The Edge of Possible: The Growing Phenomenon of 200-Mile Races

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In the last 50 miles of the 2014 Tahoe 200-Mile Endurance Run, John Burton’s energy levels were sinking. His legs were tired, his feet were failing and he was convinced that there were dozens of smiling otters on the sides of the trail.

He pointed one out to his pacer, who responded, “John, that’s a rock.”
Burton, an accomplished ultrarunner with buckles from Western States, Hardrock and the Fat Dog 120, had led the race for over 160 miles. At one point he expanded his lead to over five hours. But after 48 hours without sleep, he was starting to come unglued. With blistered feet, a broken finger (from slipping on a log) and ravaged quadriceps, Burton eventually struggled to just move forward. He ultimately finished third in the reality-bending endurance race.

“Two hundred miles,” Burton says in hindsight, “is a really long way.”
Indeed, if there is an endurance frontier remaining in America, it is within the mind and body of a trail runner near the end of a 200-mile footrace. The challenge of a 200 necessarily involves several days of running, tens of thousands of burned calories, extreme vertical gains and heaps of sheer chutzpa.

“Running these races is not just ‘doubling’ the race experience of a 100-miler,” says Mark Tanaka, a finisher of the 2015 Tahoe 200 and the 2016 Bigfoot 200. “A 200-mile race is a different qualitative experience … it’s overwhelming in both positive and negative ways. In some ways a 200 miler is easier than shorter races. I’ve felt more beat up physically after some 100s than after my 200s, because [in the 200s] I power-hiked a larger portion of the race. At the finishes, I was not terribly sore, just really tired.”

The birth of a phenomenon

Surprisingly, the 200-miler is an outgrowth of local geography, rather than of a desire to double the 100-mile distance. One of the earliest 200-mile races was the Tor des Géants (TdG), which began in 2010, traversing the “High Routes” of mountainous Aosta Valley in the Alps of northwestern Italy. The contingencies of the trail route determined the race’s 205-mile distance and mind-boggling 78,700 feet of elevation gain.

Accomplished ultrarunner and 200-mile race director Candice Burt. Photo by Howie Stern.

Spearheading the effort to create single-loop 200-milers in the United States has been Candice Burt, whose company Destination Trail now directs three 200-mile races, including the Tahoe 200. But, as with the TdG, Burt did not set out to normalize the 200-mile distance. It just so happened that 200 miles was roughly the distance of the route she designed around Lake Tahoe in California.

“There are not many events out there that allow you four-plus days on the trail, supported by aid stations, course markings, camaraderie and competition,” says Burt. Indeed, before 2014, there were race distances over 100 miles in the U.S., but most of them included continuous repeated loops.

“Organizing 200s is insanely hard,” Burt points out. “In some cases I work with as many as 20 different [trail] permits for one race.”

Her race company is on site for a month prior to each race, to organize supplies and logistics. But this is partly why she chooses scenic, challenging routes: “After all, I have to mark all 200-plus miles with my crew, and I want to enjoy the route, too.”

Says John Burton, “I’m drawn to these longer, grittier races. I’ll never be the fastest guy on the start line of a 50K, but these 200-milers force you to pace tactically, cultivate resilience and dig really, really deep.”

More than a few trail runners share this sentiment. All 150 slots for this September’s Tahoe 200 are already sold out.

Terra incognita

Karl Meltzer, who has won more 100-mile races than anyone, thinks that the distance will remain a small niche, likely shielded from the influx of younger ultrarunning talent. “This is mostly because the recovery needed after a 200 is considerable,” says Meltzer. “This means the crowd will be older, more experienced and looking for races where strategic pacing, fueling and rest stops will determine their performance.”

The physical risks remain uncertain. A 2012 study led by Dr. Martin Hoffman and Dr. Julie Ingwerson indicated that finishers at the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run held abnormal creatine kinase values, indicating acute muscle breakdown. While rhabdomyolysis (muscle tissue entering the bloodstream) and renal failure are rare in ultras, doubling the distance means that the kidneys must work harder to filter the residue of muscle-tissue breakdown from the blood.

Sleep is also a problem. Sean Meissner, who has coached several runners for the TdG, explains, “It’s very hard to sleep, once you factor in the pain, adrenaline and caffeine consumption involved in covering the distance.”

To help runners rest during their 200-mile races, Destination Trail sets up several “sleep stations” in addition to full-service aid stations. Medical volunteers are positioned at each aid station to assess runners as they move through the course, and Burt requires runners to wear SPOT tracking devices, which are monitored continually.

“Mitigating the risks of a 200-mile race has everything to do with communication,” she says.

Sleep station: Unlike for shorter ultras, even 100-milers, factoring in sleep is key in 200s. Photo by Howie Stern.

The ultimate sufferfest

In 100-mile races, athletes commonly experience low spells that last a few hours. However, a typical 200-miler has a cut-off time of 100 hours (over three times that of Western States), with a winning finish time of around 60 hours—that’s two and a half days.

Says Ian Sharman, head coach of Sharman Ultra, “In a 200-miler, your low spell could last a couple of days.”

Luckily, the longer cutoff time gives racers more leeway to hike and rest for extended periods. “I try to make sure our athletes are really good at hiking and shifting into a run-walk rhythm,” Sharman says. “If you’ve just trained to run at a steady aerobic pace, you will struggle when the fatigue from the miles and lack of sleep force you to slow.”

Experience, he says, is key. Athletes who have raced multiple 100-mile events with varied terrain and elevation change will know how to handle the inevitable physical pitfalls of a 200-mile race.

“Any small thing—so negligible you can’t even imagine it becoming a problem—can blow up on you after 48 hours of continuous running,” says Burton. During the 2014 Tahoe 200, the liner of his shorts rubbed across the skin of his groin, slowly cutting a quarter-inch groove through his thigh flesh. The blood eventually coagulated, sticking the liner to his skin, which would continually rip open whenever Burton took an awkward step.

“I still have scars,” he says.

The physical suffering doesn’t stop when the race is over. After upwards of four days of continuous movement, the body needs to return to a normal sleep cycle, reset metabolic processes and repair organs.

For several days after his blow-up at the 2014 Tahoe 200, Burton’s body was so worn down that he became physically ill. “I was so feverish that my wife made me sleep on an air mattress for weeks after the race,” says Burton, “because I kept soaking the bed, pillows and sheets in sweat every night.”

This uncertainty and risk, argues Karl Meltzer, is why people run 200s. “It’s like the thrill of your first sky dive or wing-suit jump. People in our sport thrive on a single question: Can I handle it?”

Sam Robinson is a trail runner, finishing his PhD in History at the University of California, Berkeley. You can read more of his writing at his blog, The Gaunt Life. 

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