Ultra-Runners Do it Longer 

Ultra-marathon racers take the sport to new extremes

Oprah did it. P. Diddy did it. Even former president George W. Bush pulled it off. Almost anyone can run a marathon. In fact, according to the Outdoor Industry Association, distance running is arguably one of the fastest growing sports in the Untied States. It's a cheap calorie-burner that requires no special skill, and if you ask 30K world record-holder Tegla Loroupe, even shoes are optional.

So how can an accomplished runner find a challenge beyond 26.2 miles? The answer lies with an unconventional breed who routinely run twice the marathon distance—and sometimes farther—without giving it a second thought: ultrarunners. Webster's defines "ultra" as "going beyond others or beyond due limit." Last Saturday, I set out to discover the nature of "due limit." I joined one of Boise's low-profile, high-mileage runners on his shortest run of the week, which at 16 miles was longer than I had run in six years (when I collapsed in a salty puddle of sweat and joyful tears at the finish of my first, and only, marathon).

Steve Boyenger and his usual cadre of hoofers had aborted a planned trail run to Shafer Butte and back because an uncharacteristically wet June had left trails in sloppy condition. Our urban roundtrip on the Greenbelt from downtown Boise to the diversion dam was a walk in the park for him, but for me, every step was educational, as Steve briefed me on the ultra-runner's only source of due limit: his or her own mind.

Success in extreme endurance events comes from an unusual ability to ignore the persistent internal voices that scream, "This is much too hard. It's too exhausting to continue, and the only reasonable thing to do is quit." Boyenger illustrated this point with the story of a 50-mile trail race in Pocatello on Memorial Day weekend, when horrendous conditions forced an early conclusion to the event. Ultra races are rarely canceled because of climate. After all, participants expect a certain degree of physical suffering and weather is just another element. However, a torrential downpour of mixed snow and rain drenched participants as they scrambled hand-over-hand up a rocky, trailless mountain face. Arm's-length visibility and wind gusting from 40 to 50 mph at the course summit sent hypothermic runners careening off the intended course, in danger of getting lost.

Race directors hoped the runners would voluntarily drop out of the race, ending the event by attrition, but no one surrendered. Instead of listening to the multitude of inner voices recommending abandonment of a ludicrous endeavor, ultra-runners listen to the one lonely voice that encourages them to keep going. Consequently, the only safe option for race directors was to officially end the event at 34 miles and send people downhill to the warmth of civilization, 16 miles shy of their goal.

Steve made up for those lost 16 miles quite easily with me, and he taught me that in the end, the only voice that matters is the one you choose to listen to. As long it's the one that tells you to keep going, that's 99 percent of success in ultra-running.

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