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How much can a body endure? fitnessathletes test their limits

October 21, 2007 12:36 am


Arthur Puckrin, 69, of England pedaled for 336 miles during an ultra-long triathlon at Lake Anna State Park this month, eating ice cream along the way. hl1021triathalonram2a.jpg

Beat Knechtle of Switzerland keeps plugging along during the race's whopping 78.6-mile run.


Most of what you read about exercise these days is about how Americans aren't doing enough of it. But there's a small group of amateur athletes who can't get enough of it.

Two weeks ago at Lake Anna State Park in Spotsylvania County, 35 athletes from all over the world tested their limits in the Virginia Double and Triple Iron triathlons.

These races multiply the Ironman triathlon distances--2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run--by two and three. So those who do the triple swim 7.2 miles, bike 336 and run 78.6, going two nights with little to no sleep.

These are not events for the casual runner, biker or swimmer who signs up for races a week or so ahead of time. They take months and years of training, and a mind-set that can deal with lots of pain and little sleep.

Jonathan Chang, an orthopedic surgeon and clinical professor at the University of Southern California, said that although these distances sound daunting to the average weekend runner, "The human body is potentially capable of much more."

There hasn't been a lot of comprehensive research done on athletes who cover distances longer than the marathon and Ironman triathlon levels, Chang said. So it's difficult to tell whether ultra-athletes have stronger lungs, more efficient muscles or other physiological differences from other people.

It was clear at the Lake Anna events that not all of these athletes were born to be distance athletes.

Several said they didn't take up triathlons until they reached middle age and wanted to lose weight. The oldest competitor, 69-year-old Arthur Puckrin, didn't start swimming until he was 50. Another athlete in her 40s said she couldn't even do 10 minutes on a treadmill six years ago.

But how can a person know whether their body is strong enough to attempt these events?

"That is something that I would argue is up to the individual to decide," Chang said.

pushing the limits

Athletes at the Lake Anna triathlons often talked about testing their own limits when asked why they attempt these distances.

"It's this constant battle of fear and doubt," said Kathy Roche-Wallace, who completed her fourth triple-iron triathlon this month. "I'm starting to appreciate my own abilities, or just the fact that I can do it."

But just because you can do it, does that mean you should do it?

The human body can be conditioned to do a lot of things, but a triple iron triathlon probably comes pretty close to testing the limits of what it can endure, said George Wortley, a Bedford County physician who served as a medical consultant at the Lake Anna races.

Wortley is an ultra-runner, and has completed 50- and 100-mile races. He emphasizes that the approach to these races is a lot different than that of a marathon or lower running distance.

Ultra-distance running is not about running at full speed to the finish line, but rather keeping moving as steadily as possible over a very long distance. That means a lot of walking, strategic rest breaks and a regimented schedule of fluid and nutrition intake.

"I hurt more after running a road marathon than a trail ultra," Wortley said.

At Lake Anna, many of the racers' goals were based solely on finishing within the 35-hour time limit for the double iron, and the 60-hour limit for the triple.

The challenge was to keep putting one foot in front of the other, despite extreme fatigue, sore joints and for some, the hallucinations that come from lack of sleep.

"If you like running fast and running hard, then probably ultra-distance triathlon is not your sport," Wortley said.


The commitment required to train for one of these events can be as much of a time drain as a part-time job. Many of these athletes rise several hours before work, hit the road or the pool on lunch breaks and train for eight hours a day or more on weekends.

In a country where the majority of adults do no regular physical activity, that is a tough sell.

Jan Kurtz, whose husband, Wayne, competed in the Double Iron triathlon, said she has to explain to their friends why they can't make dinner dates for 6 p.m. on Saturdays--Wayne is still out training at that time.

And for all that effort, the payoff isn't prize money or cheering crowds or notoriety in the sports world. It's not even clear that they're getting more health benefits than someone who follows a more conventional workout regimen.

The prize is often nothing more than hugs from family and friends and the satisfaction of a goal accomplished at the finish line.

"You can do it, if you put in enough time and effort and training," Wortley said. "What you have to decide is, is it worth it for you?"

knowing when to stop

Rudy Dressendorfer of Penryn, Calif., is a licensed physical therapist, triathlete and Ph.D. who has focused his research on the the physiological and medical consequences of overtraining in endurance sports.

He said that training for a distance event can reveal unknown weaknesses in the body, allowing people to make more educated decisions about what to put themselves through in the future.

He gave the example of a young woman who was training for a half-marathon and discovered she had an uncommon heart condition that she never would have known about if she'd stayed sedentary.

But ultra-runners often talk about the key to their success being their ability to numb themselves to the pain they feel as the miles build up.

Dressendorfer worries about that aspect, since pain is one of the main ways our bodies tell us something's not right.

And according to those who finished the triathlons at Lake Anna, listening to those messages is critical.

Chang said certain kinds of pain--like muscle soreness and blisters--are to be expected during long-distance training or racing.

However, he said, "If you are having sharp, acute pain that appears to be joint-related, then you are probably overdoing things."

Distinguishing between those two is the challenge.

Roche-Wallace said she's dropped out of races before. She set up her own deca-iron triathlon course--10 Ironman-distance triathlons in 10 days--near her Michigan home, but quit after five to avoid injury.

"That's always a really hard decision," Wortley said. "It's a matter of learning your own limits."

Emily Battle: 540/374-5413

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