Just keep running

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Photo: Getty images

I DON’T look like a runner.

My hips and legs are round and fleshy; my stomach has a permanent paunch. Runners tend to evoke images of long, lean limbs and toned musculature.

I have neither.

But hanging in my bedroom - in the same way a child might proudly wear a sticker on their collar ‘For Trying’ - are a bundle of ‘medals’ I have ‘earned’ over the last few years from taking part in fun-runs.

Over bridges, across cities and to beaches, I have run half-marathons sometimes slowly, even pitifully. But despite my lack of speed or how pudgy I become, I seem to be able to keep going for as long as I need to. In the words of writer and marathon runner Haruki Murakami; ‘‘At least I never walked’’.

Lately, I’ve been devouring books written by runners about running and am particularly fascinated by those who have run ultramarathons - that is, any distance greater than the 42.19km marathon. These are races can go for days across unforgiving terrain covering thousands of kilometres.

It just seems so unfathomable a distance to think about, though there is a part of me that likes to believe one day, maybe I could. It seems I am not alone because increasingly, women are taking up ultramarathons and some suggest that women may even be better equipped to run such distances - and win - than men.

Last month, CBC news reported that 44-year-old Lucy Ryan completed the invitation-only, 217km Death Valley ultramarathon in California in 38 hours, 35 minutes.

‘‘[It was] absolutely fine,” she said.

“I only changed shoes once through the whole thing and I only have two blisters and that’s it.  ‘‘I’m not fast, I’m a slow runner, but I can just keep going forever.”

There is no doubt Ryan is mentally and physically tough, more-so than most. But what if women are designed to run these kind of distances, or at least, to be capable of doing so?

In 1997, the Medical Research Council in South Africa decided to see if women could outrun men in ultramarathon races. They compared the performances of men and women in a 90 km race, and found men ran faster than the women up to the marathon distance of 42.2 km. Beyond that distance though, they found women ultramarathon runners had greater fatigue resistance than equally trained men.

One theory is that because women generally tend to carry more fat than men, they also have a metabolic advantage because fat metabolism increases as distance increases. But this theory is not certain. The point is certainly not to compare women to men, but to try and understand the capabilities of the human body and how both men and women respond to and deal with pain.

One of the best ultramarathon runners in the world is Diane Van Deren, who can run for days on end without sleep. She was the first woman to complete the almost 700 km Yukon Arctic Ultra, a race across frozen terrain battling sub-zero temperatures, one of the toughest races in the world.

‘‘The shoes literally froze on my feet, it was so cold,’’ she said.

But it wasn’t her metabolism or training that led her resilience to torture. Van Deren puts her success in distance running down to epileptic brain seizures, which became so severe that she underwent a lobectomy - removal of a chunk of her brain - about 15 years ago.

The surgery went well but it had one side effect - she was no longer able to judge the passing of time. Her spatial reasoning had been obliterated.

It meant post-surgery, she could run for days on end without registering the scope of the time passed.

But she has told reporters; ‘‘I think for me, the one advantage over other athletes would be time. I forget how many days I have been out there.’’ Until she reaches the finish line, she has no idea how far she has already run, or how far she has left to go.

But as incredible as her story is, there are plenty of others running ultramarathons who have to get through days of running with training and willpower alone.

In the latest journal BMC Medicine, Andrew Murray, an ultra-marathon runner and a doctor of sports and exercise medicine at the SportScotland Institute of Sport, wrote;

‘‘Data is likely to show that competing in such an event can lead to significant musculoskeletal and other injuries, but also that the human body is capable of adapting to incredible endurance loads and can run in excess of a marathon per day despite seemingly significant medical issues.

‘‘[But] ultra-endurance running is increasing dramatically in popularity.’’

What no-one seems to be able to answer is why more men and women are taking up the challenge.

‘‘Despite increased 161-km ultramarathon participation in recent years, little is known about those who pursue such an activity,’’ wrote Martin Hoffman from the University of California, following his study last year of the factors that lead people to successfully run the distance. (The main factor that led to runners pulling out, FYI, was throwing up).

Completing an ultramarathon is indeed a major achievement, seen by many as the ultimate feat of endurance.  And the closest I am ever likely to come to an ultramarathon is reading books about them.

But the more I read the likes of authors like Christopher McDougall and others, it seems there is a high chance both our bodies and minds are built for the challenge.

What’s the longest distance you’ve ever run? How did you train for it/ get through it?

Melissa Davey is a health journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald.

Twitter: @MelissaLDavey

11 comments

  • My first marathon was Blackmores Sydney in 2010, and since then I've done lots of short ultras (45km) and a couple of 'middle distance' ultras (100km). I'll never be fast, will never win, will probably never do a 'miler' (100 miles or 160km). But quite frankly I'm amazed that me as a non running fat bastard has been able to do these things, and all in 2.5 years.

    Melissa you should step up and do a marathon or an ultra. It might frighten you, but it's a good fright, and you'll get a huge satisfaction from it.

    'at least I never walked' well, if you're going to do an ultra, you'd better get used to walking, you'll be doing it a lot- everybody does.

    Commenter
    Kaos
    Date and time
    September 06, 2012, 10:50AM
    • Kaos, that is awesome. Rest assured if I ever attempt an ultra, I will indeed walk in parts! In the meantime I am so inspired by your achievements - my goal is a full marathon, hopefully early next year. How did you go about training for your first full marathon? I'd love some tips.
      I completely agree with the satisfaction that comes with running - 5 km or 50 km, everyone should be proud of meeting their goals.

      Commenter
      Melissa Davey
      Date and time
      September 06, 2012, 11:50AM
  • I've done two marathons, Nottingham and New York plus a few half marathons here and there. At the moment I'm training to do the HK50 which is a 50km trail run/hike on Hong Kong Island. To me it's not about what time I do it in, it's proving to myself that I can do it.

    I think a lot of the reason that more people are now doing ultra marathons is that there seem to be a lot more people who have done regular marathons. It used to be that running marathons was just for serious runners, now it almost seems like every second person has done one. So if you want to stand out/have something to brag about then you need to go further, hence the rising popularity of ultra marathons.

    Commenter
    Hurrow
    Date and time
    September 06, 2012, 12:38PM
    • Interesting take on it Hurrow. The New York marathon is a dream of mine - if only I could afford to get there for it!
      And that is one of the aspects of running I love most - challenging yourself, no matter the time you do it in - it's about giving it your best and surprising yourself.

      Commenter
      Melissa Davey
      Date and time
      September 06, 2012, 1:22PM
  • Thanks for sharing Melissa. I started running in 2010 with small distances - have now done a number of 10km runs, 14km at the Great Ocean Road this year, and am training for the half at Melbourne Marathon in October. Like you I'm not fast, but I can get through the distance eventually. What has helped is training with others. I run with Can Too, and raise money for cancer research at the same time. We train in a group and normally run with a buddy in the actual event. That definitely helps the time go without too much thought. I didn't think I'd ever want to do a marathon, but as I get closer to my first half I think it won't be too far down the track....

    Commenter
    Jodie
    Location
    Melbourne
    Date and time
    September 06, 2012, 1:49PM
    • Thanks Jodie - that seems to be a recurring theme. People manage a goal distance and naturally start aiming further as they complete each distance. I never thought I could run a half but I find them a lot of fun.
      It's fantastic that you are running for a good cause too. My first fundraising run was for gastric cancer research, in memory of my uncle who died from it much, much too young. I still often think of him when I run.
      I'm not sure why I keep upping the distances I aim for myself, but sometimes I feel like the only time I really experience peace is when my feet are pounding along.
      Good luck with your half in Melbourne!

      Commenter
      Melissa Davey
      Date and time
      September 06, 2012, 2:06PM
  • Have you tried lifting weights Melissa? I don't mean in a "toning abs buns and thighs" kind of way but "lets see how many of these metal things I can get off the ground". In some sports being a little more solid around the hips and legs is not only OK but a definite advantage. Some women don't approach lifting seriously because they are concerned about getting "too big" but they get a lot of enjoyment out of it once they start.

    Commenter
    rl
    Location
    la
    Date and time
    September 06, 2012, 2:43PM
    • Hi Rl. I lift weights (love it) and my approach is the heavier the better! Also did kickboxing for a long time too several years ago now - those brutal workouts made me so strong I'd often get partnered against men much bigger than myself ;) As for muscles - Too big? Not big enough, I reckon!

      Commenter
      Melissa Davey
      Date and time
      September 06, 2012, 3:41PM
  • Go for it Melissa! I'm a mum of (now) three and completed my first ultra (100km) last year. Best thing I ever did (along with my children of course) - getting to the finish was the BEST feeling, and getting through it was simply putting one foot in front of the other. I had done 10km and half marathons before, but hadn't thought a marathon - let alone an ultra - possible until I got roped into it! No regrets and I relish the memories alot and once I wean my new bubba am looking forward to ultra number 2! Hopefully we'll see an article from you in the future describing your experience!

    Commenter
    Smiley1
    Location
    NZ
    Date and time
    September 06, 2012, 6:46PM
    • I'm female and 30. I had never been into running - or sport for that matter. When I was about 24 I started running a bit to keep fit and eventually did a half marathon. I thought that was the longest I'd do but last year I moved to Ballarat. I joined a running group to meet new people and ended up being convinced to run the Melbourne Marathon. Inspired by some other people in the group, I then signed up to run Comrades (89km) in South Africa. I completed that in June this year in 11h38m. I amazed myself (and I think everyone else who knows me!). I'm now training to do the Melbourne Marathon again this year and then Comrades again next year. I think a lot of it comes down to being consistent, yet sensible, with training. Don't underestimate yourself, pick a marathon and start training for it!!

      Commenter
      Ballaratrunner
      Date and time
      September 06, 2012, 8:13PM

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