It wasn’t the truck plowing into his support crew’s van that rattled him, or the fever that left his teeth chattering into the night or even the severe desert sunburn that streaked his flesh pink. But when tendinitis seized his ankle and crept up his shins until they swelled, Pete Kostelnick second-guessed himself for trying to log the fastest run across America ever recorded. He was still only in Nevada.
“There was pain and agony,” said Kostelnick, a 29-year-old who had taken eight weeks off from his finance job in Lincoln, Neb., for the roughly 3,100-mile journey from San Francisco to New York. “It wasn’t planned that way. I am very competitive, but I realized, running 80 miles a day was overkill.”
So he strictly limited his daily running to 70 miles — 40 beginning at 4 a.m., and then 30 more after lunch, every day. He replaced the energy by eating 13,000 calories a day. And recently, he set a record for running across the United States, in 42 days 6 hours 30 minutes. It was the fastest anyone had crossed the nation on foot since 1980.
Kostelnick is one of a quickly growing number of extreme American distance runners shattering a cascade of ultramarathon records that can sound less like races than log entries from an excursion by Lewis and Clark. Fastest trip around the Grand Canyon, from “rim to rim to rim” (Jim Walmsley: 42 miles in 5 hours 55 minutes). Fastest completion of the Appalachian Trail (Karl Meltzer: 2,190 miles in 45 days). Those were in the last two months.
“Ultras are about the allure of the impossible, like when George Mallory said he climbed Everest because it’s there, but for those of us who spend our days in cubicles,” said David Roche, an ultra runner and coach. And, he noted, these feats are not exactly being kept a secret. “One hundred miles is really impressive both at the water cooler and inside your own head.”
In a time when marathon participation is so common it can seem ordinary, part of the appeal of events longer than 26.2 miles is that they remain relatively exotic — for now. Since 2005, finishes in North American ultra races have grown at a rate of 14.6 percent. (That figure does not include those who enter but are turned away because of race caps; last year, the probability of getting into the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, the sport’s unofficial equivalent of the Super Bowl, was 4.7 percent.)
The number of races is growing, as well; last year, there were 144 100-mile races in North America, up from 34 a decade earlier. They are typically held in the wilderness, but can take place anywhere — the longest race on a certified course is the Self-Transcendence 3,100-Mile Race, which involves 5,649 laps around a block in Queens.
Participation generally entails suffering and hardship at magnitudes for which people historically did not volunteer. One ultra race leads participants 135 miles through Death Valley up the face of Mount Whitney in the middle of July (Kostelnick won it twice); another retraces the path of the World War II Bataan Death March. Participants experience swelling, vomiting, hallucinations, diarrhea and a litany of other maladies as bodies shut down, often unpredictably. In Canada, a runner was struck by lightning, frying his headlamp, while he covered a 100-mile course (he got up and finished third). After being pinned under a rock on a trail run, the champion ultra runner Dave Mackey was compelled recently to amputate his left leg. In the Ultra Fiord 100 trail run in Chile’s Patagonia region, after racing 40 miles through wind-driven snow, a man died.
For many, pushing the line between thrill and danger is exactly the point.
“The mind, the mental anguish, is actually even harder than the physical,” said Karl Hoagland, the publisher of Ultrarunning Magazine. “With every ounce of your energy and your being, you want it to be over and to stop in the worst, most primal way. We’re programmed for survival, for the mind to shut the body down when we’re on empty, so you have to overcome that. Ultra runners are trained to get their body closer to empty.”
The uninitiated may question the wisdom of disregarding mental cues that promote survival.
“Maybe it is really unhealthy, but for me, I’m curious,” Hoagland said. “I only live once, and I want to see what it’s like to go to these dark places, where we’re not intended to be. At his or her core, an ultra runner is meant to go beyond what is rational. It’s crazy, but that’s how we are.”
Roche said the events were a chance to explore limits on one’s own terms — like a dress rehearsal for real adversity.
“Life now is pretty sterile — a lot of the problems we face are manufactured,” Roche said. “When things go wrong in ultras, it’s very real and visceral, and you confront it. It’s life condensed down to a bite-size morsel that you can generally consume without consequence. If you don’t finish, it doesn’t actually matter.”
As the number of races grows in pace with demand, the reclusive sport is changing. Although races generally offer little in prizes, money and sponsorship have begun to trickle in, along with some of the governance concerns that have plagued mainstream road racing. Lance Armstrong, barred from competition in many sports, won a trail race last year, driving debate around future regulation of performance-enhancing drugs in the sport.
And professional runners are increasingly drawn to the longer distances. The 2008 American Olympic marathoner Magdalena Boulet won her 100-mile debut at the Western States Endurance Run last year and continues to dominate the field. The Olympic distance runner Kara Goucher, who grew up in a town near that of the champion ultra runner Scott Jurek in Minnesota, also sees a new athletic future in the sport. Although she is one of the most accomplished marathon runners in the United States, Goucher said she was daunted by the challenge of even finishing such a distance.
“I’m attracted to the challenge, and I think the first time I do it I will be facing my fears of not finishing, and just surviving, seeing if I compete without quitting,” said Goucher, 38. “I was very nervous for my first marathon; I had never run that far. But I was also fearful of others’ expectations of me, whereas if I do an ultra, no one’s going to care.
“People run ultras because they love running. I think about what’s gotten me out the door year after year, and I think, these could be my people. We’re all just trying to do the best we can.”