Running a marathon is a daunting challenge in and of itself. But some view 26.2 miles as simply a starting point.
The number of women completing ultramarathons (any distance over 26.2 miles) has skyrocketed. More than 29,000 women completed an ultramarathon in 2016, compared to just 3,092 in 2000. There are also some experts who believe women make better ultra-endurance athletes than men.
So what pushes someone to run 35, 50 or even 175 miles, often in extreme temperatures and across incredibly challenging terrain? Know Your Value spoke to three inspiring ultramarathoners, who are truly testing the limits of the human body, to find out.
Caryn Lubetsky: The ultramarathoner who is fighting for a cause
Caryn Lubetsky is a 48-year-old attorney and mother living in Miami Shores, Florida. She sits on the board of The Childhood Cancer Project (TCCP), and raises funds for the non-profit during every single race. In fact, it’s through her work with TCCP that her mantra was born.
“There is always a moment of self-doubt when the pain creeps in,” said Lubetsky. “When that happens, I say to myself, ‘This isn’t hard, chemo is hard. This is a choice, no one chooses cancer.’ I keep these brave children in my mind and my heart, and I fight through it for them.”
Throughout her running career Lubetsky has taken on many challenges, but nothing compared to the Badwater 135-miler in California’s Death Valley, which she ran in July 2019. The course has been dubbed the “world’s toughest foot race,” and it took her over 33 hours to complete.
That’s not all — Lubetsky has also run two 50Ks, three 50-mile races and five 100-mile races. Needless to say — she’s hooked. According to Lubetsky, the best part of ultramarathons is the people she meets along the way.
“If you ever doubt that there is still good left in humanity, just spend one day at an ultrarunning event,” said Lubetsky. “Ultras are such a unique experience — you can be running with a person you’ve never met before and you are immediately bonded.”
Overcoming the pain, however, is an entirely different obstacle. Lubetsky chooses to focus on smaller goals during her races, because looking at the entire mileage is far too daunting. When she ran 135 miles in Death Valley, for example, she had someone from her crew meet her with cold water every 1.5 miles. “I will draw on that experience in future races and know that no matter what, I have the strength to get it done,” she said.
Krissy Moehl: The runner who turned her passion into a career
The 41-year-old runner became interested ultramarathons because of her co-workers at the Seattle Running Company. Though she initially struggled to keep up, she’s since made a career out of running ultramarathons and has completed in more than 100 races.
Her first race was the Chuckanut 50K in Fairhaven, Washington in 2000. From that moment on, she was hooked. She finished in just over five hours and learned how to push through mental blocks when the race got tough. “This is when I focus in the moment — it is meditative, the presence I find in [putting] one foot in front of the other,” said Moehl. “I focus on what I need to do now, and in each moment to keep moving forward. I call this beast mode.”
Moehl remembers the 2009 UTMB, a race in Chamonix, France, as her most memorable ultra of all time. While she hadn’t gone into the race thinking about it competitively, her mindset changed when she moved into first place with 25 miles left in the race. “I ran the final 25 miles on a mission,” said Moehl. “There are photos of me sprinting with my eyes closed and the biggest smile on my face.”
Those shining moments push Moehl to keep pursuing her career — even when it gets mentally and physically unbearable.
“I reflect on how lucky I am to be able to move like I do, and that movement takes me to unique places,” said Moehl. “All we have is the moment we are in. All of the feelings, good or bad, that come up on long runs keep me focused on just that moment and how it feeds the overall goal of constant forward progress.”
Jay Bowen: The ultrarunner who knows an adventure is always around the corner
Jay Bowen is a 42-year-old marketing director and mother living in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not in the office, you’ll typically find her trail running.
Bowen had been running traditional 26.2-mile marathons for a long time, but her coworker encouraged her to give ultramarathons a shot. She nervously agreed. Her first race was the Resort to Rock 60K in August 2016. “It was scary to even reach the starting line,” said Bowen.
Luckily, her co-worker taught her how to prepare — and even agreed to pace her during the actual race. “We trained really well, and even ran the partial route a few times during training,” said Bowen.
She has since completed nine ultramarathons. “I really like the idea of being out doing something more adventurous than just running on the road with thousands of people,” said Bowen. “Trails are more technical, and you have to be more aware of how you’re running, but then you’re free and out in nature.”
Most recently, Bowen ran a 50K at Smith Rock State Park in Oregon, and it wasn’t exhaustion that took her breath away — it was the view. “You never get to see places like that going on a hike or a short run. It’s deep into a trail or on the other side of the mountain where you get to see that. It is breathtaking and you are alone, and it is just so wild.”
And while nature is a big motivating factor, it’s the continual search for bigger and bigger challenges keeps Bowen going. This is what eventually led her to the Bruneau Beast in Idaho, a race that takes runners over sand dunes.
“I remember getting so annoyed with the sand that I took my shoes off, tied them to my pack and ran barefoot,” said Bowen. “Everyone was really weirded out by that, but I just kept going — climbing all these gigantic sand dunes.”
It turns out that the sand managed to deter lots of other runners from finishing the race. “A lot of people dropped from that race, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m actually doing OK.’ At the end, I finished barefoot and won!”
After overcoming such challenges, Bowen understands, perhaps better than most people, how daunting ultramarathons can seem. But getting over the fear, she said, is worth it.
“There is nothing more beautiful than being out in the mountains with a beautiful view in front of you,” she said.