Happy trails

For someone who spends an awful lot of his working day sitting down, it seems a little odd that the first thing Steve Kanters asks for after a race isn't water or fruit or even directions to a massage table.

"Give me a chair," Kanters says, a grin on his bearded face. "Because I leave it all out there."

After more than a full day racing against time, other runners and the onset of muscle failure, no wonder the man wants a seat.

Kanters, a Sequim accountant, is one of a burgeoning subgroup of runners who challenge their bodies, minds and all good sense in the sport of ultra marathons.

Ultras are, by definition, anything longer than the 26.2-mile marathon. Some ultras eke past that marathon barrier at 26.3 miles to boast the "ultra" tag, but most are much more formidable. Some are based upon distance in a given time, such as a 24-hour race, but most ultras are 50 kilometers (about 31 miles), 50 miles or - for the few brave souls - 100 miles long.

David Ferrell's 1997 piece for the Los Angeles Times, "Far Beyond a Mere Marathon," details one particularly painful 135-mile ultra, the Badwater race in Death Valley.

"For a thin slice of society - zealots who live to train, who measure themselves by mental toughness - the ultra marathon is the consummate test of human character," Ferrell wrote. "No other event in sport, except possibly prizefighting, is as punishing, as demanding of the mind and body."

For Kanters, the challenge isn't in how much pain he can endure. It's simply about seeing what his body can do.

"How many people have gone 100 miles?" Kanters asks rhetorically from his business desk in downtown Sequim. "That really jazzes me."

A bicyclist in his teens and 20s, Kanters didn't get hooked on running until his mid-30s. Living in Boulder, Colo., Kanters saw a 10-mile run as a challenge.

Now that's a small training run.

One of his first races was a half-marathon in Colorado and he hasn't done anything shorter since; no 5k fun runs, no 10k races to celebrate some obscure festival. If it's worth running, it's got to be worth the pain.

In 1991, Kanters did the Seattle Marathon, then he did Portland's biggie in 1993. Then a work friend from Boulder called and suggested he try Pike's Peak, a 26.3-mile barely-ultra race in Colorado.

That changed Kanters' racing taste buds for life.

"I just got hooked on peaks and trails," he says.

For a runner considering an amateur career in running super-long races, that was a good sign; ultra courses generally are set on trails since it's too difficult to shut down roads for that long of a course.

In the Pacific Northwest there are plenty of ultra runs to try one's mettle, from 50-kilometer races near Bellingham (the Chuckanut 50k) and Orcas Island to 50-milers near White River and Olympia.

A 50-k was next on Kanters' list and once that was in the bag, then a 50-miler near White River. Soon he was looking for the next big hurdle.

'You learn about

your body'

Going from 50 miles to 100 is, as Kanters puts it, "way beyond double the effort."

So adequate (and almost excessive) training becomes a must. If not for a calf injury limiting his runs this year, Kanters, who turns 57 this year, typically gets a long run in first thing in the morning, setting out from Sequim and trekking his way up Palo Alto to Tubal Cain and back, or up and over Burnt Hill and back, all before hitting the phone lines and computer at work.

During a typical full-swing training week, three times Kanters is up at 5 a.m. and on a trail or road by 5:45 a.m. He'll only do one long run - for Kanters, that's a five-hour epic - just once a week. At the height of training, he posts 50 miles or more per week.

On that kind of training regimen, he is pretty well alone.

"If you get hurt, you can be kind of screwed ... but it's very peaceful," he says.

Peaceful to be sure, but ultra runners can find not having the right kind of energy boosts to be anything but calming. Runners burn hundreds of calories per hour and while shorter races don't necessitate highly-specific foods and liquids at stops, they're a matter of life and death in ultra running. Those runners pop salt tablets and electrolytes at prescribed times or distances because the body simply can't absorb enough from regular food.

Kanters puts that into practice on his training runs, stashing food and water in his car and looping back for replenishment. He runs with a Camelback backpack that's filled with water and will dip into high-elevation mountain streams in emergencies.

"You learn a lot about your body - everybody's different," he says.

Lacking proper food and nutrients isn't the only danger. Besides running in the dark with flashlights, rare animal attacks, floods and lightning, long training runs in unknown regions can put runners at risk if they get off trail. Kanters describes a long training run where he got lost, running several miles off course.

The day he got home, he bought a Satellite Personal Trainer, a device that tracks his progress via a Google Earth-like GPS system and has three key buttons. One is like a 9-1-1 button for emergencies. Another is a nonemergency help button. The third is an "OK" button for when he's fine and wants to let his family know.

"It takes out the cockiness," Kanters jokes.

For runs closer to home, he'll sometimes take his son, 4-year-old Davis, along the Olympic Discovery Trail.

"Most of my runs since Davis was born have been from here," Kanters says from his Sequim office. "He's a part of (my training). I hope someday he'll run with me. The key is, you can't ignore family obligations."

Kanters got through 47 miles of an ultra in Wisconsin that he couldn't finish. The weather was so bad that runners slogged through mud with lightning all around. Halfway through, Kanters could hear warning sirens telling runners to leave the course.

"That was a bad feeling - usually I'm very elated," Kanters says.

In 2007, the Sequim accountant would find 100 miles worth of elation.

The Boston Marathon of ultras

The Western States ultra is a 100-mile sojourn from Squaw Valley to Auburn, Calif. Runners often hold up the race as the Boston Marathon of ultras.

Kanters didn't need an invitation and he sure wasn't going to get one: With so many athletes hoping to give the 100 miles a go, registration begins in December, closes quickly and is capped at 369 runners. Why 369? It's the number of the last Western States race before the 1984 California Wilderness Act was put into law, banning any organized events in the Granite Chief Wilderness. The race still exists since it predates the act but is limited to that number - and participants must be picked by lottery.

Western States sees runners climb more than 2,500 feet in the first four miles, then another 15,000 feet at its apex before descending nearly 23,000 feet into Auburn.

Not willing to go into that kind of race blind, Kanters did his homework and it had little to do with numbers.

"I was more interested in the DNFs," he says. Did Not Finish runners. Rather than read the musings of ultra winners, he wanted to know why people weren't able to get to the finish line and to try to eliminate potential race-killers.

He got plenty of great advice from a runner named Jenny Ray who posted her DNF in great detail. Kanters took heed.

"You'll never know if you don't start," he says.

So he did. With Davis and wife, Anne, in tow, and after shedding 10 pounds in training, Kanters took to the starting line at Squaw Valley and started making his way up and down the course's rocky terrain.

At mile 32 or 33, well past a marathon's length, Kanters fell and surmised he'd bruised or broken ribs on his left side. The pain and nausea didn't stop and he did pick up some poison oak along the way, but Kanters still managed to finish in 28 hours, 56 minutes and 54 seconds.

"What I've read in the past - you are in the best physical shape at the start and the worst shape at the end - is true for me," Kanters wrote in a review of his race.

"I was sore but my legs were surprisingly fresh," he recalls.

Despite the finish, Kanters isn't settling. He wants the silver buckle, awarded to those who finish the Western States in fewer than 24 hours and, with his calf injury starting to settle, Kanters is eyeing a training schedule for the 2010 race.

Until then he'll have to settle for his bronze buckle, the one he proudly displays between prepping documents for the newest tax season.

"I think I'm capable," Kanters says.

Michael Dashiell can be reached at

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