Approaching a hill with about four miles to go before the finish line, Larry Roberts decided he just didn’t have anything left in the tank.

So the Greenwood resident dropped to his knees and collapsed on a soaking wet gravel road, using his supply pack as a pillow.

“I couldn’t walk up an incline,” Roberts recalled. “I had to lay down and to take a 15-minute nap just to be able to get to the top of that.”

In the world of ultramarathons, just about anything goes.

For most people of sound mind, the marathon has long been considered the ultimate test for an endurance runner. But for a select few, those 26.219 miles are light work.

The term ultramarathon refers to any footrace that covers more distance than a marathon does. Most are set up for 50 kilometers, 50 miles or 100 miles, although there are others that go longer — the Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence 3,100 Mile Race is the world’s longest, run over a 52-day stretch each summer in Queens, New York.

Going beyond that 27th mile, according to those who regularly take on that challenge, describes an entirely different set of obstacles than a marathon presents.

“You just go through all kinds of emotions you don’t go through (in a marathon),” said Mark Gavorski of Greenwood. “Just trying to accomplish the impossible, and when your mind’s telling you to stop or your body’s telling you to stop, you’ve got to figure out ways to allow yourself to keep going.”

In a 100-mile race, Roberts said he believes that the physical hurdles are a greater burden during the first half; he once dropped out after about 50 miles due to unbearable pain in his feet.

After the midway point, it’s more a battle within the runner’s own mind.

“You’re going to get to point where at 50 miles, you really can only get so physically tired, and eventually you just push through it,” Roberts said. “You get tired, you can’t run — but it’s not the physical piece that makes you want to quit in the second half.

“There’s so many things, it becomes very much a mental game the last half, and that’s part of the challenge, finding new ways to motivate yourself through those mental hurdles.”

The physical challenges, though, are very real and can get the better of even the most seasoned runners. At the Indiana Trail 100 earlier this year in Albion, 169 runners entered the 100-mile run. Seventy-five of those did not finish.

Terry Kent of Greenwood, who placed seventh overall in the 50-mile run at that event, has been doing endurance runs and ultramarathons for the last five years or so and is gradually working his way up to the longer distances.

“I don’t know if I’m ready to put myself through the hell of the 100,” he said. “Because I’ve gotten to where it feels pretty good when you finish and you feel like you could keep running. It’s a nice feeling.

“But I’ll probably end up doing one within the next year, I would imagine. The way I am, it’ll be one of those things where I just sign up for one and see what happens.”

That venture into the unknown, the desire to try something you’re not sure you can pull off, is a driving force for many an ultra runner. There’s a deep satisfaction, they say, in completing a task you once considered impossible.

“It becomes a challenge to want to go a step further,” Roberts said. “I can still remember the first time I ran two miles; I was so excited. Then it was three, then five and a half, and then 10 …”

“With me, it’s probably ego, pride, knowing that I shouldn’t be able to do it,” Kent said.

That ego got in Kent’s way four years ago, the second time he tried the Hawthorn Half Day Relay in Terre Haute. On his first go-round with the 12-hour endurance event in 2012, he covered 61.4 miles. A year later, he was hoping to better that mark, but he locked up with cramps a little more than five hours in.

After about two hours of walking, Kent “came to the conclusion that if I ran a certain pace I could still hit 60 miles.”

He hit his mark, completing 60.5 miles — and wound up spending three days in the hospital afterward.

Since then, he’s worked more on mastering the all-important nutrition aspect of ultra running. On a run of 50 or 100 miles, speed isn’t nearly as important as simply being able to go the distance — and races that long require plenty of fuel.

Hydration is just as important as it is in any athletic endeavor, but the body needs calories as well to make it through runs that can last entire days.

Ultras, Roberts says, “tend to be eating contests with a little jogging thrown in; you have to be taking in calories all day.”

Many events are run on a loop, so competitors can set up a station for themselves and have provisions available — a tent for shade, a cooler full of liquids and snacks, a change of clothes and even shoes — each time they come around.

“You’ve got to drink like a fish, try to eat continuously throughout the day and keep your body moving,” Gavorski said.

And while official aid stations aren’t as close together as they are on a marathon course, they’re generally pretty well stocked at most events. Local runners described extensive spreads that include such items as baked potatoes, ramen noodles, soups, bananas, apples, watermelons, pickles, cookies, crackers and sandwiches.

While the runners have access to plenty of nourishment on the course, though, it’s never enough. There are limits to what can be ingested on the fly, and the amount of energy required to survive such long runs can’t adequately be filled — leaving competitors with a hearty appetite afterward.

“That next day, when you can eat anything — and you do,” Roberts said. “Oh, goodness.”

The recovery process involves more than just an eating binge. Ultra competitors, most of whom normally run at least 50 miles a week the rest of the time, will take as much as a week or two off from running after an event. Some will walk to ease their way back into their regular training regimen; the process is usually a slow one.

The body, after all, has its limits.

Proving to oneself that it’s possible to push through those limits is what keeps ultramarathoners coming back. No matter how rough the journey — or how many gravel naps are involved — the rush that comes at the end is well worth the struggle.

“When you finish the 100, it’s exhilaration; it’s like a whole brand new day,” Gavorski said. “Literally — the sun is probably coming up, and it’s a new day when you cross that finish line, and it’s just like, ‘Man, I didn’t feel this good a couple of hours ago, but I feel good now!’

Author photo
Ryan O'Leary is sports editor for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at roleary@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2715.