Jeff Hunter woke up next to a river in the French Alps, with no memory of how he got there.
He was shivering, disoriented and on the verge of vomiting. He had a goose-egg on his head, cuts on his elbow and leg and an injured hip that was sending waves of pain through his body.
Hunter, a 36-year-old from Prince George, lay there for a few minutes, trying to collect himself.
It was the middle of night, foggy and raining.
When he was ready, he got to his feet and, using a fallen tree, pulled himself up the riverbank. Then he scrambled his way up a 40-foot scree slope, back onto the trail.
Evidently, he had fallen off that same trail. How long ago, he wasn't sure.
Hunter limped his way to an aid station, one of many along the 104-kilometre Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc course. Crammed into the station were 2,600 other runners. Techno music blared in the background.
Hunter had trouble admitting it to himself, but he knew he was done. The ultra-marathon race he had been training for all season -- for several years in fact -- had come to a premature end.
"I knew I had it in me to complete that distance and to do well," said Hunter, who was forced to drop out before the 40km mark. "It just so happens that it didn't play out that way.
"I was maybe upset about it for five minutes. But, I'm a runner. I'm a mountain runner. So as long as I can run and train and complete events, I'm happy. So immediately, it was like, 'What's next?'"
An ultra-marathon is any running and/or walking event that exceeds the traditional marathon distance of 42.195 kilometres or 26.2188 miles. Some ultras are road races but, increasingly, they are being done on trails or in mountainous terrain. The sport attracts soloists, like Hunter, and also offers team categories.
Worldwide, ultra-marathons are exploding in popularity. That includes here in Prince George, where there are close to a dozen solo runners and many more who prefer the team option. Locally, two brand-new ultras were held this season -- one during the Dick Voneugen Birthday Fun Run in June and the other as part of the Mad Moose Marathon in September.
No matter the type of ultra, there is a common denominator -- they require participants to test their physical and psychological limits. Sometimes, pushing the boundaries of body and mind leads to blackouts by rivers in the full dark of the night.
In pursuit of excellence
So why is ultra-marathoning on the rise? Was a good, old-fashioned marathon just not tough enough anymore?
In the opinion of Prince George's Richard Stewart -- who ran his 100th career marathon on Oct. 7 -- part of the attraction of ultras is the additional challenges they offer, both physically and mentally. Specifically with trail or mountain ultras, the opportunity to get off the blacktop is a powerful magnet.
"There are a lot of people still running marathons on roads -- that's still crazily popular -- but ultras, they appeal to a certain group that enjoys the significant self-reliance and isolation and running in sort of uncivilized areas," Stewart said. "They sort of commune with nature and I can understand that. I do enjoy going out myself. It's a great relief from traffic and pavement. It's a peaceful place."
Stewart, a local lawyer, has done five ultras to date and all of them have been road events. He's considering trying a trail ultra next season.
Hunter, meanwhile, has great respect for marathoners and said he couldn't imagine trying to run that traditional distance at a quick pace. As for the ultra-marathon movement, he said part of the pull is the social aspect of the longer races, particularly in North America.
"There is high companionship and camaraderie on the trail, both in terms of the races and in terms of the training -- kind of like-minded people doing the same thing," said Hunter, who was born and raised in Prince George and works as the chief information officer for Northern Health. "In races, there's not a huge focus on winning and the winners and I think that draws a lot of people to the sport. It's about personal pursuit of excellence in a sport. That's certainly why I got into it, and I know most of the people I run with, that's why they're into it."
And just how quickly is ultra-marathoning growing? According to Hunter -- who has become a student of ultra-marathoning history -- trail/mountain ultras are doubling in numbers every year. Among the most popular in Western Canada are the 125km Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, Alta., the 148km Sinister 7 in Crowsnest Pass, Alta., the 115km Fat Dog Ultra in Keremeos and the 50-mile Scorched Sole in Kelowna. In these races and others like them around the world, registering well in advance is often necessary to avoid disappointment.
The long road
Ultra-marathoning can actually be traced back to the ancient Greeks but, in North America, the sport didn't start to pick up traction until the 1950s and 1960s. One of the oldest annual races is the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile trail run between Squaw Valley, Utah, and Auburn, Calif. Next June, that race will celebrate its 40th anniversary.
Now that ultra-marathons are booming, the top runners in the world have corporate sponsorship and can win significant prize money at the bigger events. Hunter -- who competed in eight ultras this season and has done 19 since 2007 -- is sponsored locally by Falcon Drilling and Queensway Auto World. Those companies helped send him to France for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, held at the end of August.
Hunter has come a long way in the sport. Interestingly, he had never even done a marathon when he decided to tackle his first ultra, which was the 2007 Canadian Death Race.
"I was into general fitness and outdoors experiences -- a bit of mountaineering and climbing and that kind of thing but I had very little experience running," he said. "I just kind of ran recreationally and for some reason in the middle of winter I decided to start training for the Canadian Death Race, which was the following August. I had no experience, no training guide, no anything, and just started running on my own. I thought if I could run marathon distance by the May long weekend, I should be able to run the Death Race in August. I didn't know anything about hydration, nutrition or pacing strategies or anything like that.
"I was totally naive," he added with a grin. "Every year I've learned something pretty major, lessons on how to run better and smarter and easier."
In his inaugural Death Race, Hunter finished 105 of the 125 kilometres and then, by his own description, "absolutely cratered.
"I remember meeting my crew, crawling in, really having a hard time in the last five or so kilometres of that 105," he said. "I was hallucinating -- it was really bad."
Hunter completed the Death Race the following year and, in his next appearance in 2010, finished 10th overall in a time of 16 hours 15 minutes six seconds. In 2011, he cut more than an hour off that time and placed sixth in 15:01:04.
This season, some of his highlights were a first-place finish at the Dirty Duo 50km race in Vancouver, a second-overall placing at the Yakima Skyline 50km ultra in Ellensburg, Wash., and a fifth-place result at the rather hellish Sinister 7.
Through his experiences, Hunter has learned that controlling the mind is the key to squeezing performance out of the body.
"Even the weeks leading up to a race, you transition your mind to a totally positive mindset and, during the race, there can be no negative thoughts -- ever," he said. "That can be difficult but that's part of the mental aspect of running ultras.
"You have to really stay sharp in terms of your hydration and your nutrition to make sure your body is getting what it needs but you also have to continue to motivate yourself to run," he added. "You have to be in the right head space because you will encounter serious obstacles. You'll get stomach problems, you'll get cramps, you'll vomit, you'll fall over, you'll collapse. You'll go through tremendous emotional lows and you have to have the mental fortitude to continue."
Teamwork another ultra option
Some ultra-marathon athletes prefer to share the mental and physical load so they team up with other like-minded individuals. In Prince George, one of the teams is the Go Go Girls, formed by Robyn Kaplan, Cindy Hartford, Nicole Rishaug and Jennifer Thibault. In early August, the Go Go Girls ran the Canadian Death Race to perfection. They finished first out of 27 women's teams and 19th out of 256 overall. They covered the 125km course in a time of 15:15:51.
Later in the summer, Kaplan and Hartford were back in their gear for the GORE-TEX Transrockies Run, a six-day, 192km race through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. Running together in the open women's category, they placed third in a time of 24:50:50.
"It was six days of pain," Kaplan said with a laugh.
Added Hartford: "The hard part about that one is you're above 9,000 feet in elevation and we peaked at 12,535 feet. That was interesting. We were lucky the elevation didn't kill us because there were lots of people that got sick -- lots of people that had [altitude] medication with them.
"There was puking and they were dizzy and they couldn't move. As soon as they got above 10,000 feet, that was it."
Before they left Prince George for Colorado, Kaplan and Hartford were advised by doctors that there was a 50-50 chance they'd experience altitude sickness. Given those odds, they opted not to take medication with them.
The 28-year-old Kaplan is in her third year of ultra-marathoning, while the 41-year-old Hartford has seven years of experience.
Kaplan was attracted to the sport because all the runs she was interested in were of the trail variety. And, all of them happened to be 50km or longer. Once she started doing ultra-marathons, she discovered they were addictive.
"I get a natural high off of it," she said. "You make it to this amazing level where you can run 50-plus K and then you don't want to lose that endurance. You want to keep going. You want to see if you can push a little bit longer, a little bit further. After doing Transrockies this year, I'm motivated to maybe consider an 80K, whereas before I was like, 'No way.'"
Hartford, meanwhile, did her first marathon in 1999 and got to the point where she wanted a new challenge. Now, ultra-marathoning has become a lifestyle.
"I have two kids so when I organize the year it's not all about the kids," said Hartford, who works full-time at Pacific Western Brewery. "I shuffle my running in there. The kids know that mommy runs and if I have to get up at 5 a.m. to put in 10K in the morning, I will. I'll get home and get everyone ready for school and then after work it's another 10 or 15K. Saturdays, we'll take off at six in the morning and drive out to wherever and run for four hours. Sometimes my family meets us out there and they'll do a hike while we're running back. Or they'll come with me to a race. The Transrockies, the whole family volunteered for that race."
For training, both women typically run 110 km to 120 km per week.
Kaplan, who works for the Ministry of Social Development, said when people find out what she does in her spare time, they think she's crazy.
"I think Cindy and Nicole are the only two that actually understand because they have gone through it with me," she said. "I explain it to [others] as a stress release for me because I sit all day behind a desk and then all I want to do at the end of the day is get outside and enjoy nature and just think about nothing.
"And I like to eat chocolate," she added with a laugh. "So you can eat as much chocolate as you want if you're going to run it off."