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

Gorman is relatively new to the sport, and at age 36, is younger than a lot of the big names. He doesn’t do much cross-training, and he doesn’t consider running or competing in ultra-marathons to be exercise.

“It’s just what I do,” he said. “Nor do I attempt to police a balance in life with running among my daily responsibilities.” Running is the metronome for the rest of his life, he said, and it helps him strip away the “non-necessities” so he can focus on what is important to him, like his wife and newborn son.

As he grew more competitive, finding a place to live and focus on running became a priority—which is exactly what brought him to Charlottesville. Gorman and his wife moved from Washington, D.C. last November so he could surround himself with fellow runners and endless miles of mountain trails. As co-founder of Specialized Insurance Services, Inc.—a commercial property and casualty insurance agency and consulting firm in Richmond—he is happy to make weekly commutes down I-64 if it means he gets to live and run in Charlottesville.

Gorman has more than one 100-miler belt buckle at home, and in the four years he’s been running ultra-marathons he has snagged a number of titles in the sport. In 2010, he set the record for fastest cumulative time for the Grand Slam of Ultra Running, a set of some of the most prestigious races in the country, including the Western States 100, Leadville Trail 100, Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Run, and Wasatch Front 100-Mile Endurance Run.

“That was a good summer,” he said. He also placed first or second in every Virginia 100-miler this year.

Fiercely competitive Neal Gorman with one of his many 100-mile belt buckles. Photo by Ron Dressel

 When he’s not going head to head with internationally renowned elite runners for podium spots, Gorman is mixing it up. He still enjoys running shorter trail races, 5Ks, half marathons, and he wants to push other runners to be competitive in creative ways. He currently holds the record for fastest completion of the entire Rivanna Trail—two hours, nine minutes—and told the Charlottesville running community that any runner to beat his time will be treated to a pizza and pitcher of beer, on him.

He also makes a game of running and setting fastest-known times on popular trails that are traditionally desirable as hiking or biking trails, like Old Rag. When asked how he runs the lengthy, rocky stretch of Old Rag that hikers carefully scramble, he laughed and shrugged.

“Scramble fast,” he said. “I love that kind of stuff—going to a circuit, running really hard, and trying to come up with a time that nobody’s ever done before. It encourages other people to go out and do the same thing.”

Gorman said encouraging creativity in the sport fosters a more competitive spirit, and a culture of people taking what they do more seriously.

“There are so many really talented, gifted people out there,” he said. “But there are only a few people who actually take it seriously. I wish there were more people who did that.”

Aside from the competition, Gorman said he loves the “great unknown” of ultra-running. Stepping into a new athletic world and finding out whether or not he could cut it was enticing for him in the beginning, and four years later, he still thrives on it.

Because the unknown functions for him as a thrill and not a fear, Gorman gravitates toward races that he has no idea how long will take him to finish. The faster the better, he said, but even running the same trail race more than once is no guarantee, and any number of factors can affect the outcome.

“You did this race last year—O.K., great. But what’s the weather going to be like? How’s your training been? Are you over-trained? Are you tired? Is your stomach going to go bad? Your quads?” Gorman said. “You hope to finish under a certain time, but you don’t know. Nobody knows. You don’t even know if you’re going to finish.”

Gorman isn’t picky, and he’s intrigued by the unknown of ultra-running’s future as a growing sport. He enjoys the commercialized, slightly gimmicky road races just as much as the smaller, low-key events in the woods. Some ultra-runners worry that the sport is shifting to being more money-driven, with more emphasis on competition and prizes than a pure love for running, but Gorman doesn’t have an opinion on which direction is the better one.

“I think, like anything, there’s an evolution to a group activity, and it just seems like ultra-running is going through that now,” he said. “Right now there’s this great unknown: Where is it going?”

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