2008 ULTRA RUNNING ADVENTURES

 

   
 
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  MY ULTRA RUNNING "HEROES:"
ROLE MODELS WHO INSPIRE ME

JULY 5

 
 
"To have no heroes is to have no aspiration, to live on the momentum of the past,
to be thrown back upon routine, sensuality, and the narrow self."

 
- Charles Horton Cooley
 
 

Heroes (and heroines) come in many forms.

There are the obvious heroes who risk their lives every day to protect the rest of us -- people in the armed services, police men and women, firefighters, other first responders, security guards, etc.


My #1 hero: Jim in his volunteer fire uniform.
He is also a volunteer EMT with the local rescue squad.

There are ordinary citizens who perform heroic acts of bravery in emergency situations, like rescuing someone who is drowning or in another dangerous situation, also possibly risking their own lives to save someone else.

There are heroes in professions as diverse as medicine and music, heroes who triumph over villains in books and movies, heroes who explored and built this country, heroes who fight for the rights of others, heroes who help strangers during disasters, sports heroes, and many other types of heroes, some known to only a few they have positively influenced (parents, e.g.).

Most heroes, after all, don't seek publicity or acclaim and may, in fact, be embarrassed by either.

There are many people I admire for the reasons above but no one has ever accused me of "hero worship" until recently. I'm much too cynical to "worship" anyone, but I have a healthy respect for many people who deserve the recognition of being a "hero," positive role model, inspirational figure, whatever you prefer to call them.

I must say, few of them have been athletes. There are just too many men and women in the world of sports who have abused our trust and admiration, winning games, races, and titles through cheating, fraud, drug enhancement, and other unethical means. Unfortunately, some of them have been athletes in track and other running events, The two who come into my mind first are Rosie Ruiz, infamous for jumping into the 1980 Boston Marathon about a mile from the finish and then claiming victory, and Marion Jones, who was stripped of the five medals she won in the Olympics in 2000 because of performance-enhancing drug use. There have been many others through the years.

So, yeah, I carefully choose those who I consider to be my "heroes" and if I later discover they really don't deserve the designation, I'm initially disappointed. I develop yet another layer of skepticism about humanity but forget about the imposters pretty quickly. There are more who are honest and deserving of admiration.

"That's what it takes to be a hero, a little gem of innocence inside you
that makes you want to believe that there still exists a right and wrong,
that decency will somehow triumph in the end."
- Lise Hand

My list of athletes-to-admire greatly expanded after I moved beyond the marathon distance sixteen years ago and began running ultras. Now I've got all kinds of wonderful role models and people who inspire me! There are several reasons for this, relating to the nature of the sport and the type of runners who are drawn to it.

For one thing, there is little or no money to be won in ultras, so the incentive to cheat is minimized. Despite the efforts of Dean Karnazes and his sponsors to popularize ultra running, it's still pretty much a low-profile, fringe sport with little publicity in the mainstream media compared to other sports, or even to shorter running events that are easier to televise. It's not even an Olympic event yet. What's the point of cheating if there's little fame or income to be gained?


Dean Karnazes. far right foreground, at the 2006 Leadville Trail 100 awards ceremony.
Our friends Matt and Anne Watts are in the black and white shirts to the left.

There are some ultra cheats and frauds, but they are rare and usually "outed" by their peers pretty quickly. The ultra community is still comparatively small despite thousands of new ultra runners in recent years, and word travels fast about the scoundrels via the internet. Being ostracized and/or being banned from future races are usually effective means of dealing with problems of cutting courses, claiming to have set various records that can't be verified, etc. (there is no drug testing yet that I'm aware of).

Ultras also attract a different breed of athlete than marathons and shorter running events. Ultra runners are generally older, better educated, higher income, and more highly motivated people who challenge themselves in every aspect of their lives. Ultra running is one expression of their drive, not usually a career in itself (only a few make their living from coaching, directing ultras, etc.). It's another way for them to compete and excel. Most of them are racing more against the clock and the elements, however, than each other.


Lynn Newton, left, reads e-greetings with his wife Susi at the end of the Across the Years (ATY)
72-hour race on January 1, 2008. Lynn ran and walked 154 miles during the race.

There's also more support of and concern for fellow competitors than in shorter races, and those attributes seem to increase as the race distance or level of difficulty increases. It's one of the most appealing aspects of ultra running to me -- the level of caring and respect shown to each other. It's still a rather small "community." Most ultra runners will sacrifice their own race in whole or in part to help another runner in trouble -- give them fluids or electrolytes if they run out, lend them extra clothing, walk with them to the next aid station if they're having difficulties, stay with them if they're injured, and so on.

Ultra running is a very different game attitude-wise than marathons and other road races and that's what attracts many of us to the sport. In addition to being more watchful of each other, there's a unique level of respect for everyone who attempts an ultra. Each of us can feel like a winner if we even finish some of these events, let alone come in first. And the ones who do come in first are usually very gracious about it and appreciate / acknowledge the effort made by the slower runners. Even a DNF commands respect because the other competitors know how many variables there are in ultras and have probably been unable to finish a race before, too.

SOME CHARACTERISTICS OF MY ULTRA RUNNING "HEROES"

The ultra runners who inspire me the most, the ones I consider to be excellent ambassadors and role models for the sport, share one or more of the following characteristics. I'll list only a few names as examples, but there are many more folks who share these traits. I'm afraid I embarrassed three or four of them a little bit recently when I listed them as "heroes" in a post to the internet ultra list. Most true heroes don't see themselves as such, although they can't argue about the attributes for which I listed them. Most are humble, genuinely nice people and I'm grateful to call many of them friends.

1. ENCOURAGEMENT & SUPPORT

"Some people quietly make a difference in our lives and will always be heroes unaware."
- Flavia

My first ultra running hero was David Horton, and he still remains near the top of my running heroes "list" some eighteen years later (my husband Jim is #1, if you're wondering who's at the very top!). If you've read my 2005 Appalachian Trail journal on this web site you've seen David's name several times before. Although I wanted to hike, then run, the AT since the late 1960s, David was the first one whose account of an AT journey run in 1991 showed me it can be done and further inspired me to attempt it.

I had read a lot about David and his Mountain Masochist 50-mile trail race (MMTR) in southeastern running magazines when I lived in Atlanta. As I morphed from racing road marathons to trail ultras I chose MMTR as my first ultra race. That was a huge step, but one that David encouraged me to take. And I did, placing 2nd female in the race in 1992 (that was before so many more  accomplished women started running it!). Like many other newbies, I was instantly hooked on the sport. What a feeling of accomplishment, which was reward enough for me.


Three current long trail record holders at the end of the 2007 MMTR race:
L-R: Andrew Thompson, AT; David Horton, PCT (and MMTR race director);
Jonathan Basham (JB), Colorado Trail

David has inspired me through the intervening years as well. Not only does he run very well, winning tough mountainous races like Hardrock and the near-impossible Barkley "Marathons," running across the USA in 1995, and setting speed records on both the AT (1991) and Pacific Crest Trail (2005), David has also influenced more folks to run ultras than anyone else until recently. (Dean Karnaze's book, "Ultra Marathon Man: Confessions of an All Night Runner" has introduced a lot of people to the sport the last couple of years.) David has mentored many student runners during his tenure as a physiology professor at a college in Virginia, has developed a series of four popular ultra races that he directs, and is very supportive of ultra runners, especially those just beginning in the sport.

David was one of my biggest "cheerleaders" when I was on the AT, even though he was setting his PCT record that summer in the middle of my trek. He answered questions before I began, sent numerous encouraging e-mails, and had a little presentation for Jim and me at MMTR a few weeks after we finished our trek. I'll never forget all he did. He also exhibits several of the remaining characteristics of my ultra running role models below.

I could list many more ultra running friends and acquaintances who have been supportive of my endeavors, but I'm sure to inadvertently leave out even more of them. I sincerely appreciate their encouragement and I try to do the same for them and others. They know who they are!

2. SEASONED VETERANS

"I admire runners older than I -- they are now my heroes.
I want to be like them as I grow older."
- Frank Shorter, 1972 Olympic gold medalist in the marathon

As I near the end of my sixth decade of life, I have increasing admiration and respect for the men and women my age -- and especially older -- who are still "in the arena," folks like Dan Baglione and Aaron Goldman in their 70s, Pete Stringer and Lynn David Newton in their 60s, David Horton and my husband Jim in their late 50s. They just keep pushing their personal envelopes and are positive role models for the rest of us, regardless of their age or ours.


Across the Years (ATY) race director Paul Bonnet, left, congratulates
Aaron Goldman, age 75, for running 165 miles in 72-hours during the  2007 race.

Older women especially inspire me because there are fewer of us out there after our fifties than men. The number of women running ultras really dwindles after age 60. Although the percentage of younger women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who run ultras has increased in recent years, there's a much larger percentage of male ultra runners who continue to run long distances in their 60s and 70s than female ultra runners. It seems to me that a lot of women stop running ultras in their fifties. I think I know some of the reasons, but that's a topic for another journal entry.

About a month ago one of our friends, Dan Baglione, posted a report to the ultra list about a 50K he couldn't finish. He has DNFd an increasing number of ultras as he has gotten older, including ones like Barkley that few younger runners have ever finished. Pete Stringer, who is about a decade younger, wrote a typically thoughtful and supportive reply to the list about how much Dan has inspired him. This is a part of his post:


Dan Baglione, left, talks with Karl King at the
Twin Lakes aid station during the 2006 Leadville Trail 100 race.

"Dan Baglione was my main cheerleader when the dnfs at Leadville began piling up, year after dismal year. He became an insistent supporter, citing the number of attempts it took him before he could find his way to the Sixth St. finish tape. He even sent me his personal video of that triumph, even though he had only met me in person, and that briefly, once (we live on opposite ends of the country). It's guys like him that represent to me the essence of the ultrarunner, much more about the indomitable mindset than the shorter flirtation of a lot of fast fellas, who are only here for the brief time that they can garner the top ten spots."

Amen. Both Dan and Pete are two of my personal running heroes for the same reasons. Pete didn't mention this, but he finally finished Leadville a year or two ago.


Pete Stringer, in center, near the end of his 72-hour run at the 2007 Across the Years race

Dan periodically updates a long list of folks over 70 who have completed an ultra. You'd be amazed at the number of septagenerians and octagenerians who have accomplished this feat. His latest list includes 237 men and women, if I counted it correctly. One of my favorites is Helen Klein, who is 86 now and still going strong. I'm not sure if there is anyone in his 90s still doing ultras, but I know there are some men in their 90s who run marathons. That is phenomenal.

Pete's quote mentions longevity in the sport. Although Helen Klein didn't start running ultras until she was in her sixties, most of the folks still running them in their 60s, 70s, and 80s have been running various distances for several decades. They definitely aren't "flashes in the pan," quitting the sport after several years of fast racing. These folks are in it for the long haul, running for the enjoyment of the activity itself. Pete's post to the ultra list says this very well, too, and leads me to my next attribute of wonderful ultra running role models:

"I so appreciate Dan's posts as he grows older and keeps on trying. I can only hope I love the sport as much! It is hard to find posts of the older runners' dnfs as they they near the place where not finishing becomes more the reality than a finish. I loved the story of his attempt at The Barkley almost as much as the original classic Don Quixote, and last year's inimitable attempt at Badwater where he crewed himself, laboriously returning to his car each time ...well, Dan is too smart a guy to think there was much "percentage" in that, but simply wanted to participate."

3. TENACITY

"If everybody was satisfied with himself, there would be no heroes."
Mark Twain

My ultra running heroes just don't give up. Dan and Pete are good examples of this. Even though each has struggled to finish Leadville and reach other goals, they keep on trying. Jim's like this, too. Despite his DNFs at events like Leadville and Bighorn, he continues to try to finish those difficult races. He believes in himself and knows if he trains properly, stays healthy, and hits good trail conditions and weather during the race, he can reach his goals.


L-R: Dan Baglione, David Lygre, and Jim at the 2006 LT 100 pre-race packet-stuffing

There's a woman in her sixties, Lucinda Fisher, who wanted so badly to finish a 100-miler that she kept on trying and trying, despite numerous DNFs at Western States and other moderately difficult hundreds. Year after year she refused to give up her dream. She kept training and trying. Finally, with coaching, a good training program, lots of support, and tenacity she finished her first 100-miler -- after DNFing fifteen times at other races! -- at the 2004 Javelina Jundred. She was 63 years old. There's another person who's tried to finish Leadville about the same number of times, but I can't remember who it is.

These people inspired me to keep on trying to finish just one more 100-miler. I truly thought I could do it, too, until my Granny knees gave out last fall (I'm still attempting as many miles as possible in flatter 24-hour races).

4. OVERCOMING THE ODDS

"It is surmounting difficulties that makes heroes."
- Louis Pasteur

The runners mentioned above have all tried to overcome the odds of reaching goals that become more difficult as they age. Dan Baglione's e-mail signature says a lot about him: Run Long, Run Strong! Exceed your expectations!

My ultra running heroes inspire me because of other odds they try to overcome, too -- a disability or serious injury, a weight or other medical problem, a particularly difficult goal, or another major challenge that would defeat most people and relegate them to the couch. My "heroes" may not always overcome those obstacles but, by golly, they have the optimism, determination, self-confidence, and guts to TRY.

In my June 26 journal entry I mentioned a couple ultra runners in this category but didn't name them.

Two I've met are amputees who have finished the Leadville 100-miler and other difficult events that are a challenge to able-bodied men and women. Dan Jensen lost his right leg from the knee down in Viet Nam. After being fitted with a light-weight prosthesis, he's been able to run ultras and Ironman-length triathlons. I believe he's in his 50s now. An inspiring younger man is Aron Ralston, famous for cutting off his lower right arm in 2003 after getting pinned down by a boulder on a run in the Utah canyons. After five days he realized help was not coming and he'd die if he didn't literally take things into his own hand. The next year he finished Leadville. He speed-climbed all of the Colorado 14ers in the winter and he continues to climb mountains (with one good arm) that challenge the country's best athletes.

    
Left photo: King Jordan's wife "signs" to him during the 2007 LT100 awards ceremony.
King is shown in the right photo with an unidentified woman sitting near him at the ceremony.

Another ultra runner we're proud to have met is hearing-impaired King Jordan, shown in the two photos above. King has finished Leadville several times in his 50s and 60s (I'm unable to access the LT100 results to confirm the number or dates). We were saddened to learn he didn't finish last year, but he was still enthusiastic at the awards ceremony.

5. PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

"Without heroes, we are all plain people and don't know how far we can go."
- Bernard Malamud

My ultra running heroes aren't certain what their limits are, so they continually push their personal boundaries in an attempt to see if they can run longer, faster, higher, whatever. They set ever-increasing goals, trying to exceed their own expectations. Sometimes they reach their goals, sometimes they don't. For some it doesn't really matter if they gave it their best and they had fun in the process. Often it's the planning and anticipation of a new adventure that is the most fun! Having an interesting goal makes training more fun, and executing it is the icing on the cake.

I admire the folks who come up with interesting adventures either for themselves or for others to also enjoy.  Their attempts, whether successful or not, inspire other runners to reach or exceed similar goals.

Two of the more creative endurance runners who come to my mind are Gary Cantrell and Peter Bakwin. Gary is (in)famous for creating and directing his near-impossible Barkley "Marathons" in the steep, briar-infested Tennessee woods at Frozen Head State Park. Over the years only five or six men have finished the entire 100 miles within the 60-hour time limit. Finishing only one 20-mile loop is a "success" in most people's book. There are all sorts of weird traditions in this race that have runners clamoring to try their luck.

Peter has done a number of interesting adventure runs alone or with his friend Buzz Burrell or his wife, Stephanie Ehret in the U.S., South America, and Europe. I'll never forget Peter's awesome double Hardrock feat in 2006. He ran the difficult 100-mile loop  in one direction the two days before the official race, then ran the race the 3rd and 4th days in the other direction (the course changes direction each year). When Jim and I saw him at our aid station during the "real" race, Peter was still running strong through the high Colorado mountains 190 miles into his trek!


View from the Hardrock course above our aid station in Cunningham Gulch (July, 2007)

As Jim and I have increasing difficulty making cut-offs in ultra races, we've come to appreciate creating our own ultra adventure runs where the only limits are the ones we impose upon ourselves.

6. EXTREME ENDURANCE

"Some of the world's greatest feats were accomplished by people not smart enough to know they were impossible."  (unknown)

Several ultra runners win my admiration simply because of their extreme endurance. They go 'way beyond "pushing the envelope." I'll cite several examples of long trail runs/hikes, transcontinental road runs, multiple 100-milers in a year, multi-day (and month!) races, and a multi-sport endurance specialist.

David Horton falls into this category, of course, for completing a Trans America run (~3,000 miles) and setting records on both the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails (2,168 and 2,650 miles, respectively). He calls such adventures "Big Hairy Audacious Goals." I'll talk more about his recent attempt to complete the even-more-difficult Continental Divide Trail (CDT) in a bit. Brian Robinson amazed everyone in 2001 for his 7,371-mile Triple Crown speed hike in one calendar year, completing the AT, PCT, and CDT in only 300 days. I don't believe anyone has beaten that record yet. It's even more amazing when you consider the problems David had on his first day in the desert of New Mexico on the CDT.

More and more runners are doing transcontinental runs on roads across the USA and other countries. This is a good web site to read about some amazing performances and follow folks doing trans-con runs this summer.


L-R: Suzi, Monica, Hans, and Monica's friend at the 2007 Grand Teton 100 pre-race briefing

Two ultra runners that I swear are bionic are the delightful Monica Schultz (above) and Hans-Dieter Weisshaar (shown better below). In the mid 2000s each completed over twenty 100-milers in a year's time -- for several years. Monica, who is in her 30s, is a trial lawyer in Canada. How she found the time to train and travel to all these races in the States is beyond me.

Hans is even more remarkable, in my estimation. He accomplished his amazing feat of running numerous 100-milers several years in a row while in his early and mid-60s. He completed his 100th hundred-miler last July at Hardrock, and kept right on running more of them later in the year. The last race where we saw him was this past February at Rocky Raccoon (at age 67). This summer the gregarious retired German physician is competing in several ultras in Europe so he's less visible in the States, but he's on the list for Hardrock again this month.


Hans-Dieter Weisshaar during the 2007 Grand Teton 100

Another runner who inspires many people is Rob Apple, an affable man in his late 40s who has run over 500 ultras. He's one of the most prolific ultra runners in history. He's shown with David Horton in the next photo at the end of last year's Mountain Masochist race. That was #504 for Rob!


L-R: Rob Apple, RD David Horton, and Rob Gentry at the end of the 2007 MMTR

Then there are the (mostly European and Asian) runners who specialize in multi-day events. I'm not talking mere 72-hour events. I'm talking six-day, ten-day, and 3,100-mile events! The latter is going on right now in NYC, if you want to take a gander at this web site. It's one of the races in the Sri Chinmoy Marathon series. Even after running/hiking the entire Appalachian Trail, I think these people are 'way out of my realm. Imagine running around a little loop in the city for up to 51 days, averaging over 60 miles a day! That's some absolutely awesome endurance, both physically and mentally. At least I had different scenery and terrain every day on the AT.

Marshall Ulrich is an extreme ultra runner, adventure racer, and mountaineer who appears to have no physical or mental boundaries when you look at a list of his athletic accomplishments. He remains a top competitor in his mid-fifties, which should be inspiration enough for any person in these sports disciplines. It's no wonder he's a motivational speaker. He excels in extreme desert conditions such as the 146-mile Badwater races and a 586-mile quad crossing of Death Valley, competes in grueling Eco-Challenge races around the world, summitted the highest peak on all seven continents on his first attempt at each (including Everest), and has run over 100 ultras averaging over 100 miles each. He's a nice guy, the real deal.

7. THE COURAGE TO QUIT

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

- Theodore Roosevelt, "Citizenship in a Republic," Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910

That is one of my favorite quotes.

Sometimes it takes more guts to quit a race or record attempt than it does to soldier on and finish. I believe that knowing when one has reached his limits is a sign of wisdom and character, not a sign of wimping out. DNF means not only "did not finish" but also "did nothing fatal." Ultra running is a sport, after all. There's not a lot of glory in pushing until you incur permanent injury or death if you can pull out prior to either.

This is the best and most recent example of one of my running heroes having the courage to quit:

The first week of June I was writing an entry about David Horton's attempt this summer to set a new speed record running the very difficult, 2,959-mile long Continental Divide Trail (CDT). I wanted to direct others to Clark Zealand's web site about the journey run so they could enjoy it vicariously, too. I was so excited for David and wanted to be as supportive as I could from my home in Virginia. I wanted to "give back" as much support to him via e-mail and regular mail as he gave me during my AT trek. I was disappointed that Jim and I couldn't be out in Colorado and Wyoming again this summer to help crew for him. That would have been very cool.

Clark listed ten post office addresses where David planned to pick up mail along his route. David asked people to send encouragement -- he knew he'd need it because of his daunting task. I came up with a plan to send hand-made cards to him at each mail drop with  photos of the CDT/CT that I took along the trail in 2006-7. I printed out a bunch of photos and some inspirational / motivational sayings to include with the hand-written notes I'd write as he progressed along the trail. I didn't want to write all of them beforehand, so I finished only the first two cards initially. That way I could comment specifically on Clark's narrative about David's journey as he ran north to Canada from Mexico.


John DeWalt takes some ribbing from David Horton at the end of the 2007 MMTR.
John is the oldest person to finish the grueling Hardrock 100 (he was 71 in last year's race).

Knowing David's tenacity and level of fitness for this adventure, I was stunned late in the evening on June 7 to read Clark's post to the ultra list, and longer entry in his blog about David's quest, announcing that David's record attempt was over on Day One. He was so beaten up by the New Mexican desert the first day that it was not only the beginning but also the END of his CDT run. I felt as sad sitting at my computer 2,000 miles away as if I'd been there in person with him. I know how hard he trained for this, how much money he'd already spent, how many people were planning to help him -- and how bad he must feel psychologically. At that point we knew he was in bad physical shape after that day's run, but none of us except his crew knew just how bad it was.

So when the second response on the internet ultra list to this surprise announcement was a sneering post about David's attempt being a record for the shortest speed record attempt (i.e., stopping after only one day), I went ballistic. I wrote a terse comment to the list about being more angry with that post than I'd ever been in 10 or 11 years on the list and this person having no clue about either David or the CDT, which is a very difficult trail to follow. Other runners also jumped to David's defense and we were soon accused of being "hero worshippers." I was too angry at the time to respond again on that thread, but a few days later I posted what I consider to be admirable characteristics of true ultra running heroes -- this journal entry is an expansion of that post.


Poorly-marked section of the CDT near Stony Pass (July, 2007)

A month later, the opinions and emotions that surfaced during that controversial thread sadden me more than anger me. I don't personally know the guy who made the snide remarks. I do know he doesn't have David's character, guts, or ability or he wouldn't have been so eager to belittle David's stellar reputation in the ultra community. The writer subsequently tried to clarify his comments, saying he just wanted to analyze what happened so it doesn't happen to anyone else. Maybe his intentions were honorable, but his first post sounded inflammatory and ignorant to folks who know David.

David is extroverted and loves to "egg people on" to encourage them to run better. When they do well, he showers them in praise. He doesn't brag about his own running ability, however. This experience has made him even more humble. In audio and video clips on Clark's site in the hours and days following his decision to quit he apologized to everyone who had helped him -- his crew, people who planned to put him up along the way and/or run with him, folks who had donated money for the record attempt, etc. He sounded tired and looked worse in the video taken of him on June 10, but a month later he is healing both physically and psychologically. He is very grateful for all the messages of support and understanding that he's received via e-mail and on Clark's site.

8. ACCEPTING "DEFEAT"

"Many a man has finally succeeded only because he has failed after repeated efforts.
If he had never met defeat he would never have known any great victory."
- Orison Swett Marden

My ultra heroes know that there are important lessons to be learned from adversity. In fact, we often learn more from defeat than from victory.

Even in seeming defeat, David is a winner in my book. He used extremely good judgment to stop when he did. He knows he could have died out there in that hostile desert if he'd continued running that day or the next. The video that was taken soon after he stopped on the first day (June 10) shows some of the physical damage. I imagine it took more courage for him to stop than to continue. He was wise enough to know that despite all his determination, speed, and training, he wasn't trained to handle a poorly marked trail in extreme heat with such long distances in the desert without water.

David swears he will never attempt the CDT again (or any other desert run!) because the trail is so poorly marked in New Mexico. He's very sorry he won't get to run it in Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana; running mountainous terrain is his forte. I've encouraged him to do more of the CDT someday when he can run at a more leisurely pace and see the beauty of the mountains.


There's the trail; how do we get to it?? Jim and Cody explore the CDT / CT near Stony Pass in July, 2007

In true "hero" fashion, however, David continues his never-ending quest to push his boundaries. He's already planning his next challenging adventure, although he won't tell us what it is yet. My ultra running heroes don't let a setback like a DNF or failure to reach a particular goal defeat them. They may go through some or all of Kubler-Ross' five stages of grieving (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance), but they move through them pretty quickly to the acceptance stage -- and get on with the next challenge! Their pity party is over before the guests even arrive.

9. GRACIOUS UNDER ADVERSITY

"Hard times don't create heroes.
It is during the hard times when the 'hero' within us is revealed."
- Bob Riley

My ultra running heroes know how to roll with the punches and keep their cool. They don't let adversities like bad weather, injuries, illnesses, crew defections, race cancellations, course sabotage, and other challenges get them down for long. They realize "stuff happens" and they make the best of it.

In late June about four hundred entrants in the prestigious Western States 100-mile run were put to the test. Each one had beaten the worst odds (about one in six) in the race's 35-year history to win a coveted spot on the entrants' list. Some had tried to get into the race for several years before finally being chosen for this year's race. Each one had trained for six months or more to finish the race -- many hours, many miles, much time away from their families. Each one had plunked down a bunch of hard-earned money for the opportunity to run this famous course. Many planned to bring along their families or friends as crew and pacers. Plane and lodging reservations had been made months in advance. Serious tapering had begun. They were ready and raring to go.


Jim picks up a shirt for cooler evening temperatures at the Michigan Bluff aid station
(55 miles) in the 2004 Western States 100. His son, Jim, Jr., is on the right.

A record thirty-seven of the entrants were going to attempt the Grand Slam this summer. Western States is the first of the four-race series they'd entered in advance, one right after the other from June to September, in California, Vermont, Colorado, and Utah. Four entry fees already paid, four or more plane fares paid, four lodging reservations made. For some older runners like 71-year-old Karsten Solheim, it might be their last realistic chance to attempt the Slam.

Mother Nature intervened a few days before the June 28, 2008 running of the Western States 100. Lightning from numerous thunderstorms started hundreds of forest fires in the parched California mountains. Two that raged out of control were so close to the Western States course that race organizers announced three days before the race was to begin that it would have to be cancelled for the first time in its 35-year history. The air wasn't safe for runners to breathe and firefighters didn't need to be hindered by hundreds of crews and their vehicles on the narrow roads to several of the aid stations.

Some of the runners and their families were already at Squaw Valley for the pre-race festivities when they heard the news. Others around the country -- and world -- were in transit or ready to travel.

Just imagine how disappointed you'd be after so much anticipation, training, and expense. Talk about being "all dressed up and nowhere to go!!" Jim and I have had that feeling and know how frustrating it is when we've DNFd a race we've trained hard for. We usually try to find another one pretty quickly while we're still trained, to redeem ourselves. It's hard for even us to understand the full impact on the runners who didn't even get the chance to start Western States this year. We've never had to deal with a race being cancelled.

There was quite a range of emotion expressed on the internet ultra list, more from people empathizing with the runners than from the runners themselves -- most of them were more preoccupied with their dilemma than those who were sitting in front of their computers at work or home! The situation raised more questions for the runners than answers in the first few days -- now what? is there another race I can do soon? can I get off work again? can I cancel my reservations? will I get my money back from States? will I get into States next year? what about the Grand Slam? Non-participants wanted to know the answers, too.

My "heroes" from this episode were the ones like Juli Aistairs, shown below, who made the best of the situation. Juli was registered for the Slam, so her loss was even greater than the majority of the entrants. Yet she managed to have a great time with her family and friends at Squaw Valley (race organizers continued the pre-race activities and had a big party on race day for the runners, crews, pacers, and volunteers who showed up). 

           
Adaptable grand slammer Juli Aistairs finishes her 72-hour run at ATY on New Year's Day
with Mke Melton, left photo, and runs the Rocky Raccoon 100 in February, 2008.

Juli wrote such a positive report to the ultra list about her experience that I wrote back to her off-line and said I want to be like her when I grow up! She got a kick out of that because I'm nine years older. Although she's disappointed she can't run Western States this year, she still has the opportunity to get in automatically next year and she can still run the Grand Slam this year. A fourth race, Arkansas Traveler, has been designated as this year's substitute for Western States. So all those other race entries haven't gone down the drain for the Slammers, as long as they can run AT100 in October.

Ultra runners who can adapt by "making lemonade out of lemons" when life hands them a raw deal are heroes to me. I am  inspired by their graciousness and positive attitude. These people aren't the ones who become angry and blame others for their setbacks. They don't bitch and moan publicly. They are justifiably disappointed, but they grumble privately (if at all), deal with reality, make adjustments, set new goals, and go after them. If only everyone (including me) could respond to adversity in this manner!

10. SETTING RECORDS, "FIRSTS," OR "MOSTS"

"Heroes take journeys, confront dragons, and discover the treasure of their true selves."
- Carol Lynn Pearson

You may have noticed that I didn't include a category for the folks who win ultras. It's not that I don't admire their ability to run the fastest on a particular day in a particular race. I do admire their ability but it's a criteria that's very low on my list of who inspires me or who I consider a "hero.". 

However, I am inspired by the men and women who consistently win races or place near the top, especially if they can do it for lots of years. I'm thinking of Ann Trason's awesome winning streak at Western States (something like fourteen times), Tim Twietmeyer's long record of sub-24-hour finishes in the same race, and Bill Finkbeiner's lengthy streak at Leadville. These are tough races and to run this well for one, two, or almost three decades is remarkable.

I'm also impressed by long trail and mountain peak speed records, although my own style on the Appalachian Trail and Colorado Trail was to go slowly enough to enjoy the journey and not rush, rush, rush every day. David's records on the AT and PCT are impressive, as are Andrew Thompson's on the AT and Jonathan Basham's on the CT -- but did they really have much FUN going so fast??  What did they miss when they were running in the dark? For that matter, what did they miss in daylight by going so fast? Still, their feats inspired me when I was still able to run and hike mountainous terrain for days and weeks on end (those days are over for me now, unfortunately) and I continue to admire their ability to get out there day after day and cover those distances so quickly.

Another guy who's set lots of amazing ultra running, hiking, and mountain climbing records is Ted "Cave Dog" Keizer. You can check out his web site here. Peter Bakwin is in the process of setting up a web site regarding such records here -- he's included lots of long trails and 14ers. Those sites should keep you busy for a while!

ARE YOU SOMEONE'S HERO?

"I think we're all heroes, if you catch us at the right time."
- Andy Garcia

I like that quote -- it's very optimistic and upbeat. I do believe most of us are capable of heroic acts of one sort or another throughout our lives. There are many ways to motivate and inspire others by the way we live our own lives and by the way we treat other people. You certainly don't have to be an endurance athlete to be a positive role model. Although I've written about characteristics I value in ultra runners I know personally or have read about, most of these attributes are shared by the other types of "heroes," too.

Think about who your heroes are, and why. Do you share any of those traits? Then you're probably someone else's hero and don't even reailze it!

Aspiring to inspire,

Sue
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, Cody, and Tater

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2008 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil

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