Friday, July 10, 2009

Marathons too easy?

Editor's note: This story appeared in this month's issue of the Charlotte Observer's SouthPark Magazine.

Charlie Engle has one piece of advice for anyone interested in running 100 miles: “Don’t be afraid.”

That’s easy for him to say. In 2007, the Greensboro native, along with Canada's Ray Zahab and Taiwan's Kevin Lin, ran across the Sahara. Yes, the desert. And they did it for fun.

It took them 111 days to jog, walk and limp the 4,600 miles from Mali to Egypt – the equivalent of two marathons a day. During the trek, Engle was the relentless motivator, pushing himself, his fellow runners and his pit crew to tough it out through windstorms, dehydration, blistered feet and frazzled nerves. Their adventure was documented in the film “Running the Sahara,” which had a special screening at Ballantyne Village in May (DVDs of the film are available at The trek became a campaign to raise international awareness about the need for fresh water in Third World countries, but the three also did it to see if they could.

“I’m not interested anymore in doing things I know I can do,” says Engle, 46. “I want my challenge to be something that I genuinely have a good shot at failing.”

Engle’s attitude makes him the perfect poster-boy for the growing adventure sports community. He is an ultrarunner, though his Sahara trek was a bit extreme even for the ultrarunning community. More and more people across the country are running races longer than marathons. An ultra is any race over 26 miles. Beginners often start with a 50-kilometer race (or 30 miles), and a 100-mile race is for more experienced runners.

Ultramarathons have been popular in the underground running scene since at least the ’60s, but in the last few years they’ve become more mainstream. The number of people participating increased 12 percent last year compared to 2008, says John Medinger, publisher of California-based UltraRunning magazine. The number of races has increased 20 percent, he says. The races, which have fewer slots than typical events, also fill faster now than in previous years.

Medinger says extreme sports stoke some people’s thirst to push themselves. Many people used to think marathons were the ultimate, but now they realize there’s something beyond that.

“It triggers their imagination,” Medinger says. “People like adventure.”

Engle is writing a book to help new ultrarunners prepare for their first adventure. For now, he offers free tips and advice at He says most ultrarunners start as marathoners. The first step is overcoming the mental hurdles from the marathon experience. People often recall the pain they’ve had from running a marathon and assume an ultra will be worse and longer, he says. The body can withstand the pain as long as the runner has the proper nutrition, hydration and pace, Engle says.

“Ultrarunning is very much a mental sport,” says Engle. “It truly is a matter of convincing yourself to continue.”

It’s also a time-consuming sport. Training takes months and involves running for hours. Engle says it’s more important to determine how long you plan to run rather than how many miles. Runners experience good and bad days during an ultramarathon, but the key is to keep running, he says. The sport also requires an extremely well-planned diet to make sure the body consumes enough fuel. Engle says ultra runners live in a constant carb-loading phase.

“You really get to eat what you want,” he says.

For Engle, eating what he wants means shoving fruits and vegetables into a two-horsepower blender. He’s a vegan, and an oddity. Ultrarunning requires large sums of calories, which are hard for vegans to consume. The wiry Engle consumes more than 3,000 calories a day thanks to his fancy blender. He swears he has a good smoothie recipe with kale, spinach and peanut butter.

“I feel really, really good these days,” he says.

Most ultrarunners eat food that requires chewing. At an ultramarathon race the aid stations are like buffets, with pizza, soup, quesadillas and other offerings, says Boyce Bedrock, a Charlotte-based ultrarunner and blogger.

“You name it and I’ve seen it an aid station,” Bedrock says.

Bedrock says he knows about 20 to 30 ultrarunners in the Charlotte area. There are also ultra communities in Raleigh and Asheville. The Carolinas boast the popular Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run and the Mount Mitchell Challenge. The Mount Mitchell race is a 40-mile race in February that Engle says is just plain hard. The Umstead 100 Mile Endurance Run, in April, typically sells out each year, and is starting to draw runners from throughout the country. It has a 50-mile option, which Engle ran a few years ago. It’s in a park, which makes it good for beginners because it’s a controlled environment.

For Engle, Umstead would be like a training race. After running across the desert, he has fewer adventures to conquer.

He does want to complete a challenge he failed last year: He tried to set a record running across America. His goal was to run at least 70 miles a day from San Francisco to New York. He fell apart in Utah, and had to complete the trip on his bicycle. He had sponsors for the event and a web following.

“My body just completely disintegrated,” he says. “I basically failed in front of more than 100,000 internet watchers. That was a big, big public failure.”

Engle is setting himself up for another challenge in July. After placing third twice at Badwater Ultramarathon, Engle wants to win this year. It’s a 135-mile race from Badwater in Death Valley (282 feet below sea level) to Whitney Portals on Mt. Whitney (elevation: 8360 feet). The temperatures reach up to 130 degrees. Ninety top runners will compete in the non-stop race, which has a two and a half day time limit.

“I’m going for the first time with the stated goal to win the race,” he says.

Here are Charlie Engle’s top five tips for doing a first ultra.

1. Choose a race somewhere you would like to visit. Ultrarunning is about the entire experience, not just the running.

2. When creating a training plan, focus on time, not distance. In other words, plan to run for three hours instead of 18 miles. This takes some of the pressure away from feeling like you must run a certain distance to have a good run. Some days are better than others and most of us can commit to time more easily than distance.

3. Create a nutritional plan that guarantees that you can consume about 300 calories per hour during your training runs because this is what you will have to do during the race.

4. Tell everyone you know you are running your race so you will have lots of support. They will help you when times get tough.

5. Remember 75 percent of Ultrarunning is mental and the rest is all in your head. Have fun.

For more information on ultramarathons:
UltraRunning: Web site dedicated to the sport.
Charlie Engle: The ultrarunners’ Web site.
Ultra Adventures: Website for NC ultrarunners.

N.C. races:
Umstead 100 Endurance Run: Considered a good race for beginners.
Mount Mitchell Challenge: Run from Black Mountain to Mount Mitchell, eastern America's highest point, and back again.

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