What Is Wrong With People Who Race Across Death Valley?

The quest to build better people.
May 28 2013 12:11 PM

What Are Extreme Runners Thinking?

The addicts, obsessives, pain seekers, and euphoria nuts who choose to race 100 miles.

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Researchers have studied the nutritional needs and mental toughness of ultrarunners and found that they have a strong psyche that’s balanced by euphoria. For them, euphoria trumps pain. They regard 100- or 150-mile challenges as a great thrill, whereas regular athletes like me would think of such a run as the most miserable thing ever. Brain chemistry may help explain the difference between my pain scale and Jurek’s. Charles A. Morgan of Yale Medical School studied Special Forces soldiers at Fort Bragg’s Resistance Training Laboratory and found that neuropeptide Y, a molecule that transmits signals in the brain, works as a tranquilizer for Special Forces soldiers under extreme stress. The Special Forces soldiers produce massive amounts of neuropeptide Y compared to regular troops.

Still, running continuously for so long in harsh conditions can’t be good for you, right? Brian Krabak, sports medicine physician at the University of Washington, has studied ultramarathoners’ strategies and preparation. His research indicates that ultra races, including events that are 50, 100, or 150 miles long, aren’t dangerous for runners who have trained appropriately. Medically speaking, their bone, heart, and muscle health are fine. Krabak says pretty much everybody will suffer from diarrhea, dehydration, or other ailments during a long run. Injuries are relatively minor. Runners can rehydrate relatively quickly, and they recover from muscle fatigue within a week or two.

Participation in the sport has surged over the past five years; the number of those who compete has doubled. An estimated 70,000 people run ultramarathons in North America. “People unreasonably choose to do this,” Krabak said. But can anyone do this? According to him, ultrarunners really are not like you and me. “The reality is, only the people who can push the envelope can do this. It’s a physical toughness and mental toughness weeding-out process.”

Mental toughness is something that the best coaches impress upon their athletes. My running coach, Ed Purpura, who has a long history of producing winning high school cross-country and track teams in Maryland, addressed the mental game in my first training plan: Things will seem like they are going well and you are handling them, and then a workout will come that will have you doubting everything. That is when you must truly be open to what it takes to achieve your goals.” Purpura always tells me racing and training is about dealing with doubts and fears and then gaining confidence from the experience. While I still struggle with keeping faith in myself when I confront difficulties, Jurek has mastered the mental game.

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In his 20-year ultramarathon career, Jurek has won 35 major titles and set 16 course records. He is now training for the high-altitude Leadville Trail 100 ultramarathon in the Colorado Rocky Mountains in August. Leadville was featured prominently in Born to Run, Christopher McDougall’s book about extreme runners, as was Jurek. The Leadville course begins at 9,200 feet and rises to 12,600 feet. Participants expect extreme weather such as thunderstorms, hail, and snow. Fewer than half of those who attempt Leadville complete it. In 2004, it took Jurek slightly more than 18 hours to run the race, which got him second place. Now he’s aiming for a win, and he plans to focus his training solely on Leadville over the next few months. He’ll train 90 to 100 miles a week, much of it at altitude. The bulk of the training will be on weekends, with back-to-back runs of 30 miles, one on Saturday and one on Sunday. During most of his ultramarathon career, Jurek trained and raced on weekends while supporting himself as a physical therapist. Now he relies on sponsorship deals and public speaking for income.

The training for Leadville will get Jurek back to what he loves most: breaking away from technology and the “craziness of modern life. I can just tap into those primal roots of being a human being and immerse myself in the conditions around me,” he says, adding that he looks forward to only dealing with altitude and the sheer distances. “All those things combined get me responding in a way that I think we used to respond as humans back in the day. Now we don’t have to, and life has become so comfortable.”

So now we’re back to discomfort. Maybe the simple reason Jurek is a superman is that he loves the pain from running in remote places as much as the euphoria it brings. 

Read more from Slate’s Superman package: Everyday technologies that already give us superpowers. Is human enhancement cheating? Would you use superpowers for good or evil? Manimal rights: human-animal hybrids and chimeras. We may superpower the immune system to fight cancer and other diseases. The science of choosing the perfect mate.

Lisa Palmer is a freelance journalist based in Maryland and a fellow at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center. Follow her on Twitter

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