Runners embark on the 2013 Hallucination 100 mile Run at the Run Woodstock Festival in Pinckney, Michigan, one of five races that comprise the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. PHOTO BY GREG SADLER PHOTOGRAPHY
Runners embark on the 2013 Hallucination 100 mile Run at the Run Woodstock Festival in Pinckney, Michigan, one of five races that comprise the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. PHOTO BY GREG SADLER PHOTOGRAPHY
How does a person feel after running for more than 20 hours in the rain? Ask 35-year old Angela Justice who ran her first 100 mile race at the Woodstock Hallucination Run in 2011. 

After running for over 26 hours, 22 of them in the rain, she says, “The trails were nothing but mud pies and rivers. And it was by far the most amazing experience I have ever had.”

This overly positive viewpoint of an extremely uncomfortable undertaking is the modus operandi of ultrarunners.

It’s an oddly natural outcome for a person who begins measuring their weekend long runs by hours instead of miles, which many ultrarunners do. The weekend 10 miler is replaced by the weekend double header of three to five hours on Saturday and another ultra-long run on Sunday. Justice even did back-to-back marathons during her ultramarathon training. 

Although hard to imagine, there is an ever expanding sub group of runners pushing their physical, mental and psychological limits running ultramarathons. Be they superhuman or super crazy, ultrarunners find their fraternity growing.

Ultrarunning’s popularity has been boosted by best-selling books such as Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, Ultra Marathon Man by Dean Karnazes and Eat and Run by Scott Jurek.

Although an ultramarathon is any organized foot race longer than a standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles, many diehard ultrarunners feel the true test is the 100-mile distance. There are also events in which a runner covers as many miles as possible on a lap course for 24 or 48 hours straight.

One difference between ultramarathons and marathons is the more chill atmosphere of the former. Ultrarunners by nature seem to be of the more laid back persuasion maybe due largely to the friendly noncompetitive nature of most ultras. The easy going atmosphere is spurred on by the run at your own pace style races. Many ultrarunners will take walk breaks, stop at aid stations to eat and drink, change shoes or clothes, get a pep talk or even take a nap.

Ultramarathons are held on roads, tracks and trails. The majority are trail or mountain events. The courses vary from point to point, large loops and out-and-back courses.

Ultra history & histrionics
Although, ultrarunning’s popularity has boomed in the last decade, it is not a new sport. Its origins go back to the late 1800s. Examples include six day races held in Madison Square Garden in New York City and the transcontinental races of the 1920s.

The Western States 100, held in Colorado, is the Boston Marathon of the sport. Its history goes back to its first participant, Gordy Ansleigh. A regular participant in the Tevis Cup 100 mile endurance horse race, Ansleigh decided to traverse the 100 mile course by foot. He covered the distance in less than 24 hours and thereby the famed Western States 100 was born. 

Other 100 mile trail races soon followed. The Midwest has several of its. (See sidebar below.)

The personalities in the ultrarunning world range from Type A, obsessive planners and data nuts, to shoeless Luddites. What they all share is a drive to cross that very distant threshold. To accomplish such feats, they need extraordinary determination along with mental and physical strength. 

Where does the motivation to run hour after hour aftyer hour come from? When a person sets out to run endless miles the reasons for running seem to be just as infinite.

Chuck Cova was an Ironman triathlete before adopting an ultra mindset. He had the 50K distance on his bucket list, but the night before his first race of that distance he decided to switch to the 50 mile option. Since then he has moved on to the 100 mile distance.

Cova says his motivation was “to run longer because I wasn’t getting any faster as I got older. However, what I have learned is that in virtually every long run I come home a better person than I started.”

“Each long run brings challenges that require you to face your fears and doubts, slay some demons, wrestle with closet skeletons and the like. You arrive home more whole than you started,” he says.

Justice feels that her motivation is to stay in shape, relieve stress and because a marathon, “just isn’t long enough.” She is also motivated by, “the fact that I always feel like I’ve earned that double scoop ice cream cone or that extra slice of pizza.”

Renee Obert, a 47-year old ultrarunner from Brighton, Michigan, has 18 ultras under her belt since running her first in 2011. “The brain is a powerful tool,” she says. “Ultrarunners tend to be really upbeat, determined and positive. A pessimistic person with a poor outlook is going to find running a long distance very difficult.”

Obert started out wanting to win the Trail Runner Magazine Trophy Series. Instead she found ultrarunning “to be a great way to see the country and meet new people.” For her it was a moving meditation.

More simply, Rick Leedy of Pinckney, Michigan, who has toed the line at more than 30 ultras, says, “I run for the fun and friendship.” He prefers the laid back attitude of ultras over the “all about me and my time” attitude more prevalent at marathons. 

“During an ultramarathon you really get to know other runners. Ultrarunners will literally give you the shirt off their back or the food/drink from their hand if they see you in need,” Leedy says. He has noticed that ultrarunners are willing to sacrifice their race to make sure you finish yours.

Obert says she, too, has been impressed with the supportive vibe of ultrarunning. “No matter if they are in the elite class or in the final wave, each runner is supportive in their words and actions. Everyone looks out for each other,” she says.

The best part about ultrarunning is that it is within your reach.

“I don’t think ultrarunners are any different from other runners, other than the fact that they run farther. Anyone and everyone has it in them to keep going. The desire to do so, just has to be there,” Justice insists.

All you need is determination, proper training and a love of running. Most of all, to finish your first ultra you will need direction. 

Start slow and build
Building your base is relatively simple. It means slowly adding miles to your daily, weekly and monthly runs. It is important to not get injured in the process. Follow this rule of thumb: Increase weekly mileage by no more than 10 percent. For example, if you ran 10 miles last week, tack on a mile this week. 

The minimum weekly mileage for many ultrarunners is in the range of 30 to 40 miles per week. Base weekly mileage will vary from one ultrarunner to the next. 

A crucial aspect in ultrarunning is pace. It is true that the elites can be seen flying down the trails. But in the beginning, speed is not a good idea. Instead, practice slow running. To finish your first ultra you will need a pace that will leave you with something in the tank after hours and hours of running. For this reason, many ultrarunners walk up the hills or take timed walking breaks. 

Remember, it is always better to go slow and finish than not finish at all.

Ultramarathons can be hilly, rocky, sandy, wet, muddy, flat – you name it. Check out the race’s website and research the course. Training on the actual course of your goal race is ideal. At times this is not possible, so it is advisable that you train on terrain that mimics the race course. The majority of ultramarathons are on trails. It is good to be prepared by running on trails. 

To simulate the fatigue you’ll face on race day, completing back-to-back long training riuns is vital. This means running long to days in a row. For example, running 10 miles on Saturday and then running 15 miles on Sunday.

Running long two days in a row trains your body and mind to keep going, even after you may feel you have nothing left. Your training program should also include a variety of other workouts, such as, hill repeats, speed workouts, tempo running and strength training.

Eating, recovering, motivating
The energy you need to keep running hour after hour is supplied by the calories you take in at the same time. It is crucial to eat during training runs, about 300 calories worth per hour. Most ultras have aid stations offering a variety of fuel, from energy gels to peanut butter sandwiches and potato chips. Never overlook the value of recovery. After long training runs it is best to take the next day off or run a short, easy run. Your body needs to recover to avoid injury. Some ultrarunners complement their running with cross training. This can be done with biking, swimming, Pilates or other nonimpact exercises.

A never to be overlooked step is finding motivation. Reading about what others have accomplished and how they have succeeded is helpful. Keep your ultrarunning fire stoked with the infectious vibe and positive peer pressure of other ultrarunners.

“The best advice I ever got was ‘left foot, right foot, repeat.’ That is ultra in a nutshell,” Cova says. “The race is really about continuous forward motion, when logic and circumstances and everything in your body and mind say stop.”

Obert adds, “The greatest joy of running an ultramarathon is to be able to use the experience to get through other tough things in life and to illustrate that for others. Plus, I think it is just plain fun to run in the woods all day in the sun and the rain and the snow, past huge pine trees and grassy fields, old train tracks and waterfalls. It is like being a kid again.”

Clint Cherepa is a Wisconsinite currently doing volunteer work in Nicaragua.

The Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning

Finishing a 100-mile run is a daunting challenge in itself. Tackling four in one year is nearly unimaginable. Yet the challenge exists in the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, a quest to complete four of the Midwest’s showcase 100 mile trail races over the course of about three months. 

In 2014, the big four are the following:

April 26-27: Indiana Trail 100 Mile Run, Albion, IN;

June 7-8: Kettle Moraine 100 Mile Endurance Run, La Grange, WI;

June 21-22: Mohican Trail 100 Mile Run, Loudonville, OH;

Aug. 2-3: Burning River 100 Mile Endurance Run, Cleveland-Akron, OH

Sept. 5-6: Hallucination 100 Mile Run, Pinckney, MI;

According to the website for the Midwest Grand Slam,, it is “an undertaking that requires tremendous dedication, effort, sacrifice, perseverance, and athleticism to complete.”