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Ultramarathoners: Pushing the limits

The raised eyebrow. The contorted expression. The incredulous chuckle. The gasps of "You do what?"

For Sue Ellen Trapp and the handful of runners like her, all are familiar reactions.

Even from loved ones.

"My daughter used to think I was crazy," Trapp said.

"I've always asked myself, "Why does she do it? Why? Why? Why?" Kristina said of her mother's athletic pursuit.

Trapp, 48, a dentist in Lehigh Acres, isn't simply a long-distance runner. For her, the 26 miles, 385 yards of a marathon apparently falls short of fulfillment.

She's an ultrarunner.

Her races, or ultramarathons as they're called, are typically 100-mile events or _ and we're not kidding _ endurance contests lasting 24 or 48 hours. Perhaps only a dozen other runners on the west coast of Florida, including Dan Landry of Largo and Bill Menard of Sarasota are so, uh, possessed.

"The worst thing I hate to hear people say is, "Hell. I hate to drive 100 miles,' " said Menard, who recently won the grueling 139-mile Hi-Tec Badwater race across Death Valley.

Trapp didn't envision running so far or so long when she set out. She was never a runner, but decided to try it as a way to lose the weight she gained during her pregnancy 23 years ago.

Now, she owns the American record for a 24-hour race (145 miles, 506 yards), the North American record for a 48-hour race (223 miles, 1,320 yards) and her time for 110 miles (15 hours, 5 minutes, 51 seconds) is the third fastest ever by a woman in North America and fifth fastest in the world.

"It's the same for all ultrarunners. Everyone thinks you're absolutely crazy," she said. "Everyone is aghast and you end up not talking about it."

The origins

Ultramarathons can be traced back in the U.S. nearly 100 years when six-day races in New York City drew a lot of attention, not to mention a lot of gambling interest.

The 50-mile Comrades, run annually in South Africa since 1921, is perhaps the most famous ultrarunning event. It drew more than 14,000 participants this year, including former marathon record-holder Alberto Salazar. He won the race, although he nearly succumbed to pain and quit with about 12 miles left.

During the years, longer races have popped up throughout the United States. In fact, according to UltraRunning magazine, 13,500 runners competed in 270 ultra events last year. But that's only an average of 50 runners per race. Even the largest ultramarathon, the American River 50-mile race in California, drew only 422 runners last year. A typical 10K road race will draw hundreds.

"We're a small group of people who live all over the country, but we're close-knit," said Menard, 43, a car dealer.

Support has to come from within. Ultrarunners don't see much from the rest of the running world.

Unlike marathons and road races that offer prize money, sometimes thousands of dollars for the winner, ultraraces hand out trophies. The Western States race, for example, gives belt buckles to those who finish in under 30 hours. Nor will you see ultrarunners hocking shoes or energizing drinks.

"Look at Ann Trason, who's arguably one of the best ultrarunners in the world; she has a modest relationship with us," said Nike spokesman Keith Peters. "Their notoriety is relatively limited. It's a challenge to get middle-America, Joe-Six-Pack to understand what it's all about."

Looking for more

Landry was easier to hook.

He had run in school and, like all serious runners in New England, competed in the Boston Marathon several times. But he longed for something longer. In 1990, he finally entered the Western States despite never attempting to run that far.

"I dropped out at 85 miles," said Landry, a computer programmer who also markets his own running software called The Adventurous Runner.

He returned the next year and finished. Since then, Landry was selected to the U.S. national 100K team in 1991 and was an alternate in 1993. He finished fifth in the 1992 and 1993 national 100K championship and runs about six ultramarathons a year.

"It's the challenge and excitement," said Landry, 42. "When you're out on a trail, you're by yourself, seeing country that not many people get an opportunity to see. You can be out at midnight, in the middle of the Rockies, and all you have is darkness except for the millions and millions of stars. It seems you can grab them there's so many. You really feel like a kid out there."

Running an ultramarathon is anything but child's play.

Landry runs 110 to 120 miles a week in preparation for a race. Sometimes, he's out training as late as 11 p.m. Trapp regularly logs 100 miles a week, including a 10-mile jaunt from her office to her home.

Menard is the oddball of this curious group.

The oddball

He didn't run in school and didn't discover the runner's high until one night eight years ago when a friend had too much to drink and Menard drove him home. Without a car, Menard jogged _ in dress shoes _ the 4 miles to his home.

"It felt real good," he said.

He continued running _ in the proper shoes _ and eventually increased his mileage to 20 miles a day. From there, the jump to traditional marathons was easy. He's since competed in 96 ultramarathons in the United States, Panama, Norway, Iceland and France.

But unlike his ultra brethren, Menard, 43, rarely exceeds 50 miles a week, opting instead for more races. One February, he competed in seven marathons. Last year, he had the 14th best rating for 100 miles (16 hours, 11 seconds) in North America and this summer he won the Badwater race, arguably the world's most demanding ultramarathon.

The course begins in Badwater, Death Valley, which at 282 feet below sea level is the lowest point in the continental U.S. The temperature reached 130 degrees.

"The biggest problem was blisters," he said. "It was the worst pain in my life. I tried all kinds of bandages and in the end, I found the best thing was strips of duct tape."

Menard had a crew of three to help him: one drove the rental car hopscotching him; another ran with him and, during the desert part, sprayed him with water, a third had water (a gallon an hour), food, clothes, a new hat (he had sandwich bags stitched into the hats and filled them with ice) and new shoes (three pairs with the toe box cut out to give his swollen feet room) for Indy-like pit stops.

After the 139 miles to the foot of Mount Whitney, there's an additional 10 miles up. Temperatures on the mountain, the highest point in the continental U.S., hovered near 32 degrees. Menard wore two shirts, a jacket, gloves and a woolen, pullover hat.

"You've got to be a little dumb to sign up for the race, but you still have to be smart enough to finish it," he said. He did that, beating a field of 24 in 32 hours, 33 seconds. "But when you're out there, it's unreal how pretty the world is."

No time for rest

All ultramarathons require an unreal ability to run on little, if any, rest. They test endurance like no triathlon.

Landry recently paced a friend in a race in Colorado and stayed awake 36 hours. Menard took one 15-minute nap during the four days of Badwater. Trapp said that no one interested in having "a good race" takes much time to sleep.

In a 48-hour race last year in California, she actually stopped to sleep three times for 15 minutes each. But she eschewed the beds in a bunkhouse that race organizers provided for the front seat of her rental car.

"It was cold in November so I had to keep the car running," said her husband, Ron, her partner in a dental practice.

"I woke up pretty refreshed," Trapp said. "Everything is so mental."

So, is that the secret for ultrarunners? Mind over matter? Most say no. What drives them incomprehensible miles is far simpler.

"I haven't found how far I can go without stopping," Menard said.

The saying goes that anyone who can run a marathon comfortably can run an ultramarathon uncomfortably.

"One reason I do it is because I can," Landry said.

"I'm kind of a different species," Trapp added, laughing. "I don't have a lot of speed, but I seem to be able to keep going. It's just something I do."