- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Natalie Burton didn't know it at the time, but she suffered a stress fracture in her right leg somewhere along the 50 miles of Maryland's JFK ultramarathon last November.
The District resident does remember crying when she crossed the finish line in the Boonsboro-to-Williamsport race.
And the 30-year-old can't wait to run her next ultramarathon.
A small but dedicated core of runners such as Ms. Burton prefer ultramarathons any race beyond the traditional 26.2-mile marathon limit to conventional races. Common ultramarathon distances are 50 and 100 miles, and the races often cover difficult terrain that forces runners to slow their pace to a walk.
Many ultramarathon courses, like the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile event starting at Squaw Valley, Calif., also promise breathtaking vistas.
That is, if you have enough breath left to be taken.
Participants like Ms. Burton contend that other races just don't offer the same thrills.
"There's no better feeling than the satisfaction after [an ultramarathon]," she says.
Running isn't Ms. Burton's only diversion. The single Washington native and human resources manager at the American Association of School Administrators in Arlington also is an accomplished equestrian and a second-degree black belt in tae kwon do.
Ms. Burton thinks she knows another reason why some runners opt for ultramarathons 862 people finished last year's JFK 50 Miler alone, as opposed to 330 in 1993.
"We've gotten bored with the standard 26-mile marathons. Let's move on to something bigger and better," says Ms. Burton, who endured bitterly cold winds to complete her first race.
Ultramarathon runners may walk part of the journey, but many races must be completed under a set period of time. Participants can't simply walk all the way to the finish line.
Ms. Burton decided to try her first ultramarathon, in part, after talking to an ultramarathon runner whom she figured to be in his late 50s or early 60s.
When the man suggested she run one herself, "He just threw down a challenge," she says.
Dan Gibbs, a 27-year-old ultramarathon runner from the District, decided to run one after finishing a marathon in upstate New York. He crossed the finish line and realized he had enough energy to keep on running.
Mr. Gibbs, also an accomplished cross-country skier, has his sights set on more ultramarathon races.
"I'm hoping to do a 100-mile race in the summer," he says.
The number of ultramarathon runners has slowly grown in recent years, says Bob Wischnia, deputy editor for Runner's World magazine, based in Emmaus, Pa.
Still, ultramarathon runners represent "a small percentage of relatively hard-core runners," he says.
Would-be participants sometimes have to cross their fingers just to gain access to the more popular events. Logistically, races need to limit how many entrants they can accept.
The Western States race, for example, has used a lottery system to select its competitors. According to that race's Web site, about 65 percent to 70 percent of applicants are selected in an average year.
Since many ultramarathons are held on soft, natural surfaces, the races are more welcoming to older runners.
But their popularity among the 40 and older set can't be explained solely by that, he says.
"They tend to know their bodies better," says Mr. Wischnia of veteran runners. He estimates the average age of an ultramarathon runner is early to mid-40s.
Injuries occur during ultramarathons, he says, but not as often as some might expect.
Experienced runners "really know what they're doing," he says. "The injury factor is relatively low."
What amazes Mr. Wischnia more than the low injury rate is the dogged determination of the runners.
"They have this willpower to just keep going," he said, recalling one runner who fell asleep mid-run.
Even if an ultramarathon runner takes all the proper medical precautions before a race, such as working out properly and getting a clean bill of health from a doctor, he or she could still suffer serious medical conditions like water intoxication.
Dr. Judith Veis, associate director of nephrology (the study of kidney function) at Washington Hospital Center, cautions that ultramarathon runners, just like marathon runners, should take great care in how much water they drink.
Should they take in too much and the sodium concentration in their blood lessens dramatically, it could make them susceptible to brain swelling or fluid in the lungs.
The kidneys can only process so much fluid at a time, Dr. Veis explains. The remaining water could be absorbed into the blood, causing a fluid buildup in the brain or lungs.
Women, and anyone taking anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, are at a greater risk for the condition, she says. Doctors generally agree that women metabolize sodium differently, she says, but adds that research on the subject has only just begun. Doctors, she says, as of yet do not know why this is the case.
"Any runner who develops headaches, nausea and vomiting during a race needs to be quickly evaluated," Dr. Veis says, adding that there have been deaths caused by these conditions.
Complicating matters is that there isn't a set amount one should drink, since we all perspire at different rates.
"If you're thirsty, you clearly need to drink," she says. "You don't need to drink a lot additionally on top of that."
Water intoxication occurs in a tiny percentage of marathon runners, she says. A study estimated one in 200 runners had low sodium concentrations in their blood following a race.
Ultramarathon runners often run with a support team close at hand to watch out for their safety.
Alexandria resident Patricia Shaffer ran her first ultramarathon last year with a little help from her boyfriend. He joined her mid-race and ran a few miles alongside her.
Ultramarathon runners often lean on friends and family along the trail. Supporters can give runners fresh clothes and nourishment midway through their journey. Or, they can run parts of the race alongside them for companionship and moral support.
Ms. Shaffer, 46, says she prepared for the race by doing what many ultramarathon runners do: she ran a standard marathon a few weeks before the big race.
Her mental preparations were just as important.
"In my head, I always chart out the course," says Ms. Shaffer, who visited the course months before the race to get a sense of what lay before her.
Come race day, she broke the race down into reasonable portions.
"If I can get to point A, I won't even think about getting to point B until I'm there," she says.
She thinks ultramarathons are within reach of many veteran runners.
"If they've done a marathon, chances are they can do an ultramarathon," she says.
Charlie Harr, 33, of Arlington, says the mental part of ultramarathon running proved the biggest burden in his race.
"The field is spread out and you're running by yourself; you feel all alone and isolated," Mr. Harr says.
"Even after 20 miles or so, your brain is saying, 'You don't really want to do this,'" he says. "You have to push through that more than anything else."
Ms. Burton says she will strengthen her leg muscles before attempting her next ultramarathon. She thinks a rigorous regimen including stair climbing machines will give her the boost while preventing another injury.
For runners like Mr. Gibbs, all the stair climbing in the world wouldn't be enough without taking the proper mental approach.
"If you get over the mental barriers, your body can just do anything," Mr. Gibbs says. "A lot of ultramarathoners have mastered that ability. They know they can do anything."

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