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Vol. LXII, No. 21
October 15, 2010
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Ultramarathon Brings Challenge, Joy to NINDS Scientist

Envision pulling yourself out from under the covers one morning, say 4 a.m., and running from the NIH campus in Bethesda to Baltimore and back, only to run halfway back to Baltimore again. If you’re like most folks, it’s inconceivable. But a 100-mile trek was precisely what Jim Nagle accomplished when he and a few hundred other men and women (including a 73-year-old man) dashed through the hills and trails in a rural southeastern part of Vermont recently.

Pushing the limits of both endurance and will, Nagle, who manages a DNA sequencing facility serving both the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and the National Institute of Mental Health, says he participated in the grueling ultramarathon “for the challenge and the fun.”

NINDS’s Jim Nagle runs past RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., during the halfway point of the 2010 National Marathon.
NINDS’s Jim Nagle runs past RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., during the halfway point of the 2010 National Marathon.  

Not that the 53-year-old Reston resident came unprepared. A veteran of a several prior ultramarathons and 33 regular marathon races (26.2 miles), including 10 Boston Marathons (1999-2008), Nagle completed the recent event in just under 28 hours. Of the 265 entrants, only a little more than half finished the 2010 Vermont Endurance Run.

While a regular marathon requires training to build endurance and conditioning, an ultramarathon provides the ultimate test for die-hard runners. But the unusual thing about the competition, according to Nagle, is that participants aren’t competing with one another, but with the distance.

“The event requires a very high level of vigilance as to what is going on with your body, vis-à-vis your hydration level, energy levels, blisters, chafing, etc. Little problems must be addressed before they become big, debilitating problems,” Nagle noted. “Chafing was probably my biggest problem. I went through a fair amount of Vaseline during the race.”

An ultramarathon has been defined as any organized footrace that goes beyond the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. The most extreme race is one that takes place annually, starting in California and ending in New York (3,000 miles), accomplished in stages, at a rate of around 45 miles a day.

Distances aside, ultramarathon rules are usually fairly generous in that runners can govern their own pace, without penalty, providing they clear checkpoints within a certain amount of time. For example, they are permitted to take walking breaks, stop for drinks or even grab a nap (not uncommon in multi-day races).

But the activity can come with a price. Injuries from overtraining can occur, and during- or after-event ailments may include shin splints, muscle strains and soreness, knee and hip maladies, electrolyte imbalance and bladder tears/hematuria (blood in the urine). Further, dehydration, hyponatremia (sodium depletion) and excessive caloric expenditure may arise during the challenge, as well as diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.

Also unpredictable is what, or whom, you meet along the way in long-distance competition. During his numerous jaunts, Nagle has seen lovers, a shooting star, a runner who had removed his running shorts (due to chafing), a bobcat, deer and a plethora of snakes and reptiles. In addition, he had the misfortune of running into a roaming spectator at the New York Marathon last November. And during a training run in July 2009, he found himself within striking distance of a bear. It happened while running solo in Shenandoah National Park. Fortunately, Nagle found that the bear was no more interested in getting to know him than he was in meeting the bear, so the encounter proved harmless.

Why take on such a mammoth endeavor? “It might seem hard to believe, but we do it for the fun, the challenge and for the camaraderie that exists between all of us,” Nagle said. His Vermont escapade was particularly gratifying, he noted, since it involved athletes from 5 different countries (the U.S., Canada, France, Sweden and Germany) and was part of a fundraising event for Vermont Adaptive, which supports activities for children with disabilities.

The great Yankee catcher Yogi Berra once said that “baseball is 90 percent mental; the other half is physical.” As for long distance races, especially a “mega-marathon,” Nagle maintains that mental strategies are crucial. When you set out on your first ultra, he said, the biggest difference between it and a regular marathon is probably mindset. You must convince yourself to run much more slowly than normal. “Also, you need to be prepared for the mental slumps that are likely to happen, especially during the middle to late-middle stages of the race. Expect them and don’t obsess about them,” he advises.

“Once you get toward the latter stages of an ultra, the finish time begins to seem much closer and your spirit seems to rally. You start to believe it will be over soon.”

Are you ready to hit the trails? Not so fast, says Nagle, who advises that anyone considering long-distance racing be a regular runner already—“which means you’ve already been examined by your doctor and been medically cleared to participate.”

The NINDS scientist, who rides his bike regularly to and from the Bethesda campus and his home in Reston, has no desire to curtail his athletic pursuits anytime soon. His plans include a triathlon in Reston, the Marine Corps Marathon at the end of October and perhaps another ultra next year.

As for his overall ultramarathon experience, “It’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever experienced,” Nagle concluded.NIHRecord Icon

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