Thursday, July 30, 2009

Interview with Insane Ultramarathoner - Wow. Just Wow.

I always feel like such an ass when I interview people like this. First of all, I'm genuinely interested, so I sound like a dork. But also, I feel like a piker. The longest I've ever run is 6 miles and I nearly died. I mean, that was hard. Like really, really hard. So I can't even begin to imagine ultramarathoners.

And then this. 135 miles.

Chin. Floor. Resting.

From True/Slant on July 26, 2009:

Inside the Mind of an UltraMarathoner
Imagine standing in Death Valley at 280 feet below sea level. It’s anywhere from 120 to 30 degrees farenheit, temperatures so high that, if you don’t run fast enough, your running shoes will literally melt on the pavement. When you can finally stop running, you will have run continuously throughout an entire day, well-over 24 hours. You will have climbed and descended, climbed and descended, and passed through landmarks like Furnace Creek, Salt Creek, Devil’s Cornfield, Devil’s Golf Course, and Stovepipe Wells, none of which sound particularly inviting. At the end, you will have climbed to the finish at Mt. Whitney, 8,360 feet above sea level. And you will have covered 135 miles.

That’s just a thumbnail of what awaits runners competing in the Badwater challenge. What the hell would possess somebody to do that to themselves? Seriously, wouldn’t you have to be certifiably crazy to even consider something like that?

I had questions. Lots of them. So I called up Jamie Donaldson, who just completed her third Badwater challenge over the weekend of July 13-15.

Put it this way, if you left the gift shop of the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh and ran to the cafe at the Rock-N-Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, you would cover 135 miles. When I put the Badwater distance in that perspective, even Donaldson admitted with a laugh, that yes, it did sound a little crazy. But Donaldson herself didn’t sound at all crazy. In fact, the sixth grade teacher based in Littleton, Colorado sounded pretty normal on the phone, with a self-deprecating sense of humor and more perspective than I expected.

She said that the heat is the biggest factor, “because you never know how your body’s going to handle that,” but the heat didn’t bother her much this year as it did her first two years. She fought through heat-induced nausea during her second run at Badwater, in the summer of 2008, but still finished about 10 minutes under 27 hours. Yes, 27 hours non-stop. To cover 135 miles in 27 hours, a runner must average five miles per hour, or a 12 minute mile — a remarkable pace to keep up as morning turns to afternoon, afternoon to evening, evening to night, and then to morning again. Competitors have to essentially pull an all-nighter while running and I’m ashamed to admit that the last time I pulled an all-nighter, it was fueled by caffeine and nicotine and George H.W. Bush was Commander in Chief.

This year, Donaldson was the first woman to finish, coming in fifth over all at just hair over 27 hours. She wasn’t too bothered by the heat and perhaps, she suggested optimistically, she’s gotten used to it.

But why? And how?

The how is grueling, but simple: to train for one of these races, she runs 200 miles a week and often runs several marathons in one day.

The why is more complicated. Garden variety 26.2 mile marathons were the gateway drug, as it were. She ran her first in 2003 in Pittsburgh (she was born and raised not far from Pittsburgh) and ran just a handful more before the challenge wore off and she was kind of, well, bored by them. She needed a bigger challenge, something tougher, something that would push her to her absolute limits. So she did a 50 mile race; she was hooked and her ultramarathoning (distances of 50 miles or more) has taken her to such far-flung locales as Korea and Italy. One of the most fun races (if I can use even the word ‘fun’ in relation to such distances) is a 100 mile run that cuts through a Hawaiian rain forest. Donaldson says it’s awesome.

The Badwater challenge is the toughest of all of them. Even for a highly trained athlete, taking the race in its entirety, considering the 135 miles of the course as a whole, is discouraging, seemingly impossible. To get through the endless hours, Donaldson plays mental tricks on herself, breaking the race into more bite-sized chunks to make it palatable, saying to herself, “Oh, I only have another 18 miles to the next stop,” using the stops along the route (there are designated stops at 17.4 miles, 41.9 miles, 72.3 miles, 90.1 miles, and 122.3) as mental carrots, as well as for physical respite.

If the mental challenge kicks in as day turns to night, the first half of the course may be the most grueling physically. Specifically, the first 42 miles from Death Valley to Stovepipe Wells are the hottest. “You’ve got to be really careful about your pace in that heat,” according to Donaldson. After that, the course starts to seriously climb from sea level to nearly 5,000 feet over a 17 mile stretch; then it drops over 3,300 feet for the next nine miles, an extremely steep, dangerous descent. “It’s the worst,” said Donaldson. “You run the risk of blowing out your quads if you run too fast. But you can really hurt your knees if you go too slow, because you’re braking all the time. Plus, you can wipe out.”

After that, it’s smooth sailing. For another, you know, 67 miles to the finish line.

With another Badwater under her belt, Donaldson’s taking it easy, running short (for her) distances, doing a lot of walking before she’ll get on the road for her next race, a 100 miler right in her backyard in Colorado. It’ll be a piece of cake after Badwater.

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