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Ultramarathons test physical and psychological endurance

Dean Karnazes was named one of Time magazine's Top 100 Most Influential People in the World for pushing the limits of what the human body is capable of.

Most people would consider running a marathon gruelling. For people like Armand Leblanc, running 42 kilometres is simply a warm-up.

Mr. Leblanc, 55, is the president of the Association of Canadian Ultramarathoners, a small but growing community of extreme endurance runners who race on courses of up to nearly four times the distance of a regular marathon.

Over the past 23 years, he's participated in 127 ultramarathons ranging from 50 km to more than 160 km. It takes him about 10 hours to run a typical 100-km course – a pace that he downplays, noting he's not an elite competitive runner; he does it for fun. Don't be fooled, however. Completing such mind-bendingly long distances is a test of both physical and mental stamina.

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"It's very painful," admits Mr. Leblanc, of Angus, Ont. But he adds: "As long as you can push through the pain, eventually it goes away."

As marathon running becomes more popular, the number of competitors entering ultramarathons is also on the rise. For many involved in the sport, it's a natural progression. "After running lot of marathons, you get to the point where [you ask] 'What else is there?'" says Mr. Leblanc, who is also team manager for Canada's national ultramarathon team.

In his two decades of ultramarathon running, he estimates he's seen the sport grow from about 100 regular participants to about 500 Canada-wide. It's still a tiny group, certainly, but Mr. Leblanc says that's part of the appeal. Since most people within the ultramarathon community know each other, the atmosphere at every race is like a family reunion.

Ultramarathon running is gaining some mainstream exposure. British comedian Eddie Izzard attracted attention two years ago when he ran 43 marathons in 51 days for charity, proving that extreme distance-running isn't just for the pros. Many ultramarathoners hope to see their sport introduced at the Commonwealth Games in 2018, and eventually in the Olympics.

Helping to raise interest in the sport is Dean Karnazes, known for completing 50 marathons in 50 U.S. states within 50 days in 2006. The accomplishment earned him a spot on Time magazine's 2007 list of 100 most influential people in the world.

The 48-year-old topped that feat this May by finishing his Run Across America challenge, covering more than 4,800 km from California to New York in only 75 days. That's an average of one-and-a-half marathons per day.

Speaking by phone from his home in San Francisco, Mr. Karnazes, explains the key to running such distances is dogged training. There are no short cuts, he says. "A good athlete, a strong athlete ... can fake their way through a marathon. They can kind of grunt it out," he says. "It might not be pretty, but they can kind of get there. With an ultramarathon, you can't skimp on your training. It will lay you flat."

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Miraculously, Mr. Karnazes never suffered so much as a blister during his Run Across America, nor did he take a single Advil or anti-inflammatory pill for sore muscles. He believes his body recovers better without such medication. "The worst thing that happened to me was I lost a few toenails. But other than that? Game on," he says.

The real struggle, he says, is a mental one. It takes discipline, for instance, to tackle each leg of the journey without calculating how much more you still have ahead of you. When you're tired and your muscles are burning, it can be demoralizing to dwell on the fact you're only halfway to the finish line.

"It's so easy for your mind to wander, especially if you're in pain," Mr. Karnazes says. "I just said, 'Embrace the pain, welcome it, engage in it, celebrate the pain. Don't try to repress it.'"

Like many endurance runners, Mr. Karnazes takes a somewhat philosophical approach to his sport. He acknowledges there are days when he has to force himself out the door.

"People say, 'Isn't running boring?' And I say, 'God, it can be mind-numbingly so,' " Mr. Karnazes admits. But says the boredom can be a welcome break from the constant stimulation of daily life: "To be bored for a while is really quite refreshing."

Both Mr. Leblanc and Mr. Karnazes believe there's nothing superhuman about running ultramarathons, and that anyone is capable of doing it. Others, however, aren't so sure.

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"Can anybody do it? I don't think so," says Alan Chud, endurance coach and general manager of the Absolute Endurance Training and Therapy facility in Toronto. "It's an event or a task that pushes your body to extreme limits, and not every body – and equally important, mind – is cut out for that."

Those who aren't properly trained could face a number of health risks. Chud says that while almost all elite athletes, to some extent, push on through pain, doing so could make injuries worse.

"If you're doing something with repetitive motion, you're probably exacerbating the problem you have, so it's probably not wise," Mr. Chud says. On the other hand, he adds, "with ultramarathoning, that may be the only way they can get through it because you're not going to do an ultramarathon without experiencing some pain. So it's a Catch-22."

Mr. Chud, who has coached ultramarathon runners, says his best advice for those wanting to get into the sport is to ease into it gradually.

Mr. Karnazes says he can't explain why he or anyone else runs such extreme distances. But his reaction to completing his Run Across America may offer a glimpse into the ultra-runner's psyche. He says he felt kind of empty, and "I want[ed]that same kind of elation and the same sense of adventure back." He now wants to try to run a marathon in every country in the world within a year.

As long as he enjoys running, he has no intention of quitting. "My finish line," he says, "is a pine box."

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About the Author

Wency Leung is a general assignment reporter for the Life section. Before joining The Globe in early 2010, she has worked as a reporter in Vancouver, Prague, and Phnom Penh. More

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