In late July 2015, Ralph Crowley woke up in a sleeping bag just outside of Quito, Ecuador. He lay snuggled inside for a few minutes, before scrambling to put the bag and roughly 20 lbs. of gear, clothing, and food into the athletic backpack he’d be wearing for the rest of the week.
Over the next week, he and just under 140 participants attempted to run a 155-mile course called the “Route of the Volcanoes.” The race began in an urban area, with locals watching and cheering them on. The runners navigated trails used by the Incas, through forests, around lakes, and over some of the snowy mountains of the Andes. They traversed an elevation change of almost 9,000 feet.
Though the terrain was new to him, Crowley, 31, is a seasoned athlete. This was his 7th multi-day, 155-mile race. His running has taken him to the Sahara, Madagascar, China, Antarctica, and Iceland, in addition to single-day races all over the United States.
“[My coworkers] just think I’m crazy,” Crowley told Quartz. But for Crowley, running has become an essential part of his life. The director of market research at a beverage company, he lifts weights during lunch, hits 10-mile trail runs on the weekends, and uses his vacation days to compete in races.
Crowley is one of about 10,000 people worldwide to have completed a stage-race ultramarathon: roughly a marathon a day for a week, often in some of the harshest environments in the world. Though any long race comes with risks and requires commitment, the demands ultras place on runners bodies and minds are extreme.
Yet they seem to thrive under these conditions. According to Crowley, the tenacity and discipline required of him offer a deep sense of fulfillment. It becomes a transcending experience. ”I feel like [the two] complement each other,” he says. It’s this combination of grit and mindfulness that ultimately bring these extreme endurance athletes back on the course again and again.
While recovering from a back injury, Richard Kruse, a pediatric orthopedist at Nemours Children’s hospital in Delaware, found road running too painful; a colleague suggested he try trail running. He discovered that he was able to go for longer periods of time and relax more on softer trails than he could when he was running on unforgiving asphalt. That was 15 years ago. He has been running single-day races ranging from 50 to 100 miles ever since.
“It’s more than is necessary,” Kruse told told Quartz. “But people always do things that are more than necessary. It’s beyond physical fitness.”
The Washington Post reported in November 2015 that running an ultramarathon—technically, anything beyond 26.2 miles of a marathon—take a toll on the body in ways that regular marathons don’t: In addition to muscle cramps and fatigue, ultramarathoners may experience hyponatremia, a condition in which the body has too little salt, gastro-intestinal problems from burning more fat, blurred vision, and even hypothermia as it becomes more difficult to keep body temperatures level. They’re also at risk for a potentially life-threatening condition called rhabdomyolysis (pdf), in which a protein called myoglobin enters the bloodstream as a result of muscular breakdown, and can cause the kidneys to shut down.
Furthermore, additional exposure to the outside elements mean that runners are more likely to have cuts, bruises, blisters, insect bites, and sunburn. These can all happen during shorter distances too, but they’re potentially more extreme in long races.
Kruse says according to the scientific literature, running ultras won’t make you more prone to some injuries—if you’re healthy and take care of yourself well. “If you don’t have any pre-existing knee injury or severe alignment problems, you’re not more prone to hurting yourself—at least your joints,” he said. But, he adds “it certainly is wearing. Running for hours is hard.”
And it hurts. “Some people say that an ultramarathon is all in your head. You just have to be strong mentally, and you’ll be good. But of course this is not correct,” Guillaume Millet, a physiologist studying the effects of fatigue at the University of Calgary, told Quartz. “The mental aspect is important, and completely related to how strong your body is.”
Millet has postulated the flush model (paywall) for the way that our bodies are able to handle pain. As long as the total amount of muscular and mental fatigue or pain from other sources, like blisters or irritated ligaments, remains below a certain threshold, we’ll be able to keep running. Eventually, we’ll stop when the combination of exhaustion and physical ache overtakes us. In many cases, that point when average recreational runners reach their pain thresholds is when ultra-runners keep going.
Crowley has endured his fair share of physical pain on the trail.
“My worst one day of racing was my very first day of my Sahara race,” said Crowley, recalling a race back in 2010. He was fully aware of the course’s danger, but was unable to completely protect himself.
“I started getting sick from the dehydration. I couldn’t hold down water,” he said. “You could see where the stage was ending for that day, and it was one kilometer down this sand path, and I just couldn’t move forward at all any more.”
Crowley sat on the side of the road for two hours to rehydrate before completing the last half mile.
Though Crowley ultimately finished 37th of 117 runners overall, sometimes pushing through the pain isn’t a good idea. Just a month before Crowley’s race in the Sahara, an American competitor Nicholas Kruse (no relation to Richard) died after collapsing due to a heat stroke in a race in the Gobi desert. Two years later, an Australian competitor Andrew Fedrigo suffered severe brain damage after having a seizure from being too dehydrated while racing in the Sahara.
“You have to pay a lot more attention to every system you have,” said Kruse. He explained that it’s important to check in with how you feel at all times, and to make sure you rest and eat properly throughout long spurts of running. “You have to keep stuff going into your system,” he said. “Your body shuts down what it doesn’t need to use.” In other words, if you stop eating or drinking because you don’t feel you need it, eventually it becomes much harder to rehydrate.
As Crowley began his race in Ecuador this year, he was feeling the pain.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been this beat up after two days since my very first stage race,” Crowley wrote on his race blog.
“The altitude definitely got to me the first couple of days, more so than I was expecting,” he later told Quartz. “You just start going up the first little hill and you’re winded.” Crowley and the other competitors started at 11,000 feet above sea level, and continued up another 2,000 toward a steaming volcano before descending again. The higher above sea level you are, the harder your body needs to work to get oxygen to your organs; most people start feeling the effects of changes in altitude at around 8,000 feet.
“My legs felt like I was trying to run through water,” he wrote.
And yet, he kept going.
There’s a name for this kind of determination and dedication in the face of adversity: grit. At the University of Pennsylvania, Angela Duckworth and her team studied what separates successful 7th grade students from those who weren’t doing as well. Of all the qualities she and her team studied—health, income, IQ, social intelligence, good looks—it was those that had the most grit who were the most successful. In 2013, she won a MacArthur Fellowship for her work.
“Grit is passion and perseverance for very long-term goals. Grit is having stamina…Grit is living life like it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” said Duckworth in a TED talk.
And if there’s one thing these runners have in common, it’s grit. “A very common trait, especially in ultramarathoners, is stubbornness. When this group of people starts something, they will finish it no matter what,” says Crowley.
The training demands an enormous amount of time and energy. Though some extreme runners are professional athletes, most are not, and have to juggle work and family time into their running schedules. Crowley trains for 15 hours a week—a mix of strength training and runs, sometimes twice a day—plus extensive stretching as a part of the recovery process. For mileage-based training, runners may put in anywhere from 50 miles on a medium week to 100 on a difficult week.
Crowley says that he feels terrible while running an ultramarathon, but knows that if he can just hold on for a little while longer, he’ll feel good again. “I know that when I’m feeling at a very low point, it has turned around…then all the sudden you feel great 10 minutes later,” he said. He’s found that even if you don’t know what’s causing you pain—thirst, hunger, or uncooperative equipment—you can try to fix one thing, knowing the discomfort will soon pass.
The term “flow” was coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in 1990, a psychologist at Claremont Graduate University in California. He argues it’s one of the keys to happiness. He described it in a TED talk in 2004: It’s that moment when you’re in the zone. You’re completely focused on the task at hand, and you feel the perfect balance of being challenged while knowing you have the skills you need to keep going.
Christine Weinkauff, a graduate student working with Csikszentmihalyi and long-distance trail runner, studies flow in the context of exercise and running.
“Running is one of the best ways to experience flow,” she told Quartz.
It’s not always that simple to get into flow, she explained. It depends on your goals for the day, and your own perceived skill level. If you think you’re doing really well in a run but are then passed by other runners, you may suddenly feel slow. And if you constantly try to get yourself into a state of flow, you’ll never feel it. It’s a little bit like trying to fall asleep. The more focused you are on losing yourself in the activity, the less you are able to do it.
In some respects, being in the flow bears similarities to attaining nirvana—a perfect stillness of the mind. You don’t worry about dogs nipping at your heels, or the way a pack feels on your back; you’re present in the race.
There’s another theory (paywall) that the parts of the brain used to manage time and make decisions become deactivated when we engage in certain activities like exercise. Weinkauff says that while runners are using their motor cortexes, the conscious mind tends to quiet down. “It’s a really interesting juxtaposition of physical effort with a state of mental stillness,” she says.
Crowley sees it as “a way to separate myself from the day at the office…get outside, go to some cool places. It always has been a release or a distraction.”
On the third day in Ecuador, Crowley started feeling a bit better. The runners had left the city behind, and the scenery improved. Running along trails carved into the side of a mountain, Crowley was in the flow. On the last day of the race, despite having depleted his food stock more quickly than he had planned, Crowley realized that he was comfortably in third place. He took his time to complete the journey, and take in the view.