By Mark Lamport-Stokes
LOS ANGELES, Nov 25 (Reuters) - Running 135 miles through the searing summer heat of Death Valley in California before ending the route with a cumulative gain of 17,000 feet to reach the slopes of Mount Whitney?
Slogging across four desert courses, each 150 miles long, in Chile, China, Egypt and Antarctica in what is known as the Four Deserts Grand Slam?
Racing against the clock through 75 control points in the footsteps of ancient Athenian messenger Pheidippidis, with a cut-off of 36 hours to complete the 153-mile Spartathlon?
Risking dehydration, exhaustion, broken ankles, kidney failure or the need to throw in the towel and give up -- all possible reasons for an athlete to abort the gruelling challenge of an ultramarathon?
For the uninitiated, all of the above scenarios suggest a twinning of sadism with sheer lunacy. For the ultramarathoner, however, it is all about running for joy, setting personal goals and trying to overcome every obstacle faced.
"People are intrigued by the thought of someone wanting to run 100 miles, or more," experienced ultramarathoner Shannon Farar-Griefer, who has five times raced the gruelling Badwater 135 across Death Valley, told Reuters.
"They might say, 'What's wrong with you that you want to run 100 miles? Were you abused or were you a drug addict?' We just love to run. It's all about passion in this sport.
"You know you're going to hurt, you know you're going to have a long day. That's why people think that we are a little different from the rest because we keep pushing our bodies. Ultras are all about learning how to be able to accept pain."
An ultramarathon involves a combination of running and walking further than the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometres). Though most ultras cover distances of either 50 or 100 miles, many are much longer.
For Connecticut-based running coach Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and certified sports nutritionist who has competed in over 60 marathons and 21 ironman triathlons, ultras are all about achieving objectives.
"It's the innate human desire to push our limits," Holland told Reuters. "I believe many people find incredible personal satisfaction in achieving these challenging goals.
"They run a marathon or three and then have a need to push their bodies even further, both physically as well as mentally. Pushing through periods of incredible discomfort and coming out on the other side is extremely empowering."
A METAPHOR FOR LIFE
Holland is a veteran of several ultras, including the Run to the Sun, a 36-mile journey to the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui, and he regards the ultra challenge as a metaphor for life.
"You realize that no matter how bad you think things are at the time, you are strong enough to push through them and things will always get better," he said.
Australian Samantha Gash, the first woman to complete the Four Deserts Grand Slam in a calendar year, believes that ultramarathoners share a burning desire to be the best they can be while often competing well outside their comfort zones.
"The people who finish are not the most physically fit but the ones that are mentally strong, those who don't entertain the possibility of not finishing," she said.
Gash, who is featured in the 2013 documentary "Desert Runners" which chronicles the Four Deserts Grand Slam, gained a massive jolt of self-belief after her pioneering accomplishments in Chile, China, Egypt and Antarctica.
"Being (previously) a nobody in the world of ultra running, if I could do something of this size and scale, it makes you feel that anything's possible," she said of her success in the Four Deserts Grand Slam.
"There were moments when I wondered what I was doing, when I was so dehydrated it hurt. I felt new depths of pain.
"But I really never let myself contemplate giving up," said Gash, who had to contend with heat, cold, dehydration and extreme fatigue in some of the world's most hostile environments while running with supplies strapped to her back.
Farar-Griefer, a 53-year-old mother of three who lives in Hidden Hills, California and took up long-distance running at the age of 39, has no doubt about her most brutal ultra experience.
"The 292-mile Death Valley Badwater double, by far," she said, referring to her feat in becoming the first female to complete the 'double' by finishing the 135 ultra, then summiting Mount Whitney before returning to the race's original start.
"All the other runners finished at the portals of Mount Whitney but I continued on and I summited Mount Whitney and then I ran back. It was 130 degrees on the way back.
"At mile 270, I got an edema really bad. I was swollen, I couldn't pee. It was scary because you could go into total renal failure at that point. Thank God I had a very experienced crew.
"It's a sport where you have to be able to endure pain and you have to be comfortable stepping out of your comfort zone. It's a constant mind battle. I love it." (Editing by Frank Pingue)