Ultra-Marathoners Take Running to the Extreme

Posted: August 12, 2013 by kirisyko in SykOtic, Ultra distance running
Tags: , , , , , ,
A check point on the UTMB 2005

A check point on the UTMB 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Upon waking on a Saturday morning, many of us might ponder the question of how to spend the day with typical choices: doing laundry, perhaps, or mowing the lawn. If we’re feeling adventurous, maybe we’ll wash the car or take the kids somewhere fun.

If you’re Nick Ferrara, of Doylestown, though, your answer could prove a bit more unorthodox: How about a 30-mile run?

Ferrara is an ultra-marathoner, a member of that elite class of athletes who routinely tackle distances well in excess of the traditional 26-mile marathon in the name of recreation.

Ferrara, 40, and his friend Bob Weinhold, 43, also of Doylestown, were among 500 entrants in Philadelphia’s recent Dirty German Endurance Fest. The punishing, patella-pounding ritual sent runners through Pennypack Park on three trail courses, one as long as 50 miles.

The race’s disingenuous mascot, a lederhosen-clad bearded man running with a loaded beer stein in his left hand, would be unlikely to complete any of these races.

Weinhold, who had registered for the 50-mile edition of the Dirty German some time earlier, said that Ferrara had decided only that morning to trek down to Philadelphia from Bucks County, registering for the 25-kilometer race just before the start.

It proved to be a fortuitous choice.

“He placed 3rd overall in his race,” Weinhold said of his friend. “An incredible accomplishment.”

Weinhold would go on to win his age category for the 50-mile race, and he had some company along the way. With his own finish line long behind him, and the late afternoon sun sliding towards the horizon, Ferrara then decided to run another 25 kilometers with Weinhold as his teammate finished the 50-mile race.

Weinhold swam competitively in high school and played water polo in college and into his 30s. After he married and had children, he wanted to continue exercising but needed a more flexible pursuit. Then, personal tragedy struck.

“About 15 years ago, my wife’s father died unexpectedly of a heart attack at a race,” Weinhold said. “I started running in honor of him.”

Weinhold started with 10-kilometer races, hitting the road for training sessions at 4:30 a.m. while the rest of his family slept. He ran his first marathon in 2008. Instead of hanging up his medal and crossing ‘run marathon’ off his bucket list, though, Weinhold wondered how much farther he could push his body, if he really tried.

His weekly long runs began to lengthen, feet hitting the trail in rhythm stride after stride as he racked up mileage. The farther he pushed his body to go, the more he realized he needed to treat it like an engine. He studied endurance nutrition, testing how well his body performed, mile upon mile, after he refueled with different energy products.

“With a marathon, you can use regular hydration and have a gel or a goo every 45 minutes,” Weinhold said, referring to common energy products used by athletes. “But when you move into the ultra world, where you’re exerting yourself for 8 hours or longer, nutrition becomes a huge part of how you are going to perform.”

Today, he and Ferrara are both members of an athletic team sponsored by Mission Pharmacal Company. The San Antonio-based pharmaceutical maker launched the team in September 2012, said Derek Huddleston, the company’s senior director of Performance Solutions & ShopMPC.com.

The company, which has an office in Doylestown, sponsors the four athletes on the team, providing them with a stipend, gear and product samples. In return, the athletes share with the company’s product development team and their fellow competitors their experiences using Mission’s products, which include vitamins, an anti-chafing cream and tablets that help restore electrolytes lost through sustained exertion.

Those tablets, called Heat Guard®, release sodium and potassium chloride slowly, which is critical when facing distances of 50 or 100 miles or more, Weinhold said.

“When you sweat a lot, you lose these important electrolytes, especially sodium. That’s why you see runners with salt stains on their shirts at the ends of races,” Weinhold said. “If you don’t manage that well, you stop performing. It’s like gas and oil in a car. If they’re not topped off and running right, the engine conks out. And that’s no fun.”

Weinhold and Ferrara have supported each other through all their training and races, logging nearly 3,000 miles together on the roads. And as Weinhold conquered longer and longer distances, he set his sights on a challenge of epic proportion.

Last year, he qualified for the ultimate endurance race, the North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, or UTMB. The 104-mile trek through France, Switzerland and Italy leads an elite field of runners up and down the heights surrounding Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. Those who finish the race will have climbed more than 31,500 feet in total altitude – nearly half a mile higher than Mount Everest – by the time they complete the circuit.

The 2012 UTMB had to be revised at the last minute to a 62-mile course solely in France because of a wintry storm that swept in on the eve of the race.

Still, after slogging through the cold and the mud high up in the French Alps, Weinhold couldn’t stop grinning. He placed 682 out of 2,122 finishers, clocking in at 18 hours, 58 minutes and 40 seconds.

“It was an unbelievable experience to push the body and brain to that level,” Weinhold said. “It really was a dream come true.”

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