Foward Relentless Motion

Some people really like to run. For them, three miles around the neighborhood isn’t enough. A 10K is a warm-up. Even a 26 mile and 385 yard marathon is too short. These people are ultra-runners, and for them 30, 50 or 100 miles is the perfect distance for a run.

“Something happens when you go out for a longer period of time,” says local ultra-runner Celia Bertoia. “I really get in tune with my surroundings and my body almost becomes irrelevant as I become a vehicle of nature.”

For fellow ultra-runner Liz McGoff, long runs on trails are also about communing with the natural world. “It’s about the lure of the mountains and the trail.” She adds, “I like getting up really early and seeing the sun rise.”

Whether the appeal of long runs has to do with natural experiences, physical or mental challenge or staying in shape, running seems to be something we are made to do. A 2004 study in Nature showed that humans—with our spring-loaded ligaments, muscular rear ends and ability to sweat—are designed to run. Historically, our long, lean build helped us to scavenge widely and hunt down prey over long distances.

But, whether or not our bodies are intended for running, it takes something special to actually go out and run in an era when we only need to scavenge as far as our refrigerator and hunting prey means getting in the car for a visit to the meat counter at the local store.

Ultra-runners (people who run any distance beyond the standard marathon) may carry their food with them, but they are often out hunting for something—time alone, communion with nature or physical challenge. Liz McGoff starting running ultras in 1998. Formerly an avid backpacker, she found that with three kids she just didn’t have the time to take multi-day trips.

In order to fit in trail time she started getting up and running before the kids awoke. “I’d get up really early and run up to Hyalite Lake and be home before breakfast,” she recalls. “It was a way to morph running and backpacking.”

For McGoff (a K-8 school counselor and MSU math instructor), ultra-running is often a solo pursuit. She runs about half the time by herself (and with her “crazy, crazy running dog”, Juniper) and the other half of the time with her husband, Tom. Occasionally she runs with friends. “Running for me isn’t solely a fitness thing, it seems to be a spiritual thing,” she says.

Bertoia agrees, “I see (running) as a necessary balance; getting outside feeds my spirits as well as improving my physical body.” Like McGoff, Bertoia often runs alone or with her husband, Kyle.

The benefits of running spill into the rest of these women’s lives. Bertoia, who owns and runs “Perfect Timing” (a business that times races) notes, “If I do a long run, I feel like my day is meaningful and worthwhile, and if I’m able to run up to Baldy and down, then I’m much better prepared to meet the challenges of running a business.”

For some women, running is their business. Nikki Kimball is a professional runner who started out racing in cross-country skiing in fourth grade. Later she added bicycle racing to her resume; running was just the way to stay in shape for her other competitive pursuits. That was, until she graduated from college and realized she needed health insurance.

Planning on attending graduate school anyway, Kimball bumped up her start date to ensure insurance coverage. At school in Philadelphia she couldn’t cross-country ski and she was burned out on bike racing, so “that left running,” she laughs.

After a couple really good race times (flukes, according to Kimball who considers herself a slow runner) she was asked to join a race team. One thing led to another, and before she knew it, Kimball was running ultras professionally. “I’m kind of good at it,” she says in understatement, “I’m not fast enough to do shorter distances and I do well enough to pay for my hobby.”

Running and being outdoors is one thing, but why do these women run so far, and in competition? “I really love running on trails,” says Kimball, “So why not run 100 miles—I’m happy most of the time; I’m like a kid at play.”

When participating in ultra-races, like the Western States 100 (a 100-mile endurance run in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California), McGoff enjoys herself. “It’s fun when you hear the elk bugling in the middle of the night, see headlamps jouncing along the trail and look up at the stars and they’re really vibrant.”

The excitement around a race is one of the things that draws Bertoia to the starting line. “Everyone is eager and full of anticipation and there is a camaraderie with people who share the same interests.”

Racing also pushes their level of running beyond what a training run can do. In our sedentary society there are very few things that can drive one physically the way running 50 or 100 miles can. Also, these women agree that pushing past mental and physical barriers (as long as they aren’t hurt) in a race gives them confidence to push through barriers in the rest of their lives.

Long-distance running may not be for everyone, but these runners believe there are some benefits for any woman who wants to get involved. “Women, in the larger realm of society aren’t encouraged as much to be competent in the outdoors or alone,” notes McGoff. “(Running) has made me an extra confident person and its spilled over into other parts of my life.”

“We really aren’t that weird,” laughs Kimball, whose other job is as a physical therapist. “Weight-bearing exercise is important for women because of their risk of osteoporosis, and it raises your basal metabolic rate so you can eat more food and stay thin.”

Whatever the reason, the Gallatin Valley seems to be an ideal place for women to get out and run. Whether it’s a morning in Sypes Canyon (Bertoia’s favorite local trail) or competing in the Bridger Ridge Run (both Bertoia’s and McGoff’s favorite race), there are many trails winding through mountains and canyons just waiting to be run.

Bertoia says ultra running is about more than just getting out and running, it’s about becoming a better person. “It’s important for women to give themselves tools to be strong, and running gives women the strength to be physically, mentally and spiritually tough.”

This story originally appeared in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle.

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