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Ultrarunners, A Different Class of Athlete - 2002-11-20


Imagine running four consecutive marathons. Now imagine running them on winding mountain trails. That's what ultrarunners do … and as Carol Hartman reports, the solitude and intensity of the sport produce a different class of athlete.

It's the ninth annual Run on the Sly, an event that sees nearly 400 runners dash up and down the hills of the American River Canyon, along dusty trails, past valley oaks and Ponderosa Pines and into Sly Park. Participants run into an aid station, grabbing cups of water, handfuls of chips, a few electrolyte tablets and continue racing down the trail.

This isn't a 10K fun run. It's pure endurance: competitors will cover distances as great as 50 kilometers as they run along fire roads, logging roads and single track trails.

With its proximity to the Sierra Nevada and a dozen major river canyons, Sacramento has a national reputation of being an ultrarunning Mecca … but it's a low-profile sport in the city, according to Barry Fisher, an ultrarunner himself and race director for Run on the Sly.

"Ultrarunning is not a sport which lots of people participate in, and not a sport which a lot of people understand," explains Fisher. "Ultrarunning is any event greater than 26 miles (42 km) and therefore, most people just automatically think that if you want to run distances greater than a marathon, you have to be a little bit offbase."

High-profile events like the Western States run, a 160-kilometer event from the world renowned Lake Tahoe ski resort of Squaw Valley, to the Gold Country town of Auburn attract a lot of international attention to the sport, and even a few recruits. The Tahoe Endurance Run in September and this month's Helen Klein 50/50 event also lure runners to the trails. Fisher says he got interested in the sport after reading about the Western States. He and his wife, Lucinda, volunteered at the aid stations for a couple of years, then they decided to run an ultra themselves.

"We looked at the people and they didn't look to be phenomenal athletes and we quickly learned that anyone can do this who has a little bit of persistence and a modicum of talent," says Fisher.

Most ultrarunners say they came to the sport by way of distance road racing. Wendell Doman and Sarah Spelt were both veteran marathon runners. While on their honeymoon, they even ran the Twin Cities marathon in Minnesota. When Doman did a training run for the Ice Age 80 kilometer event, he told his wife it was fun and beautiful. So they entered. And, the rest, says Spelt, is history.

"Even people who run marathons can't imagine being out there for two or four marathons consecutively, but it's not the same," she says. " It's a whole different experience. People who run ultras tend to be extremely supportive and you get to eat as much as you want. Most runners walk the hills and it's just a great place to be and the times are relatively irrelevant except for the elite runners."

Spelt and Doman launched a company called Pacific Trail Runs 3 years ago to draw people to the sport, and also to offer shorter options for these beginning ultrarunners.

"Almost all of the trail runs that are offered for people are relatively long distances … 50K, 50 mile or more … and we wanted to offer a variety of distances for people of varying abilities to get them out to the trails and allow them to participate in some organized events," she explains.

And that plan has paid off. Wendell Doman says their first event had 10 runners in the short distances. Three years later, that number has quadrupled.

"The people who do those are novices to trail running. About 75 percent of runners who do the shorter distances are novices to trail running, so we're excited about the success of what we're doing," he says.

Tom Harry completed his first ultra in June. He says he expected to feel the same intense pain and tenderness he felt after running a road marathon. The event left him a little stiff, but that was it.

"The previous long run I had was a marathon. It took me probably two weeks to really recover from that," he says. " In fact, I had a knee that didn't really get back to 100 percent for about a month."

Like most ultrarunners, Harry says he enjoys the natural beauty, the quiet, and the personal accomplishment of running increasingly longer distances. And California's terrain, from coastal beaches to granite peaks, can make the sport seem almost limitless. Wendell Doman says his goal for 2003 is to run from Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the state, to Yosemite National Park… a 340-kilometer course that will take him over several mountain passes. He hopes to complete the run over 4 or 5 days.

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