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Rural Missouri Magazine
Going the distance
For ultrarunners, 26.2 miles just isn't far enough

by Jim McCarty

For ultrarunners, traditional 26-mile marathons on city streets are no longer sufficient challenge. These hardy athletes run marathon-length races, and longer, on wooded trails. Runners move to trails because of the scenery and because trails often are easier on the legs than pavement.

On a brutally rugged section of the rock-strewn Chubb Trail east of St. Louis, a group of runners struggles against the day’s increasing heat. Their tired feet alternately pound down a rocky hill, across a muddy creek and up a steep hillside. For most, the race lasts for 15.5 miles. But a select few will continue for another lap, some taking nearly eight hours to cross the finish line.

Completing 31 miles on the Chubb Trail is quite an accomplishment. But that task pales in comparison with other feats undertaken by members of the St. Louis Ultrarunners Group, or SLUGs for short.

Many of these athletes had already run the St. Louis or Boston marathons just a week earlier. Most would be back in the woods less than a month later to run the Berryman Trail Marathon or Ultramarathon. For them, the Chubb run was merely training to prepare them for the 26- or 50-mile Berryman challenge.

Later in the summer, they might do the club’s Flatlanders 6- or 12-hour run. Or they could opt for another club event, the first-ever Frankenstein Marathon to be held in the central Missouri town just before Halloween.

Although races start on pavement, they quickly
move to rugged trails.

Reasons for testing the limits of their endurance are as varied as the SLUGs membership, says David White of Chamois, the group’s president.

“Whenever I get bored with running, I sign up for a race that scares me,” says the Three Rivers Electric Cooperative member. “I use that to rejuvenate me. It gets me back interested in running and competing again. That’s probably it more than anything else.”

David and his wife, Victoria, have been with the SLUGs about as long as anyone, joining in 1998 when the group had fewer than 20 members. Since then it’s grown to 120 members and changed from a St. Louis-based group to one with members in rural areas and other states.

The growth of the SLUGs mirrors an increased interest in running, especially marathons held on the road. “Once people have run a few marathons they think, maybe I’ll do a 50K because that’s just 5 miles farther,” David says. “And then they think, that was pretty fun, let’s try for 50 miles, the next step up.”

Before long, they are training for 100-milers or a race David has done eight times, a marathon up and down Pike’s Peak, elevation 14,110 feet. The ultrarunning craze is so popular today that registration for events such as the Pike’s Peak Marathon fills up within minutes.

Christine Crawford pushes herself to the top of a steep hill on the Chubb Trail during the 2007 run held there.

David estimates that if the SLUGs had kept the Berryman race registration open until the race day, more than 300 people would have signed up. He had to turn away at least 30 runners this year because the trail volunteers can only support about 150.

“Trail running has gotten much more popular,” David says. “It’s a much more relaxed kind of race. When I work at an aid station at a trail run, they will sit down in a chair and talk to you for 20 minutes, then get back up and run. It’s not like a 5K race in the city.”

Some runners are content with finishing the race. Others want to see just how fast they can do it. “It seems like there are basically two kinds of people in these races,” David says. “The ones out there to compete in the race and the ones out there to just complete the race.”

For Deanna Stoppler, a SLUGs member from Ashland, the goal is to place high enough in the ultrarunning trophy series sponsored by Trailrunning magazine to land a sponsorship that will support her high-mileage habit.

“It’s pretty expensive to do this stuff,” says Deanna, who recently won the women’s bracket in a 40-mile run held in Kansas. “I usually camp out before the races, but just the gas to get there is really expensive.”

Deanna stepped up her trail running after moving to Missouri from Maine, where outdoor activities such as mountain climbing and whitewater canoeing also occupied her free time. “I just started running to kind of challenge myself. I did a marathon, and I enjoyed it, but I wanted to go farther. So then I did my first 50K (31 miles). From there I’ve just been picking it up and every couple of weeks do a race.”

SLUGs runners keep going despite injured knees and sore muscles. The trails alternate between mud and rock.

Friends are evenly split in their reaction to Deanna’s extreme running. They either long to pace her on the long runs or, eyeing her black toenails, think she’s a little nuts.

“The people here at work, a lot of them are excited for me, but they just don’t understand, they really can’t imagine it. I tell them, ‘You can do it, anyone can do it, you just need to train for it.’”

If Deanna’s running seems extreme, what Don Ryan of Eldon does redefines the term. Don started out running recreational runs as short as 3 miles. Eventually he ran his first marathon. Next was a 50-mile ultramarathon on a trail, which he really enjoyed.

Now Don averages five to eight 100-mile runs every year — and the races are held on trails in the mountains. To put that in perspective, it’s about 100 miles from Columbia to Kirksville. His fastest time over 100 miles was 20.5 hours, while his longest effort took 34 hours.

“I was doing all right at the distances I was running, so I thought, ‘Let’s push it and see what happens,’” he says. “I guess it’s pretty addictive.”

Don says the most difficult part about running 100 miles is keeping enough calories in a body that would rather throw up. Pre-race meals are used up quickly, requiring the body to burn fat stores to keep going. Don must force himself to eat high-energy food or energy gels while running.

Joan Bennett checks off runners as they pass the midpoint of the Chubb run to ensure no runners get left in the woods.

His training consists of daily runs that prepare his body for the rigors of the real thing. On weekends his long runs might hit 45 miles. One of the ironies of distance running is that the runners never do the entire distance until race day.

“When I do long runs, I try to do them back to back,” says Don, who is 58. “I do a long run one day and then maybe half the distance the next day. It gets your body used to working when it’s tired and overworked already.”

He doesn’t actually run all 100 miles in a race. He walks when he needs to, such as on steep hills and dangerous rocky sections. Like Deanna, he believes anyone can do an ultra-distance run.

“People ask me that,” he says. “I wouldn’t say anybody is going to win one of these and I certainly won’t, but anyone can do one. I’m speaking of anything from a marathon to 100-mile distance. If you set your mind to it and have the right attitude about it, it can be done.”

The key is time on your feet, David says. He runs every day, logging 50-60 miles per week and increasing his distance as race day draws closer. “You just have to get used to being on your feet and moving eight, nine, 10 hours or longer,” he says.

Most runners have no qualms about stopping whenever they need to, whether it’s to rest, eat or drink something or just to make sure another runner is OK.

Ultrarunners compete on trails normally used by hikers or mountain bikers.

Distance running has to have rewards to keep the runners coming back, and for the SLUGs, there’s more to a race than the medals and belt buckles presented to finishers. And that’s where membership in the SLUGs comes in. Despite its growing membership, it remains a small, close-knit group of like-minded individuals who know how to have fun after the race is over.

“I always look forward to after the race,” Deanna says. “Most people will stay a couple hours at least and eat burgers. I’ve seen a recurring theme of homebrews. I’m always learning things from other people. And then there’s new people running and you can pass that information on to them.”

David says club members will run 50 miles, rest and refuel their tired bodies, and then offer to help him in his role as race director.

So what does ultrarunning do to a runner’s body? “I’ve often argued that 50-mile or 100-mile races aren’t good for you but the training is,” says David. “That’s where the trade-off is. But if you don’t do too many . . . for me, I could do a marathon every month if I don’t run them fast.”

Despite the rigors of the trail, SLUGs, who range in age from the early 20s to over 70, say they will keep on running until their bodies tell them it’s time to stop.

“When I’m 80, I want to still be running,” Deanna says.

Membership in the SLUGs is $20. For more information log on to the SLUGs Web site at www.stlouisultrarunnersgroup.net, e-mail slugrd@yahoo.comor write to SLUGs, 9720 Trinadad, St. Louis, MO 63126.

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