His co-workers and friends call him crazy, and many of you might agree, but for 41-year-old Mark Gehringer, ultra marathons are the ultimate test of mental and physical endurance.
At 6 a.m. on Saturday, June 6 Gehringer set out to achieve his targeted goal of completing the Kettle Moraine 100, a 100-mile off-road endurance trail race that is part marathon (times four), part cross country (if cross country meets were 100 miles long and ran in the dark) and 100 percent physical and mental torture.
“I’ve come to realize your body can do a whole lot more than your mind thinks,” said Gehringer, a 1992 graduate of Platteville High School. “Your mind tries to shut your body down to save it long before you are in any real danger. “My friends definitely think I’m crazy.”
Twenty-seven hours, 11 minutes and 44 seconds later, Sunday morning at 9:12 a.m., Gehringer crossed the finish line in 91st place out of 266 people who started the race. Only 164 participants finished.
“It was a pretty neat feeling,” said Gehringer. “This was very important to me because my family was all there. I had a lot of people cheering me on and willing me to the finish. There was no way I was going to quit this time with all the people I had waiting for me at the finish line.”
Gehringer’s support staff included wife Kristin, son Anthony, 13, daughter Audrey, 8, and several cousins, aunts and uncles. His mother Joan Bahr of rural Darlington, sister Melissa Knous of Port Washington and cousin Don Gramer of Rockford, Ill., were also in attendance, handing out gel packs, homemade rice cake bars and refilling his 70-ounce hydration bladder at crew station checkpoints.
Gehringer, who works as an engineer for land developer Howard Hughes in Katy, Texas, has been a runner all his life. He was a state track and field qualifier in the 400 meters and 4x400 relay as a senior in 1992 under current Hillmen coach Rob Serres. Gehringer began running marathons in 13 years ago, starting with the 2002 Houston Marathon. He completed six marathons, but he started experiencing joint pain that made it difficult to run.
“I started experiencing pain in my ankles, knees and hips from all the pounding on the pavement,” explained Gehringer. “I also didn’t have the best running gait back then. So I started looking for alternatives and I came across the Houston Area Trail Runners Club.
“They helped we learn a lot about trail runner and running in general. I learned to land on the front of my foot instead of flat footed, which was causing a lot of my joint pain and they also taught me about diet, preparation and gear for trail running. You think its really simple and you just put on some shoes and start running, but at those longer distances you have to think about how your body is going to respond.
“A marathon is run at a much faster pace and running on grass and trails in easier on my joints. Not that I’m running longer distances I’m actually recovering faster with less pain than when I was running marathons on pavement.”
Gehringer began running ultra marathons 2½ years ago and worked his way up to the 100-mile race, by competing in 50-kilometer and 50-mile races, as well as 60-kilometer night races in Texas. He attempted his first 100-mile trail race in December at the Brazos Bend 100 in Needville, Tex., but had to pull out of the race at the 62-mile mark.
“The 100-miler, that’s the granddaddy of them all,” said Gehringer. “But I wasn’t ready for the mental game. My body wanted me to quit. At those kinds of distances you have to be really determined to get past your mind telling you to stop.”
“Muscle exhaustion is the biggest thing you have to fight through,” added Gehringer. “And mental fogginess. Your brain gets tired as much as your body.”
Training for ultra marathons is similar to marathon training, with more miles, more hill work at a slower pace. Gehringer typically logs between 45 and 50 miles a week during training with a lengthy 20–25-mile, four-hour run on Saturdays.
“I go out for long distances, but at a slower pace than marathon training,” said Gehringer. “I just try to get the mileage up.”
The shoes and gear are also slightly different in trail running. Trail shoes are still lightweight like your normal running shoes, but, anti-debris mesh, water resistant fabric and a rugged soles with nodules for better traction.
During the actual Kettle 100 Gehringer wore a 70-ounce water bladder that contained a specialized hydration mix from Scratch Labs, and a vest to carry 100-calorie gel pack and his home made rice bake bars, that are essentially little protein balls that contain fruit, peanut butter and chocolate chips wrapped in sticky rice. He also wore a headlamp during the night while he was running in the dark.
During the race there are checkpoint and crew stations every seven to nine miles where runners can pick up their pre-made food or gear from their crew and receive medical assistance if needed.
Completing a continuous 100-mile race also involves strategy.
“There is definitely some walking involved especially on the inclines,” said Gehringer. “There are strategic times when its best to walk with a purpose and other times to open it up and bomb down a hill. The purpose is still to finish as soon as possible.
All runners have 32 hours to compete the race or they are disqualified.
Ultra marathoning is often compared to Ironman triathlons, but it has not received the national attention the Iron Man races garner.
“It’s still kind of an underground thing,” explained Gehringer. “There are not as many people into ultra marathons and it hasn’t really reached the level of Ironman yet.
In 1977, 14 men from four states participated in the 1st official Western States Endurance Run in central California, which was held in conjunction with the Tevis Cup 100-mile horse ride. Runners were monitored by Dr. Bob Lind at the three veterinary stops set up for the horses, and although the race organization transported the entrants gear, runners were responsible for producing all of their own supplies, except water. Three runners finished the course: Andy Gonzales, age 22, in the record-breaking time of 22:57, and Peter Mattei and Ralph Paffenbarger, ages 53 and 54, who tied in 28:36.
Gehringer spent the week after the Kettle Morraine 100 enjoying Wisconsin with his family, visiting the Capital building and the zoo in Madison, as well as taking in a Madison Mallards game. He celebrated his 41st birthday with a well-earned one-hour massage.
“It took my body three days to start feeling better, for the muscle swelling to go down and the blisters to start feeling better,” Gehringer said of his recovery. “But by Thursday I could probably go for a run. The first morning after was the worst. The toughest thing was going down steps or downhill or changing speeds. That really hurt.”
But through it all Gehringer avoided Advil and ibuprofen, choosing instead to let his body recover naturally.
Delete - Merge Up Now that he achieved his ultimate goal, Gehringer said he will probably run another 100-mile race someday.
“I will probably do another one, but I’m not ready to commit to that just yet,” he said. “Maybe I’ll do something shorter first. Right now I’m just going to enjoy this one for awhile.”