Competitive Running: The Path to Human Endurance

Take a trip through the eyes of a runner in an ultramarathon that pushes competitive running and human endurance to its most extreme.

The Longest Race

“The Longest Race” captures the experiences of competitive running pro Ed Ayres, as he journeys through a 50 mile long ultramarathon.

Cover Courtesy The Experiment

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Endurance runners push their minds and bodies to the limit. American runner Ed Ayres describes his trek through the nations oldest and most iconic ultramarathon, the JFK 50 Mile. The vivid account of his journey and record-setting run are inspiring for beginners and pros alike. In The Longest Race (The Experiment, 2012), Ayres describes the links between that of an enduring individual and a sustainable society. This excerpt from chapter one, “Boonsboro, Dawn,” illustrates the similarities between the start of a race and the beginning of life. 

I don’t remember being born. I doubt that anyone does. But I wonder if the moment you push off from the starting line of a long-distance footrace might be a subliminal replay of that long-forgotten launch of a new life. As the big moment approaches, you’re jammed up behind an unyielding human wall—the too-close backs of other runners’ necks, shoulder blades, elbows, thighs, and calves not quite ready to let you surge forward. You’re about as naked as climate and social convention will allow, and at the same time you may feel your shoulders and hips bumping unavoidably against other shoulders and hips that are not yours but that, in a way, you feel kinship with. Then suddenly you’re breaking free, and the long journey—in the company of others, but very much on your own—has begun.

There’s magic in a moment like this. It’s not only like being reborn each time you race; it’s like having been given the secret to the most astonishing means of propulsion ever to appear on earth. And, arguably, that’s what the human body offers, as many endurance runners are discovering. A horse can’t compare. A bald eagle can’t compare. For that matter, even a 24,500-mile-per-hour Apollo rocket to the moon couldn’t have compared. Now, as I waited at the starting line, it struck me that our long-lost president John F. Kennedy, whose vision had brought that Apollo rocket into being, might be pleased by what we were about to attempt here in this fifty-mile trail race that had borne his name for the nearly four decades since his assassination.

It was late November 2001. The World Trade Center had been destroyed just over two months earlier, and the country had been staggered by the shock. But life goes on. There were a lot of Marines in this race, and no well-trained runner needed to be reminded that “when the going gets tough, the tough get going”—a credo generally attributed to President Kennedy’s father, Joseph P. Kennedy. Elite Marine distance runners were as tough a breed as you’d find on this planet, and as we waited for the countdown I could see that the guys in red and gold were poised to take off like cannon shots. God help any baby who’s born quite like that.

Along with the seven-man All Marines and Quantico Marines teams, there were contingents from the US Naval Academy and the army’s 82nd Airborne Division, among others. The military presence at this race had been strong since the first running in 1963, maybe because it was JFK's challenge to the Marines in 1962—see if you can walk fifty miles in a day, like Teddy Roosevelt’s Marines did—that had been the original inspiration. At the time, Kennedy had reason to fear that the physical fitness of the American military was in severe decline. But this year, in the wake of 9/11, the “when the going gets tough” spirit seemed almost palpable.

A few yards away, I spotted Frank Probst, a guy I’d had a competitive rivalry with for most of the past decade. Frank was fifty-seven and still worked at army headquarters—although what he did there I didn’t know. On that blue-sky September morning nine weeks ago, he had just stepped through an exit on the southwest side of the Pentagon, on his way to another part of the building, when a Boeing 757 roared very low across the adjacent road, coming straight at him. As it clipped off a utility pole, he threw himself to the ground and the plane missed him by about fifteen feet before exploding through the Pentagon’s massive concrete wall. In the following days, as the attack’s prime surviving witness, he’d had to replay his near-death experience in intensive interrogation, but now here he was—ready to run.

My reasons for entering this race were as complex—or simple—as my reasons for wanting to be alive. I’d been a competitive long-distance runner for the past forty-four years, and I was undeniably addicted. I had also just turned sixty, and it can feel disconcerting to a man at that age to find that he no longer has the strength or mojo that he once had, and that has always seemed an essential part of who he is. Part of my motivation was that I wanted to see if I could still run with guys who were in their twenties or thirties—or even forties. I had reasons to think maybe I could.

Possibly the biggest reason I was standing here, though, was about that most irreducible of all human needs—the instinct to survive. An ultramarathon race, or ultra, (any footrace longer than a marathon) is a ritual of survival. In a world beset by ever-more ominous threats—now heightened by those tragic events of two months ago—the need to not just hope and plan intelligently but to actively practice the art of survival had put a tightening grip on me.

Nearly a thousand marathon-hardened runners were entered—the maximum number the government would allow to run on the Appalachian Trail. I was one of the oldest people in the field, but I knew I had two advantages. First, I might well be the most experienced runner in this race, if not in the whole country, and I wanted to find out to what extent experience could trump youth, or at least keep pace with it. Our culture was more and more dominated by youth, and I frankly needed to know if I still counted. In a short-distance run, or sprint, there was little—well, nothing—an old guy could do to compete with a twenty- or twenty-five-year-old. Guys my age, no matter how tough or strong they might be, could never play wide receiver for the Redskins or Steelers, catching passes and sprinting for touchdowns. In a long run, though, it might be a different story. Maybe my experience could give me an edge.

The second advantage I had stemmed from the work I’d done for the past ten years at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, DC, as an editor, parsing research reports from environmental scientists documenting what appeared to be the declining stability and sustainability of our civilization. Over the years, I’d noticed curious parallels between the ecology of human societies under duress and that of an individual human under great stress. I had begun to wonder, are these parallels more than just coincidence? Earlier in my career, I’d spent seven years editing research reports for several of the pioneers of the environmental movement and had my first inklings that survival wasn’t just an abstract, academic concept of interest to biology students studying Darwin; it was very here and now. Although most of the general public seemed oblivious, the scientists I worked with (and many others I would correspond with in later years) were deeply alarmed. The first scientist I’d done editing for, in the 1970s, was the nuclear physicist Theodore B. (Ted) Taylor, who earlier in his career, at Los Alamos, had designed the largest fission atomic bomb ever exploded on earth—the so-called Super Oralloy bomb, which was detonated over Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific in 1953 with a power thirty-seven times that of the bomb we dropped on Hiroshima. Dr. Taylor had also designed the smallest atomic bomb ever exploded—the so-called suitcase bomb, which could fit in the trunk of a car. By the time I met him, he had renounced that legacy and was laboring to warn the world of the dangers of nuclear leaks, thefts, accidents, and terrorism. He had surmised, several years ago, that the World Trade Center might be a prime target for terrorists armed with a suitcase bomb like the one he had designed.

Taylor’s journal, which I was hired to edit, was distributed to all the national and international nuclear agencies—none of which seemed much interested in his warnings. There was a lot of money to be made in the new industry of nuclear power, and there were well-lubricated revolving doors between the nuclear agencies and utilities. The editing work was both intense and frustrating, and after work each evening I’d go out for long runs along the DC bank of the Potomac. Running gave me a needed escape, but at the same time I found myself meditating on those remarkable parallels I saw between our fast-growing global industries and our overstressed selves.

Now, a quarter of a century later, I was in a position to draw on what I’d learned about the nature of human capability, whether to power missiles or propel our own bodies, and to use that knowledge to run faster than I once would have thought possible for a man my age. Did that mean what I could do as a runner was now more important to me than what I could do for my embattled planet? Not really. But I had no control over what happened at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or International Atomic Energy Agency, or US Department of Energy—where, for all I knew, Ted Taylor’s reports were just being fed to the shredder. I could at least have some control over what I did with my own body and soul. And in the long run, I thought, that might be what really counts.

   

We were tightly crowded together, the top-seeded guys in the front row using whatever subtle hip-bumping or leaning was needed to hold their places behind the white line, while the rest of us jammed as close as possible behind them on the narrow street. We were a sea of bare arms and legs and, despite the cold, even a few bare shoulders of road-racer types wearing singlets instead of high-tech T-shirts. There were men and women of all ages here, but the great majority were twenty to forty years younger than I. The sight of the younger ones bouncing up and down on their forefeet to keep warm threw my memory back to when I was their age. I felt too old now to be bouncing; I might need that bounce in the last mile.

I had started running with high school cross-country and track in the 1950s, followed by college cross-country and my first road races in the 1960s, when new chapters of the Road Runners Club of America were springing up all over the country, and eventually I’d gotten hooked on marathons. The first time I’d ever heard of an ultramarathon was in the early 1970s, when there were only a handful of ultras in the whole country. Now, at the outset of the twenty-first century, there were about five hundred ultras each year in the US—mostly on rugged rural or wilderness trails, far from public view. The JFK 50 Mile was—and is—the country’s oldest and largest.

The JFK 50 began in the spring of 1963 as an unpublicized personal venture for a group of eleven men who initially called it the “JFK 50 Mile Challenge”—one of many so-named events that took place that year and the winter before in response to President Kennedy’s challenge to the Marines. After the assassination in 1963, all the others discontinued, but this one quietly expanded—perhaps in part because of where it took place. The course the original group chose was both rich in natural wonders and redolent of American military history. It started right here where we were standing, in Boonsboro, Maryland, a town that had been founded by two cousins of the pioneer Daniel Boone a few years after the Revolutionary War. It followed the historic National Road up a long hill to a forested ridge where the civil war Battle of South Mountain left 5,867 men dead, wounded, or missing in action over at least six miles of the mountain’s spine in 1862; eventually dropped down a precipitous escarpment to the Potomac River near Harpers Ferry, where John Brown attacked the US Arsenal in 1859 and was defeated by the Marines under the command of General Robert E. Lee; wended north along the C&O Canal Towpath past Antietam Battlefield, the site of the bloodiest day in American military history with a total of 23,000 casualties and with Lee now commanding the other side; passed Pack Horse Ford, where the surviving Confederates escaped across the Potomac after the bloodbaths at Antietam and Sharpsburg; left the Potomac River at one of the five dams the opposing armies struggled to control; and followed a rolling country road to the town of Williamsport, which George Washington visited in 1790 when it was being considered as a possible capital city for the United States.

The JFK 50 Mile quickly became an iconic event among endurance runners, even as it remained virtually unknown to the sports media or public. By the 1990s, when ultras usually had at most a few hundred entrants, the JFK 50 had to limit its field to a thousand. For the original race director, Buzz Sawyer, and his successor, Mike Spinnler, the JFK was a logistical challenge that the Civil War generals McClellan, Lee, and Stone- wall Jackson, among others who knew this terrain, might have quite respected—helping a thousand men and women who were determined to run fifty miles in less than a day to achieve their goals without anyone dropping dead. By 2001, Mike Spinnler had established a well-orchestrated routine: As his army of volunteers dispersed to their assigned positions at aid stations, medical tents, radio communications, and course monitoring posts, the runners and support crews would arrive at the Boonsboro High School in the predawn chill, gather in the gym to keep warm, then at 6:40 am—still a little dark—take off their warm-ups, leave the gym, and walk three-fourths of a mile to the middle of the town, where a white line was painted across the street. The start would be at 7:00 sharp—right at sunrise. For many, the goal would be to reach Williamsport before dark returned, which in late November would be around 4:30 pm—a finishing time of 9 hours, 30 minutes. About half of the runners wouldn’t make it until later, well after dark. You had 14 hours to finish before being disqualified. The fastest any man over sixty (my age bracket) had run this race, in its thirty-eight years so far, was 8 hours and 14 minutes. My goal—which I hoped wasn’t just pie in the sky—was to finish under 8 hours.

So here we were, about to go forth like that newborn infant feeling the first rush of air into its lungs, beginning its own magical journey. Life is a mystery from the get-go, no less so for a runner at the start of a long race. Though I’d been experiencing this kind of moment for more years than anyone else here, I still marveled at the mental challenges—if nothing else, the challenges to just plain sanity and common sense. In the warm gym, we had huddled in our sweats and hoodies, yet now we stood in face-freezing cold wearing almost nothing. We were here to compete, yet there was no smack talk of the sort that seemed so common now in sports; with just a couple of minutes to go, runners were shaking hands, wishing each other well. And for all of us, this would be a deadly serious undertaking, yet there was an undercurrent of joshing and joking: “Excuse me, is this the line for coffee?”

Once, in the 1980s, I had met Muhammad Ali at the start of the Los Angeles Marathon, and he seemed to grasp, in a way that took me quite by surprise, the good-humored camaraderie of runners about to compete. I was there to report on the event for Running Times (a magazine I had founded in 1977 and still did some writing for), and when I climbed onto the photographers’ platform overlooking the starting area, who should I see but the world’s most legendary athlete, who’d been brought in to fire the starting gun. I shook his hand and asked, awkwardly, “So, what do you think of all these thousands of people warming up to run twenty-six miles?” I expected him to say something appropriate to the ceremonial nature of his presence, such as “It’s a great thing; it’s inspiring!” Instead, Ali fixed me with that baleful stare he’d so often laid on reporters, and said, “They got to be crazy!” I laughed, a bit nervously. I knew it was just a little jab, but it was a Muhammad Ali jab, and I was still on my feet! Remembering that now at the start of the JFK 50, it occurred to me—in the spirit of the moment—that if marathoners are crazy, people who run fifty miles on trails must be twice as crazy.

The guy with the bullhorn announced that we had thirty seconds, and then at 6:59:50 he began a countdown: “Ten, nine, eight . . .” It was time to let my mind go blank, Zen-like. This was important. Over the few days before the event, I’d done a lot of mental rehearsing and spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about the first three miles, which quickly confront you with a strategic conundrum. The first mile, like a scene from an old Western, is just get out of town. No problem with that. But the next two miles are a fairly steep climb to the South Mountain pass, where you leave the road and enter a thirteen-mile segment of the 2,168-mile-long Appalachian Trail (AT). The conundrum is that on one hand you want to get to the trailhead before the horde does, because the AT is a rocky, single-track path—wide enough in most places for just one runner at a time, or two at most—and if you reach this bottleneck in the same minute as several hundred other determined people, you’ll be slowed like bumper-to-bumper traffic squeezing past an accident, and you’ll lose a lot of time. Best to get to the trailhead ahead of the traffic, if you can do so without too much strain. On the other hand, going up the South Mountain road, it would be a big mistake to go too fast. It’s a tricky thing to balance, but once the race started I wanted to be on autopilot, not burning energy trying to calculate.

“Seven, six, five . . .”

I went blank, finally, the way I had late last night at the hotel in Hagerstown, when I’d finally lapsed into a few hours of restless sleep.

Reprinted from the book, The Longest Race: A Lifelong Runner, an Iconic Ultramarathon, and the Case for Human Endurance; Copyright © Ed Ayres, 2012. Available wherever books are sold.