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Beyond the marathon.

Byline: Lewis Taylor The Register-Guard

Heavy breathing breaks the silence of the forest on the Ridgeline Trail above Eugene, and a pack of runners streams past in a blur of high-tech fabrics, perspiration and well-developed leg muscles.

It could be any group of serious runners - they look lean and focused and their pace doesn't slacken until they hit the dirt parking lot along Dillard Road - but these guys have their sights set on something bigger than the next 10K, half-marathon or marathon.

They're looking to go even farther.

It's called ultra-running, a broad term that refers to anything beyond 26.2 miles, the length of a marathon. On the shorter side are the 50-kilometer races - events that often appeal to marathoners looking for the next challenge. On the long end are the 100-milers and a few races that go beyond that distance - grueling endurance tests that require months of training and can take almost an entire day and night to complete.

Much of the running takes place on trails with thousands of feet of elevation gain and loss. Some of it happens at night. The rigors and relative obscurity of the sport breeds a certain camaraderie, especially among the local competitors in Eugene.

"It's pretty rare to get a group of guys like we have," says John Ticer, who earlier this summer finished sixth in the prestigious Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile race in Northern California.

"I think it's pretty unique that we're all at a similar ability and that, schedule-wise, we have the ability to get out there together. Those long runs go so much better when you have a bunch of guys."

Ticer and the other runners do much of their training alone, but they spend every Friday together doing tempo runs, every Tuesday doing speedwork and many a weekend day doing long trail runs. It all comes down to pushing each other to go farther in a sport many would already consider over the top.

"I think part of it is that (the events) we train for, what we run and race for, is humbling," says Jeff Riley, another ultra-runner who gave up marathons for ultra-marathons three years ago. "You're out there for hours on end, by yourself, (battling) the course and the weather and your own limitations. Everyone realizes to some extent what everyone else is going through."

Keeping a low profile

If you're wondering why you haven't heard of these guys, it's partly by their own choosing.

"We're not on the radar screen, and we're fine with that," says Craig Thornley, a 10th-place finisher at this year's Western States and the co-organizer of the Where's Waldo 100K, an ultra-marathon that takes place Aug. 20 at Willamette Pass.

The huge time commitment required of ultra-runners is another reason for the sport's low profile, Riley says.

"In order to feel like you're adequately trained, you're running 10 to 15 hours a week," he explains.

Don Allison, editor of Ultrarunning, a Massachusetts-based magazine with a circulation of about 6,000, says ultra-running attracts a highly select group.

"There's always new people coming into the sport ... There's always people leaving it," Allison says. "The people who are into it are really, really into it."

During their peak training periods, Ticer, Thornley, Riley and their other partners, Ed Willson and Tom Atkins, will log well over 100 miles a week. They train on the Ridgeline Trail and the McKenzie River Trail, and in the Hardesty Mountain Wilderness Area off Highway 58, as well as the Menagerie Wilderness Area near Sweet Home.

"I think people are getting tired of running on the roads," Thornley says, explaining the gradual growth of ultra-running.

Riley, 36, says he'll probably run a traditional marathon again, but it might be some time before he returns to the pavement.

"In a marathon, you're checking your watch every six or seven minutes," he says. "On the trails, the terrain is so diverse and different, the watch can actually become meaningless and you can enjoy the simple act of running."

Sport gains popularity

Riley will compete in his third Where's Waldo race this month. The event, which started three years ago with 65 competitors and only 13 finishers, is considered the hardest ultra-marathon in Oregon. This year's event is expected to draw 75 runners from the Northwest, California and Texas.

The area's other ultra-marathon, the McKenzie River Trail Run, takes place Sept. 10. Both events are part of the Oregon Trail Ultra-Marathon Series, a ranking system to encourage healthy competition between ultra-runners in the state's seven races. Riley is currently No. 1 in the ranking.

Lane County may not be the ultra-running capital of the world - South Africa, home to the 80-year-old Comrades 90-kilometer race probably lays claim to that title - but the Pacific Northwest is a growth region for the sport, says Allison, the Ultrarunning editor. Scott Jurek, the Lance Armstrong of the sport, hails from Seattle, and, Allison says, it is significant that two Eugene runners placed in the top 10 of California's Western States. That race, which starts in the Sierra's Squaw Valley and ends in Auburn, is the ultra-running equivalent of the Boston Marathon.

"Western States is a race where most of the top ultra-runners want to go," Allison says. "It's also a course that favors the (California) area runners."

Michael Black, owner of Eugene Running Company, says ultra-running accounts for only a small percentage of his business, but the sport is as popular as he's ever seen it. His store carries Ultrarunning magazine and stocks a line of ultra-running gear.

Why run such long distances? Thornley says if you have to ask why, you'll probably never get it. He has been drawn to the idea of ultra-running since the seventh grade, when he spotted a group of Western States runners while on a camping trip in the American River Canyon. He remembers how dusty and dirty the runners looked after hours on the trail.

An outgoing California native who rock climbs and works ski patrol in the winter, Thornley, 41, might be the typical face of ultra-running if there were such a thing. He says some of the competitors are cut like world-class athletes, while others look like recovering couch potatoes "There's definitely mental tenacity, mental strength, that's the common bond," Thornley says. "You can't be mentally weak and go 100 miles. You can't do it on your physical body alone."

A former high school track athlete, Thornley started running ultras in 1996, and he was hooked. He learned from an experienced 100-miler who taught him valuable tricks such as how to fuel yourself with pork and beans during a race (he also uses energy gels, electrolyte drinks, water and salt pills). Ultra-runners go at a slower pace than traditional marathoners (10 minutes per mile versus 6 minutes per mile), so they burn more fat during a race and are less reliant on glycogen, he says.

Taking it to the limit

Ultra-marathoners tend to have memorable stories about their first long race. For Ticer, who has been running ultras since 1982, the initial push came from a karate instructor who told him, half-jokingly, that he would have to run a 50-miler to earn his black belt.

"He said, `I just heard of a crazy thing. There's these guys that run 50 miles, and since you're kind of a nut, I'm going to make you do that.' '

Ticer finished that first race, and has since run more than 100 ultra-marathons.

"I tend to pursue things that interest me to the max," he says. "I think you have to have that type of thinking where you set a goal and, no matter what, you're going to complete it. You may be in pain and all the signals are going off and you're saying this is stupid, but you keep going, going, going."

Running ultra-marathons has special meaning for Ticer, who was told he would never be able to run after being born with a birth defect that required him to wear full leg casts for part of his childhood.

"I just feel almost privileged and honored that I can do it," he says. "I started out (running) and five kilometers was huge. Then I started thinking 10 kilometers is huge. A marathon? No way. But now I'm at 100 miles."

Ticer was not thrilled with his performance at the Western States this year, even though he shaved 79 minutes off his best time and beat Dean Karnazes, the celebrity ultra-runner who appeared recently on David Letterman's show hawking his book, "Ultra Marathon Man." Ticer - who finished in 18 hours, 3 minutes, and dislocated his finger to the point where the bone came out of the skin - says he would have liked to have broken the 18-hour mark.

A Eugene firefighter, Ticer says he is lucky to have a job that allows him big chunks of time to run. His nearly yearlong training schedule involves first getting in shape, so he can get into even better shape. After working up to 50-mile weekend training runs, he spends two intense months getting ready for the Western States race in mid-June.

During one week in April, he and his training partners logged 161 miles on the trails.

Ticer says it has been an especially emotional year, largely due to the death of his father just weeks before his big race. To honor his passing, Ticer carried his father's Korean War flag when he crossed the finish line.

"One of the last things he said to me is, 'I want you to run that race,' ' Ticer says. "I was thinking about my dad a lot. It made (the race) emotionally really tough, but I guess I had a lot of real high extremes and lows, psychologically and emotionally. At times, I'd be running along knowing this is what my dad wanted me to do, then I'd hit bottom again, then I'd come back up. That part of it was tough."

Extreme highs and lows are just one thing ultra-runners have to contend with. One of the major health risks associated with the sport is hyponatremia, or low blood salt. Because the races are so long, traditional sports drinks and energy gels don't provide the salts runners need to keep going. They must supplement their water intake with electrolyte capsules.

Ultra-long races take a toll

After events such as the Western States race, runners' bodies often go into a sort of sustained shock. While their endocrine systems recover, runners may experience unusual food cravings, night sweats and other strange symptoms.

"If I were to go into a hospital and not tell them what I had done (after running an ultra-marathon), they would think my kidneys had shut down," Thornley says.

The risks and benefits of ultra-running are still being discovered. The three Eugene runners participated in a pain study at the Western States race this year, and a group of doctors is continuing to examine the runners of that race to determine the physiological effects of endurance running. Some argue that trails are easier on the body than pavement, while others say long-distance trail running inflicts a different kind of punishment.

"The trails can still do a number on you," Allison says. "I've run on some trails that are as hard as concrete and are very difficult. Then you've got the twisted ankles and the sprains and splints that come from running on uneven terrain."

Riley points to Willson, 51, and Ticer, 48, the elder members of the group, as proof that trail runners can enjoy long careers.

"Year in and year out, they've been running lots of events and putting in lots of miles and they look healthy and great," he says. "They are amazing role models."

Willson, the oldest of the Eugene runners, sees his age as an advantage - and a source of motivation. Every year he runs his age in miles the day before his birthday and his age in miles on the day of his birthday.

"I used to think I was a bad ass when I was 36," he says of the annual stunt. "But it's getting harder."

Willson says he was recently walking down the street when a teenager drove by in an SUV and yelled out the window at him.

"He said, `Hey dude, where's your walker?' ' he recalls.

Willson says he thought briefly of challenging the teenager to a footrace to Corvallis. Instead, his wife bought him the domain name www .dudewheresyourwalker.com, which he now uses for an ultra-running Web site.

WHERE'S WALDO

For information on the Where's Waldo 100K race, go to www .wpsp .org/ww100k/index .html

CAPTION(S):

From left, John Ticer, Ed Willson, Craig Thornley and Jeff Riley are ultra-runners who often run 100 miles a week. Their training grounds include the Ridgeline Trail, the McKenzie River Trail and the Hardesty Mountain Wilderness Area. "You can't be mentally weak and go 100 miles. You can't do it on your physical body alone." - CRAIG THORNLEY, ULTRA-RUNNER Ultra-runners do much of their training alone, but this group also finds that running together helps them push each other to go farther.
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Title Annotation:Sports; Ultra-runners train for grueling races of 50 miles, 100 miles and more
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Aug 7, 2005
Words:2191
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