A marathon? Child's play. Running 100 miles, cycling for 1,000 miles? Now we're talking.

Rocky Mountain News (CO) - Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Author: Lisa Marshall, Special to the Rocky


Remember when a marathon was considered the runner's ultimate test? A century ride the loftiest of cycling feats?

For an increasing number of athletes, those days are gone, with 26.2-mile runs and 100-mile bike races passed over in favor of longer distances and 24-hour races that make mere mortals shudder.

"Pretty much anyone can train and do a marathon these days, but tell someone you've run 100 miles and they're like, 'Wow.' A 100 is way out there," said Tia Bodington, editor of UltraRunning Magazine.

In 2007, according to UltraRunning, 14,241 people completed an "ultramarathon" (any distance longer than 26.2 miles). At least 354 were hosted in North America, reflecting steady growth in a once-obscure sport that was still in its infancy when Colorado's legendary Leadville Trail 100 run was born 25 years ago.

Events range from 50- or 100-mile runs to multiday races that span more than 1,000 miles, many hosted in inhospitable locations, including Death Valley, home to the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in July. Other ultras try not only a runner's body, but also their sanity, challenging them to circle a track as many times as possible for 24 hours.

Meanwhile, participation in the brutal 3,000-mile cycling Race Across America is up 250 percent in the last decade; 12- and 24-hour cycling events (including the 12 Hours of Snowmass, which Lance Armstrong competed in last month) are proliferating. Membership in the UltraMarathon Cycling Association grew from 679 in 1997 to 1,650 in 2007.

"We've raised our families, we've made our marks in our careers and now we are looking for the next challenge," said UMCA Director John Hughes, noting that many ultra-distance cyclists are baby boomers.

How do they do it? Here's a look:

Anita Fromm 37, from Frisco/Albuquerque

* Record-setter: Death-Valley Double Crossing (135 miles across Death Valley on foot, up 14,497-foot Mount Whitney and back, totaling 292 miles)

* Runs: 80 to 120 miles a week

* Sleeps: 8 hours a night; occasional naps during a race.

* Eats: 1,200 to 3,000 calories a day while training. Mostly organic. No red meat. No alcohol. Coconut oil for immunity. During a race: potato chips and dip, cold leftover pizza, Little Debbie snack cakes and caffeine pills. "I realize I'll probably never get a health food company to sponsor me."

* Advice on hitting the wall: "Races are like life. There are tedious places and wonderful places. When you hit the rough spots, the trick is to just keep going because you know that it will get better."

Forty hours after starting the Badwater Ultramarathon across Death Valley, Anita Fromm approached the cheers at the finish line just as the sky was growing black with clouds. But for her, it was not a time for celebration and relief.

She had yet to climb 11 miles and 6,135 feet to the summit of Mount Whitney (the highest point in the Continental United States) and then turn around and run 146 miles back to where she started, at the lowest point in the Western hemisphere.

"I could hear the thunder and thought, 'I have done all this training and spent all this money, and now I am going to fail,'" recalls
Fromm , who coaches marathoners when she's not racing.

Instead of failing, she took a four-hour rest and carried on, crushing the 17-year-old women's record for the so-called "Death Valley Double Crossing" after a punishing 129-hour, 44-minute run through everything from soaking rain to 130-degree temperatures with a 30-mph headwind.

"I have never felt the heat and ferocity of the elements like I did that 292 miles. It literally felt like my skin was being singed."

Such epic challenges have become a way of life for
Fromm since running her first marathon in 1992. She's since run 20 100-milers, 40 50-milers, and more than three dozen marathons, finding relief for an eating disorder that plagued her since youth.

"With any addiction, you are never completely better, but I have been able to heal my life as much as I am able to with my running. It helps me manage it," she says.

"Ultrarunning is a way of life for me," she says, noting that she has a flexible job, a supportive husband and no children. "I live very economically so I can do these things."

Her next major goal: On Aug. 22, 2009, she intends to set out to run across the country, hoofing it 3,200 miles in less than 64 days.

"People sometimes are like: 'There has got to be more to your life than running,' but I am very at peace with what I do. Every footstep is a blessing."

Jamie Donaldson, 34, of Littleton

*Winner: 2008 Badwater Ultramarathon, women's division

*Runs: 150 to 200 miles a week

*Sleeps: Six hours a night during training; little during a race

*Eats: "Tons of carbs," wheat grass powder in water (for immune boosting), chia seeds (for energy and recovery), Perpetuem (a powdered drink to prevent muscle fatigue during a race).

*Advice on pre-race jitters: "Believe in your training. Every time I step in line for a 100-mile race, I am scared to death, but if you're prepared and you know it, that helps."

To the average couch potato, Jamie Donaldson's typical day sounds a lot like a day in Purgatory:

Rise at 4 a.m. for a series of punishing hill repeats by the light of the neighborhood street lamps. Grab a shower and be at work by 6:30 a.m. to teach sixth grade at Sheridan Middle School. Rush from the school to the track to coach cross country until 4:30 p.m., then set out for a 25-mile training run before coming home to squeeze in some time with the hubby. If it's summer and Donaldson's training for the sweltering Badwater Ultramarathon across Death Valley, make that 25-mile run in the heat of the day, clad in layers of black clothing and a winter hat and gloves. Then, top it off by running in place inside a sauna.

"I don't want running to take over my life, but it has always been a huge part of it," says Donaldson, a humble overachiever who has been setting records since grade school. "It's a fine balance, and there is never enough time."

Donaldson first got turned on to running growing up in Pennsylvania, where she tagged along to races with her dad, Rex Rutkoski, now 60. She ran her first fun run at age 6 and ran track in high school and college. It wasn't until she ran her first marathon with her dad in 2003 that she felt the thrill of distance.

Since then, Donaldson has run countless 50-milers and 100-plus-milers, including a heartbreaking Badwater in 2007. After leading the pack for 122 miles, she noticed her body swelling from the heat.

"I was so swollen you couldn't see my knees or ankles. Even my neck and fingers were bloated." The swelling led to chafing which prompted her to change her gait and gave her shin splints. She finished nonetheless, having walked 75 miles.

"It was a disaster," she says.

This year, not only did Donaldson get her "sweet redemption" at Badwater -- finishing in 26 hours and 51 minutes -- she also qualified to represent the U.S. in Korea for the International Association of Ultrarunners 24-hour World Championship this month.

What does that entail? Try circumnavigating a flat, 1-mile concrete course repeatedly for 24 hours.

"It's mind numbing," Donaldson concedes.

Almost makes Purgatory sound like fun.

Nat Ross, 36, from Golden

*Record: More 24-hour bike-race finishes (38) than any cyclist in the world; 2007 Ultra-Endurance series champion

*Rides: Up to 45 hours a week

*Sleeps: 10 hours a night, plus naps.

*Eats: Seven meals a day and as many as 7,000 calories daily. Starts every day with an Emergen-C and uses a Neti pot for nasal cleansing and herbs for immunity.

*Advice on hitting the wall: "It's preventable. Once you feel it coming on, start putting some sugar down." If you've hit it: Pull over and regroup, put on a fresh pair of socks, change the playlist on your MP3 player.

After years of pulling in a living as a high school chemistry teacher and a part-time bartender, Colorado native Nat Ross has reached a point many cyclists only dream of: He gets paid to ride.

"I have one of the best jobs in the world," says Ross, an eight-year professional rider (sponsored by Subaru-Gary Fisher) who grew up in Hot Sulfur Springs.

Ross says his pedaling prowess has earned him enough to buy a house and live comfortably. But his love for round-the-clock rides came long before the paycheck.

Ross' first foray into the world of 24-hour races came in 1998, when he signed up for the now-defunct Montezuma's Revenge, a ridiculously steep mountain bike race near rugged Montezuma, Colo. Cyclists were required to cover as much distance as possible in a 24-hour period via nine distinct laps, potentially crossing the Continental Divide 10 times, summiting a fourteener on two wheels and climbing 37,000 vertical feet under the full moon.

"You are at altitude, getting hypothermia, crossing creeks and streams on your bike and Mother Nature is throwing everything she can at you. You go through all sorts of highs and lows. You definitely get to know yourself," says Ross.

After a second-place finish that year, Ross knew he'd found his calling, and he has since completed 37 more 24-hour-races, including a mud-choked British Sleepless in the Saddle event raced in the rain as a live symphony played in the background.

Ross also competed in the Race Across America two years in a row, with his four-man team taking the title, and won the National Ultra Endurance Series -- a series of eight 100-mile cross-country mountain biking events in 2007.

Tired yet? Not quite, he says, although he does take a month off each year to lie on the beach and forget about cycling.

"I'm at the point in my career where if I retire, I know I'll end up coming back. I love this sport too much."