Photograph by Priscilla Iezzi
On an unseasonably warm February day eight years ago, at the exact midpoint of my first ultramarathon—the Twin Peaks, a brutally hilly, 50-mile race in the Santa Ana Mountains—I saw them. Hundreds of them.
A swarm of ladybugs danced out of the shadows of a tree canopy over a dry creek bed deep in the heart of Trabuco Canyon. I stopped to enjoy the magical moment. The ladybugs bounced on and hopped over my hands and forearms, which, nearly six hours into a race that began before sunrise, were caked in a salty layer of dried perspiration. It was a first for me, a beautiful scene that made me smile through the pain in my then-44-year-old body.
And I still had 25 miles to go.
Running super-long distances in the wild makes you see, feel, and experience things you don’t in day-to-day life. Your body and mind travel to high and low places that aren’t accessible while sitting in front of a computer at work, watching TV at home, or driving down the freeway—activities that consume our lives.
That’s why I run ultramarathons—to live fully in the moment, for better and worse. Many ultrarunners are hyper, with lots of energy to burn. Most of us aren’t superathletes, but determined types in reasonable shape and with a stubborn streak to finish the task we’ve started, damn the consequences.
Running an ultramarathon is a kind of meditation. You’re alone, but not alone. You can’t run 50 miles or more without the help of volunteers and aid stations, which are typically located every five to 10 miles along a course, stocked with sweet and salty snacks, and water and electrolyte-packed fluids.
Ultrarunners are not crazy, though we’re often thought of that way. A marathon is 26.2 miles; the most common distances for ultras are 50 km (31 miles), 50 miles, 100 km (62 miles), and 100 miles. Since my encounter with the ladybugs, I’ve completed about 50 of them, including four 100-milers and a six-day stage race totaling 140 miles in Costa Rica. The official distance was 135 miles, but I got lost on the last day and ended up doing an extra five. I got my money’s worth.
Ultrarunning has grown in the past five to 10 years, although it still remains a niche sport, with between 150 and 200 active participants in Orange County. Still, races that a few years ago took months to fill up now sell out in hours.
Many of the more popular races use a lottery system. One of those, the fabled Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run in Northern California, began as a horse race. Competitor Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse went lame before the 1973 race. The following year, he decided to compete on foot instead, finishing in 23 hours and 42 minutes.
Today, finishing any 100-miler in less than 24 hours is considered a crowning achievement. The elite can finish the faster 100-milers in 15 to 16 hours. Some of the most punishing 100-mile races have a time cutoff of 36 hours.
I believe they’ve become more popular because they cater not to elite runners, but to adventure-minded folks who love the outdoors and love to challenge themselves. Someone can complete an ultramarathon and be rewarded with the standard race shirt and medal (and good grub at the finish line) without actually maintaining a running pace. A modest, steady clip can get you to the finish line. Think of it as an “ultrahike” that involves as much brisk walking as running, and keeping breaks to a minimum.
About those breaks…
When I tell people about my racing, they invariably ask, “Do you sleep? Do you take breaks?” The point is to finish as fast as possible, but I know competitors who have napped for a few hours to overcome emotional troughs. They were then able to charge back to finish in the middle of the pack or better. I’ve never slept during an ultra, but I have taken extended breaks. The idea is to stay on your feet, quickly eat and drink at aid stations, and follow the cardinal rule: “Beware the chair.” Do not sit down, or you might not want to get up again, according to conventional wisdom. Sometimes sitting can’t be avoided, though, and short breaks can work wonders.
And yes, nature inevitably calls during a race. If you’re lucky, public restrooms are available, occasionally portable toilets at aid stations. But we’ve all ducked behind a bush. Ultrarunners are prepared: We carry baby wipes.
Life brings us good times and bad times. In ultrarunning, there are ridiculously ecstatic highs and soul-crushing, kill-me-now lows. The latter are painfully familiar: cramping, nausea, chafing, dehydration, heat exhaustion (on hot days), and mild hypothermia (on cold days).
But back to those high points. During my first 100-miler in 2008, the San Diego 100-Mile Endurance Run, nightfall had come and the sky was thick with brilliant stars. I was at mile 60 or so on a single track with no other runners in sight—alone but not alone.
I turned off my music (most runners keep music on their phones or other devices) and thought of my two children and other loved ones. I started crying. The tears just came. My body felt great, even though I had experienced mild heat exhaustion and dehydration at 30 miles. Every ultramarathon comes with issues—it’s how you deal with them that determines whether you’ll drop or cross the finish line. I cried for about 10 minutes while I ran. I was so happy to be alive. My emotions were raw because I had put my body through a lot, but they were pure and real. It’s impossible for me to access such emotions in day-to-day life.
That’s why many of us do this: to feel completely alive and completely in the moment. Few experiences in life have that impact: childbirth, losing a loved one. The ups and downs you experience running on trails all day (and sometimes all night) take you to such places. And if that makes me crazy, I’ll take that any day over something more normal.
I used to run eight or so ultras a year. At 52, I’ve scaled back. I now do three or four, and some are unofficial fun runs, like a recent 35-miler from the lowest to the highest points in Orange County (the beach to Santiago Peak, at 5,689 feet).
I’ll continue to do this as long as my body holds. It’s a part of who I am. It makes me whole. And, after all, there are more ladybugs to see.
Meet the Ultra Runners
LORRAINE GERSITZ, 60, Fullerton
Nickname: Croc Lady; she runs in Crocs
Health issues: Twice injured Achilles tendon. Her left calf has atrophied.
Accomplishments: 156 ultramarathons (six 100-milers); 176 marathons (16 Boston Marathons); nine Ironman-distance triathlons
“I’m an endurance junkie. Endurance is my meditation. I get into a zone of peace when I’m out there—even when it hurts.”
JEAN HO, 47, Newport Beach
Profession: Attorney and certified public accountant
Nutrition: 1,000 calories a day (“I’m trying to lose weight.”)
Accomplishments: 10 100-milers
“The longer the distance, the less slow I appear. I’m not afraid of any distance. My only concern is how much time you will give me to complete that distance.”
ERIC KOSTERS, 53, Yorba Linda
Profession: Service manager for a heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning company
Workout runs: 45 miles per week
Accomplishments: 12 50Ks; six 50-milers; one 100K, one 100-miler
“One of the main things I like about running ultras is the camaraderie. The trail-running community is much smaller than the road-running community; you see the same people at all the races.”
LINDSAY JANKE, 28, Costa Mesa
Profession: Senior fund analyst
Accomplishments: Six ultras; second place (among women, 100 miles), third place (24-hour format) Nanny Goat’s 12/24 Hour Trail Race
“The way I see it, there are only two options: I’m either going to finish or die trying. I love finishing an ultra because it reminds me that anything is possible if you want it badly enough and are willing to do what it takes.”
THERESA APODACA, 53, Rancho Santa Margarita
Profession: High school cross-country and track coach
Favorite pre-race meal: Sushi
Second favorite: Chicken with rice
“Running is a socially acceptable way to exist as a hyper adult. The motion of running and rhythmic breathing is calming. Coupled with being on a trail in the fresh air, I find the whole experience feeds my soul and helps me be mindful of the moment.”