Going the Distance

It is not unusual these days to hear about people running ultra marathons. I am always in awe of people who run distances greater than a marathon – 50K, 100K, 50 miles, 100 miles, or even more. Some races take multiple days to complete. It boggles my mind what people can do.

I read a news story last week about a man in Arizona, Hal Gensler, 68 years old, who just celebrated his 9,000th consecutive day of running. Hal ran track in high school and college but stopped when, like most of us, he couldn’t find time in his schedule to get a daily run in. Then in his early 40s, he started running again and decided that he was going to run every day. Hal has run in all sorts of weather – brutal cold winters in his native Minnesota and staggering triple digit heat in his current home in Arizona. Hal doesn’t time his runs or measure the distance he goes. He just does it; it is his goal and he is sticking to it. Hal is a much more dedicated runner than I am.

Coincidentally, I just finished an interesting book about a cross country race dubbed the Bunion Derby – “C.C. Pyle’s Amazing Foot Race – The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America” by Geoff Williams. I had stumbled upon the book by accident. I could not imagine what it would have been like to run across the United States in 1928. This was long before there were fancy running shoes with cushioning and gel insoles, sweat wicking material for shirts, electrolyte replacements like Nuun and Powerade, and energy replacements like gels and goo. This was a book that I had to read.

There were 199 runners entered who ranged in age from 15 to 63 years old. The runners came from all over the world and many different backgrounds, among them farmers, bank clerks, lumber jacks and students, all hoping to win the $25,000 first prize. The athletic ability of the entrants was just as varied. Several were part-time or former boxers – boxing was the #2 most popular sport in the US after baseball (boy, have times changed!). There were some accomplished runners (including 45 year old Arthur Newton who set the 100 mile record in 1928 at 14:22:10) as well as race walkers. According to the doctor who performed pre-race physicals on all the athletes, only 6 had run over 25 miles daily to prepare for the race.

The race started in Los Angeles and ended in Madison Square Garden in New York City. For 84 days in a row, the runners got up and ran to the next town on the route. The shortest distance was 17 miles and the longest was 74.6 miles. Most days the runners covered between 30 and 50 miles. They ran through the desert, over mountains where the altitude challenged them, on gravel and sand, even an abandoned stage coach route. While some had the 1928 equivalent of running shoes, others wore inconceivable footwear such as logging boots or patent leather street shoes. Not surprising, the runners suffered many injuries including sunburn, blisters, tendonitis, shin splints, fallen arches, and lost toenails (some things never change even with better shoes). It was not uncommon for runners to get hit by cars, especially if they were running in the dark.

It took a toll on the runners mentally to run day after day for 84 days. I remember doing the Dopey Challenge this year and after four days I was ready to be done with running. But 84 days in a row is just crazy. A few of them did go out of their minds. Out of the 199 runners who started, only 55 finished the 3,421.5 miles to reach the finish line in New York City.

Running 9,000 days or even just 84 days in a row – both are too extreme for me. I am happy to run three days a week. But it is important to exercise. Hal Gensler recognizes this. His advice is simple and something that everyone should listen to – “You don’t have to run but get out and exercise.”

Want to learn more about the Bunion Derby? I highly recommend that you read the book and learn about the runners’ motivations, their struggles during the race, and their determination to reach the finish line. You can also find out more about the race at “The Great American Foot Race” web site which accompanied the 2002 PBS documentary by the same name.