Runners looking to tackle marathons train for months to be able to complete the 26.2 miles. Their training pays off after a four- or five-hour race—or two-plus if you're at the elite level—but for some runners, that's just not far enough.
Ultrarunners—runners who clock fifty to one hundred miles or more in races—do things differently. It's not your average road race; in fact, it's nothing like your average road race.
The Umstead 100—Raleigh's very own ultramarathon, held in April—is a 12.5-mile loop around Umstead Park that participants repeat eight times. The terrain varies from gravel and dirt paths to a little bit of pavement along hills and trails. It's a race often undertaken by runners making the leap from fifty to one hundred miles—and that leap takes preparation, or at least a different mind-set.
"[It takes] a lot of time, and a lot of mental discipline," says Mike Dacar, a thirty-nine-year-old Durham resident and ultrarunner. "You have to get out there and run for hours and hours and days when you don't necessarily want to."
Dacar started running ultras in 2005 after a friend mentioned the JFK 50 Mile—the country's oldest ultramarathon, held every year since 1963 in Washington County, Maryland. Since then, he's run races in Wales, Great Britain, and 150 miles in the Chinese desert. Dacar says that, in the beginning, it was pretty scary. But as he learned during that first race, ultrarunning requires mental toughness more than bodily strength.
"It was a great feeling when I finished," he says. "It was amazing. My parents were there. I finished and I walked away because I wanted to have a little bit of a cry. It was easier than I thought it was going to be—and harder in ways. I thought it was going to be this very physical thing. I was not ready for how mentally challenging it was going to be."
Indeed it is. Some runners are on their feet from sunup to sundown, and then a second sunrise. Keeping up your strength requires plenty of will—and plenty of sustenance.
Racing has taken Dacar around the world—and to some extremes. When he made the decision to travel to China in 2010, he'd only run two or three ultras. He took the leap, covering 150 miles in six days while carrying all of his provisions—save for a tent—on his back. For him, it was more of an adventure than a race.
"I ran very little of it. It was super fun," Dacar says. "You're out in the middle of the desert getting to see places people don't get to see. Being out there for a week with all the other runners, getting to camp with them, the camaraderie was great."
The camaraderie is also what keeps Sally Squier going, even at age seventy-four. Squier, a Raleigh resident, started twenty-five years ago. Her husband, Bill, was running five- and ten-kilometer races, and she wanted to start doing it, too.
Their story isn't unusual. A 2013 study on ultramarathon runners in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research found that the median age of first-time ultramarathoners is thirty-six; the average age of ultrarunners is forty-three.
Squier wanted to run, but something held her back. "I was embarrassed to start running, because the way I grew up in the forties and fifties, women didn't do stuff like that." That didn't stop her, though. "I wanted to do it, but I didn't want to wear the running shorts. [So I] measured a course around my house, and nine times around was a mile," she says. "So I'd do that when no one was around."
Her first race took place on August 17, 1991. It was only a one-mile fun run, but that was just the beginning. Six years later, she completed her first ultramarathon—like Dacar, the JFK 50. For Squier, running five or ten kilometers wasn't enough. She wanted the full experience of running an ultra.
And after finishing the Pikes Peak Ultra—a fifty-mile race through Cheyenne Cañon, Mount Rosa, Almagre Mountain, and Deer Park in Colorado—in the late nineties, she knew she had it in her to be out on trails for a long time.
"When you haven't done it, you don't know what your body can do until you've pushed it," she says. "You've got to believe it."
Jenna Koenigshofer, thirty-four, is fairly new to the ultramarathon scene. She decided to start running longer distances in 2013.
"I like the challenge of not knowing exactly what's going to happen, what your body is going to do, what the running conditions are going to be like," she says. "There's a certain challenge with that."
She regularly runs thirty to forty miles a week when she's training; she doesn't do anything special to train for ultras, well, except run ultras.
"It's more mental preparation for the greater distances," she says. "You have to get yourself on the mind-set of being on your feet and constantly moving for sometimes over twenty-four hours. ... I'll run a fifty-mile race at night, just to kind of get myself prepared for that sense of exhaustion and how to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and it just takes practice."
Her first ultra was the Graveyard 100, a course on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Her first finish was her second attempt—she dropped out at the Graveyard—and even then, she almost didn't make it. A strained Achilles tendon rendered her unable to run the last quarter of the race. But she persevered. In ultrarunning, that's the name of the game.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Going the Distance"