For These Runners, a Marathon Is a Warm-Up

PJ-BR890_SUPERR_DV_20131202154558With more people than ever lacing up running sneakers and crossing the 26.2-mile finish line, how can a dedicated athlete stand out from the crowd?

Run five marathons. In five states. In five days.

That was the thinking behind Lisa McGarry’s September trip for the Center of the Nation Series of marathons. The trip took the 44-year-old to run marathons in North Dakota on Monday and Nebraska on Friday, with South Dakota, Wyoming and Montana in between. Ms. McGarry, a graphic designer in Brooklyn, N.Y., had previously run an ultramarathon—any race longer than 26.2 miles—and two marathons back-to-back, but never five in a row. “I wanted to move the goal posts,” she says.

 For a growing number of athletes, marathons are too pedestrian. Angela Chen joins Lunch Break with a look at this new breed of runner, and Lisa McGarry shares her experience running five marathons in five states in five days. Photo: Lisa McGarry.

For a growing number of athletes, marathons are too pedestrian. Last year, 63,530 people crossed the finish line in ultramarathon races in the U.S., more than double the number from 2008, says Ryan Lamppa, a spokesman for Running USA, an industry-funded research group. “There’s more prize money in ultras [than before], so that has helped make that part of the sport more interesting,” he says. Quirky challenges, like consecutive-day marathons, also are likely growing, although there is less data on numbers of runners, Mr. Lamppa says.

Participation in conventional, 26.2-mile marathons has grown 2.5% a year for the past 15 years, according to Running USA. At the same time, the median time for men rose 44 minutes between 1980 and 2011. “Now there’s a lot of people walking, so it’s not like the old days when you had to run a 3-hour, 30-minute marathon to consider yourself a marathoner,” says Les Wright, who organizes a three-marathons-in-three-days race in California’s Lake Tahoe area. “People are trying to set themselves apart and challenge themselves more.”

For members of the 50 States Marathon Club, the goal is to run 26.2 miles in every state from Alabama to Wyoming. Membership of about 3,300 runners includes people who continue to compete after having survived cancer, replaced hip bones and, in one case, gotten a heart transplant, says Steve Boone, a software developer in Houston and one of the founders of the club. “For many, it’s a lifetime goal to complete the 50,” he says.

Mr. Boone says he began competing in 1988, when one of his customers bet him he couldn’t run a marathon. So far he has run 544 of the races, he says. Since travel to competitions is expensive, most members try to run multiple races in neighboring states during a weekend.

For Ms. McGarry, a member of the 50 States Marathon Club, part of the appeal of the Center of the Nation Series was the chance to knock out five states at once, she says. To train for the five-day event, Ms. McGarry and her running partner met at 6 a.m. every Tuesday and Thursday for nine months to run 12 miles before work.

The inaugural Center of the Nation Series of marathons drew 209 participants, of whom 99 finished all five races, according to Mainly Marathons, a Las Cruces, N.M., group that sets up multiday running events in various states. Ms. McGarry says she stayed with a small group of runners in a cabin in North Dakota and each day drove to a different state to compete. “We were worried and the pressure was on, but to finish with friends was amazing,” Ms. McGarry says. Just 12 states remain on her to-do list.

Ms. McGarry is taking a break from ultra and consecutive-day marathons for now to concentrate on increasing her speed. “Running ultras can make you slower,” says Julie Fingar, a 38-year-old running coach from Sacramento.

Experts say running extremely long distances uses slow-twitch muscle fibers. With so much focus on endurance training, the fast-twitch muscle fibers necessary for speed—and shaving seconds off the marathon time—can be neglected. This coming year, Ms. McGarry will focus on half-marathons and speed work in hopes of improving on her personal-record marathon time of 4:52.


Lisa McGarry, of Brooklyn, N.Y., running in Montana, the fourth in a series of five races. Sally Stilwell

Blue Benadum, who says his personal-record marathon time is 2:28:20, says consecutive-day marathons hasn’t slowed his time. Mr. Benadum, a running coach from Los Angeles, has participated since 2009 in the Tahoe Triple, a three-marathons-in-three-days event near California’s Lake Tahoe, winning first place in 2011 and 2012. The 34-year-old hopes to qualify in the 2016 Olympic trials, where the men’s qualifying standard is 2:18 for the B team and 2:15 for the A team.

Mr. Benadum says consecutive-day marathons provide a different social experience. At a typical marathon, people show up, run and leave. With the same people for days on end, a stronger sense of camaraderie builds. “We’d have lunch together and soak our legs in the lake. That is part of what kept me coming back,” he says.

Another extreme-distance race is the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run, from Squaw Valley to Auburn in California. The June competition, which was started in 1974, tests runners with steep elevation changes and widely varying temperatures, including a section that can reach 110 degrees. Last year, nearly 400 people participated, of which 83% finished the race.

Ms. Fingar, the running coach in Sacramento, has twice won another ultramarathon, the Headlands 100-miler in Marin County, Calif. “The Headlands race has 20,000 feet of elevation change, but what makes this one my most extreme mental challenge is that it’s four 25-mile loops,” she says. Runners go one direction, then reverse, in what are known as “washing machine loops.” “You go downhill, now you’re going to go uphill on the reverse. Your mind definitely gets spun,” Ms. Fingar says.

Going extreme distances is a chance for runners to explore their limits, says sports psychologist Michael Sachs, a professor of kinesiology at Temple University. “For most, it’s not really about fitness. There’s a saying: ‘In running, the first half-hour is for the body, the second half-hour is for the mind, the third half-hour is for the soul,” Dr. Sachs says. “And I think that’s why people are doing it: to see what they’re made of and test their potential.”

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source: WSJ by Angela Chen


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