Ultramarathons push runners to new limits
A 26-mile marathon is often a feat many strive for, but there are some who need a bigger challenge. An ultramarathon, which is any race over 26 miles but can extend to even 3,100 miles, is that challenge.
The origins of ultrarunning can be seen in the lives of early hunters and gatherers to Vikings from Norway, and later to indigenous tribes in the Americas. Paths were created over hundreds of miles when the use of horses or alternative messaging systems were not yet in place.
Today, ultramarathons and ultrarunning have gained enormous popularity. The number of races and number of participants continuously increased over the last few decades.
Graphs from Ultrarunning Magazine
Race Director, Aaron Saft, organized the second annual Hellbender 100, a hundred-mile race through the mountains in western North Carolina on Friday, April 12.
“A marathon is by all means a great achievement,” Saft said. “But, there are people that are like, that's good, you know, and, and then there's others such as myself that, yeah, they're like, well, what would, going further if feel like”
Saft felt obligated to create an ultramarathon to showcase the beauty of the mountains in the western part of the state, and to highlight a sport that he loved so much. Through running, Saft was one of five finalists in the 2016 Runner’s World Cover Search.
“It was something that I felt that it's time I did something for a sport that's done so much for me,” Saft said. “It's taken me all over the world and given me so many great opportunities that, I just wanted to do something for everybody else.”
Map of the Hellbender 100 from the TrailRun Project
The Hellbender 100 follows trails and roads located in the mountains of western North Carolina, even summiting the highest peak on the East Coast, Mt. Mitchell. The course has a total elevation gain of 24,507 ft. and total elevation change of 48,916 ft.
Ultrarunner and Harvard graduate, Canyon Woodward, participated in the 2019 Hellbender 100. The 26-year-old finished third out of 87 participants in less than 24 hours.
Woodward said the Hellbender 100 was one of his favorite races he’s participated in.
“The hellbender was phenomenal, I think it's one of the best races on the East Coast,” Woodward said. “Aaron, who organizes it, is just absolute legend.”
Running 100 miles is painful. By the end of the race, runners feel depleted and like “ every muscle in your legs is screaming” after running for up to 40 hours according to Woodward. However, he tries to focus less on the overall distance, and more on reaching his next goal.
Saft supports this, but said an overwhelming sense of pride accompanies finishing a race.
“You don't really think about the distance too much while you're out there, it’s just ‘how much further to the next aid station?’ and that's the number that you got in your head ,” Woodward said.
His love of running started with in high school, and was perpetuated when, his brother Forest Woodward, began to participate in ultrarunning continuously in 2017.
As of this article, Woodward has run in 23 ultramarathons. He said he enjoys training for ultramarathons so that he has a goal connected to his love of running.
“I think having like an objective of some king at the end is important,” Woodward said. “I feel so good running consistently such an awesome way to explore these mountains and get to know them really well.”
The most impactful part of running for Woodward is how it strengthened his relationship with Forest Woodward.
He said that it has been a way for the two of them to bond and talk about the important things in life. Forest Woodward even acted as a pacer for his brother during the last 20 miles of the Hellbender 100.
A pacer is someone who will run a section of the race with the participant, providing emotional support and helping them finish at the time that they intended.
Additionally, Woodward uses racing as a mental and spiritual stimulant. He finds it puts both his body and mind in a different place
“ I feel like I've used some of my best thinking, ideating, running, just like feel so good,” Woodward said. “Mentally the race is a fun, fun way of kind of measuring progress can be like, okay, let me see that as an excuse to push it to the limit and kind of see where I'm at.”
When Woodward experienced the most difficult parts of the race, he found that he always had the ability to push through. Woodward almost dropped out of the Hellbender 100, but with help from his brother and internal motivation, he was able to finish in 21 hours.
“We then when we feel like you're at the very bottom and just struggling to put one foot in front of the other, that’s what you train for. I guess in my experience, there's always something left to make it a few more steps and a few more miles.”
Canyon Woodwards previous races between 2016 and 2019