- Cheryl Lager has run 75 races of 26 miles or longer
- She is training for a 200-mile run in Florida
- She has finished six races of at least 100 miles
All Cheryl Lager wanted to do was shed a few pounds.
Competitive running? Please. She didn't have an athletic bone in her body.
Marathons? She was more interested in her next cigarette.
Ultra-marathons? Distances of 50 miles, 100 and beyond? Legs burning, feet swelling, mind hallucinating? She had no concept.
Join a gym, walk on a treadmill, get in shape. That was the plan.
Fourteen years later, the plan is to complete Wickham Park, a four-day, 200-mile ordeal staged Memorial Day weekend over a treacherous trail in Melbourne, Fla.
How Lager, a 44-year-old Transportation Security Administration agent at Newport News-Williamsburg International Airport, morphed into an habitual ultra runner is a testament to grit, genetics and obsession.
"She had a path, and attacked it," said her sister, Cyndee Hatton. "She's very good at mapping out a plan and following that plan. She's always been focused and disciplined, just on different areas of her life, like raising her (two) kids.
"I've crewed for her. I've seen the pain first-hand. … Sometimes I just think she's crazy. They're all crazy."
Crazy doesn't begin to describe. Humans simply aren't built to run 50, 100 or 200 miles.
There's crushing fatigue, physical and mental. There's constant pain, and not just in the legs. The neck and shoulders throb, too.
And just for kicks, depending on the course, there's potential danger in the form of roots, rocks and fallen trees, particularly at night, when competitors often wear miners' headlamps.
"It's easy to accept that kind of pain when you know it's temporary and the satisfaction is permanent," said Lager, a Nebraska native and former Army MP.
Lager began accepting the pain of serious distance running in 2001, completing her first marathon, in Indianapolis. Her time, 3:49.50, a pace of 8:45 per mile, was outstanding for a rookie. As was the 3:58.16 she ran less than a year later at the Boston Marathon.
Lager has run 75 races of marathon (26.2 miles) or beyond, about nine per year. Before that were scores of shorter events — the ubiquitous 5 and 10Ks, half marathons.
So many that Lager had dozens of the T-shirts sewn together for blankets. So many that the medals and trophies occupy crates in the closet.
The first was in 2000, a 10K she finished in 54 minutes, a credible pace of nine minutes per mile.
"I loved the friendly people, the free food and drinks afterward and especially the awards," Lager wrote in a workplace bio. "It was like a drug to me. And like any drug, I needed more and more of it to get my fix."
Lager improved with distance. But, hampered by exercise- and allergy-induced asthma, she plateaued as a marathoner, whittling her time by only 10 minutes over five years and 23 races.
Frustrated, she turned to local running guru George Nelsen, whom she had heard speak at a Peninsula Track Club meeting. A veteran of ultra, or extreme, races, Nelsen began training with Lager about 2 1/2 years ago.
"People who did (ultras) seemed so mystical," Lager said. "I just wanted to see if I could do it, too. I figured if I couldn't go faster maybe I could go farther."
On June 21, 2008, Lager finished the Mohican 100 near Loudonville, Ohio, in 28:16.43. Three months later, she completed a 100-miler in Rockingham, N.C., in 22:40.
"After that, she kept on improving," Nelsen said. "I used to be able to keep up with her and now I can't even come close."
Indeed, at a 100-miler last year in Raleigh, N.C., Lager ran a personal-best 21:42.37, dusting the 55-year-old Nelsen by more than six hours. That's a 12-minute-per-mile pace, leisurely for marathons and shorter competitions, relentless for an ultra.
Part of it is genetics.
Lager's dad, a retired Air Force officer, ran his first marathon at age 62. Now 70, he's finished six marathons. Lager's son, a soldier stationed at Ft. Bragg, N.C., joined his mom and grandfather for a three-generation marathon in 2004. Lager's daughter, a recent graduate of Thomas Nelson Community College, has run a half marathon.
But it's mostly attitude.
As those immersed in ultra running often preach: "You run the first 50 with your legs, the second 50 with your heart."
"I want my accomplishment to stand as an example of possibility for you," Lager wrote her co-workers. "If there's something you want to achieve but think you can't, think again."
Lager has finished six races of at least 100 miles, most recently April's 24-Hour Run for Cancer at Sandy Bottom Park in Hampton. Navigating a 3.7-mile loop, she ran 101.25 miles to win the women's division.
This despite an ill-timed dose of allergy medication that left her drowsy.
"I was falling asleep running," Lager said. "But I couldn't fall asleep on the trail because I felt bugs crawling on me."
Instead she napped on the bathroom floor.
By now you may be curious about training, logistics and diet. Brace yourself.
Thanks to a hypnotist — "best $40 I ever spent" — Lager kicked smoking in 2006, but she's yet to quit junk food, preferring a diet rich in pizza, chocolate and beer. No scrawny prototype here, Lager is a solid 5-foot-7, 130 pounds.
In fact, she actually gains weight during a race. Ultra runners need to consume about 100 calories per hour, and Lager does so during breaks of 2-5 minutes with pretzels, chips, Cheez-Its, Spam in a pouch and power gels.
"If you run out of gas, it's too late," she said. "You have to eat before you're hungry."
Given the frequency of her races, Lager rarely trains in between. Two 5-mile jogs in a week tops.
"My legs are usually burning, sore and tired (from competing)," she said.
But rarely are they injured. The most serious ailment to strike Lager was an inflamed IT band, the thick, ribbon of fibrous tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh and knee.
The worst pain struck during last year's Wickham Park, forcing Lager to withdraw at 72.5 miles. She returned home, consulted doctors Michael Potter and Evie Burnet for a gait analysis and overhauled her running form.
One month later, Lager completed a 100-miler near Hoffman, N.C., with no IT band pain.
But 100 miles are child's play compared to next weekend's 200-mile attempt. Actually, the event's official name is the Wickham Park Marathon and 50, 100, and 200 Mile Fun Runs.
Fun runs? Someone's idea of comedy?
Lager and Nelsen insist the camaraderie among runners makes the events fun, at least for the first 50 miles. Afterward, not so much.
"I'm looking for a limit," Lager said.
Two-hundred miles are beyond most everyone's limit.
Since Wickham Park added the format nine years ago, 302 runners have entered. Two have gone the distance, including Lager's boyfriend, Joe Ninke of Sebastian, Fla.
Can Lager join him?
"Given perfect conditions and everything going absolutely right, it's possible," Nelsen said.
"I'm afraid to announce to the world I'm going to do 200," Lager said. "I'm doing 100 for sure, but I'm going to pack (enough) to stay the whole time."
David Teel can be reached at 247-4636 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime
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