Ultra Running: A Step Beyond the MarathonDec 27, 2022 08:44AM ● By Mike Whye
Photo by Bill Sitzmann.
The passing of a loved one can compel some to change their lives. For Jodi Semonell, the death of her father from lung cancer at age 60 in December 2011 put her on a different path from how she had been living—many paths. Spanning countless miles, they’ve tested the limits of her body and mind to metamorphic effect.
Describing herself something of a party girl, drinking frequently and smoking up to a pack of cigarettes a day for 25 years, Semonell realized she didn’t want to be end up like her father. His mortality raised a mirror to Semonell’s own lifestyle, reflecting a predictable fate she simply could not accept. Determined to change course, she began running regularly to get fit.
At the time, Semonell didn’t consider herself much of a runner, though she had participated in a few 5K and 10K races. But after her father’s death, she felt the need to challenge herself. She set her sights on running in the Lincoln Marathon the following May.
On her first day of practice, she ran roughly 3 miles. In a few weeks, she ran around Lake Zorinsky near her Omaha home, a distance of about 8 miles.
“I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I ran the entire day,’” recalled Semonell, who kept running further and further with each passing week.
“I wasn’t very good. I’d just plod along and get it done,” Semonell said. Running on streets, in marathons, and Zorinsky’s paved trails for training, she began suffering shin splints–inflamed muscles of the lower legs. When she sought medical advice, her doctor asked her if she had considered running on dirt trails.
“I thought that sounded awful,” remembered Semonell, now 50 and an employee with Conifer Health Solutions.
Nevertheless, she signed up for a 50-mile race along the dirt trails of Hitchcock Nature Center—one of several races of varying lengths being held over a winter weekend at the center in Iowa’s Loess Hills.
“I went to Hitchcock to practice and thought, ‘Oh my God, this isn’t even running,’” she said, noting that the pace of trail-running was slower than that of a marathon.
While training at Hitchcock, Semonell met some long-distance runners and earnestly listened to them describe participating in 100-mile races. She requested a switch to Hitchcock’s 100-mile race as a result, going the distance against competitors from across the country.
That ultra—the name of any race longer than the 26.2-mile length of a marathon—marked the beginning of Semonell’s journey as an ultra runner. Since that fateful race in December 2015, she has run in every Hitchcock 100, including one where nearly 8 inches of snow fell the night before the race.
“We all had to wear screw shoes during that race just to stay upright,” she said of the cleats that had been attached to the soles of the shoes. “Ice is the only thing that scares me on the trails.”
Because runners take at least 18 hours to complete the Hitchcock 100, they must navigate portions of the course after nightfall, carrying lights to illuminate the trails. While some runners use headlamps, Semonell prefers to wear one around her waist.
“It’s so bright, it’s almost like driving a car,” she observed.
Ultra runners always carry their gear, including jackets, nutrition, and water, even in the races that have aid stations, as those can be up to 25 miles apart.
“In a 100-mile race, you need at least 3 liters of water,” she explained. “In a 200-mile race, you have to also carry pants, a rain jacket, a spare lamp, and spare battery. That’s about 10 to 15 pounds worth of stuff, and it’s for days. A 250-mile race can take you 90 to 110 hours to complete, and while you might wear a parka and hat on a 20-degree morning, you still have to carry those in the afternoon when it’s 40 to 50 degrees.”
Although Semonell no longer endured the impact of pavement, the pains in her legs continued. Having qualified for the 2017 Boston Marathon, she thought it was time to bring in some outside expertise and hired a running coach licensed in physical therapy.
“I told her my goals, which were that I had a race coming up in Des Moines and the Boston Marathon in April, and she says, ‘I’m going to give you a training plan. Each day of the week, you’re going to do x-number of miles at this pace, and six hours at Hitchcock on Saturday and five hours on Sunday.’ Since then, I’ve gotten faster, run further, and have not been injured,” Semonell said. To date, she has finished at least 50 marathons, 15 100-mile races, and four races that were at least 200 miles long.
Marathons and Ultras
Just as marathons have spread since the first modern one was held in London in 1896, ultras have too. A precursor to ultras called “pedestrianisms” date back to 18th century England, exported to the U.S. after the American Civil War. The first true ultra marathon was 55 miles long and held in 1924 in South Africa. In the U.S., the first 100-mile ultra was held in California in 1974.
Ultra Running magazine reported that a little over 34,000 ultra runners were competing in the U.S. in 1996. In 2021, 611,098 people were engaged in ultras, one-third of them women. Similarly, ultra race events have exploded from 220 in 2000 to 2,237 in 2021.
Ultra Races—Long and Demanding
Last August, Todd Nott, 58, a retired high school teacher and coach in Plattsmouth, ran in the Badwater 135, which some have branded ‘The World’s Toughest Foot Race.’ Nott started at the lowest point in North America, 282 feet below sea level in Death Valley National Park, and came in eighth out of the 100 chosen to participate—crossing the finish line 8,360 feet above sea-level, along the slope of Mt. Whitney. He had run for 25 hours and 47 minutes in temperatures reaching 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
Two months later, he ran the Moab 240, a race that crossed red-rock canyons, mesas, and mountains in Utah.
“This was my first over 200 miles,” Nott said. “It used to be a big deal to do more than 100 miles. The long ones are getting more popular.”
Running since his high school track days, he started with 10Ks, half-marathons, and triathlons before taking on marathons.
“I thought I’m not getting any faster in marathons, so I did my first ultra in 1996,” he said.
Out of the 800-plus races he’s run since, more than 140 have been ultras. To practice, he runs in the hills near Plattsmouth and enjoys training in Platte River State Park, Hitchcock Nature Center, and Swanson Park in Bellevue. Nott runs 60 to 90 minutes on weekdays and three hours on Saturdays and Sundays. He also bikes, swims, and lifts weights a couple times a week, and he started yoga this fall.
Like many other ultra runners, he prefers trails to pavement.
“They’re so much easier on your body,” he said, also noting the rambling variations of the trails exercise many muscle groups.
Phantoms of the Trail
The night before the Moab race, Nott didn’t sleep well, getting only an hour of sleep. After completing about 200 miles, he somehow managed to wander off the marked course. He had a map app on his phone, but its battery had died. Eight to 10 hours passed before race officials found him back on the course, trudging down a mountain.
“I was out of it,” he said, noting visual hallucinations plagued his descent. As he traveled along a road, bushes appeared to him as animals including elephants and monkeys. He even saw Macy’s Parade balloons. At one point, he thought he was hiking with his kids. He wanted to run to a town that didn’t exist. The course was so remote, he said, that no towns were anywhere near it.
“It was kind of comical, but it was scary,” he said.
People faded in and out of view. He called to some for help, but received no answer. Though he was hungry and thirsty, Nott attributes his warped mind-state to sleep deprivation.
“In retrospect, I should have rested somewhere,” he said. “In every race you learn something. I learned my lesson.”
Omahan Amber Welch, 37, has had similar hallucinations while running extreme distances. During a night run, she ‘saw’ people in tents who were laughing at her alongside rabbits that didn’t really exist.
Welch began running in January 2018 when a physician and nurse she worked with asked if she’d run with them in a half-marathon and she agreed, igniting a new passion in the process.
She continued to run more frequently and over greater distances, eventually falling in with the ultra community. In February 2019, she ran her first ultra in Arizona.
“I’m never going to be in the top 10 or top 40% of a race,” said Welch, who finishes any race she runs. “I’m a completer, not a competer.”
At times she has served as a “pacer” for other runners, wherein an unregistered runner helps a competitor maintain safety, momentum, and morale.
“I’d rather run with someone as a pacer than run the race itself because it’s like your job to make sure your runner is safe,” Welch said. “Having a pacer is just for sheer safety. It’s nice to have someone with you to make sure nothing happens.”
As a nurse practitioner at Immanuel Pathways PACE Center, Welch said much of her life is devoted to taking care of people—her frequent role as a pacer simply an extension of what she already does. During a friend’s first 100-mile run, she helped keep him on the trail, stay awake, and maintain food and water levels.
She also serves on crews. Much like pit crews that aid professional racecar drivers, those on ultra crews man aid stations.
“You get things ready, refill the pack with water, change their shoes, change their pants. You go as fast as possible to get your runner back out,” she explained.
Many runners in Omaha and its neighboring towns belong to Greater Omaha Area Trails Runnerz, GOATz, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that promotes trail running. Officially, it has no members, but GOATz president Ron Muhs, of Blair, said about 4,000 people belong to its Facebook page. GOATz hosts several races ranging from 5K to 100 miles in length, plus three, six and 12-hour races.
“Things tend to go the ultra way, but that’s not our intention,” Muhs said.
Mark Nygaard, a golf pro at Eagle Hills and Willow Lake Golf Courses in Sarpy County, ran a GOATz 50K as his first ultra having already completed three marathons, including The Boston.
“I started running as a lifestyle change at 45,” said Nygaard, now 54. “I threw on a pair of shoes and decided to start running a 3-mile loop around Memorial Park, never walking, always running.”
That was in 2014. Just two months later, he had lost 50 pounds, and his chiropractor didn’t recognize him the next time they met.
He refers to his wife, Brandi Griess, as his crew chief, who makes sure he is eating and drinking right. Running 6 to 8 miles on Saturdays with a group of GOATz who call themselves The Breakfast Club, Mark has come to prefer trails.
“I’m not for roads anymore,” he joked. “It’s hard to get run over on the side of a mountain.”
Running the trails at Hitchcock, occasionally with Semonell, Nygaard prefers 100-mile events, especially in the mountains. In September, he ran 30 hours and 42 minutes in the Mogollon Monster 100 near Pine, Arizona. By the time he finished, he had also climbed 18,000 vertical feet over the mountainous course, which he found beautiful.
Welch is in agreement regarding the beautiful scenery the ultra runners visit, often places that cannot be reached by cars.
“You get to see things no one else will get to see. There’s something magical that happens during runs,” she affirmed. “I don’t even know how to explain it. I have no way to let anybody else know what it feels like.”
A runner’s high paired with a Rocky Mountain high just can’t be beat.