping up to the line.