While hundreds of runners tested their skills running the fastest mile in Savannah this past Memorial Day weekend, another group of runners (about 75 strong) were pacing themselves to complete up to 100 miles or more on the other side of the river on Hutchinson Island.
While some ran these laps in relay teams, others did it on their own, though most had the help of a support crew providing food, water and encouragement and often running or walking alongside near the final laps to provide moral support when runners were thinking about quitting before achieving their goals.
Dan Hernandez (who hosted the official race after his friend Masumi Herota ran a non-official endurance run last year at Daffin Park on Memorial Day weekend to raise funds for the Challenged Athlete Foundation) said that the news media did a disservice by not contrasting the mile race with the endurance race, which were worlds apart, despite being right across the river from one another.
In the mile, you start out as fast as you can and maintain the pace, sprinting last minute over the finish line gasping for air to beat a goal of the fastest mile you ever ran, while in ultras (anything over the distance of a marathon, but usually 30 miles or longer), you start out steady, pace yourself and attempt to set your Personal Record (PR) for a set distance or the most miles you can run in six, twelve or 24 hours.
While speed is still a factor, the strategy for success is very much different and ultra runners have been known to go on short runs of 15 miles and long runs of 30 or more on a weekly basis! That’s enough to exhaust most of us just thinking about it!
However, racing strategy is not the only thing that is different between shorter runs under three miles and longer runs over 30. At most short races the party is over in less than an hour and everyone goes home feeling that it ended too soon.
Even in marathons, people tend to run from point A to point B, collect their awards and go home to shower and eat, but ultra runs are different. Runners and their crews arrive early, set up tents near the finish line, talk to one another and run loops around a designated course from two to six miles around, often looping one another, allowing them to talk or at least nod and say an encouraging word to one another as they pass.
Many times both crews and runners camp out overnight and grills are brought out and music and conversation are shared so the entire run is more like a family reunion with many runners coming from out of town to visit. It is more homey than a typical run and almost everyone knows everyone else since the groups tend to be smaller as well and since the races tend to take place in traffic-less areas and often in parks and historical areas, it seems more like an adventure than an event.
For many, running an ultra is a spiritual experience, especially when running in nature and often running alone and at night when there is not even a moon in the sky to light your way and the stars seem too distant to provide company or clear vision. It is then that every noise and smell, every shadowy figure attracts runner’s attention with no less impact than a fireworks display and makes a person wonder at their own role in the vast universe.
If you are new to ultra running, your first thought might be, “Gee, there are a lot of really fat, old people out here, how in the world can they run one mile, much less forty?” but they do and by the time you see them lap you for the third or forth time, you quickly repent of your spot judgment and stare at them with awe and respect and think to yourself, if they can do it, so can I. Endurance running is the great equalizer and often female runners do just as well or better than the men and having a pot belly or wobbly thighs doesn't matter a bit as long as you have the ability to endure pain and keep going when other, thinner, fitter looking companions might give up.
Mind you, there are some ultra runners who look the part, with ripped bodies and rock hard muscles protruding through tight sweat soaked skin. They tend to be fast, so fast that you almost get whip lash trying to keep up with them as they zoom by. It makes you wonder how anyone can keep that pace for further than 40 miles, but they do and they are the envy of every slower runner who dreams of having such talent, yet often they are just as down on themselves as slower runners and many never think they will be good enough to compete with those even better than them. Mostly they are all humble and eager to learn from fellow runners; getting tips on what works and what doesn't and sharing strategies for success and survival while encouraging fellow competitors to keep up the good job.
It would seem ultra races are not so focused on beating the clock, but on beating those inner demons that tell you that you just don't have what it takes to reach the goals you have set for yourself, but even failure is merely a learning experience that will help you do better the next time you set out and if all else fails, you can always support a friend while they run or help volunteer to keep the race running smoothly. There are many ways to participate if you want to get involved in the sport of long distance running.
Contrary to what you might think, most ultra runners do not run the entire distance. They may walk a lap or two or even take a short break to take a quick nap, wolf down a sandwich, massage tired muscles or even change shoes and clothing before heading back out for another loop, though some do keep going the entire way, only stopping briefly for bathroom breaks and to refuel on gels, foods and fluids.
The food at ultras is almost as big an attraction as the race itself, with tables laden with peanut butter sandwiches, pickles, watermelon, oranges, bananas, trail mix, chocolate, nuts, Endurolytes and salt tablets, boiled potatoes, chips, donuts and even bacon; leading one runner to state that the only reason she ran was so that she could keep eating foods she liked and not get fatter.
For fun, Hernandez calculated the average body weight of the runners and multiplied it by the number of miles they ran collectively and discovered that they burned over 16,805,218 calories, but losing weight is not the goal of most runners, though some admitted that they actually hated to run and only did it because their friends did and because it allowed them to eat and drink what they enjoyed. The majority of people run ultras to prove to themselves that they can do it.
We live in a world where being a pioneer and exploring and setting off on foot on a great adventure is a rare thing and certainly not one you can do on your own without running into problems or safety issues, but… gather a group of like minded people together, in a safe environment and you can test the ultimate limits of your ability to push through something you thought was not possible to do, for you or for anyone.
Ultra runners brag about blackened toe nails that fall off. They bear scars from tripping and falling over roots and pavement. They often cry and puke and beat themselves up mentally for not going those extra 13 miles, when they already put in 87 and go home tired, exhausted, smelling badly with swollen feet and a sense of euphoria if they pushed themselves beyond their limits, or a feeling of defeat and failure if they went beyond what any normal mortal could achieve, but were unable to break an old record or set a new one.
One ultra runner said she wanted to wear her medal everywhere she went after the run and show it to people and tell them what she accomplished. It wasn't that she wanted attention, she was just so amazed at what she did when she did not think she could do it, that she wanted to share it with others like a motivational speaker trying to encourage others to push themselves beyond the limits that others set for them, making them think they can not achieve their goals and dreams.
Hernandez has really done a lot to help runners achieve those dreams by bringing ultra racing to Savannah. Previously, if you wanted to run in an ultra race you had to go outside Savannah often traveling hundreds of miles and it could get expensive.
It usually costs $100 or more, just in entry fees, to run in a 24 hour ultra because so much expense goes into putting the race together and the number of runners is limited for the sake of safety and keeping a count of everyone as they make multiple trips around the track.
If you think ultra running is beyond your reach, you may be wrong. If you can run five miles and walk ten, you can do a 30 kilometer race in good company. If you can walk twenty miles and jog for five minutes every few rounds, you can do a 50 kilometer race and enter into the realm of ultra running. If you have a group of friends who can each run five miles, you can form a relay team and still compete in a fifty mile run. Don’t ever think it is not possible!
For more information on ultra runs in your area or to check out the results of ultras past, visit: ultrasignup.com/results_event.aspx?did=27100
It's hard not to get hooked on ultra running. The people are nice and friendly and are more than willing to share running tips and cheer you on and you will feel as if you are part of an elite group even if you aren't so much of an elite athlete. You will also learn a lot about yourself and your fellow runner as when you are 20 hours into a race and your feet are so sore and swollen that you feel like you are running on firebrand bricks, you tend to show your true identity and not be fake trying to impress others! The great thing about that is that most people appreciate you even more for being who you are, so you grow closer as an ultra family.