Loreen Hewitt won her first “ultramarathon” running race at the age of 52. It was 350 miles long and through the Alaskan wilderness in the winter.
Ultramarathons “are a different mindset,” said Hewitt, 53, a self-described slow runner from Greensburg, Pa., of the races she feels are more about endurance than speed.
Hewitt is among a growing number of runners who sign up for these races, which are longer than the typical 26.2-mile marathon, after age 40. Undeterred — and sometimes motivated — by their age, they stick to training routines that will allow them to build the endurance needed to compete physical feats many athletes half their age can’t. Many suffer back aches, foot pain and diabetes but still persist at the sport.
Though their family and friends don’t always understand what spurs them, the feeling of satisfaction they gain at the end of every race, coupled with the health benefits they receive, often makes their efforts worthwhile, they say.
“In ultra-running, you almost don’t hit your feet until your 40s,” said Rick Freeman, 53, an ultramarathoner who has directed the 70.5-mile Laurel Highlands Ultra race in Pennsylvania for the past 10 years. He’s seen an increase in older runners, particularly in the 100 mile-plus races, over the past couple of years.
The runners “have been in good shape, and running for a long time,” he said. “The young guys still like speed races, and setting personal bests.”
There are about 200 official ultramarathon races in North America each year, such as the Grasslands 50 Miles Trail Run in Texas and the 350-mile Iditatrod Trail Invitational Ultra Race that Hewitt finished in seven days, 14 hours and 40 minutes. A couple of years ago, organizers such as Freeman were scrambling for participants. Yet now the ultras — which usually charge entry fees ranging from a couple hundred to a thousand dollars — often fill up within a few minutes. They can last from around six hours to more than a week, depending on the length of the race. In the more grueling competitions, some participants take cat naps along the way, as Hewitt did for a few hours for every 24 hours she ran.
While there are no official statistics on the demographics of ultramarathons, half of the 26 runners who signed up for this past June’s Laurel Highlands Ultra were over 40, with only one runner in her 20s. Some 80 percent of the 231 participants signed up for the 33-mile High Desert Ultra in Ridgecrest, Calif., in December were over 40, with 53 percent over age 50, and 16 percent over age 60. About 40 percent of the 54 runners in last September’s 62-mile Lost Soul Ultra in Alberta, Canada, were over 50.
The process of training for an ultramarathon, not surprisingly, is an individual process. Hawaii resident Don Fallis trained for the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon in Death Valley by running 75 to 100 miles a week in the summer in all black attire. The 65-year-old frequently chugged chocolate milk and water along his runs and took electrolyte capsules, which he said kept sodium and potassium in his system and prevented cramping. Regular trips to the sauna were also part of his routine.
Bob Struble, 59, started running when he was 26, settling into a regular routine by the time he was 39. The Pittsburg resident runs six days a week beginning at 4 a.m., and completes marathon-length runs every weekend. He prefers trails, as they are easier on his knees than concrete.Hewitt, meanwhile, maintains a diet rich in protein and carbohydrates, trying to stay in consistently strong health.
When it comes to the race, Struble makes sure to pace himself. In 100-milers, he walks uphill, for example, rather than trying to sprint it as he notices younger runners doing. Instead of taking a nap, Struble likes to keep blazing a trail through the night — replete with headlights and caffeinated beverages that he carries in a pack.
“At my age, I don’t think I’m going to win the race,” said Struble, who competes in the Laurel Highlands Ultra every year.
Still, all that running isn’t easy, particularly on an older body.
Struble, for instance, will often wake up with pain saturating his feet and arms. He finds he doesn’t recover as quickly as he did when he was younger. For him, the best cure is just running again. Once on the road, the pain slowly alleviates on its own.
Kevin Shelton-Smith, 49, an ultra-runner from New York City, nearly fainted when he arrived at mile 95 of the 145-mile Grand Union Canal Race in England last May, falling into a boat beneath the towpath where he was running.
“I just lost all balance and I could see myself going but couldn’t do anything about it,” said Shelton-Smith, who persevered to the finish line after resting for five minutes.
Healthy athletes of any age can run ultramarathons as long as they train properly, said Kathleen Nachazel, a certified athletic trainer at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Sports Medicine.
Ultrarunners “need to make sure they have a training program that isn’t too aggressive,” said Nachazel.
If done properly, the regular exercise involved in the training can improve lung capacity and boost bone strength — pushing back arthritis, she said.
For many ultra-runners, the thought of getting in better shape was what prompted them to start running in the first place.
Despite suffering from Type 2 diabetes, Fallis still wanted to compete in the notoriously difficult Badwater ultramarathon in July 2007.
“You’ll be pushed to do things you never thought you could do,” said Fallis, who made it 122 miles of the race, which is held in 120-degree weather, before the 60-hour time limit arrived. For shorter races, however, he has persevered to the finish line.
Up until age 58, Fallis was “somewhere between a couch potato and a little above a couch potato,” he said. He frequented the gym a couple of times every week, but it was not until he was diagnosed with diabetes that he decided to get in better shape. He began hiking every day, and within a year joined a friend in climbing the 19,334-foot Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
He was ready for his first ultramarathon — the 36.2-mile uphill Run to the Sun in Maui — when he returned. He has been running it, and several other ultras around the country, every year since. Fallis enjoys being active in large, open spaces and the thrill of accomplishment at the end of every race.
Some older ultramarathon runners — such as Hewitt, whose husband is also an ultrarunner — have experienced dismay from their friends and family about their athletic feats.
“There are a lot of our friends who do think we’re a little crazy,” she said. “My parents don’t really understand, and my mom worries about us.”
But Fallis saw a shift in his friends’ and families’ attitudes after he ran Badwater.
“At first I think they were confused and worried,” he said. “But now they’re proud. That’s another reason to do ultramarathons; it makes people proud.”