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26 Miles Is Just A Warm-Up: What Makes An Ultramarathoner Run?

Nicole Studer

For most runners, finishing a marathon is the pinnacle. But for ultramarathoners, 26 miles is little more than a training run. So what drives someone to run 100 miles in one stretch? For 20 hours? We followed a Dallas ultramarathoner as she prepared to take on one of America’s most grueling races.

Expanded online version:

On a muggy morning last week, Nicole Studer was out running with her border collie, Stella.

“Usually I start out in the morning and I run between and hour to an hour and a half,” she said as she pounded the pavement. “And then in the evenings I try and do the same thing. And I usually do that most of the days of the week.”

At about 5 foot 5 and very thin, she’s got the classic runners build. And she puts it to use. When she’s not working as an attorney for a consulting company, she’s running about 100 miles a week. But on Saturday, she’ll run all those miles in one day.

The course for the Leadville 100 will rise to more than two miles above sea level.
Credit Leadville

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  That’s when she’ll compete in the Leadville 100, one of the most prestigious ultramarathons. More than a thousand runners will try to conquer the 100 mile trail through the mountains in Colorado. The course will rise to more than 12,000 feet above sea level. To put the race into perspective, when Nicole toes the starting line at 4 a.m., it’ll be like she’s heading out to run four straight marathons. Back-to-back-to-back-to-back. It’ll take around 20 hours.

“When you get to the 1 mile mark, you can’t think, ‘I’ve got 99 miles to go, right?’ You have to think, ‘I’ve made it one mile. I can do this.’,” she said. “I think if you look at it as this big picture from the outstart, you kind of are in trouble.”

Nicole, who’s 31, knows what she’s getting into. She’s an experienced marathoner who’s got so many race T-shirts that she plans to turn them into a quilt. She finished ninth among women at last year’s Dallas Marathon. A month later, she broke the three-hour mark while running the Houston Marathon.

Leadville will be her second 100-mile race. The first one she competed in, she won. Back in February, she was the first woman to cross the finish line at theRockyRaccoon 100 in Huntsville. It took her 16 hours and 55 minutes, which put her sixth overall.

“I remember thinking by the time I got to about 85 miles that I was kind of ready to be done,” she said.

So she walked some as she finished up the race. But soon, she couldn’t walk at all.

“I drove her back to our hotel, and then I had to carry her just by myself, one arm over my shoulder. Because by that point, her legs didn’t really work very well,” said her husband, Eric Studer. “I remember she was laying in the bed, and I thought it was funny because she was like, ‘Why did I do this? What if I can’t go to work on Monday, because I can’t walk right now?’ But she ended up being able to walk by Monday.”

A group of six people have traveled from Dallas to care for Nicole during the race – her own pit crew. Aid stations will be set up every four to six miles along the course, where runners can get medical attention or use the bathroom. That’s where Nicole’s team will be ready with food, water or anything else she needs.

Among Studer’s many accomplishments are a sub-three-hour race at this year’s Houston Marathon.
Credit Nicole Studer

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  The most important crew member might be Dave Renfro. Ultramarathons typically allow pacers – a running buddy who keeps the competitor company for the toughest part of the race. Renfro’s also an ultramarathoner. And he plans to run the last 50 miles of the race with Nicole.

“We’ve talked about – we’re a team,” he said. “And if she goes out there and has a really good race and I was a part of it, I’ll have a sense of accomplishment also.”

Besides a dedicated team and mental toughness, running 100 miles also takes lots of fuel. A runner burns up to a thousand calories per hour. Nicole hopes to finish in about 20 hours. That means she’ll need to consume 20,000 calories to get there. Lots of high-calorie goo packets and sandwiches are on the menu.

“With the average person supposed to be eating about 1,800 calories a day, you’re looking at about 10 days worth of calories that you need to consume in order to sustain yourself during that race,” says Dr. Ken Adams, who specializes in physical medicine and rehabilitation at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas.

Dr. Adams knows a lot about elite athletes. He’s the doctor for the U.S. cycling team. And he says there are plenty of degenerative conditions that plague runners.

“You think of osteoarthritis of the knees, hips, ankles,” he says. “Degenerative joint disease falls in that same category.”

Strangely, though, ultramarathoners are actually less prone to those conditions than the average runner.

“You tend to self-select into this particular sport if you’re good at it and you don’t get sore when you run a marathon and you’re not hobbling around for weeks,” he says. “So generally speaking, I don’t see the same types of injuries that I would expect if the general public went out and did this.”

In more than 20 years of running, all Nicole’s had are a couple of sprains. She says listening to her body has kept her healthy. While other runners diligently follow a training plan, Nicole just runs what feels right. If she thinks she can push it, she pushes. If she needs some rest, she rests. And while most elite runners obsessively calculate their paces, Nicole doesn’t even wear a watch.

So why would she – or anyone else – want to push themselves to this extreme?

Her go-to answer: “I think I run to live. I just love to run so much.”

But when pressed during a run last week, she thought more about it.

“I honestly don’t know the answer to that – that’s a good question. Maybe I’ll think about that while I’m running the next race.”

With 100 miles in front of her on Saturday, she’ll have plenty of time.

We’ll catch up with Nicole on Sunday to see how the race went. Look for an update on the Breakthroughs blog then.

Stephen Becker is senior producer of the Think show , which airs on more than 25 stations across Texas and beyond. Prior to joining the Think team in 2013, as part of the Art&Seek team, Stephen produced radio and digital stories and hosted "The Big Screen" — a weekly radio segment about North Texas film — with Chris Vognar. His 2011 story about the history of eight-track tapes was featured nationally on NPR's All Things Considered. His works has been recognized with numerous state and national awards.