Ultramarathoners are the ultimate road warriors
But here at the dark, chilly start of the Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 ultramarathon, the 143 runners are hopping with happy anticipation in the seconds before race director Stan Duobinis gives the start signal.
They'll have a 2.4-mile dash on rolling asphalt roads before they hit the rough stuff.
The lean greyhounds at the front are churning out seven-minute miles, which would be a good pace for any recreational runner in a 5K race.
The rest of the field is strung out with some running, some walking, some doing an awkward mix of both, their headlamps creating a bobbing line of lights that snakes up aptly named Mountain Road.
They have 36 hours to finish the 101.8-mile course, and some of these back-of-the-pack competitors will need every minute for this ultramarathon, defined as any race longer than the standard 26.2 miles of a road marathon.
Given that everyone from Oprah Winfrey to your mother's dentist seems to have finished a regular marathon, the cachet of running a marathon as a feat of strength and endurance has diminished in the eyes of many runners.
With that increased mass participation, average marathon finishing times for men have jumped from 3 hours, 32 minutes in 1980 to 4 hours, 19 minutes last year, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.
The answer for the frustrated endurance crowd was to go longer and harder.
So here, at the first of 16 aid stations, some runners grab for cups of Gatorade or water before heading up the first of 10 shin-busting major climbs.
The race is only 30 minutes old, but already a cry of distress pierces the darkness.
"Hey, do you have any extra toilet paper? I'm already out!"
A bigger challenge
The USA's first ultramarathon, the JFK 50 Miler, began in Maryland in 1963 as a tribute to President John F. Kennedy, who advocated 50-mile walks and hikes to improve the nation's fitness.
In that first JFK 50, 11 runners started the race; only four finished over the 50 miles of rock and dirt trails. In the 2004 event, 876 runners finished.
In 1979, 2,300 racers finished an ultramarathon, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer study. Last year, more than 18,000 achieved that feat.
Many events are sold out months before the start date, even with entry fees that range from $150 for the Massanutten 100-mile event to $220 for the Leadville (Colo.) 100 trail race.
There are additional costs for camping and support crews, who dash from aid station to aid station to care for their runners. Many runners own SUVs powerful enough to pull spacious camp trailers from race to race.
A 100-mile run through the woods can cost $1,000 or more. The finishers' prize: An engraved pewter belt buckle.
Ultrarunners must also give up large chunks of their time to train for these mammoth events. Weekend mornings are usually given over to four-hour training runs. For those racing in 100-mile events, several 50-kilometer (31-mile) races must be undertaken to steel the legs. Most ultrarunners don't compete in more than one or two 100-mile races a year.
The average ultramarathon runner is older and more conservative than counterparts in the other so-called extreme sports, Duobinis observes. Although there were a few tattoos and low-slung beanie caps in this starting field, salt-and-pepper was the predominant hair color.
That will be reflected in the final results: The average age of the race's first 10 finishers is 35.7; the 45th through 54th places averaged 45.2 years; and the last 10 runners average 49.1.
"A lot of road marathoners look for diversity in their running as veteran athletes," says freelance writer and author James Raia, who has completed 35 marathons and 40 ultras. "Trail running and longer events, 50 kilometers and farther, provide a nice alternative.
"Often, the fields are smaller, the terrain appealing and there's a nice overall camaraderie in ultras. There are stars like Dean Karnazes who thrive on the attention, but they're the exceptions."
Karnazes, the 42-year-old author of Ultramarathon Man and the current media darling of extreme running, seems to rub this crowd the wrong way.
"We have some very elite athletes here," race director Duobinis says. "They just prefer to keep a lower profile."
The Massanutten race course is an out-and-back route. The first 50 miles head south, weaving up and down the ridge of Massanutten Mountain. At Mile 52, the race takes a U-turn and heads north on Green Mountain.
Both mountains are classic Appalachian in formation, long ridges that once were as pointed and raw as the Rockies are now. They have since been worn into woods-covered walls strewn with the rocky detritus of a million years of erosion.
Between those ridges is Fort Valley, a relatively flat area where many hamlets and vacation camps have sprung up.
During the race, Duobinis says, the 143 runners, 130 crewmembers, 100 volunteers and 30 ham radio and Web site operators "more than double the population of Fort Valley."
Most of the race is on U.S. Forest Service land, so local district supervisor Don Sawyer is here to keep an eye on things.
With all the crews zooming through Fort Valley en route to the next aid station, "Traffic can get pretty exciting on some of these turns," he says.
But his biggest worry is getting runners to go farther into the woods when nature calls.
"We really don't want them (going to the bathroom) in someone's yard," he says.
Eat to win
One of the most important — and attractive — aspects of ultrarunning is the necessity to consume massive quantities of food and drink. The fastest runners make do with super-caloric energy drinks and gels.
The other 75% of the pack look forward to the smorgasbord awaiting them at the next stop.
"We're like an emergency room with a restaurant," says Bob Heltibridle, who, with his wife, Janice, runs the station at Elizabeth Furnace, the last stop before the race finishes 5 miles away.
"Our main job here is to help them with any medical needs and make sure they get what they want to eat," Janice Heltibridle says. "By the time they get to us, they're pretty much out of it and can barely talk, so we just go through the whole food list until they hear something they like."
At the early aid stations, runners clamor for Gatorade or Hammer Gels, a syrup-like energy gel. By the time they reach Elizabeth Furnace, they want Coca-Cola or coffee. Sometimes all that sweet stuff has upset their stomachs, so they go with ginger ale.
On the fast track
While most of the pack has just made the U-turn onto Green Mountain, the elite runners are heading toward the finish line.
The mild temperatures and lack of humidity have made for ideal racing conditions.
Even the best racers are forced to a fast walk on the route's rocky climbs. They can pick up speed on the descents, but the terrain makes them skip from rock to root to scree. No one escaped without falling, and all bear bloody scabs and scrapes.
At 10 p.m., word comes back to the finish-line headquarters that Matthew Estes, a 31-year-old mountain biker from Ellington, Conn., who has never finished a 100-mile running race, is more than an hour ahead of his closest rival.
There's some elation, but Duobinis cautions that Estes had been ahead in a previous Hawaii 100-miler only to blow up and drop out of that race.
But Estes, who is running with a sheet of paper containing the winning split times from last year's race pinned to his T-shirt, doesn't falter, hitting the finish line in 18 hours, 12 minutes, 59 seconds.
His effort of just under 11 minutes a mile for 101.8 miles not only shattered the long-course record of 19:58:19 but also broke the 35-hour shorter course record of 18:21.
Due to his unexpected speed, only a few dozen people are on hand to see Estes cross the finish line.
He walks stiff-legged to the platform and says to no one in particular, "I don't want to do that again any time soon."
Estes says his strategy was to hang back at the beginning of the race, then turn on the heat at the finish.
His parents are there, and, after giving and getting hugs from them, he poses next to the big, red digital clock that's showing his record-breaking time.
"Do I look fat?" he jokes.
Beat the clock
The next runner won't arrive for another 71 minutes, so the excitement dies until 3 a.m., when Sue Johnston, the fastest woman in the race, appears to be on track to break the women's record. She hits the tape at 22:38:29, breaking the mark of 24:40:20. She finishes in sixth place overall.
"My goal for this race was to be the first woman," says the 39-year-old medical transcriptionist from Waterford, Vt. "However many men I could beat is just icing on the cake. Making the top 10 is pretty neat.
"I stink at the shorter races. I've only run one 5K and no 10Ks. Those races are more painful. This is like a dull ache."
More than 12 hours later, the last two runners — both 51 — are navigating the final rocky stretch to the finish.
Shihab Shamma has a big gash on his chin from a fall in the race.
"How far to the road?" he asks as he picks his way through the boulders. "How far?"
A few yards back, Leonard Martin is using a walking pole to help his aching knees.
They both reach the finish with more than 20 minutes to spare. The crowd that greets them is 10 times larger than the group that met the men's and women's champions.
Fifty starters fail to finish.
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