Running Through the Wild

Admittedly, the guy is a little crazy. He’s run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. He’s done 100-mile races on treadmills, mountain trails and in Death Valley. He’s even completed the marathon distance on the South Pole, after waiting several weeks for the winds and snowfall to die down. Without a doubt, though, Dean has convinced many people that their physical limitations can be overcome.

As I’ve followed Dean’s pursuits over the years, I have realized just how many “everyday” folks are doing seemingly impossible things in the running world. In particular, my friend Drew, whom I worked with at a running shoe store two summers ago, has tackled the ultra marathon challenge in stride.

A former runner at DePauw University, Drew just recently received his master’s degree from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. In August of last year, Drew completed the Howl at the Moon Eight-Hour Race in Danville, Ill. Drew’s distance for the eight-hour race was 49.06 miles — an awesome feat that earned him a second-place finish.

Drew ran his first ultra marathon (a race longer than the standard 26.2-mile marathon distance) — the Bass Pro Shops Dogwood Canyon 50k — in Springfield, Mo., two years ago. He liked the experience and decided to race another ultra in the near future. When August of ’09 rolled around, Drew set his sights on the Howl at the Moon, a race his father had run twice before.

When he competed in the Howl, Drew had not yet even run a marathon. He was training for his first road marathon (the Indianapolis Marathon) and figured he would be relatively well-prepared for the eight-hour race.

However, his two longest training runs were just 15 and 18 miles, and those were the longest runs he’d done since the 50k race in Springfield. Admitting that the training he had done prior to the Howl wasn’t ideal for an ultra marathon, Drew said, “My training was sub-par and I wasn’t very fit going into the race. I decided not to taper for the event, because my main focus that fall was the Indianapolis Marathon.”

If not being very fit could earn Drew a second-place finish in an eight-hour race, I’d love to be “out of shape” any day of the week.

Drew ran 18 miles the Sunday before the Howl, an easy 10 on Monday and Tuesday, a hilly 10 on Wednesday and another easy 10 on Thursday. He ran six miles on Friday — the day before the race.

Although the Howl isn’t a traditional race with a start and finish line, it’s pretty simple to figure out how the race is structured. Competitors run around a 3.29-mile loop as many times as they can in eight hours. Officials count the laps, and the runner with the greatest total number of laps completed after eight hours is the winner.

Eight hours is a long time to run (or even be up on your feet, for that matter), yet ultra runners put themselves in fast motion for this amount of time, and sometimes even longer. Thus, there was no need for Drew to run any warm-up miles before the race. As Drew put it, “The first 48 [miles] got me good and warm for the last mile.”

Drew’s experience at the Howl was much different from his 50k race. That competition was on a very difficult course, which wore him out in a completely different way than the Howl, which consisted of repetitive laps.

After the 50k, Drew had been extremely sore and couldn’t run for a week afterward. The day after the Howl, however, Drew went out for a three-miler. He then resumed his normal training schedule for the marathon, albeit at a slower pace.

“I preferred the 50k because it was a set distance and I knew how far I had left to go. When I was running for time at the Howl, it was a lot harder to gauge my effort and how much I had left in the tank,” said Drew after the race.

A few days after the Howl, I asked Drew if he had “hit the wall” in his ultra marathon. He responded, “I didn’t so much hit the wall as much as I fell off a cliff about four and a half hours in. I did manage to regroup a little for the last two hours, but I had a real bad stretch there for a while.”

The shoes that carried Drew through the good and bad stretches were his trusty Brooks Adrenalines. Having worn several versions of the shoe since middle school, Drew figured they were a logical choice for the race.

During the race, Drew ate six energy gel packets, some Gatorade and, of course, lots of water. The temperature was around 95 degrees (with a 112 heat index), after all. He took one bathroom pit stop about four hours into the race.

Drew ran positive mile splits (decreasing, rather than increasing, his pace), which was his plan going into the race. But despite aiming for a “controlled explosion,” Drew says he “blew up a little bigger than I had hoped for.” Nevertheless, he persevered to the end, fueled by the cheering spectators at the race and the well-stocked aid stations every lap.

Although Drew’s family thinks he is “a little crazy” for competing in such intense events, the race could be considered a family experience. Drew’s father, Mark, ran the race for a third time this year, covering roughly the marathon distance in eight hours. Drew’s wife, Mandy, also racked up 23 miles of her own while jumping in and out of the race to keep her husband company.

Drew finished in second place overall, but he says that he never felt like he was racing against anybody but himself. “It was really a fight to keep myself moving towards the end of the day,” Drew said. “My thought wandered from: ‘This feels so easy’ to ‘How can I cut my own legs off?’”

But despite the struggles he had along the way, Drew’s experience and ultimate success have made him eager to run more ultras in the future.

“I would definitely like to do another ultra, and I am on the prowl for a good, competitive 50-miler sometime later this year or early next spring,” said Drew, adding, “But I would like to try to avoid another 95-degree day, if at all possible.”

I know Drew seems like Superman, but trust me, he’s just a normal dude who is committed to improving his running. Some people focus their efforts on being better parents or students, and that’s great, too. But Drew (and Dean, on a much larger scale) show us how desire and self-discipline can earn us results that might have once seemed impossible.