‘Run as long as you can until you can’t’: The motivation behind ultrarunning

By Caroline Kurdej
Medill Reports

Ultrarunner Andrea Kooiman was never a superstar cross-country runner in high school. “I really only joined because there was a dude on the team I liked,” she said with a giggle.

Yet since her high school days, Kooiman has competed in 150+ ultramarathons and marathons. Now, at 44, she’s crossed the Boston Marathon finish line. She also ran just a bit farther and finished the 2018 Vol State 500K (310.68 miles) in 110 hours, 40 minutes and 59 seconds.

Kooiman co-founded We Run Orange County’s Kids, a nonprofit that enrolls 12- to 18-year-olds in a seven-month, $750 training program to run the Orange County Marathon.

Kooiman fits her runs in whenever she can, often when her family is fast asleep at 4 a.m. She bolts out of the house, fully equipped with a head lamp to light the way on the trail in the frigid darkness. If not, she squeezes runs in before her full-time job as a sports marketer at Road Runner Sports, her 12-year-old daughter’s dance classes or when the others are at work.

“On the flip side, I’ll put the family to bed, and do something from midnight until sunrise,” Kooiman said. She then takes her daughter to school, steals a nap and heads off to coach for the youth program.

It’s a precarious balancing act. “How many times have I met a friend out for dinner or for a drink and then planned a route, packed a bag, and threw it in their car knowing I’d see them later?” she said. Kooiman still wants to be social while also logging immense miles any time of day and night. Adaptability is key. Her longest run, when she’s training for a 100-mile race, is 50 miles.

Officially, an ultramarathon is any race past the marathon distance of 26.2 miles, though their lengths vary from 50 kilometers (31.06 miles) to New York’s 3,100-mile Self-Transcendence ultramarathon, which is run around a single city block. The current women’s record for that race is held by Kaneenika Janakova who completed the “Everest of ultra-running” in 48 days, 14 hours, 24 minutes and 10 seconds.

The rise of the sport’s popularity far outruns its competitors’ slower paces. Ultramarathon races have reached a historic peak in popularity around the globe, increasing by 1,676%, from 34,401 ultrarunners to 611,098 participants, over the last 23 years, according to a recent study by Run Repeat.

Kooiman expressed how ultrarunning tends to exhibit many individuals from “broken pasts.” Those difficult pasts enable them to “dig deeper into the pain case, and be OK with not being OK.” The discomfort allows ultra distance athletes to accomplish magnificent feats and use their pain to some benefit.

Unlike life’s uncertainties, in ultrarunning, “I own the pain. It wasn’t inflicted on me. It wasn’t brought upon me. I chose it,” Kooiman said. “And because I chose it, I get to control it.”

Since COVID-19’s impact, WeROCK had to transition from group runs to solo efforts. Kooiman encouraged all of the kids to join Strava and created a private strava group to watch their progress. It’s been a great way to stay connected, give “kudos” and comment on their runs. The group feels the “community” even though they are apart. Additionally, one of the coaches recorded some core workouts and the group even logged on together to do some yoga on Zoom.

As for Kooiman’s own fitness level, all of her big races have been cancelled. She had a 330-mile race coming up in July and with that gone and Kooiman suddenly finding herself unemployed, “it was difficult to focus on waking up early anymore.”

She entered a few virtual races so that she had a goal and ran a 50-mile event (completely solo) around her neighborhood streets. Unlike other states and various parts of the country, Kooiman is fortunate that her local trails are still open.

She began to set her alarm early once again to beat the others into the open space and be back in time to help her daughter with online learning. Although she claims her daughter doesn’t need her help at all.

“Those moments when I am on the trail are when life feels normal again,” Kooiman said. “I force myself out the door so I can have those few hours where there is no social media, constant news updates or sorrow-filled posts. I am able to look out at the open fields and remember that nature recovers and so shall we.”

Others don’t suffer from tribulations but seem to search for them.

Adharanand Finn, author of “The Rise of the Ultra Runners: A Journey to the Edge of Human Endurance” and writer for The Guardian, completed 10 ultra races over the course of two years.

Adharanand Finn scales a mountain (Courtesy of The Scotsman)

“I don’t have enough trauma in my life to be doing this,” Finn said, chuckling.

As a former marathoner, Finn would head out for 16-, 18- or 20-mile runs. The only difference existing in his training for ultras were the four-to-five-hour long runs, which often entail thousands of feet in elevation change and hills.

“In most of the ultra runs, you have a moment of crisis where your body is screaming to drop out of the race,” Finn said. “You’re going to have to have that reason going strong — why you need to keep going, why you need to finish the race.”

An ultrarace demonstrates a runner’s control of what happens between the start and finish line.

“If you have the grit and if you have the stubbornness and if you have that desire to burn deep, to keep moving, then you can finish it,” Kooiman said.

Despite a resilient attitude, an ultramarathoner’s body takes some inevitable hits from the physical exertion of running. Guillaume Millet, leading expert on neuromuscular fatigue in ultramarathons, competed in the UTMB — and placed top six three times.

Guillaume Millet strides miles over mud, mountains and more. (Courtesy of Echo Sciences Grenoble)

In his 2018 study, Millet found sleep deprivation hurts the brain’s cognitive performance, evidenced in the increased reaction time and lapses during attentional tasks. “You’re running the same speed, and if you haven’t slept, you’ll think ‘Yes, this is hard,’” Millet said.

Millet recommends incorporating “shock weekends” in training cycles — venturing into the mountains and tackling uphills and downhills at similar race speeds as during the ultra. Muscle fibers build up resistance to the damage and strengthen the body for the hardships experienced during ultraraces.

“You go into the mountains and train almost like you’re doing an ultra, except that you take some rest in the night,” Millet said.

But taking naps cuts into race time. Millet recommends opting in on caffeine gels (which is not considered doping), and stocking up on sleep the week before — that is, “sleep banking.”

Just as Millet advises, many ultra-athletes embark on arduous training runs. The former Cosmopolitan-selected 2011 Montana Bachelor of the Year, Casey “Dov” Weinman, is one of them. Weinman’s hometown of Eugene, Oregon, is unofficially, the City Where Everyone Runs.

Casey “Dov” Weinman posing for Cosmo’s 2011 Montana Bachelor of the Year.  (Courtesy of Cosmopolitan)

“I’ve always been a product of my landscape, and western Montana re-molded a runner more keen to run up mountains than around ovals,” Weinman said.

When asked where he finds his “third gear,” Weinman said, “The only gear I have left is ‘mountain gear,’ and it isn’t a particularly fast one.”

The transition from 800-meter races to 100-mile races was a product of “self-awareness,” Weinman says. He ran half a mile in a 1:51.93 for the University of Montana track team in his college days. Yet, he struggled to get through cross-country seasons healthy. “I became a better listener to what my body needed in order to manage long days and big climbs,” Weinman said. He left his watch at home and ran for hours until the trail loop brought him home. “That mind-body trust develops — then all the distances become imaginable.”

What spurs ultrarunners to cross the finish line?

“I know, worst-case scenario, there is a start and finish to my pain,” Kooiman said. “I can justify it.” The word “retirement” doesn’t exist in the 44-year-old’s dictionary. “I will run as long as I can, until I can’t.”

Weinman attributes every one of his ultrarace finishes to a mantra he draws from Lewis Caroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” as stated by the King of Hearts:

“Begin at the beginning … and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

Photo at top: Andrea Kooiman smiling victoriously at the Barkley Fall Classic 50K in Frozen Head State Park, Tennessee. “By the end, most are covered in blood and their skin is shredded from briar kisses,” Kooiman said. (Courtesy of Misty Wong)