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Breaking News: Ultramarathons Are For Crazy People

Four years ago I trained for, and completed the Marine Corps Marathon. When asked what my time was, I respond by saying, “Whatever the world record is, I’m pretty sure I beat that.”

Maybe not, but for anyone who has ever run a marathon, the accomplishment of merely completing the race feels every bit as monumental as setting a world record.

As a backstory, the year prior to my running the Marine Corps Marathon, I trained for it, but developed bronchitis two weeks before the race. I had to withdraw. Frustrated by the reality that I wasn’t going to be able to finish my journey, I wrote a blog titled “Marathons Are For Crazy People!”

The inspiration for the blog was the countless number of people I came across who were suffering from crazy injuries and illnesses that they associated with training for marathons, ultramarathons and endurance events.

Gif of a runner from Washington Post
Source: The Washington Post

Now, five years later, The Washington Post has written about what I, and others at Capitol Rehab of Arlington, have been observing for years: Ultraendurance training can cause a variety of ailments . Here are some of the dangers the Post points out.

“Hallucinations are part of ultra lore. When you run around the clock, extreme fatigue and strange shadows in the wee hours can sometimes play havoc with your mind. A nap usually fixes the problem.

Temporary blurred vision can happen in longer ultras, probably due to corneal swelling.

Insect stings and bites are more common in ultrarunning.

Cuts and bruises from falls are common because of the uneven terrain of ultras.

Heart problems are rare in long races; running usually makes the heart and circulatory system stronger. But some recent studies indicate that distance runners may be at slightly higher risk for atrial fibrillation, an irregular heartbeat. Other research has shown some temporary cardiac dysfunction after long races, particularly in the least-trained participants.

A high rate of respiratory ailments found among ultrarunners in a 2014 study may be largely attributable to dust and flora along trails.

All distance runners should be aware of the risk of exercise-associated hyponatremia, a potentially deadly condition in which drinking too much water or sports drink dilutes the body’s sodium, causing cells to swell and burst.

Body temperature is more likely to drop too low (hypothermia) in an ultra, when energy stores are depleted and weather conditions vary. Heat illness is more common in marathons, in part because of the more intense effort.

Marathoners burn a higher percentage of carbs and can get by on sports drink and gels. Ultrarunners burn a higher percentage of fat and usually need real food, which can mean more gastrointestinal problems.

The longer the race, the more likely muscle cramps will strike, most often in runners’ quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. No one knows exactly why cramps occur, but most research points to fatigue in the mechanisms that govern muscle control and contraction.

Stress fractures and other musculoskeletal overuse injuries can plague long-distance runners. Feet are the most common site of stress fractures in ultrarunners, but fractures of the pelvis, femur, tibia and fibula also occur.

Blisters are more common in ultras, thanks to mud, water, rocks and dust that can get into shoes and socks. Also, moving on varied terrain, such as steep downhills, can cause friction spots.”

Of course, the Post article does point out that in general ultrarunners are among the most able-bodied folks out there.

Still, the best comparison I can make is this: Running is to running marathons as rock climbing is to climbing Mount Everest. The first is healthy for you, the second could kill you, so proceed wisely.

I’m a big fan of goal setting and challenging yourself.  We work with and encourage athletes of all ages and abilities to push their limits. We look forward to meeting more of these extreme athletes, and making sure these A-types approach the challenges they’ve set for themselves with correct information and proper expectations.

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