Ultra Running: Testing your limits

Though having long flown under the radar on account of its lack of flashiness, ultramarathoning maintains a steady base of top-class athletes throughout the world. Famous names like Tom Evans and Jim Walmsley maintain steady fanbases and sponsorships, with the most well-known face of ultra running being David Goggins. These professional athletes, combined with countless amateurs from around the world, make up one of the most extreme sports known to mankind. Ultramarathons are any running-based race that surpasses the distance of a marathon, the well-known 26.2 mile or 42 kilometer mark. This means that races anywhere from lengths surrounding 50km–which are referred to as a 50k, in the same sense as a 5k–to the popular Western States 100 miles through the California Sierra-Nevada mountains, all the way up to this article’s titular race, the Badwater 135, and even beyond. This last race is considered one of the most difficult in the world, lasting 135 miles across a net elevation change of 14784 feet. 

David Goggins himself is perhaps the perfect representation, albeit taken to an extreme even rare among ultra runners, of the ultramarathon community. Known to many as “the Toughest Man Alive,” David Goggins is the only person to ever complete training and become a US Army Ranger, Navy SEAL and Air Force Tactical Air Controller. He has recounted his journey several times, elaborating on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast how he was abused and faced significant racial discrimination throughout his childhood. Moving into the armed forces, he went on to go through Navy SEAL “Hell Week” three times, losing over 100 pounds in three months to be fit enough to complete the course. Transitioning into ultra running in 2005, Goggins again went through a physical transformation, again dropping over 100 pounds to compete in the Badwater 135. Goggins has even written a book, Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, in which he recounts the mental transformation he has taken throughout his life. He is perhaps the most famous proponent of self-improvement through challenge, and thus ultramarathoning was the perfect sport for him. 

This idea of mastering the mind and challenging oneself seems to be the common thread that ties ultramarathoners together. Ultra  runner Ian Torrence elaborates on this concept in his 2019 article “The Mindset of an Ultrarunner.” He explains that success in the minds of elite runners lies not in the time of the finish, or their final position in the race standings, but in the way one is able to mentally handle the inevitable ups and downs that come with running such long distances. Torrence recounts how at mile 37 of a 50- mile race, he was literally crawling as his legs had seized due to fatigue, and yet went on to recover and finish within the time limit. He also quotes Stan Beecher, another experienced runner, as summarizing the mentality required for ultra running quite well:  

“In [my] world, accomplishment is tied to behavior rather than to a specific result.” 

This is the challenge that sets ultra running apart from other extreme sports, and draws people like David Goggins that the majority of society would deem to be out of their minds. Compare ultramarathoning to powerlifting, for example. Both sports are individually based, require participants to push the limits of the human body to an extreme and require steely mental discipline to push these limits to new heights. One would expect these two sports to require equal levels of “insanity,” if we can agree to call it that, in that one has to have the ability to take the mind to a very primal place. As a powerlifter myself, I can attest to this-no personal records get set with a nonchalant mindset. And yet, on closer inspection, even powerlifters cannot compare to ultra  runners. In the gym, or at a meet, a lifter is surrounded by fans, training partners, coaches, family and the like; ultramarathoners get no such comfort. They are out on a trail, road or mountainside, isolated from society and support systems with the exception of the occasional aid station. Some races even continue into the night; at Badwater, even the most elite runners barely squeak in under 24 hours. This time duration further heightens the tension the mind must endure. Anyone with ordinary mental strength can endure fatigue for a short period of time, or perhaps for a little longer with encouragement; but without a friend to lean on, and no end to the physical suffering in sight, 99% of us would crack. The other 1% do it voluntarily. 

And of course, we must finally address the physical toll ultrarunning takes on the body. The most obvious symptom experienced is the massive amounts of fatigue which accumulate over such long distances. If you’ve ever heard marathoners talk about “hitting the wall,” you’ll know just what I’m getting at. The body is only capable of storing 1800-2000 calories of glycogen in the bloodstream at any given time,  and burns 100 calories for each mile during a run. Glycogen, from carbohydrates, and bodyfat are the body’s two sources of fuel while exercising, and it is key to note that glycogen is necessary to access the metabolic pathways necessary to convert bodyfat into fuel. After some math, it is easy to see that after around 18-20 miles, accessing energy to fuel a run becomes nigh-on impossible, and thus one “hits the wall.” For ultra  runners, this threshold is higher of course; the body can be trained to access bodyfat stores more efficiently, allowing for a longer distance before this fatigue overload hits. Additionally, eating carb-heavy foods throughout a race can be used to replenish stores of glycogen. But eating during such long races can cause other issues. 

Aid stations on ultramarathon courses commonly offer high-carbohydrate foods such as pasta and breads in order to ensure runners don’t suffer serious health defects like malnutrition while on the course. A 170  pound individual running a 50-mile race at 9-minute mile pace will burn through over 6500 calories, more than triple the recommended daily intake for a healthy adult; without replenishment, the situation can quickly become dire. That being said, eating can also result in severe nausea and vomiting. When the body is under such severe stress as it is at, say, mile 30 of a 50-mile run, the body shuts down digestion in order to direct blood away from the stomach and into more vital areas of the body, like muscle and tendon tissue. This results in meals staying in the stomach for extended periods of time, and as anyone who has ever run on a full stomach will tell you, the feeling is not pleasant. Runners may go miles, or even tens of miles, feeling horribly ill or even throw up anything they’ve eaten, wasting the calories they desperately needed. This only increases the discomfort of lactic acid buildup in the muscles, and results in many not finishing the race after. 

In addition to nausea, a few less obvious ailments arise over the course of an ultramarathon. Headaches and altitude sickness are very common in races. Badwater’s elevation change can result in severe headaches and altitude sickness, as the change in elevation is nearly three miles. Less likely to be among guesses, however, is a loss of vision. Exposure to winds for the day long periods many ultramarathons require. The harsh conditions dry out and damage the cells that produce the protective layer of fluid over the cornea, causing it to swell up and blur the runner’s vision. Runners of the Hellgate 100 report what they call “Hellgate eyes,” and by the end of the race, many have almost completely lost their sight. In a 2019 interview with Joe Rogan, ultra runner Courtney Dauwalter related her experience with sight problems, explaining how her peripheral vision went blurry at mile 88 of a 100- mile race, and finished “98% blind.” 

Last and certainly not least comes the issue of sleep. As many races require nearly a full day of running,  (if not more), there comes a point in time when incessant sleepiness kicks in. Dauwalter also talked on this issue, telling how over the course of the Moab 240 she slept a total of 21 minutes and was at one point falling asleep while running. She also explains having had a series of hallucinations in connection with her lack of sleep. Indeed, along with the territory of sleep deprivation also come hallucinations, sometimes repeating themselves. Many runners have recounted seeing recurring images along trails, especially at night. One can only imagine the sort of hysteria that comes with running on literally no sleep, seeing strange people or creatures in the forest or on a mountain trail late at night, all while being tens of miles into a race of astronomical length.

After such considerations, it is easy to see why ultra running attracts a fairly limited crowd. Simply to exist in the sport requires mental strength without parallel, and placing at the top of races even more so. With this in mind, it is easy to understand why the sport draws such a select crowd: only the toughest can survive. To maintain focus and motivation while running for days, all the while being thrown obstacles in the form of extreme fatigue, elevation changes, crippling nausea and headaches, loss of vision , and a nearly complete lack of sleep accompanied by hallucinations requires a mental steeliness unseen elsewhere in athletics. But perhaps the hardest aspect for onlookers to understand is that ultra runners enjoy what they do. Beecher puts it best: “Accomplishment is tied to behavior.” 

Even for those at the top of the field, the fun lies in throwing down the gauntlet and seeing what they’re made of. After all, anyone with the fitness to win a 100-mile race certainly has the dedication to training and enough natural ability to serially win a 5k, 10k or even a marathon. Rather, the draw lies not in the success, but in the challenge of enduring the turmoil the mind goes through over days of consistent running. David Goggins, the Toughest Man Alive, chose ultra running as his next challenge; I think that should be proof enough of the utter strain these athletes endure. 

So next time you feel like taking on some new challenge to spice things up a bit, consider lacing up your old high school track shoes and laying down a 50+ mile run. Or maybe leave it to those the rest of us would deem mildly insane and take up knitting instead.