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The acquired taste of the 200 milers

Marathoners know that a marathon is not two half-marathons. It is indeed twice the distance, but the runner needs to deal with that (almost) universal barrier at around the 30-35km mark when glycogen (short-term reserve) burns out and the body needs to tap onto triglyceride (long-term reserve). This switch creates a physiological challenge known as “the wall”. In addition, marathon pace is slower than half marathon pace. “Oh, but it’s easier to run more slowly, right?” Yes, but to think training to run fast means you can automatically run slowly over much longer is a naive assumption. Slow running requires slow twitch muscle fibres (also known as Type-1). Most muscles are made up of a mixture of both slow and fast twitch muscle fibres. Slow-twitch muscles help enable long distance running, while fast-twitch muscles fatigue faster but are used in powerful bursts of movements like sprinting (up to 20-30km). Naturally, the actual numbers vary from body to body, but that’s the general rule of thumb. Same as fast-twitch muscles, their slow cousins require targeted training.

In a similar vein, a 200 miler is not simply twice a 100 miler. Even with reasonable elevation and challenging weather, a 100 miler can be completed within approximately a day by many runners. This means sleep deprivation, remaining a challenge nevertheless, is not a huge factor. But a typical 200 miler takes more than two days to finish. This equates to two nights without sleep. Before you pffft this factor away as a non-issue, remember your college days? Surely many of us have tasted wasted youth back in those days, partying Friday nights away and cramming for the exams in the last minute. But how many of us partied two nights in a row without sleep? To make matters worse for slower runners like myself, a hilly 200 miler means three to four nights without sleep. Not sleeping for two nights is three times as hard to deal with as one night without sleep, not twice. Not sleeping for four nights is probably twenty times harder than one night. At this point, the numbers do not really make sense any more.

One factor that makes sleep deprivation especially hard to deal with is that the body heals itself mostly during sleep. It has been well researched and published about the effect of deep sleep on mental health. In eastern medicine, there have been numerous studies about how each of our essential organs attempts to detoxify and repair itself at different times between sunset and sunrise. Moving continuously for so many days without proper rest means that quality blood is reserved only for the heart, the lungs and the muscles in use. Without blood focusing other essential organs such as the stomach and the liver, they do not get repaired sufficiently. As a result, we get exponentially more tired after each night without sleep.

Another huge challenge of the 200 milers is in how runners manage nutrition. The digestive system is considered non-essential when we run continuously. Shortage of blood going to this system means we lose appetite, and food digestion takes longer. It does not help if we focus on replenishing our bodies only with glucose-rich food which boosts glycogen, and ignoring the triglyceride which the body has got used to burning by the second day. Perhaps this is the reason why many runners prefer simple wholesome food at these very long distances, rather than gel or something very sweet.

Weather plays a big hand in whether a runner actually can finish a 200 miler. A stretch of 3-4 days is a big enough window for the weather to change at mountainous areas, where most 200 milers are held. Dealing with changing weather means the runner’s pack is heavier with extra gear. Over a 50km, one might not feel another half a kilo in her vest. But I can assure you even an extra 100g will be felt over a 200 miler.

Even the elite runners need to walk some of the 200 mile distance. It is simply too far to run non-stop, especially over the hills. For most runners, the ratio of walking to running increases in the second half. The average marathon runner probably would scoff at the idea of moving at 6kms per hour. However, in my experience, the idea of being able to keep moving for days at 4kms an hour would delight me when hitting the last 100km of these races, when every hill, patch of shifty ground and bit of bad weather starts to bite.

So with all these challenges, why would anyone want to run a 200 miler in the first place? Or, worse, run it again? Well, in running circles, 200-mile runners are fondly known as idiots. As such, repeat 200-mile offenders are known as bigger idiots.

Indeed, there is no particular sane reason why someone would want to run a 200 miler. But as with any pursuit that is very hard, in the struggle the experiencer discovers fresh and deep insights about themselves, something that cannot be unearthed otherwise through other means. It is certainly a case of “the lower they go, the higher they bounce.”

A diligent musician (think: Bird, Pablo Casals), a diligent chef (think: Jiro Ono), or a diligent artist (think: Charlie Chaplin), would have undoubtedly got a taste of similar highs that these 200 milers experience, just in a different form, simply because their endeavours have sent them “low” enough. You get the idea. This experience is not exclusive to runners. It is almost universal across different activities. The explicit keyword here is: Diligence, the implied keyword: Commitment.

With commitment, runners acquire the taste of running the 200 milers, or even further. They know that the lows will come. So will the highs.

📸 The Australian contingent, with their adopted Americans, at the Tahoe200 start, 2019.