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What Are You Running (and Running and Running) From?

Plumbing the psychology of excessive exercise.

 

John Keehn overlooked no detail in prepping for his 30th birthday. In August 2013, two months before the October 14 milestone, the boyish-looking hedge fund analyst began doing marathon-length runs—25 miles round-trip, give or take, from his home in the Presidio to Tiburon or Rodeo Beach. He would head out late at night, between 8 p.m. and 3 a.m., training his body to push through the desire for sleep. He tested multiple systems for carrying water and his phone, experimented with how many calories he needed, and scrutinized his performance after every run. For the big night, he enlisted two friends to drive a support SUV, stocked with Vaseline, spare contact lenses, beef jerky, and celebratory cigars. He even contacted the Golden Gate Bridge Authority to arrange for a guard to unlock the span's pedestrian walkway between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m. that night. (Once, during training, Keehn got stuck in his short shorts on the Marin side of the span, which is how he discovered that bridge operators lock the walkways at nights—a precaution against jumpers.)

Keehn's plan was to begin his fourth decade of life by running 100 miles, essentially four marathons back-to-back. Marking a significant birthday with a strenuous physical challenge is a trend—almost a cliché—in the Bay Area, but Keehn’s version was inspired by an atypical moment: the final, dusty, cotton-mouthed strides of a 42-mile rim-to-rim-to-rim run across the Grand Canyon in October 2012. That adventure, recalls Keehn, was utterly epic: “I can remember pulling up and peering over the overlook and feeling adrenaline and scared and nervous, unlike anything I’ve felt in a very, very long time,” he says. “That’s what we were going for.” After 14 hours of slogging, instead of cursing his judgment and his blistered feet, he mused to his running partner, “How far do you think we could possibly go?”

The answer, Keehn decided, was about 2.5 times farther. And so it happened that at 5 a.m. on the Friday before his birthday, he and a buddy, Nick Oertel, set off from Cloverdale to test their limits. At mile 20—around Healdsburg, about three and a half hours into the run (at an average pace of 8.5 minutes per mile)—he and Oertel were feeling “awesome.” Twenty miles later, near Sebastopol, their support team hooked them up with pancakes from a roadside joint—a godsend because they’d had it with sweet electrolyte replacers. When the afternoon turned scorching hot, Keehn peeled off his shirt and gave his lean chest a break from a clingy and soaked synthetic wicking top.

Unfortunately, Keehn never learned if his plan for crossing the Golden Gate late at night was foolproof. At around mile 65, he and Oertel started alternating between running and walking—and then just walking. Before long, their pace had “devolved into a crawl,” says Keehn, and both guys started feeling woozy. At around 9:30 p.m., near mile 70, off the town green in Nicasio, they conceded defeat and climbed silently into the van. Oertel threw up. The pair were crushed.

Back in San Francisco, Keehn and Oertel slept eight hours, then caught a movie and pounded a couple of Super Duper burgers. They felt crappy and had nothing to do because they had expected to spend the day celebrating their 100-mile miracle. Walking back from burgers, they started joking about going for another run—maybe just around the Presidio? They egged each other on. Within the hour, they were in an Uber en route to Nicasio to pick up where they had left off the night before (the whole way out chanting, “We’re back!” from a Backstreet Boys song that had wormed into their heads earlier). Now without a support van, they traversed the Golden Gate Bridge at around 8 p.m. and headed into the Presidio to cross some long-planned finish tape amid a clump of cheering neighbors.

Though it certainly seems nuts, feats like the above have become eye-rollingly common among a certain set of high-achieving San Franciscans. Always a running town—home to the 110-year-old Dipsea race, the 103-year-old Bay to Breakers, and the svelte, 34-year-old Escape from Alcatraz triathlon—San Francisco is now an ultrarunning town. Physical triumphs that are not remotely normal have become commonplace here. It’s not enough to run the North Face Endurance Challenge, a 50-mile race through the Marin headlands—you have to upgrade to the Western States 100, mowing down the mountain stretch between Squaw Valley and Auburn as if it were a loop around Golden Gate Park. You can’t just take an occasional dip with the Dolphin Club—you have to do what investment adviser Mark McKee and his wife, Sunny, did: move near Aquatic Park to be closer to the bay for morning swims conducted in the dark, in the winter, wearing a headlamp.

For these extreme-fitness addicts, a rumination like Keehn’s “How far could we possibly go?” is not just casual musing: It’s a mantra. Participation in ultramarathons has more than tripled in the past seven years nationally, and Northern Californians do more of them than anyone else, reports Ultrarunning magazine. There is a race for every mood, on every weekend. This year, New Year’s weekend boasts nine road races; two weekends later, you can get your ya-yas out running a 50K in either Stinson or Pacifica. Meanwhile, the most rabid of gym rats are bench-pressing hundreds of pounds at 162 Bay Area CrossFit “boxes,” down-and-dirty gyms beloved by the masochistic workout set. And the once sufficiently glute-burning Dipsea—which starts at Old Mill Park in Mill Valley and takes you up 676 stairs and an incline nicknamed Cardiac Hill, then down poison oak–choked cliffs to the beach—now comes in “the Double” and “the Quad.”

What is fueling this toenail-blackening, vomit-inducing fitness fetish? It’s a question that I, a self-diagnosed obsessive-compulsive runner in her mid-40s, haven’t yet been able to answer. As I learned while canvassing my fellow extreme exercisers around the Bay Area, the reasons for our aggressive routines are as varied and complex as the punishments we inflict on our bodies. They’re rooted in concerns over body issues, aging, cardiovascular health, and, of course, social status. But they’re also bolstered by deep-seated emotional and psychological desires. We exercise like this because of a kind of physical hubris that’s endemic in the privileged and ambitious. Because we can’t turn off our type A competitive juices. Because we’re rejecting our midlife malaise, casting off the restlessness that partners and children and office life can produce. And because we’re chasing something ineffable, something that we hope will lead to exaltation or spiritual renewal. In this light, exercise isn’t just a feel-good way to blow off steam and keep the blood moving. For people like me, Keehn, the McKees, and many others, it’s something closer to catharsis.

 

The desire to conquer a century run or an Ironman triathlon is sparked by many basic impulses having little to do with ripped abs and thighs. Some extreme exercisers are searching for meaning, some for self-worth, some for escape. “We’re always looking for the bigger, better deal,” says Mill Valley sports psychologist Jim Taylor. “So if 10Ks make us feel good, we feel that much better if we do a marathon.” Bay Areans, always game for a good vision quest, are increasingly seeking answers in almost obscene tests of endurance. “The typical sources of meaning aren’t as evident now,” Taylor says. And so we run—until our legs go numb and all else falls away, leaving us drifting narcotically in an altered state of endorphins, Gu bars, and sweat. Swim from Alcatraz or mountain bike the Tahoe rim trail, and every brain cell focuses on preserving your life. “It’s like you need something equally intense, but pure, to get you off the treadmill,” says Dr. Mimi Winsberg, a coach and psychiatrist who works with performance athletes. “It’s almost like we’re resting on too comfy a pillow, and people are looking for a little more edge, a more primitive kind of challenge.”

I thought a lot about my own primal yearnings last fall during a largely showerless trip to Italy, where my 10-woman running group—the EMC gals, for Early Morning Crew—ran hut-to-hut some 50 miles through the unforgiving terrain of the rocky, exposed Brenta Dolomites. In our damp, rancid Lycra, we ascended cliffs by clinging to metal cables installed by soldiers who had traversed the inhumanly steep mountainsides during World War I. It was our version of a spa trip, minus the massage, pool, and pedicures, undertaken largely at my instigation. (At least there was wine—and an astonishing mountain goat of a guide named Franco whose own daily “jog” took four to six hours.)

I’ve been meeting the EMC gals—all of us in our mid-40s to early 50s, most of us brown-ponytailed working moms—almost daily for a decade. Starting at 5:45 a.m., sometimes earlier, we circle the Kezar track on Tuesdays, do hills on Wednesdays, and make an hour-and-a-half to two-hour loop around Lands End or through the Marin headlands on Saturdays. Some EMCers have booked a babysitter for 5:30 a.m. in order to take part while their husbands were traveling. We’ve run through a divorce; the deaths of a mother, a brother, and a brother-in-law; and the trials and travails of our children—the first days of school; the fallouts from mean girls; the first periods; and the dumpings by first boyfriends.

I thought we were badasses until I heard about the trips undertaken by other running posses. One group of women from Marin—most of them members of the Tamalpa Runners, the area’s hardest-core running club—crossed the Colorado Rockies and are currently contemplating a 93-mile circumnavigation of Mount Rainier. Another group ran the Grand Canyon route that Keehn did. “I was staggering around in the dirt at the top of the canyon, the last few miles of two 24-mile back-to-back days, and I’m like, ‘This is my girls’ trip? I could be in Calistoga,’” says 47-year-old Ashley McCulloch, whose group also does an agonizing weekly track run. “It’s the one workout you don’t want to miss, and yet it’s so awful.”

Like McCulloch, I too am a glutton for punishment. I crave intense 10- or 12-mile runs and feel empty when we go short. I exercise every single day despite knowing that rest days are critical for performance. Skipping a run makes me loony, lethargic, blue, and insufferable. I only book flights that will allow a run before or upon arrival: When I was delayed for eight hours at the airport in Punta Arenas, on Chile’s southernmost tip, I laced on my shoes and ran the perimeter. During the healing process for a torn calf muscle, I stairmastered in my therapeutic boot. And last year I had bursitis in my knee, an overuse injury, but I kept running until I literally could not. Then I hit the elliptical. When that became too painful, I swam.

What is the deal with me? Is my exercise dependence a drug habit cloaked in Capilene? Like the junkie that I am, I feel anxious if late afternoon hits and I have yet to sweat, hard. Some of my affliction, I’m aware, is about wanting to be thin. As a teen, I had bouts of all the major eating disorders, and studies have shown that exercise addiction and eating disorders often present together (one paper out of Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons reported that 48 percent of people who suffer from eating disorders also experience exercise addiction). But just as much is social: I crave the bonding that suffering with others creates.

“We don’t meet for coffee—we meet for runs and yoga,” echoes Catherine Clifford, 51, head of marketing for interior design site Decorist. “And not restorative yoga: a run followed by power, killer hot yoga.” She frequently meets Dawn Dobras, 46, who rows at Marin Rowing Association with anywhere from 30 to 40 women at 5:30 a.m., four mornings a week. Mill Valley veterinarian Mary Press, who attempted her first 100K in October, is similarly intent on combining a mega-workout with social time—in this instance, with her five children. She went so far as to buy a trail horse so that her kids can come along on her 15- to 20-mile runs.

In training for her second Ironman—a 2.4-mile swim, a 116-mile bike ride, and a marathon chaser—Sandy Holbrook James relies on an “arsenal of fix-it people” to ward off injury: She sees a masseuse and a Muscle Activation Technique practitioner in addition to her coach and personal trainer. Body work eats up her whole day. “It’s a job,” she says. For a certain set, that’s the whole point, asserts Oakland sports psychologist Michelle Cleere, who works with many performance athletes. “Over the last 5 to 10 years, I’ve seen this group of women who are 35 to 60 getting into tri. The reason? It’s unconscious, kind of like a midlife crisis. They’ve raised their kids, they’ve raised their husbands, they’ve done the groceries and laundry. They are seeking something for themselves, but they aren’t quite sure what it is.”

Not that the extreme-exercise phenomenon is confined to kid- and husband-raising women like myself—plenty of men are going just as agro. And that goes double within the cutting edge–obsessed tech industry, where self-actualization often comes with a careerist sheen. “Cycling, kite surfing, and triathlons are the new golf for the tech sector,” says San Francisco venture capitalist Chris Redlitz, who mountain bikes regularly with colleagues and even installed a mini–spin studio on his back deck. PayPal cofounder Max Levchin, who cycles “at least 50 miles” every morning, starting at 5 a.m., met the chief technology officer of his current company in the saddle. “It wasn’t until after we met, cycled, and talked that we established a professional relationship,” Levchin says.

The cachet that comes from well-publicized feats of athletic endurance is considerable. “The Bay Area has become this place where you don’t want to hang your wealth on your sleeve because that’s not cool,” says Burlingame business consultant Ward Carey. “But ‘I qualified for Kona’—that commands respect and awe.” When it comes to quantifying his addiction, Carey is refreshingly self-aware (“I know I’m mildly demented,” he says, laughing), but he admits that the bragging rights that come with physical achievement are as seductive as the physical benefits. “Every time I get in the water at Coyote Point, I look over to the East Bay and wonder how long it would take to train to swim over there—and what would people say if I did that?”

Given the growing cadre of extreme exercisers, a standout feat has to be bigger, more unusual (see our trip through the Dolomites), and, often, more dangerous. Greg Crane, a content manager at Apple who would have made a superb hunter-gatherer in the Stone Age, has an insatiable yearning for intense physicality. He prefers to work out by doing actual, demanding labor, and so he dreams up eccentrically exhausting schemes: Recently he overhauled his yard, shifting rocks back and forth and back again and moving huge dirt piles—all while wearing his weight vest. (To add some oomph to the yard work, last spring he took a pickax to a tree stump—and drove it right through his foot.) Lately, he’s been slapping 80 pounds in metal plates on top of a tire, tethering it to his waist, and dragging the entirety down his San Anselmo street. “The tire works great because the friction adds weight,” he explains. He also runs those blocks with his two children clinging to his back, a workout that he calls the “Daddy get up and go.”

But even I can’t quite wrap my mind around the feats completed by San Anselmo resident Meredith Loring. The freckled, redheaded 35-year-old devotee of carb- and sugar-free cereal (“Regular breakfast cereal is like doing a line of cocaine first thing in the morning,” she says), Loring holds dozens of Queen of the Hill titles, the top honor from the exercise-tracking app Strava. She and her husband, Trulia cofounder Sami Inkinen, took a three-hour run on their first date. After she checked off the Everest Marathon, which required a 10-day trek just to reach the 17,000-foot-high start line, she and Inkinen decided to row a canoe-size boat to Hawaii. To calculate the fuel that they would consume on board during the voyage, the couple breathed into a tube that measured their metabolic rates while rowing for eight hours on an indoor rowing machine known as an ergometer, or erg. The result: They would each need to ingest one million calories. “We had so little boat experience that we had to label port and starboard so that we could communicate,” Loring blogged. During their successful 45-day trip, they rowed 18-hour shifts, the equivalent of doing two back-to-back marathons every single day.

 

Our extreme behavior, like our ability to run, bike, or row long distances in the first place, has its roots in body chemistry. The term “fitness junkie” is not a euphemism: Run three miles for a while, and soon four or five miles must be pounded out to produce the same good feeling, and a cycle of dependence sets in. Researchers posit that exercise activates some of the same brain receptors affected by marijuana and opioids like Vicodin and OxyContin. “Exercise addiction really isn’t that different from any other addiction,” says Cleere. Take a run or a bike ride, and you increase the production of endorphins, which bind to the brain’s opioid receptors. These neurotransmitters bombarding the brain’s reward area produce a relaxed, blissed-out feeling: the fabled “runner’s high.” Endocannabinoids also become elevated, activating the same neural receptors that pot does. According to David Raichlen, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arizona who studies the evolution of human mobility, the primary purpose of endocannabinoids may be analgesic (pain relief). But a by-product of this infusion is to activate the pleasure center in the brain.

“What happens is that people need more and more of it, and it interferes with work, relationships, and life,” Cleere explains. “They go through a form of withdrawal if they stop.” And, like drug abusers, exercise addicts don’t seek help when they need it. “Like other addicts, they are so in it that they don’t see it,” Cleere says. Even so, just as every beer lover doesn’t become an alcohol abuser, most regular exercisers don’t morph into addicts: The prevalence of exercise addiction is thought to be 3 to 9 percent in the general population. (Among competitive athletes, however, that number rises to as high as 52 percent, the figure increasing in step with hours of training.)

Indeed, when uber-exercisers are pressed to explain why they must run, under such grueling conditions, for so long, they often enlist the language of substance abuse. “It’s almost like a way of self-medicating,” says Carey, who is a recovering alcoholic. Those in the endurance sports community report plenty of former addicts among their numbers—and some participants will admit that running helped them fend off addiction. Going through a rough divorce back in 2006, Mill Valley resident Ben Travers, 45, coped by joining the Tamalpans and becoming a serial Quad Dipsea runner. “I could hit the bottle or the trail,” he says, “so I turned myself into Forrest Gump.”

Many extreme exercisers describe their workouts as a way of exerting control in an otherwise chaotic world. “I can decide when I run and when I stop,” says Steve Crane, 46, a Tiburon real estate broker who stuck it out in the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, climbing and descending 65,000 feet through the Alps for 36 hours. “It was like, you’re not going to stop me. I’m the one that’s going to stop myself.” Marin triathlon coach Torsten Able says, “My clients want to feel that they’re the boss of their bodies.” Coach and psychiatrist Winsberg, who ran an Olympic-distance tri five weeks postpartum, concurs. “My day can go to hell in a handbasket, but if I’ve gotten in my intervals, that’s something I can feel good about.”

 

Inseparable from the mega-exercise movement is the Bay Area’s status as a cradle of technology. Coding culture has introduced the concept of optimization, and tech professionals (and those who aspire to perform like them) have in turn applied it to their bodies. People are convinced that by tracking actions and tweaking inputs, they too can become stronger, faster, better. A slew of gizmos invented here—Fitbit, Strava, Jawbone, Apple Health—reflect our growing desire to quantify, analyze, and maximize our every pedal, sleep cycle, and heart pump. Several years ago, Crane aimed to row a million meters on the indoor rower in his garage. He broke that big goal into mini-goals, pushing himself by competing against others online. “Focusing on a number provided a little safe zone for me to focus on myself,” he says.

That goal met, Crane is on to a new muscle-building endeavor. Following the advice of books like From Scrawny to Brawny: The Complete Guide to Building Muscle, he gained over 30 pounds in 16 weeks. He now tracks the calories in every spoonful of food he consumes. “I eat four eggs instead of two and put a pat of butter in the pan along with the oil,” he elaborates. “You have to get bigger to lift more.” He also tallies every burpee, box jump, barbell press, and double-under (looping the jump rope twice during each jump) that he does. His aspiration is to lift a total of 1,000 pounds by combining his best back squat, bench press, and dead lift. “To do Western States [the 100-mile race from Squaw Valley] and hit that in the same year,” he says, “would be groundbreaking.”

Such tangible results and straightforward successes (hard work in equals better performance out) don’t exist in most realms of our lives. “Try raising children. You’re not getting measurable, concrete feedback or improvement on a daily, monthly, or even yearly basis,” says Winsberg. “Try most jobs. Sometimes you don’t get thanked for a year. It’s nice to be able to say, ‘I did this workout, check, got this improvement.’”

Sports psychologist Taylor says that while he has seen ultra-racing become a lifestyle choice, he has also observed people using it in an attempt to alleviate painful issues. “I see a lot of people escalate their distances believing that they will find something at the finish line: happiness, inner peace, self-esteem, freedom from anxiety. They run the 10K, and they don’t find it, so they do the half marathon. They still don’t find it, so they say, ‘I guess I didn’t go far enough.’ People won’t find what they are looking for when they cross the line.”

Winsberg, who just completed the Kona Ironman race in 11:36:23 (10th in her age division), prefers not to dwell on the dark side of endurance athletics. What is really problematic, she counters, is all the sitting that we do. “If you go back to primitive societies, the average hunter-gatherer ran or walked 18 miles a day, every single day. What’s whacked is that in order to meet this basic physiological need, we have to pay tons of money to do these crazy endurance events, and be part of gyms, and orchestrate our lives to make it fit in, and wake up at 4 in the morning,” she says. “That’s the crazy part.”

It sounds to me like she’s fantasizing about a world where we all just run—as often and as far as our bodies will allow. It’s a longing that I share. Exercise makes me feel in charge of life rather than the other way around. When the wind is stinging my face and my hands are numb, I feel invincible, which matters to me because I count toughness among the highest of virtues. As Winsberg suggests, my need does feel primal. Some people have an insatiable need for drugs, or sex, or cigarettes; I can’t face the day without extreme exertion.

But for those of us who need to run miles upon miles in order to feel whole, the question remains: How do you know when to stop?

 

Originally published in the January issue of San Francisco

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