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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Scott Jurek running the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, a 103-mile race crossing the Alps in France, Italy, and Switzerland, in 2011

Photo by Jean-Pierre Clatot/AFP/Getty Images

Ultramarathon running god Scott Jurek has a deep, gnawing pain. The familiar assault begins 30 miles into a 100-mile race. His legs feel like they’ve been beaten by a baseball bat, and his suffering will only increase over the next 70 miles. Sooner or later he’ll contend with a pitiful triad: vomiting, dry heaves, and stomach pains from the stress of sweating, eating, and drinking while running continuously. And that’s the best-case scenario.

Jurek’s ultimate mind-numbing race was done on a one-mile oval track for 24 hours. He pounded out 165.7 miles—the equivalent of 6 1/2 marathons in one day—and set an American record. At a race in the San Juan Mountains of Colorado, Jurek ran the 100-mile course on a sprained ankle, climbing and descending a cumulative 66,000 feet in elevation over 11 mountain passes—and still won. A third of the way into a 135-mile run across Death Valley, in torturous heat that singed his nose hairs, he took a reprieve and crawled inside a coffin-size, ice-filled cooler because, Jurek said, it “felt like my internal organs were liquifying.”

Why is Jurek comfortable with being so uncomfortable? Is he crazy? Or is he superhuman?

Distance running has a long history of attracting addicts, obsessive personalities, the hopelessly selfish, those who endured tough childhoods, or any combination thereof. Jurek writes about those folks in his book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, and he shares the story of his own thorny upbringing in northern Minnesota. As a kid, chores ruled his life. Jurek’s mother was disabled from multiple sclerosis, and he describes his father as extremely demanding. From the age of 6, Jurek had to stack firewood for hours before taking a rare break to play with a friend. By sixth grade, Jurek did most of his family’s chores, including laundry, cooking, gardening, and yard work. In middle school, the stress of his home life gave him such high blood pressure that his pediatrician prescribed immediate treatment: He could take medication or have downtime. Jurek chose the latter and took to running on woodland trails behind his home.

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Running itself can be an addiction. Research on rats has shown that they love running so much they can run themselves to death. A runner’s high is a real thing. Exercise triggers the release of endorphins and endocannabinoids, naturally occurring reward chemicals in the brain. But just what kind of person becomes hooked on ultrarunning?

You might think that such an absurd sport attracts only absurd people. But I had the opportunity to run with Jurek recently in Laguna Niguel, Calif., and almost nothing about him comes off as weird. We went for a 5k run on a paved trail one day. Another day we covered the same distance along the beach and through a neighborhood. In both cases we ran at an eight-minute-per-mile pace, and he seemed fine with that. Tall and rangy, Jurek looks like a typical athletic guy. At 6-foot-2 and 165 pounds, he’s big for a runner. His best marathon time is 2:38, which is swift but not enough to win the 26.2-mile race. His left foot juts out when he runs. He’s exceptionally outgoing and friendly. He even wears the same off-the-shelf running shoes I do. Maybe the only thing that seems a little quirky is the strict vegan diet he follows and his vegan evangelist ways, which raises the question an interviewer once asked: “How can he run so far and so fast on vegetables?”

Jurek has a healthy ratio of confidence and humility. He says extreme running has made him a better human being. “I’ve learned a lot about myself and how I tackle tough situations,” he said. “When people look at it on paper, it doesn’t make sense: ‘Why do you put your body through all that and your mind?’ But I think because in the end, I come out a different person, and I look at life differently.”

He also seems to perceive pain differently. He has learned both to mask pain and to use it as a motivator. Pain-easing music helped him get through the last few hours of his 24-hour running record. But mostly he accepts pain as a given. He runs toward it. Pain has rewards for Jurek, and he considers it a tool to “pry myself open.”

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.

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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