On the recommendation of friend and fellow distance runner, Cara Finnegan, I recently read Pam Reed’s The Extra Mile. Finnegan and I have individually played around with the idea of trying a few ultamarathon events at some point in the future and Reed’s book, subtitled One Woman’s Personal Journey to Ultrarunning Greatness, seemed to be a great place to start thinking a bit more seriously about it.
Ultramarathons are loosely defined as any race going beyond the normal 26.2 (and change) miles required by a marathon. When distance is the defining characteristic, normal ultramarathons are 50 and 100 miles (although there are odd numbers and some are much longer). When time is the defining characteristic, ultramarathons are normally set at 24 or 48 hours with the “winner” being the person who covers the most distance during that time period.
There are a number of aspects of an ultramarathon which make it interesting, especially as you get a bit older. For one, my times in half-marathons and marathons are going down rather than up. I see no feasible personal records in my future. As a result, an ultra would give me a different way of judging myself. Given that there are so many of them of so many different lengths and on so many different terrains, I imagine I would never have a personal standard against which to judge.
Secondly, there’s just something romantic about the idea of such long distances. I find myself particularly attracted by the idea of the “timed” race, even if it means going around and around on a track. I can imagine the brain working in extraordinarily odd ways in such a race, and I can imagine a very strong sense of community between those who finish such a run.
It was with a mind like this that I approached Reed’s book, then. While I expected that her words would only add to the romanticism with which I was approaching ultras, there are ways in which Reed’s book—and subsequent reading--work against such romanticism.
It’s a strange book, written in something of a rambling colloquial style, moving sometimes in chronological fashion, sometimes zigging here and there as Reed seems to remember a race she forgot to talk about earlier. Nonetheless, the stories, and the races, are so fascinating that you’re willing to forgive any problems in style as you read about the facets of each race (Aside: I do think, however, that in the hands of a different writer, this could have been a massive bestseller. If you can imagine Jon Krakauer recounting a 135 mile run through a desert, you get the point).
Before I turn to the ways in which the book deromanticized ultras for me, however, you should know a little about Pam Reed. In 2005, Reed became the first person to complete a 300-mile run without sleep, doing so in around 80 hours. In addition to winning a number of other ultramarathons (and of managing the Tuscon Marathon), Reed is most famous for having been the overall (both men and women) winner of the Badwater Ultarmarathon twice (2002-2003). I didn’t know anything about Badwater before reading this book, but it’s a monster of a race. I wouldn’t want to walk it, if you gave me a week.
In the middle of July each year, the runners begin at 6 in the morning on a road that will take them 135 miles across Death Valley, over steep mountain passes, into Lone Pine, California, and then onto a climb through a series of rock formations to a height of more than 8000 feet. The temperatures are normally about 120 degrees in the shade during the day in the desert portion of the race. Imagine this: Reed set the women’s record at a little less than 28 hours when winning in 2002, and she then repeated her win in 2003 (the current men’s record is a little less than 23 hours).
Reed’s story is amazing. As you read her narrative of the two Badwaters she won and two more that she ran (placing in the top four in all of them), as you read about her 24 hour runs, 48 hour runs, 100 miles runs and her 300 mile nonstop run, you can’t help but be floored at not only her ability but her drive and determination—there is no way you do racing like this on skill alone or on hard work alone. It’s a combination of factors that allows people to finish races of this nature.
It’s not just the racing which is interesting, however. This is a person who is dedicated to seeing that elite women runners get the props they deserve for their racing. This is a woman who is haunted by eating disorders, by questions about the time she spends with her family, by almost any factor you can imagine might affect the type of person driven toward this type of running. As I said, this is an odd book. When you’re reading how she talks about her body and her eating disorder, you can’t help but think it sounds as if she’s over compensating. As Finnegan noted in talking to me about the book, when you’re reading the section when Reed discusses her husband, you’re not even sure she likes the guy.
Again, however, the stories she tells are interesting enough that you don’t mind how odd your find her personality to be, or how strange you find some of the writing. The book deserves endorsement.
My personal problem with the book really has more to do with my own personality, I suppose, than about Reed or the book itself. To point: there’s something about the discourse around these relies that denies achievement, that denies the possibility of completion.
Several years ago, during the midst the reading craze that surrounded the Everest disaster of 1996, I was talking to my friend Robert Huffman about Everest and its historic attraction to climbers. I remember him musing about how many more people who have died over time had Everest been taller. His point was that regardless of how tall it might have been, people would have climbed it. Regardless of how dangerous it might have been, people would complete it. And, he might have added, once that was fulfilled, people would find a way to make it more difficult.
There’s something about the tone of this book that tells a similar story. Despite the fact that Reed has won the Badwater twice and completed a number of different accomplishments, she constantly looks for something bigger, something harder. Hence, she decides to run 300 miles nonstop because it’s never been done before. When she completes it—and that is a truly amazing accomplishment--you know that someone else is going to try to top it; indeed, Dean Karnazes claims to have done just that. And Reed talks of doing a 500 miler without sleep.
If you look at the Badwater entry on Wikipedia, you can see an almost insane series of runs. People have run Badwater back and forth in one run, and then topped it with a back and forth and back run, and then topped it with a back and forth unassisted by a crew. And on it goes.
While there’s certainly something to be said for celebrating such dedication, it strangely takes the wind out of the idea for me. I don’t quite know how to put my finger on it, and I hope someone can explain it to me, but it has something to do with the impossibility of completion; regardless of how one finishes a race, one has never done it in the most difficult way.
I don’t want to leave this post sounding as if I’m saying there is a particular way that people should race, that there are rules that people should follow. And I don’t want it to sound as if I’m looking for completion in all my pursuits—I adore open ended narratives. Moreover, I’m certain that if I had the talent, I would want to topple whatever extreme distances had been covered before me. Yet still, I stand this week less enthused about ultra running than before reading Reed’s book. If, in my own head, I think of it as a world in which one never finishes, when enough is not enough, is that a fun place to go?