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.

| June 2013

  • 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
  • Endurance Runners
    Life is a mystery from the get-go, no less so for a runner at the start of a long race.
    Photo By Fotolia/silent_47

  • The Longest Race
  • Endurance Runners

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.

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