Long Distance Calling

Photo: Brad Zucroff

Ten miles into a 50-mile run, Will Laughlin’s stomach starts churning. Cold sweats and flu-like exhaustion would send most people to bed. Instead, Will keeps going.

He tries to ignore the sensations and take in the surrounding landscape—the rocky canyons and lonely ridges of western China, where he is running a six-stage, 155-mile race across the Gobi desert. On this fifth day of the Gobi March, 167 of the 185 entrants are still at it; and Will, MA ’93, is in 5th place overall. He won the race’s third stage, nearly 25 miles up a 13,000-foot peak amidst snow and hail. Yesterday, despite the onset of diarrhea that would keep him up for much of the night, he tied for third.

To get here, Will has been training for six months. He works full time as the director of business development for a Boulder, Colo., company serving at-risk youth and their families, yet manages to run more than 15 hours each week. He has slogged through muddy trails, done thousands of crunches, run wind sprints, crossed paths with rattlesnakes and mountain lions. He’s spent upwards of $5,000; his resting pulse has dropped to 36 beats per minute.

As he ducks behind some boulders to relieve himself yet again, he contemplates what comes next. This is the moment of reckoning confronted by ultrarunners like Will—a growing population of racers who complete courses more than 26.2 miles in length (50K, 50 miles, 100 miles and more). It is a crisis of temptation and self-doubt, when the mind and body seem to conspire against each other. At such moments, the question inevitably surfaces: why go on?

For Will, there are more than 40 miles to cover. It’s 92 degrees, and he’s severely dehydrated. A race medic debated administering one of the limited IVs, but a racer must vomit twice to earn one. Several runners who drank from the same contaminated water jug as Will are back at camp with IVs strapped to their arms. High-calorie, sodium-rich energy drinks run right through him. Ahead lie a 7,000-foot mountain pass and many rivers to cross.

With his stomach burning and cramping, Will makes the choice that is second nature to seasoned ultrarunners. “I decided that the day would measure not how fast I am, not what place I come in, but how much I’m willing to suffer,” he remembers. “Even I don’t fully understand it.”

And so he goes.

The sunbeaten rocks and harsh angles of Fruita, Colo., present a fitting backdrop for suffering. It is here, in late April, that I observe Will on his longest training run before he flies to China two months hence. While the Gobi March is a six-day stage race, the Desert RATS Spring Ultra covers 50 miles in a single day. The course includes 4,000 feet of canyon climbing with a tantalizing halfway point: runners reach the finish line at 25 miles and then turn around for another lap. Will’s goal is to treat this not as a race but as “just a training run.”

In the world of ultrarunning, the Desert RATS Ultra is equivalent to, say, Spain: significant, but not quite a superpower. It lacks the mystique of the granddaddy ultras, such as the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run (18,090 feet of elevation gain) or the Badwater Ultramarathon, stretching 135 miles through Death Valley and halfway up Mount Whitney. In July. When the temperature tops 130 degrees. In such races, usually lasting around 60 hours, people vomit, black out, lance strawberry-sized blisters, hallucinate, and sleep in 10-minute snatches on the side of the road. In contrast, the Fruita run will be over by 7:30 this evening. Those who haven’t crossed the finish line by then will be retrieved in a van.

Will’s previous race took place eight months earlier at the Leadville Trail 100, a traverse through the Colorado Rockies between 9,200 and 12,600 feet. Typically, about half the entrants finish. At mile 23, Will sprained his ankle on a rock. Fifty miles later, it took him six hours to trudge 10 miles on his swollen ankle, as he limped from tree to tree.

“It was the middle of the night, and someone tried to encourage me by saying, ‘Good job!’” he remembered. “I wanted to say, ‘F--- you, I’m holding onto a tree.’” He surrendered his race number at mile 83, earning three letters that spell failure when most are just hoping to cross the finish line: DNF (did not finish).

Many Leadville veterans have come to Fruita, including the founder of that race, Ken Chlouber, an eccentric 68-year-old former Colorado state senator with a rat’s nest of hair and a penchant for Kentucky Fried Chicken during long runs. (“You run these races or you go in the rocking chair!”) Also here is Marshall Ulrich, a 55-year-old who’s run more than 100 ultramarathons and is legendary for having his toenails surgically removed to alleviate the pounding force absorbed with each step.

In the dim morning light, nearly 200 entrants in tight-fitting gear resemble frantic insects. They are bouncing, shaking their limbs, talking briskly, as the Counting Crows blare on concert-sized speakers. The vibe is one of competition masked by cheerful conversation.

Will is tall and lean with knobby, corded limbs. This morning, he eschews prerace chitchat and focuses on stretching. He looks vaguely Sisyphean as he presses against a Dumpster to stretch his calves. The night before, he managed prerace jitters by organizing and reorganizing his gear, making what he calls “inconsequential decisions.” He spent 20 minutes, for example, debating the appropriate place to safety-pin his race number.

His wife, Beth (Pope, ’88), is here to support Will at each rest stop—mixing Extreme Endurance Fuel, meting out energy gels—which she also will do during the Gobi March. When Will first started seriously training for ultras a few years ago, Beth found herself resenting the hours it ate up; a long Saturday morning run would wipe out an entire weekend because it took him two days to recover. Now, as Will’s training has gotten more efficient and less intrusive, Beth appreciates the adventure running provides for both of them. She herself was a world-class athlete 25 years ago, a gymnast who trained under Bela Karolyi (she and Mary Lou Retton were roommates). This intimacy with fierce competition attunes her to Will’s pre-run nerves—the urgent exhales, the arms-behind-head stretch he does when sizing up fellow competitors. “He’s trying to tell himself that this is just a training run,” she says. “He’s trying not to overdo it. But he’ll still overdo it.”

The race director announces that a volunteer has a $100 bill for the first man and woman up the first major climb. “The problem is you have to carry it with you the whole rest of the way. And I know how you ultrarunners like to travel light,” he says. “Ha,” he adds, because no one seems to be laughing.

As the countdown begins, the runners push toward the starting line and assume racing stances. The buzzer sounds, and heels kick up dust, Huey Lewis’s “Working for a Living” filling their wake.

Last year was a banner year for marathons—410,000 Americans finished one, compared to around 300,000 a decade ago. In contrast, about 12,000 to 15,000 Americans run ultra races each year, according to Don Allison, publisher of UltraRunning magazine. That number, too, is growing steadily. Since the American Ultrarunning Association was founded in 1990, the number of annual races has doubled, to upwards of 350 a year. In 2002, the 500 spots for the 50K “Way Too Cool” race outside of Sacramento filled in three days; this year, they filled in fewer than 10 minutes.

There is no shortage of explanations. Some attribute the sport’s growth to the marathon phenomenon, booming thanks to organizations like Team in Training, which coaches novices while raising funds for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Now that it seems everyone has run 26.2 miles—even a NASA astronaut on Expedition 15—people want to reach the next frontier. Others credit the explosion of trail running: though a few championship ultras are held on tracks (imagine looping a high school track 450 times), the majority are held on trails.

There’s also the Dean Factor, a nod to 45-year-old San Franciscan Dean Karnazes. His 2005 memoir, Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner (Tarcher), climbed to No. 18 on the New York Times bestseller list. Yet he’s won only one major title, the Badwater 2004, and ultrarunners say that he violates the sport’s low-profile ethos. Most praise far-less-publicized Scott Jurek as the best in the country. A 34-year-old physical therapist from Seattle, Jurek has been accumulating national titles since he ran his first 100-mile event in 1998.

Demographics also figure. The average ultrarunner is in his 40s, as are many of the sport’s top dogs. Indeed, it’s a physiologically democratic pursuit, as a glance at the Fruita competitors attests. Few have the lanky builds and long limbs of archetypal distance runners. The eventual third-place winner is around 5-foot-6 and built more like a wrestler.

According to Dr. Marty Hoffman of UC-Davis, who has conducted studies on the Western States event, only those with severe knee, ankle or hip problems can’t run ultras, because their training will be compromised. “Even people with various types of heart disease and previous cardiac bypasses have done these events,” he says. Although no reliable statistics exist on deaths from ultrarunning, magazine publisher Allison conjectures that the sport is no riskier than marathon running.

Because ultrarunning is not physically exclusive, what distinguishes competitors is motivation. In the face of exhaustion, intestinal distress and castaway toenails, how does one keep going? And, more essentially, why does one even start?

It’s clearly not for the money. Karnazes’s lucrative endorsement deals and speaking engagements are an anomaly. Most ultrarunners like Will have no choice but to be hobbyists, squeezing in training before and after work, sacrificing weekends and vacations for races. Members of the U.S. National Team cover most of their travel expenses for the World 24-Hour Run every year. And the purses at most races are pitiful: win the New York City Marathon, and you get $130,000; win the Badwater, and you get a belt buckle.

So why do it, when unearthly pain is inevitable, when seemingly nothing is at stake? Ultrarunners tend to describe the sport in idealized terms, as a race against the self, not against others. Michael Sachs, a kinesiology professor at Temple University who has studied exercise motivation, argues that ultrarunners strive to situate themselves higher on the late psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the theory that addresses how humans achieve their potentials.

“They reach for self-actualization,” Sachs says. “They wonder, ‘What limits can I test? What demands can I make on my body?’”

But surely there must be less painful ways to find personal challenge. In a recent Outside magazine article, Scott Jurek discusses the “vision of the soul” he glimpses when running. Dean Karnazes’s book lists so many reasons for his own efforts—from honoring his kid sister, who died in a car accident at 18, to maintaining his own humility—that it’s clear even he isn’t sure why he does it. Somehow, the sport blurs the line between desire and compulsion.

For Will, ultrarunning seems to address an internal dichotomy: on one hand, discipline, focus and patience; on the other, a restless soul. “For me, moving is very calming. The other way I can calm down is drinking, so I’d better run.”

On the surface, Will exudes an I’m-off-to-Ashtanga-yoga vibe. He chooses his words carefully, speaking in a calm and measured cadence. His beard is meticulously clipped. But even his moments of quietude have an edge, and he admits to a manic thirst for adventure. In the 20 years that he and Beth have been together, they’ve moved about every two years, and Will has switched jobs almost as often.

Growing up in Palo Alto, Will was nearly held back every year because he daydreamed through class and rarely turned in homework. One teacher vowed that if she could get Will to engage in her class, she would retire that year. (She was back the following fall.) In junior high and high school, Will dabbled in alcohol and drugs and graduated by the skin of his teeth. It was only thanks to strong test scores that he was accepted to UC-Santa Barbara, where he rowed lightweight crew under a nationally celebrated coach who thought Will could make the national team. Will transferred to UC-Berkeley to distance himself from the bacchanalia on campus. At Berkeley, he hit the books while still fantasizing about professional athletics: cycling, maybe triathlons. He even landed a spot on the U.S. Olympic luge development team, but turned it down.

After graduating in 1988, he ran his first race, a 10K, on a whim. At the starting line, he turned to a friend for advice. “Just run faster than you think you can,” the guy said, and Will did, coming in 14th out of 600. But he didn’t race again, which he attributes to his internal hyperactivity: as soon as he’d accomplished the goal, he lost interest. For the next 13 years—including his time at Stanford, where he earned a master’s in education—he threw himself into various extreme sports to help decelerate what he calls his “gear that’s moving a little faster than it should.”
“I had been rock climbing a lot,” he says. “I got married, then I got scared of dying, so I quit.”

He was living in Lake Arrowhead, Calif., and someone mentioned the Mt. Baldy Run to the Top. In eight miles, you climb 4,000 feet, the equivalent of ascending the Empire State Building three times.

“People were talking about how crazy it was,” he says. “And that made it okay not to win, but just to finish.”

He came in 33rd out of 800. So he tried a 50k race and finished 6th for men. And on he went, yielding to the slippery calculus of the ultrarunner: if I can run 50k, then why not 50 miles; if 50 miles one day, then 50 miles two days in a row. And so on. He was 35 years old.

“I thought, ‘This is a sport where I’m not an old man anymore,’” he says. “People in their 40s were competing with people in their 20s. And I entertained the fantasy again of being an elite athlete.”

At the 2005 Sahara Race, a weeklong stage event through the Egyptian desert, he finished 4th for men. His tentmate was Canadian Ray Zahab, who won the race and recently ran more than 4,000 miles across the Sahara, an unprecedented feat filmed by National Geographic. Ray noticed in Will what he deems the “perfect personality” for ultrarunning success: “Driven. Happy but driven.” He coached Will for the Gobi March by e-mail and phone, diversifying his workouts and urging Will not to push himself too hard.

“With overachievers, they’ll get into a training regime where they’re feeling very good, and then all of a sudden, the wheels come off and they get injured,” Zahab says. “That’s Willy’s issue.”

For this reason, in Fruita, Will does not nab that $100 bill, dangled in the hand of a volunteer 1.3 miles up a rocky ridge. And at the first aid station, posted at mile 6, where plates of forlorn-looking sliced bananas and chips await, he arrives 16 minutes after the front-runner, a 25-year-old woman who ran as if she were being hunted. When Will trots through with a healthy grin, he slows just long enough for Beth to hand him a freshly mixed bottle of Extreme Endurance Fuel.

“Happy, happy,” Will says, wiping sweat from his beard.

That pretty much describes the mood at these early aid stations, posted about every six miles along the course. Runners thank the volunteers as they dip potatoes into plates of salt, and refill their bottles with the complex carbohydrate energy drink HEED (“We call it ‘Heave,’” says one volunteer). There are lots of jokes to accompany the packets of GU energy gels.

“How far to the next aid station?” one runner asks.

“About six miles, but it’s all downhill from here,” a volunteer says, pointing toward the trail, which ascends like a staircase. Some of the runners even laugh.

And why not? The landscape resembles the set from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The sun is trying to break through the persistent cloud cover. No one has been transported to the ER.

Marathon runners talk often about “The Wall,” the sudden energy loss that can occur around mile 20. The body, depleted of glycogen (which produces the energy source ATP), starts to burn fat instead. But fat doesn’t burn as efficiently as glycogen, and runners begin to feel weak, sleepy, dizzy, confused.

For the ultrarunner, The Wall is like the ax murderer in a horror movie: there’s no telling when it’ll appear, but you constantly feel its danger. Energy drinks and gels, consumed on the fly, help. But at least once during a long run, a runner confronts The Wall and, being an ultrarunner, he has only one choice: to run right through it, knowing that it may return.

For Will, the first half of the Fruita race feels like an easy training run, even easier because he is running 11-minute miles, whereas his usual pace can be twice that fast. He is mostly obeying the promise he made to Zahab and himself: to run, not to race. He breaks the promise a few miles from the halfway point, when some of the leaders, now running their second loops in reverse, lap him. Will finds himself racing for a few hundred feet before forcing himself to slow down.

Some 140 runners bow out at the halfway mark, and the remaining 50 or so are well spaced, with several minutes between each. A dark cloud seems to descend on those who persist. They stumble from aid stations, their arms flailing.

At about mile 32, Will is running virtually alone. He hears only his footfalls against the narrow, rock-strewn paths; the occasional mountain biker pulls aside to make room. Then, in the dusty distance, he spots a runner with unkempt hair and a gangly build: Scott Jurek. Will didn’t know that Jurek was in Fruita. How did that slip by him? Jurek is running steadily—of course he is—and Will’s pace quickens. His lungs burn. He is almost giddy: he is going to pass the best ultrarunner in the country. It suddenly strikes him that Jurek might be playing with him, tempting Will to waste his energy, and then blow doors on everyone. But Will pushes on. Last year, Jurek became the first American man to win Greece’s fabled 246-mile Spartathlon. He’s run Badwater in just over 24 hours. The man is a living legend, Will thinks as he passes the runner, only to realize that he isn’t Scott Jurek after all.

“I wasn’t thinking too clearly out there,” Will remembers later. “It’s like a brainstorming session: everything seems like a good idea. But really, you’re just exhausted.”

For the next 15 miles, Will pays for the exertion. His glycogen stores are depleted. His shoulders are tired; it’s a struggle to hold his head up. He’s drinking Gatorade, but he’s still thirsty. His foot clearances lessen. At one aid station he grabs his stomach. “Ooooohhh,” he says.

Beth asks him what he needs. “I don’t know what I need,” he snaps. And he turns back to the desert.

Which returns us to the question of why. We demand answers because the typical ones aren’t there. A recent Washington Post article described one particularly grueling 100-mile race that only six entrants have ever finished. Scores of readers wrote in to attack the race participants, calling them “bored spoiled white guys” and bemoaning pointless American bravado. Somehow, the sport’s extremism engenders not only questions but also hostility.

Descending a final series of switchbacks three miles from the finish line, Will spots movement in his peripheral vision. He’s been alone for the past 15 miles, and someone is suddenly on his tail. I’ll be damned, Will says to himself. I’ll be damned if this guy is going to pass me. He thrusts himself forward, forcing his exhausted quads into all-out race mode. He can hear the runner pounding behind him, his heavy breaths louder even than his stride. For the last three miles, Will’s race becomes honest, a desperate sprint, which he wins, crossing the finish line two minutes and 29 seconds ahead of his 11th-hour challenger.

He finishes in 22nd place, more than two hours after the race winner. Just for running 50 miles, he wins a wood-grained plaque the size of a piece of toast. When he’s presented with the plaque at the awards ceremony later that evening, most other runners have gone home.

In purely physical terms, what could be simpler? Put one foot in front of the other. Repeat. But as ultrarunners will tell you, this is ultimately a psychological sport. And to the outsider, the psychology seems deeply contradictory. Ultrarunners are hypercompetitive people who claim not to be. They say they run for family members, the scenery, even a higher power, but they focus intensely on themselves. Most essentially, ultrarunners are defined by their intense motivation, yet not one seems to know exactly why he does it.

In June, Will finished the Gobi March in 6th place. The 50-mile stage, with its numerous bathroom breaks, hurt his overall standing. Many competitors had to run through the night to cover all 50 miles, following glow sticks attached to course markers. Will came in 9th in that stage, finishing in under 12 hours—18 hours ahead of the last racer to cross the finish line. He felt strong again the next day, the race’s last, and his overall performance in the Gobi convinced him that he’s found the right sport.

“It always felt like an accident when I did well at a race. This time it didn’t. I’m pretty fast,” he says. “But I can be faster.”

A week after returning from China, he started training for another race.

MARISA MILANESE, ’93, teaches writing at Boston University.