Ultra-endurance athletics

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Ultra-endurance athletics

We guess you could call that a failure, but Diana Nyad’s 29-hour quest to swim from Cuba to Florida was called on account of shoulder pain, waves and asthma. But no matter how disappointed Nyad may have been, we’re impressed.


still image of woman swimming in ocean

Diana Nyad talks about her attempt, her future, and life at age 61

Jolted by the thought that a 61-year old would jump into the ocean to embark on a 103-mile swim, we looked around and saw a mushrooming number of insanely hard runs, swims, triathlons and bike rides — and spotted a trend.

In running, ultra-endurance events are defined as longer than the 26-mile marathon. In cycling, longer than the 100-mile century. There’s no set definition in swimming, so far as we can tell, but Australia’s 19.7 kilometer, open-ocean Rottnest Channel Swim, has to qualify. The race had 173 solo entrants in 2011, up from 100 in 2001.


Cyclist on country road, open field on one side, 'Welcome to Kansas'; sign on other

As this biker races across america, the hills are no longer a concern. But what’s up with the headwind?

While the rest of us may wonder what it takes to run 26 miles or ride 100, ultra-athletes don’t stop with such paltry challenges. The Ironman triathlon, which features a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and 26 mile run, once seemed intense, the far end of endurance.

No longer. The ultra-bikathons include Wisconsin’s Dairyland Dare, which maxes out at 180 miles of hills.

And from there, things get worse. Much worse. The Tour de France bike race is one of three “grand tours” that normally exceed 2,000 miles in length. There’s the Furnace Creek 508, which bikes non-stop across 508 miles of Death Valley and the Mojave Desert.

And there’s the Race Across America, an annual, coast-to-coast sufferfest where sleep is optional and minimized, and where the bikers sometimes use duct tape or bungee cords to hold their heads up.

France has a triple-Ironman, and Africa has the Marathon des Sables, a gritty, six-day, 155-mile jog ‘n slog through the Sahara Desert.


Dozens of people running in line into the distance in large open desert with mountains on right

Photo: tent86
Challenging yourself to run the Marathon des Sables may be more a feat of the brain than a feat of the feet.

Once a year, you can swim around Manhattan. It’s only 28 miles, and we hear raw sewage has stopped spewing into the Hudson River…

So we got to wondering. How (and why?) do these athletes attempt the near-impossible? Are the barriers physical — or mental? What are the rewards – and what are the risks of attempting such outlandish performance?

Why – the motivation question


Man wearing cycling clothes rides across a desert

Courtesy Charles Olson
Charles “Brooklyn Beast” Olson has miles to go before he sleeps, as he competes in the 2010 Furnace Creek 508, an ultra-endurance bike race with 508 miles of distance, and seven miles of climbing.

Let’s start with the hardest question. Why in the world would anyone attempt these distances without being paid for it? “There are extremists in all activities,” says Ronnie Carda, a marathoner who heads the physical education activity program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “These are very committed individuals. Everyone looks at it as challenge, but most have a real love for it. I had a good friend who used to do ultra-endurance runs, absolutely loved it. But I assume there are people who get obsessed, and I have talked to some who have tried double Ironmans [swim 4.8. miles, bike 224 and run 52] and said one was enough.”

“Certain people, personalities, have to keep proving things to themselves,” says Bob Mazzeo, an associate professor of kinesiology and applied physiology at the University of Colorado, who studies high-altitude athletes.

“People ask, why am I doing this, and I say why do people climb Mt. Everest or do any other tough athletic endeavor?” says Charles Olson, who rode the Furnace Creek 508 last year under the nickname Brooklyn Beast. “It’s to see if you can. I was doing the Ironman, but it wasn’t enough. I’ve always been interested to see how far I could push things, including myself. As a child, I had slot cars and model trains, would see how fast they would go until they fell off the tracks or the engines would burn out.”


helmeted biker in blue spandex smiles at camera as landscape blurs by in background

Photo: Brazil, Indiana, by Cybil Cole.
David Tanner had already ridden 2,000 miles in the 1989 Race Across America. Does that account for the smile?

Finally, there’s the age factor. Ultra sports are made for older folks, says David Tanner, 61, who has completed Ironmans, the Race Across America (RAAM) and other ultra rides, swims and runs. “I have been around ultras in a lot of different sports, and most competitors weren’t superfast when they were 20. This is an opportunity for people who have perseverance and a good mental attitude to do well in a sport where they weren’t maybe fast enough when they were younger. In an ultra-marathon, sometimes the older you are, the wiser you are, and wisdom is more important than a high VO2 max or muscle mass.”

VO2 max measures the amount of oxygen a person can take in; higher levels allow greater athletic performance.

Tanner, a research associate at the Indiana University Human Performance Lab, added one more reason to push the limits. “Everything in your life can be going down the tubes, but you can enter an ultra, forget your problems for a day or two, finish dead last, and still feel good about yourself. It all comes down to self-satisfaction and personal achievement.”

Evolution ‘r us

This outburst of ultra-athleticism may amount to a return to our evolutionary roots, says Joel Stager, in the department of kinesiology at Indiana University. “There is a lot of evidence that humans may be some of the best endurance athletes on the planet, that we evolved to out-endure most animals.”

This excellence shows up in the most basic measurement of metabolic capacity, the volume of oxygen that can be delivered to the muscles per unit time. “Humans have a high value for VO2 max per kilogram of body weight,” Stager says. “We have the ability to out-metabolize, and the ability to run long distances at a relatively modest pace, so if you put those together, we can out-endure most other species.”

What must training accomplish?

Training for an endurance sport has both emotional and physical goals, and while each event has its particular needs, the focus is on high-endurance, slow-contracting muscles.

Physically, training for an ultra-endurance event should:

  • Raise the ability to sustain a high level of performance, by increasing the number of mitochondria (the cell’s energy producing sub-unit);
  • Make more oxygen-carrying red blood cells and increase blood volume; both changes help the heart deliver more oxygen to the muscles;
  • Overload the muscles to recruit more of the slow-contracting aerobic fibers that are rich in mitochondria and less easily fatigued; and
  • Accustom the athlete to regular eating, drinking and electrolyte replacement to satisfy the nutritional demands of ultra-endurance sports.
  • Photos: 2005 Wisconsin Ironman photo © David Tenenbaum
    Refueling and rehydrating during an ultra race requires coordination – and an appetite. (ROLLOVER)

    Tanner says one of the biggest improvements in endurance athletics concerns nutrition. “Most of us used to make do with homemade brews, whatever you could get in real food. Today, so many companies engineer food that is specifically designed for endurance. You do need protein during a long event, people did not think that before. We have products that are more easily digestible, so you can get close to matching your caloric intake to your output.”

    Not just a body game

    Sources differed on whether ultra-endurance sports are tougher on the mind or the body, but there is no question that a multi-day race can tax the willpower. Having swum 10 miles or run 50 – do you have what it takes to swim another 10 or run another 50 to reach the finish line?

    Training eases the inevitable confrontation with the pain and suffering of a long event, says Olson. “There are tough times in training. Last summer, I would be training 18 hours a day, would leave at 4:45 a.m., and on such a long day, it’s a struggle to find places to eat and drink.”

    Olson, who trains in all weather, says “Through the training, you are learning how to deal with adversity.”

    Mind control also helps during a race, Olson adds. “When you start getting negative, you have to be cognizant of that, typically you are getting hungry or thirsty, or your mind is playing tricks on you to get you to stop. I eat, change my cadence, or take a five-minute break; do what I need to do to get my mind back in synch. I tell myself I don’t want to let my children down, try to set an example, show that you can do anything you put your mind to.”


    Two women walk, one grimaces, head down; other has hand on her shoulder

    Photo: Mark Rabo
    The Tahoe Rim Trail Ultramarathon taxes mind and body.

    How to train

    If the goals of training are clear, there’s no clear agreement on what it takes to reach them. Just as carbo loading in preparation for a long race faded 30 years ago, training hours are also on the wane, says Tanner. “Some people thrive on a massive amount of training, but most ultras are not doing the mileage we were 20 years ago. For [the 1989] RAAM, I was training 600 miles a week. I think most people now do not do that much, they substitute quality, hills, intervals, time trials, indoor efforts. There is whole lot more science to training.”

    The nature of the training depends on the goal. “There is a huge difference between the people who are competing for the trophy versus the people who are out there for the challenge of going the distance,” says Carda of Wisconsin. “I can’t tell you the number of people that do an Ironman and don’t have a whole lot of intention of running much in the marathon.” Instead, many people many walk a large section of the marathon, which concludes the event. “It’s more about going the distance.”

    And those differences affect the training, Carda adds. “If I’m going to compete, there has to be an intensity element. If your goal is strictly a finish, to meet the challenge of the distance, [you will use a different training routine]. It really depends on what your goals are.”

    But even a moderate training schedule for, say, an Ironman or a 100-mile foot race will be intense – and time-consuming. Many ultras “are very good time managers,” says Carda. “One gentleman I know who does the Ironman annually found a way to train on an hour a night during the week, and went for long ride on the weekend.” Another would start a 100-mile bike ride at 5 a.m. Saturday, then met his wife and kids at a park. “They would have lunch and he’d be finished for the day. He found a way to put his family into it.”


    Man tending to another's bruised, wounded feet with duct tape around toes

    Photo: Mark Rabo
    The physical impacts of a long road race start at the bottom. Here’s the aftermath of the Tahoe Rim Trail Ultramarathon.

    Running risks

    Even in sports that require an extraordinary physical effort, it’s possible to overdo it, says Mazzeo, who focuses on high-altitude athletic performance. “At Pikes Peak, in August, they have a half-marathon, starting at 8,000 feet, up to the summit at 14,000 feet. The next day, there’s a full marathon, up and down, and there are people who run both of them. That is crazy.”

    The result of too much exertion, day after day, is called staleness or over-training syndrome, and the symptoms include lowered performance, sleep disturbances, unusual muscle soreness and a feeling of heaviness, even depression. These symptoms are “pretty common here in Colorado, with many triathletes training twice a day for six or seven days a week,” says Mazzeo. “Full-blown over-training syndrome can take a year for recovery, it’s quite significant.”

    Ultra-endurance sports can hurt. Bikers can suffer neck seizures and genital numbness, or crash. Runners injure feet, joints and soft tissue.

    And there is some evidence linking regular, long-term exertion with atrial fibrillation, a sometimes permanent heart-rhythm abnormality. “Endurance sport practice increases between 2 and 10 times the probability of suffering atrial fibrillation, after adjusting for other risk factors,” according to a 2008 study.1 This surprising rate of atrial fibrillation may be due to genetics, changes in heart structure or inflammation.

    Live fast, die young?

    Could overgenerous portions of running, biking and swimming shorten the lifespan? Is it smart to “burn the candle at both ends”? Maybe not, according to studies of different levels of exertion. The concern arose during the industrial revolution, when it became obvious that hard-working machines tended to break down sooner, and scientists noticed fast-moving animals like mice died sooner than lumbering cows and elephants.

    Comparing different species can be confusing, but manipulating members of a single species can be more illuminating. A 2002 scientific review2 concluded “the overall trends in such studies are very clear: increasing energy expenditure leads most frequently to a decrease in survivorship, both in the wild and the laboratory. … Experimental manipulations that result in living faster generally also result in dying sooner, and the converse is also true.”

    It’s likely that burning massive numbers of calories raises levels of free radicals, which are known to speed aging. But we could not find statistics on longevity among ultra athletes, perhaps because ultra events are rather young.

    And benefits

    And what are the pay-offs of such exertion? We’ve all seen research showing manifold benefits of regular physical activity, and we have to suspect that many apply to ultra-athletes. “When we look at people who have maintained a highly active lifestyle for decades, we don’t find a lot of downsides,” says Indiana’s Stager. “They have lower blood pressure, lower heart rate, less body fat, and muscle mass, better cardiopulmonary performance, more heart capacity, and more elasticity of the arteries.”


    Seven people wearing wet suits and goggles swimming in dark water

    While these Norskis swim the Bergen Triathlon, their brains may also be getting a boost.

    High-level exercise helps the brain’s ability to think and make decisions. According to a 2010 3 review of exercise in older adults, “A relatively high level of physical activity was related to better cognitive function and reduced risk of developing dementia; however, there were mixed results of the effects of exercise interventions on cognitive function indices.”


    Man wearing spandex rides with exhausted, pained expression

    Is this the face of masochism, or is this cyclist overcoming exhaustion with determination: “I think I can, I think I can…”

    Stager says that in an ongoing study, the cerebellum, a part of the brain that is involved in voluntary motion, “appears to have a greater mass, more cells and more connectivity. As we age, we start having balance and gait problems that lead to falls and injury. What if we found that one hour of exercise a day would offset as many as 20 years of aging, which is what we appear to be finding?”

    “There are some pretty surprising” results, Stager says. “The message for years was that the brain wasn’t involved in exercise, but that does not seem to be the case.”

    Stager recognizes that these benefits are not affecting the majority of the population, which is growing more sedentary and obese. “What’s happening is that in term of fitness is that the haves have more, the have-nots have less.”

    And while these benefits are not exclusive to ultra-endurance athletes, the rise of these long-distance events does seem to represent the extreme of a significant shift toward higher intensity. Marathon runs, to take one gauge of popularity, are surging: In 2011, more than 100,000 people applied for the New York marathon, and almost 27,000 ran the Boston marathon. And the 160-mile Race Across Indiana had about a dozen participants when it started 25 years ago; 1,250 finished the 2011.

    Is it about togetherness?

    Another factor that explains the explosion of ultra-endurance sports is marketing, Carda says. Ultras, Carda adds, are “just the next phase. In the ’60s, people started running, there was a fitness craze. There were marathons — not everybody got involved – but suddenly every city had a marathon.” In a beneficial spiral, cities have realized that ultra events – from the marathon up, can attract dollars. “There have always been bikers and runners, and the triathlon has been around for a long time, but the marketing end of things has caught up. “The Ironman is one of those events that has cachet, it’s the in thing to do.”


    Runner with mustache and goatee wearing visor and green tank smiles and gives thumbs up

    Photo: Mark Rabo
    This contestant in the Tahoe Rim Trial Ultramarathon wants you to finish, as much as you want to finish.

    One more thought. Most people cannot relate to the idea of completing a marathon, let alone an ultra event, but the utterly ridiculous nature of these challenges brings the participants closer. “There is an ultra family, it doesn’t seem to matter what sport,” says Tanner. “There is competition between individuals, but the real competition is you against the distance, against the course. If you finish, then you win, in your own mind. You enjoy the people you are with, make a lot of friends, and when you go back to work on Monday, you have the satisfaction that you were able to push your limit, do something you thought maybe you could not do.”

    That’s pretty much what we heard from Olson, who’s heading back to the Furnace Creek this fall. “Anybody who is going an ultra distance, even the real racers, will look to help you along in your journey. They will offer advice because they want you to finish.”

    – David J. Tenenbaum


    Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; Jenny Seifert, project assistant; David J. Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive


    1. Endurance sport practice as a risk factor for atrial fibrillation and atrial flutter, Europace. 2009 January; 11(1): 11–17. Published online 2008 November 6. doi: 10.1093/europace/eun289. Lluís Mont et al.
    2. Living Fast, Dying When? The Link between Aging and Energetics, John R. Speakman et al, J. Nutr. June 1, 2002 vol. 132 no. 6 1583S-1597S.
    3. Physical activity and functional limitations in older adults: a systematic review related to Canada’s Physical Activity Guidelines. Donald H Paterson et al, Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2010; 7: 38. Published online 2010 May 11. doi: 10.1186/1479-5868-7-38
    4. Diana Nyad’s website.
    5. Effects of swimming 103 miles.
    6. Chaos of open water.
    7. Cross-training and endurance sports.
    8. Too much of a good thing?
    9. Bad for the heart?
    10. Mental preparation for sport.
    11. The power of emotions.
    12. Endurance: the evolutionary advantage?
    13. Endurance running and human evolution.
    14. Physiology and cycling performance.
    15. Calling all ultra-runners!
    16. Race across Indiana.