The distance between Portland and Eugene is about 100 miles. Imagine running it-in only 24 hours. Nathan Blair would happily take on that challenge, but he might need some recovery time first.
He’s fresh off his first ultramarathon, the Hundred in the Hood 100 Mile endurance run. Its trail stretches from Oregon’s Timothy Lake to Frog Lake to Breitenbush Lake and back. It’s total elevation climb is 12,448 feet. Only a week after completing the course in 27 hours and 58 seconds, Blair already went out for another run, despite painful pink blisters lingering on his feet.
“I could only run three miles,” he says. “My body was uncoordinated, disconnected. I felt like a pre-adolescent.”
Wobbly legs, in lieu of the potential health risks long distance running presents, are practically embraced in the ultra community. It seems as if weakening themselves to childish clumsiness is standard for ultrarunners, who complete distances of 30, 50 and 100 miles each race. Men’s Health contributor and author of Born to Run Christopher McDougall describes the sport as “the fitness version of drunk driving.”
“You could get away with it for a while, you might even have some fun, but catastrophe [is] waiting right around the corner,” McDougall says.
At the very least, these athletes subject themselves to dehydration, nausea, vomiting, blistering, ankle sprains, abrasions from falling, and altitude sickness during races. When they push themselves even harder to the finish, they put their hearts at risk.
In 2009, Men’s Health reported that the combination of muscle injury and inflammation during intense prolonged activity significantly increases one’s risk of heart attack.
Before he began training for ultrarunning, Blair completed a full physical and stress test to ensure his heart’s endurance. Confident that blisters are his only major concern, he’s already planning to run his next ultra, with wider shoes this time.
“I’ve got the bug,” he says calmly with a grin. “And I’ve got a bigger purpose.”
Blair’s motivation to run surpasses reaching personal athletic goals; he’s got a lot of people riding on his miles. Since his first marathon in 2007, he’s logged 243 miles to raise $2,537 for EDURelief, a nonprofit development organization supporting education in rural Mongolia. Despite the existence of schools, EDURelief founders noticed that they lacked many of the materials they need, and their remote locations prevent access to radio and television programming, so the organization recently started raising funds to build new libraries in these secluded areas. It only takes $2,000 to sponsor a new library, which Blair believes is pivotal to these communities. “The books are reaching broader audiences than just the students themselves. They go beyond school to families and friends.”
Blair’s international conscience might be the outcome of his diverse upbringing. Growing up with missionaries as parents, he lived wherever there was church work to be done. He was born in Uganda and then moved to Hawaii. Blair spent his high school years in Kazakhstan, learning Russian with his graduating class of eight international students.
Blair’s classmates barely made up an entire sports team, so athletics fell on the academic backburner. It wasn’t until he began his second major at the University of Oregon, where he met professor Craig Thornley, that Blair discovered his passion for ultrarunning. Thornley sits at the center of the ultrarunning niche in Eugene. He’s been running ultras since 1997, and he co-founded Oregon’s Where’s Waldo 100km event. It’s hard to determine what’s most inspiring about him: the fact that he has run eleven 100-milers in the past 12 years, or just that he’s so modest about it. He says his ultra count is somewhere around 75, but he’s not quite sure.
“I love running, whether it is a mile or 10K or 10 mile or 50K or 100 mile,” he says. “I would refer to myself as a runner first and an ultrarunner second.”
No matter the distance they run, Thornley and Blair train each week with their running group. At only 26, Blair is the youngest member of the crew, his age just about infantile compared to the average ultrarunner. Cindy Billhartz Gregorian of the St. Louis Post profiles ultrarunners in her 2007 article to report that the typical participant is about 45 years old. She quotes ultrarunning veteran Jan Ryerse, who’s run twelve 100-mile races in his 61 years. He says, “older runners have an advantage over younger ones because they’re more patient, which is crucial for pacing.”
Blair sits calmly against a coffee shop wall with his hands folded over his stomach. His latté is likely freezing as he’s neglecting it to field questions. He certainly seems patient. And he seems to fit the rest of Gregorian’s profile of an ultrarunner. She says they are often well educated. Blair received his first degree in Russian studies and now he’s back participating in the product design graduate program. He even tried journalism for a while, which is what he says makes him such a good researcher.
Gregorian states the obvious when she characterizes ultrarunners as highly motivated, a quality that allows Blair to compensate for his youth and novice to the sport. He finds inspiration from his running team, whose members are all at least a decade older than he.
“When someone is 20 years older than you and kicking your butt, that’s awesome!” he exclaims as he leans into the table. “These guys are gung-ho about running. They’ve helped me along and taught me the ropes. I will, down the road, get to the point when I can do the same for others. It’s all about sharing what you love to do.”
But imparting the running culture upon others doesn’t fit the typical ultrarunning model, or at least the traditional one anyway. Some of the original ultrarunners, the 400-year-old Tarahumara tribe of Copper Canyon in Mexico, prefer to live isolated, making no spectacle of their running feats. They wouldn’t even go so far as to call themselves runners. For these cliff dwellers, fast-paced striding isn’t sport, it’s simply a part of their day. In Born to Run, McDougall reports that this tribe faces off in running races, and each competitor often completes more than 300 miles in 2-day periods. He even cites Mexican historian Francisco Almada, who says a Tarahumara once ran 435 miles in one stretch.
Despite their epic accomplishments, the tribe remains extremely private, almost mythical, hidden away in the depths of the cliffs. “The Tarahumara are so mysterious, in fact, they even go by an alias,” says McDougall. “Their real name is Rarámuri-The Running People.”
These running people do not undergo intensive training like Blair and Thornley, and their primitive lifestyle doesn’t exactly include treadmills for endurance testing. They build stamina trekking up and down steep trails in the canyons that have been formed by the feet of their own ancestors. While most racers guzzle water the day before, the Tarahumara hydrate with a different liquid: lechuguila, their homemade tequila. McDougal calls the Tarahumara’s preparation for running “The Mardi Gras Approach.” They do not train, rebuild between workouts, or even eat much protein at all. Instead of water and Gatorade, they choose tequila and corn beer. Come race day, “they just stroll to the starting line, laughing and bantering… then go like hell for the next forty-eight hours.”
Two days of running is cake for the Tarahumara, a stretch for modern-day ultrarunners and seemingly outlandish for the 5K racer. For the subjects in the Running the Sahara documentary film, it was only the beginning. In November of 2006, Charlie Engle, Ray Zahab and Kevin Lin began running in St. Louis, Senegal, with a camera crew at their heels. They were headed east to the end of the continent.
Physically speaking, Engle and Lin were more prepared for the run than Zahab. Engle has been running for 30 years, and Lin just won the first 150-mile race across the Atacama Desert in Chilé. Conversely, Zahab’s running philosophy aligns more with that of the Tarahumara-just wing it. A chronic smoker and beer-drinker until 2004, Zahab believes that running abilities exist more so in the brain than in the body.
“Training 30 to 40 kilometers per day does not really prepare you for that kind of mileage,” he recalls in the documentary’s blog. “We got there and hoped and prayed our bodies would hold up.”
And their bodies did. One hundred eleven days, six countries and 4,300 miles later, the three ran through the sand in Egypt to feel the calm waters of the Red Sea between their toes. The run not only represents personal, athletic journey, but also a triumph in solving the water crisis throughout Africa. Running the Sahara filmmakers founded H20 Africa, a clean water initiative to complement the feature film. The campaign continues to raise funds to build clean drinking wells along the runners’ path.
It’s this runners’ path that Sahara runners, the Tarahumara, Thornley, Blair and all ultrarunners can find commonplace. No matter the location, destination, distance traveled, training, preparation, or even publicity gained during the run, it seems to be that ultrarunners alike find their zen when their minds conquer their bodies, propelling them further along their journey, in whatever wild environment they may find themselves in.
Safely tucked in the pro-running environment that Eugene fosters, Blair is tamer than most ultrarunners. His sport has yet to take him to a barren desert or hunting for myths in cliffs. For now he runs in Amazon Park and practices speed work at South Eugene High School. In between workouts, he’s designing furniture for his product design degree.
“I think running and design complement each other,” he claims. “If you have a deadline for a project, it’s similar to a race. It’s all about the buildup, working through it, and finishing strong.”
Blair has proven to himself that he can finish the 100 miles strong. He went into it with no expectations, which he believes helped him to conquer the distance, a huge percentage of which he says is mainly a psychological challenge. With a love of running and the mental stamina to keep one foot in front of the other, Blair will continue his route, unconcerned with technicalities along the way. “If you look into the future it’s easy to get stressed out about the details. I’m from Hawaii, so no worries.” ####