May 25, 2019

Athletics-Blood, sweat and tears yield ultramarathon joy

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

LOS ANGELES, Nov 25 (Reuters) – Running 135 miles through the searing summer heat of Death Valley in California before ending the route with a cumulative gain of 17,000 feet to reach the slopes of Mount Whitney?

Slogging across four desert courses, each 150 miles long, in Chile, China, Egypt and Antarctica in what is known as the Four Deserts Grand Slam?

Racing against the clock through 75 control points in the footsteps of ancient Athenian messenger Pheidippidis, with a cut-off of 36 hours to complete the 153-mile Spartathlon?

Risking dehydration, exhaustion, broken ankles, kidney failure or the need to throw in the towel and give up — all possible reasons for an athlete to abort the gruelling challenge of an ultramarathon?

For the uninitiated, all of the above scenarios suggest a twinning of sadism with sheer lunacy. For the ultramarathoner, however, it is all about running for joy, setting personal goals and trying to overcome every obstacle faced.

“People are intrigued by the thought of someone wanting to run 100 miles, or more,” experienced ultramarathoner Shannon Farar-Griefer, who has five times raced the gruelling Badwater 135 across Death Valley, told Reuters.

“They might say, ‘What’s wrong with you that you want to run 100 miles? Were you abused or were you a drug addict?’ We just love to run. It’s all about passion in this sport.

“You know you’re going to hurt, you know you’re going to have a long day. That’s why people think that we are a little different from the rest because we keep pushing our bodies. Ultras are all about learning how to be able to accept pain.”

An ultramarathon involves a combination of running and walking further than the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles (42.2 kilometres). Though most ultras cover distances of either 50 or 100 miles, many are much longer.

For Connecticut-based running coach Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist and certified sports nutritionist who has competed in over 60 marathons and 21 ironman triathlons, ultras are all about achieving objectives.

“It’s the innate human desire to push our limits,” Holland told Reuters. “I believe many people find incredible personal satisfaction in achieving these challenging goals.

“They run a marathon or three and then have a need to push their bodies even further, both physically as well as mentally. Pushing through periods of incredible discomfort and coming out on the other side is extremely empowering.”


Holland is a veteran of several ultras, including the Run to the Sun, a 36-mile journey to the 10,023-foot summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui, and he regards the ultra challenge as a metaphor for life.

“You realize that no matter how bad you think things are at the time, you are strong enough to push through them and things will always get better,” he said.

Australian Samantha Gash, the first woman to complete the Four Deserts Grand Slam in a calendar year, believes that ultramarathoners share a burning desire to be the best they can be while often competing well outside their comfort zones.

“The people who finish are not the most physically fit but the ones that are mentally strong, those who don’t entertain the possibility of not finishing,” she said.

Gash, who is featured in the 2013 documentary “Desert Runners” which chronicles the Four Deserts Grand Slam, gained a massive jolt of self-belief after her pioneering accomplishments in Chile, China, Egypt and Antarctica.

“Being (previously) a nobody in the world of ultra running, if I could do something of this size and scale, it makes you feel that anything’s possible,” she said of her success in the Four Deserts Grand Slam.

“There were moments when I wondered what I was doing, when I was so dehydrated it hurt. I felt new depths of pain.

“But I really never let myself contemplate giving up,” said Gash, who had to contend with heat, cold, dehydration and extreme fatigue in some of the world’s most hostile environments while running with supplies strapped to her back.

Farar-Griefer, a 53-year-old mother of three who lives in Hidden Hills, California and took up long-distance running at the age of 39, has no doubt about her most brutal ultra experience.

“The 292-mile Death Valley Badwater double, by far,” she said, referring to her feat in becoming the first female to complete the ‘double’ by finishing the 135 ultra, then summiting Mount Whitney before returning to the race’s original start.

“All the other runners finished at the portals of Mount Whitney but I continued on and I summited Mount Whitney and then I ran back. It was 130 degrees on the way back.

“At mile 270, I got an edema really bad. I was swollen, I couldn’t pee. It was scary because you could go into total renal failure at that point. Thank God I had a very experienced crew.

“It’s a sport where you have to be able to endure pain and you have to be comfortable stepping out of your comfort zone. It’s a constant mind battle. I love it.” (Editing by Frank Pingue)

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Athletics-Blood, sweat and tears yield ultramarathon joy

Inside Sailing’s Biggest Race

I haven’t peed in six hours, and my only option for relief is a precariously small carbon-fiber bowl, known to everyone on board as “the head.” It sits near the rear of the 65-foot racing yacht between three carbon-fiber walls, a precaution to ensure that sailors don’t slip off their perch in treacherous seas. But it’s exposed to the rear of the boat, an area housing other necessities the crew might need during my rushed encounter with the head.

Around 1am, Ralphie, a 51-year-old veteran sailor who has raced in the America’s Cup, catches me enviously watching others relieve themselves off the back of the boat. (As the only girl on board, such freedoms do not come so easily.) “The girls I used to race with would just pull their pants around their ankles and hang off the back,” Ralphie says with I shrug.

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Were I braver, I’d attempt this balancing act and delight in exposing my bum to the breeze and ocean spray. Instead, I sneak down to the head.

It was a calm June evening, and I was on breezy overnight jaunt from Newport, Rhode Island to Oyster Bay, Long Island with Team Alvimedica. Today (Saturday), the 10-man Alvimedica crew will undertake a rather more daunting task—with no confused female journalists in sight—when they compete in the triennial Volvo Ocean Race, sailing’s biggest offshore race and the most time-consuming single sporting event in the world (it takes around nine months to complete).

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Alvimedica are one of seven teams crossing the starting line in Alicante, Spain, embarking on the first of nine legs in the race: a 6,487 nautical mile, roughly 30 day journey to Cape Town, South Africa. (The teams rest for roughly a week at each port). The race will be complete in April, 2015 in Gothenburg, Sweden. The winner is determined not by total elapsed time but by a series of point, allowing teams to challenge for victory if they are forced out of one or more legs.

The Volvo Ocean Race began in 1973, known then as the Whitbread. It was a luxury sport then, as it is now, but with more emphasis on the luxuries afforded the sailors: wine, meat, cooks, and copious amounts of fresh water.

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Today’s teams survive on rehydrated food, protein bars, and desalinated water. In 2014, circumnavigating the globe is still tough, but there are technological luxuries too, in the form of state of the art GPS devices and weather predicting systems. But this can make the race more about the art of sailing. Because as Ralphie explains to me, “every team has identical software and identical weather.”

In years past, teams have piloted yachts with different design elements, but this year the Volvo Ocean Race is requiring all seven teams to race in identically designed, 65-foot boats. To the non-sailor, it seems a brutal journey; the cabins look like submarines, with a small berthing area where crewmembers sleep in netted bunks during four-hour shift.

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“A huge part of this race is about team chemistry and co-existing for 25 days or longer at a time,” says Charlie Enright, the 29-year-old skipper of Team Alvimedica. “There’s nowhere to run or hide if you have problems. Everyone in the boat is rowing in the same direction and better not drill holes in it.”

Enright and his 25-year-old teammate Mark Towill, who met in 2007 on the set of Roy Disney’s Morning Light, a documentary film about a group of young sailors racing from Southern California to Hawaii, worked together to raise money to compete in the Volvo race, ultimately convincing a Turkish medical supply manufacturer—Alvimedica—to be their sponsor.

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As the team manager, Towill’s job is to constantly monitor the speed of the boat and communicate that information to the skipper and navigator. “I’m always thinking about performance and how to go faster, faster, faster,” he says.

But speed and navigation are far from my mind. I’m onboard for a single evening—calm waters and a temperate climate—and it isn’t long before I am obsessing with sleeping and peeing.

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“Once you get locked into the watch system, day and night become irrelevant,” Towill tells me. “But you never get four hours of sleep. Anytime we have to put up the sail or tack or do any maneuvering, it requires all hands on deck. And it can take an hour just to tack. Plus you still have to find time to eat, clean, go to the bathroom and all that stuff.”

Around 3am, my spindly legs are beginning to ache from balancing on deck, as we heel with each tack. I had hoped to defy the four-hour watch system and stay up to see the sunrise, but I’m fantasizing about retiring to my claustrophobic netted bunk.

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Cradled in the hull, the Ambien is unnecessary, as I drift off to the muffled “whoosh” sound of the boat darting through the water like a large fish. The seas are calm, no waves violently knocking the hull, as they inevitably will during long stretches of the race. Indeed, in 2006 a Dutch sailor died during the race after, as the New York Times described it at the time, “a frantic and harrowing struggle against low visibility and treacherous waves.”

I sleep so soundly that I can’t fathom how the crew manages to sleep on land after each 25-day leg. Still, after nearly a month at sea, I imagine they are eager to recharge, ready for interaction with the outside world. But readjusting isn’t always that simple.

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“It’s strange when you get back to land after being in such a small place with such a small group of people, all focused on the same thing,” says Towill. “You feel like you have what you need. Then you get to land and there’s a million people standing around, handing you beers. It’s pretty overwhelming.”

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Inside Sailing’s Biggest Race

Environmentalists Move to Stop Fishing Nets From Drowning Endangered Whales

Three environmental groups have put the U.S. government on notice that they will file a lawsuit to force a ban on drift gill net fishing off the California coast, a practice that can ensnare and kill whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and other marine life.

The group Oceana, along with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network, sent a 60-day notice of intent to sue the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) for not adopting permanent measures to protect endangered sperm whales.

California gill nets killed an estimated 16 sperm whales in 2010, the groups contend, exceeding the maximum number of deaths the sperm whale population can sustain and still recover.

Drift gill nets are mile-long nets laid across the water overnight to catch swordfish and thresher sharks. Environmentalists call them “curtains of death” as they also trap marine mammals and sea turtles.

“Every year that drift gillnets are used off the California coast to catch swordfish, the result is that iconic whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, and thousands of fish are ensnared and killed as bycatch,” Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director, said in a statement. “Ultimately this gear type must be fully prohibited off the West Coast so we can have a sustainable swordfish fishery.”

More than 650 marine mammals have been killed by gill net fishing off the California coast since 2001, according to the environmental groups.

The California fishery in dispute stretches from the Mexican border to San Francisco, and about 150 miles out to sea.

Earlier this month, Oceana sent a letter to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, an advisory board to NMFS, demanding that the agency adhere to regulations under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) requiring fisheries to “reduce incidental mortality and serious injury of marine mammals to insignificant levels approaching a zero.”

Drift gill nets are efficient killers. While some large whales manage to break free from them, the nets can entangle their fins and flukes, creating considerable drag that depletes energy reserves.

The groups are calling on NMFS to reduce bycatch by requiring more selective fishing methods and accurate reporting of bycatch.

Swordfish can be caught with harpoons, a method that creates zero bycatch, according to Oceana.

The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations did not respond to a request for comment.

At a meeting on Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council debated proposals to impose “hard caps” on the number of endangered marine species that are injured or killed by the industry.

“They want to incentivize fishermen to take measures to avoid bycatches, which may lead to more innovations for how they fish,” said Mark Helvey, NMFS West Coast program director for highly migratory species.

Another option is to close down the fishery for the remainder of the swordfish season, from roughly September to January, if numbers exceed targets. The council is set to deliver a final recommendation in March.

For now, catching unintended marine species in gillnets is technically legal.

Helvey said the death of endangered or threatened marine mammals species, such as sperm and humpback whales, from gill nets was rare. California fishermen, he added, are required to place pingers on the nets. “They deter animals, which become aware that something is ahead,” he said. Nets must also be placed 36 feet below the surface to allow animals to swim over them.

That doesn’t satisfy conservationists.

“These nets have become a death trap for many species beyond swordfish,” said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity. “It’s time to start looking for less lethal ways to ;fish.”

Related stories on TakePart:

Why Is the World Ignoring Iceland’s Growing Slaughter of Endangered Whales?

California’s Blue Whales Are Surviving and Thriving

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Does Whale Watching in the Name of Conservation Do More Harm Than Good?

Original article from TakePart

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Environmentalists Move to Stop Fishing Nets From Drowning Endangered Whales