On the surface, Todd Zagurski seems the definition of ordinary. He collects art and pens, draws a regular paycheck as a vice president of a transportation company and lives in a one-story home in Long Beach with his wife and cat.
In a race, out there alone, "you feel more alive than you do at any other moment," the 42-year-old says. "You really have to pull everything together for one of these things, physically and mentally."
And in that, he may be normal — for an ultra competitor.
Participants in extreme endurance events push themselves beyond what seems possible — running, swimming and biking for seemingly endless hours through deserts or snow-covered valleys — all for the satisfaction of knowing they raised the bar higher than they had before. And sailed over it.
By persevering, sport psychologists say, these competitors are seeking the excitement, the unexpected moments, that have been leached out of our 9-to-5 lives. "This is another way for us to challenge ourselves physically that we don't get through other interactions," says Trent Petrie, director of the Center for Sport Psychology at the University of North Texas.
A need for these challenges has grown, judging by the increasing number of people who are signing up for ultra races. The Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile run through the Western States Trail in Northern California, is one of the oldest 100-mile runs, dating back to the mid-1970s. Race director Greg Soderlund says last year saw a 20% jump in applications, twice the steady 10% growth over the years. Ten years ago there were a handful of 100-mile runs; Soderlund estimates there are now about 40. Add to that the growing number of über-competitions such as deca-triathlons, cycling marathons and runs through exotic locales such as the Antarctic, the Amazon and Death Valley.
Though ultra race athletes have some things in common (competition, testing oneself) with those who do single marathons and triathlons, their raison d'etre is setting higher and loftier goals, and setting very few limits. What ultra competitors aren't, they say, is crazy — a label often cast upon them by people who can't fathom what they do.
One goal follows another
For ultra racers, the goals are — put simply — ever-more-difficult challenges.
"Oftentimes someone will start with a 10K, they'll have some success there, their confidence builds, and they might challenge themselves more," Petrie says. "For some, that might be running a little faster. For others, it's pushing themselves to run a marathon, or do three in a year."
Ultimately, he says, "when you reach your goal, you ask yourself, what do I want to do next?"
In the case of Zagurski and other ultra competitors, next means outdoing your last triumph, while simultaneously hunting for a harder one — running 50 kilometers through the desert, then 100. Or doing a double triathlon, followed by a triple. And maybe two triples in close proximity.
Not only are extreme athletes self-motivated, they're also problem solvers. "It's along the lines of, I have to get my body from here to there in one piece," whether that's through the desert or frozen tundra, says Kristen Dieffenbach, a sport psychology consultant and assistant professor of athletic coaching education at West Virginia University, who's also an ultra and adventure racer.
That mental ordeal adds another dimension to just how far the body, and mind, can be pushed. "It's the constant new challenge. In a 5K," she adds, "you might get a blister."
Ultra events take athletes far out of the urban environment and into the unknown. Races through mountain areas put runners in remote places most hikers never see as they climb higher and higher elevations on rough, rocky terrain that's sometimes unmarked. Ice cakes on their face as they endure sub-zero weather running through the barren Antarctic, and they sweat buckets in the Sahara, where temperatures can reach 120 degrees. During multi-day races, hallucinations are not unheard of as sleep deprivation grabs hold.
Time spent alone is part of the appeal for many competitors. Although some ultra athletes prefer to train in groups, many spend the long, arduous hours of preparation by themselves. Then there's the race itself, where mile after mile is done solo.