Break on through: Ultra runners push the limits of human endurance

Peace on the trail

Sophie Speidel has won her share of ultra-marathon awards over the years, but her best memories of the trail are not from competing.

“It’s not all about racing,” she said. “It’s also about planning an adventure, and then getting out there and doing it.”

In 2005, a group of trail running friends asked Speidel if she was interested in traveling to Colorado to visit the Grand Canyon. She’d never been before, so they packed their running shoes and hopped aboard a plane headed West—and while they were at it, they ran the entire 48-mile loop of the Canyon from North Rim to South Rim and back. Being an ultra runner has allowed Speidel to explore new places in ways she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.

“That’s what’s so great about running ultras,” she said. “To be able to run down the Canyon and see it from that perspective was just really cool.”

When Speidel was entering her 40s, she loved being a mother of three young children, but needed something new and exciting to do on her own. She’d played lacrosse at UVA and had competed in marathons and triathlons, so when a friend handed her a copy of Trail Runner magazine, she was instantly intrigued by an article about an ultra-marathon out West. Ten years later, Speidel’s kids are torn between thinking she’s crazy and being impressed that their 50-year-old mother can run 100 miles.

Speidel has made some of her best adult friends through running in Charlottesville, and at this stage in her life, is drawn to the camaraderie far more than the competition. Her running groups generally end up traveling single-file because most trails around Charlottesville, like the Rivanna Trail, are not wide enough to accommodate side-by-side running, which actually facilitates the bond between runners.

Sophie Speidel has been running ultra marathons for 10 years, and says the sport has brought her a sense of patience and flexibility. Photo by Ron Dressel

“You can’t see each other, so that lends to a little bit more disclosure,” she said. “You’re not across from someone at a table, feeling vulnerable—you’re in the woods and you can talk about anything. Especially when you’re pacing.”

As both a school guidance counselor and a social runner, it’s not surprising that Speidel often offers her support to other athletes as a pacer, running alongside participants for the last stretch of a race, keeping them company, and feeding them the motivation and encouragement they need to cross the finish line.

“You get to be a coach, a personal trainer, and a therapist,” she said. “It combines a lot of things I enjoy doing.”

By the time a runner hits mile 40 or so, her form is deteriorating and she “looks like death,” Speidel said. A good pacer gives subtle compliments about movement and momentum, reminds the runner to eat and drink, and determines which intervals to walk and which to run.

“You need to lie to them and tell them they look great. They don’t, and they don’t feel good,” she said. “My best pacers have said to me, ‘Sophie, you are moving so well!’”

Front-of-the-pack pacers may have different duties, especially when the runner is contending for a top placement. When an elite runner races, she said, he’ll often have a companion by his side with his head on a swivel, letting him know if a nearby competitor is catching up. But for Speidel, being a pacer during a race is a way to combine her love for running and helping others.

“It’s a really interesting way to help a friend,” she said.

Even when she’s competing, she said she and fellow runners in the middle of the group are more likely to take care of one another than the competition-driven elites leading the pack. Most women are slower than their male counterparts, and therefore spend much more time out on race courses. Speidel said she figures if she’s going to be on a trail for 30 hours—about the amount of time it takes her to complete a 100-mile race—she might as well be willing to lend a hand to those in the same boat.

“It’s not a dog-eat-dog mentality,” she said. “It may be different for the men, but the women are extremely supportive of each other. There aren’t many of us, so if there are women out there, we want to get to know you, support you, and help you.”

But being a steward of the sport isn’t the only thing keeping Speidel in the ultra-running world. Her favorite distance is 100K, and she thrives on any adventurous long-distance run, whether in a race setting or just exploring with her friends.

Speidel’s race of choice is the Hellgate 100K, a frigid 66.6 miles beginning at midnight on the second Saturday in December. She describes it as a “low-key”  affair with a course that winds through the Blue Ridge Mountains near Natural Bridge, Virginia, featuring steep climbs and breathtaking views. Speidel has braved the pitch black starting line and miles of icy solitude of Hellgate six times, and while she’s happy to participate in any 100K, the thrill of running through the night and fending for herself in the winter wilderness makes Hellgate a special race for her.

“Talk about an adventure,” she said. “You get so much confidence being self-sufficient in the woods.”

She doesn’t go on back-country adventures by herself—at night or in broad daylight—but in a setting like Hellgate, she gets to “do something epic” on her own with the comfort of others being close by.

“It puts you in a place where, in the end, you know you’re going to be O.K., but you’re right on the edge of adventure,” she said. “We don’t get many opportunities in our lives to do that kind of stuff.”

Hellgate crystallizes the ultra mentality for Speidel.

“If I can do that, I can do anything,” she said.

Speed freak

Around mile 78 of the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in Utah in 2009, Neal Gorman was reaching the highest elevation of the race—10,000’—when he looked over to his right in the pitch black and found himself face-to-face with two moose.

“I only really saw them because their eyes reflected off my headlamp,” Gorman said.

The giant quadrupeds didn’t seem bothered by his presence, and Gorman continued up the mountain unscathed. Good thing, too. With so many miles behind him and an elevation he wasn’t accustomed to, his chances of outrunning a moose—more likely to attack and kill than a black bear, he said—would have been slim. But Gorman admitted that even when faced with life-threatening wildlife in the dead of night, the outcome of the race is still foremost in his mind.

“I’m more scared about getting off course and losing my time or my place in the race than I am about anything else,” he said.

His favorite races are the 100-milers, which inevitably stretch into the night, and with nothing to guide him but a couple of LED lights on his forehead on an unfamiliar trail in the dark, veering off is a legitimate fear. Losing track of trail markers is easy to do, Gorman said. When he’s hours into a running trance, the last time he saw a flag could have been a minute ago, or it could have been half an hour ago. He has had to backtrack and hunt for markers before, but that hasn’t stopped him from snatching dozens of titles and records during his running career.

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