Iowa Alumni Magazine | April 2007 | Features

Extreme Runners: John Byrne and Ed Demoney

By Nichael Knock
Drawn to the mental and physical challenges, ultramarathoners demonstrate feats of endurance that would shame the Energizer Bunny.

Byrne UI alumnus John Byrne roughs the rugged terrain in the Leadville 100-mile race.

Halfway up the aptly named Hope Pass in the Rocky Mountains, all John Byrne could think of was pain.

"I was kind of feeling sorry for myself," Byrne remembers. "'When is this knee pain going to go away? When is this hip pain going to go away?' I was getting really discouraged."

And he still had 59 miles to go.

That was in August 2005 when Byrne, 96PhD, ran the Leadville 100, his first and possibly last ultramarathon. Known as "The Race Across the Sky," the 100-mile race is thought to be one of the toughest endurance events in the world. It tests mind and body by subjecting runners to high altitudes, treacherous mountain paths, and even an ice-cold stream crossing. Just finishing is an accomplishment, even when, like Byrne, you finish

212th out of 213 runners.

"I was almost last, but how many people even try this?" Byrne says. "Fifty-five percent of the people didn't even finish. Put in that perspective, I'm proud to have completed this race."

No wonder. Technically, an ultramarathon is any race longer than 26.2 miles, the length of a traditional marathon. Most, however, cover between 50 and 100 miles and must be completed within a specified span of time. At Leadville, runners must finish in fewer than 30 hours or be disqualified. Byrne just made it, finishing with a time of 29 hours, 57 minutes, and 43 seconds.

"I knew I was close," he says. "Around mile 96 I was really scared, wondering if I was going to make it on time. I finished with only 137 seconds to spare. Spread out over 100 miles, if I had run each mile a second-and-a-half slower, I wouldn't have made it."

The motives that draw athletes to ultrarunning vary from person to person. For some, it's a personal dare to test their mettle and resolve. Some do it to keep fit. Others like to stand out from the crowd, knowing they've achieved what few people would even contemplate. Some, like Ed Demoney, 55BA, of Arlington, Virginia, are caught up in the heady thrill of racing over mountains and across the sky. A veteran ultramarathoner, Demoney ran his first events in 1979—a "casual" 31-mile run, followed by the Old Dominion 100 Endurance Run.

Hope's Pass Ultramarathon runners test their limits on Hope Pass in the Rocky Mountains.

"I thought I'd give it a try," he says. "I've always enjoyed adventure. Also, it was fun. We ran down a lot of country roads. We ran through cornfields. We ran alongside horses."

Since then, Demoney, now 73, has completed more than 20 ultras. In February 2006, at the Rocky Raccoon 100-Mile Trail Run in Huntsville, Texas, he won in his age group and earned the USA Masters title and a gold medal. Two months later in April, he finished the Umstead 100-Mile race outside Raleigh, North Carolina.

He's attempted most of the "big races," including, in 1989, the so-called "Grand Slam" that includes the Western States 100 in California, the Vermont 100, the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run in Utah, and Leadville. He completed each of those races—except for Leadville.

"The tough thing about Leadville is it's up 9,000 to 11,000 feet," Demoney says. "And it's only a 30-hour time limit. Most runners try to do the Grand Slam in one year, and since the races are so close together (end of June to early September) and difficult to complete, there's a fairly high rate of attrition among those attempting the feat."

Compared to Demoney, Byrne is a newcomer to the sport. Although he has always kept in good shape and even completed a traditional marathon six years ago, Byrne had never sought to prove his fitness in an ultramarathon. Instead, it was a quest for something else that led him to Leadville: inspiration.

Byrne, a professor of managerial studies at Saint Ambrose University in Davenport and a visiting professor at the UI Tippie College of Business, has always been interested in motivational speaking. The problem was, he didn't think his life was very inspirational. He started to ask himself, "Why would people want to come listen to me? What's the hook?"
"I needed to do something unusual that would get people's attention," he says. "That something special was to run Leadville."

Of course, you don't just wake up one morning and decide to run an ultramarathon. Experts advise that athletes begin months ahead to condition their body to the stresses presented by long-distance running. Orthopaedic surgeon Dr. Stan James, 53BA, 62MD, 67R, says that training must include tough workouts balanced by periods of rest and recovery. James, who has worked with some of the biggest names in distance running, including Joan Benoit, Mary Slaney, and Alberto Salazar, also worked as a consultant for the Nike shoe company in the 1970s.

"The training has to be done in small increments," he says. "You have to let the body adjust to the stresses of the long run."

Ed Demoney UI alumnus Ed Demoney runs the John F. Kennedy 50 Mile Memorial in Washingtown County, Maryland. The 73-year-old ultramarathon veteran has competed in more than 20 endurance runs.

With such gung-ho athletes, overtraining can be a problem. Most runners can tolerate two to three strenuous workouts over a ten-day period, says James. He adds, "Half the problem is getting to the race without getting injured."

Demoney had been doing distance running for several years before he attempted his first ultra. He used to keep in shape by running to and from work every day. Now retired, he still trains regularly, clocking up 30 to 40 miles a week and frequently running 20 miles or longer.

"You just keep doing it," says Demoney. "I really slowed down once I hit 70. There aren't a lot of people still doing it in their 70s."

Although a few decades younger than Demoney, Byrne still found training to be a challenge. He used to rise at 3 a.m. to fit in a six-hour run around Bettendorf, where he lives. Over a nine-month period, he covered a lot of football stadium steps in an attempt to send his body the message that "Hey, you've got to keep going."

"You have to go to a new zone," he says. "You decide, 'I'm just not going to think about it. I'm just going to do it.'"

What happens when such extreme athletes "just do it"? Is ultrarunning dangerous? Are human bodies designed to withstand such stresses? In January 2004, one ultramarathoner died from pneumonia hours after completing a 48-hour race in Arizona. Even Dean Karnazes, the sport's best-known spokesperson, admits in his autobiography, Ultramarathonman: Confessions of an All-Night Runner, that he contracted temporary night blindness during his first race, the Western States 100.

Still, experts contend that ultrarunners face no greater risks than regular long-distance runners. According to James, stress fractures and muscle fatigue pose the greatest problems. Other dangers include Achilles tendonitis and plantar fasciitis, an injury to the heel. Magnified over the course of a 100-mile race, even seemingly minor problems can become serious. Friction-chafed thighs complain loudly with each stride, while blisters throb mercilessly. Race organizers provide medical checkpoints every few miles, and runners can help themselves by wearing shoes that fit and by keeping their feet dry.

Ed Running Long-distance runners like Demoney regularly face fatigue, dehydration, and rocky terrain.

They also have to be on guard against another danger that can quickly overwhelm even the most experienced athlete: dehydration. Runners must drink six to eight ounces of fluid every 15 minutes. In addition, they have to watch their nutrition. Over the course of 100 miles, athletes can burn up to 12,000 calories-the equivalent of almost a week's worth of food for most people. If those calories aren't replaced, a runner won't have enough energy to make the finish line.

Even though eating is often the last thing on their mind, experienced athletes know they have to rebuild their reserves. During a race, Demoney eats a lot of carbohydrates, from fruit and cookies to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Karnazes stokes up on the kind and amount of food that most people couldn't face when sitting at a table, let alone in the middle of an epic endurance race.

In his autobiography, he tells of the time when he ordered a pizza and asked for it to be delivered at an assigned time and place on the race route. "With the cheesecake stacked on top of the pizza, I started running again, eating as I went," he says. "Over the years I'd perfected the art of eating on the fly. I balanced the box of pizza and cheesecake in one hand and ate with the other. For efficiency, I rolled four pieces of pizza into one big log like a huge Italian burrito. Easier to fit it in my mouth that way."

But perhaps the biggest obstacles to success are the race courses themselves. While some events are run on oval tracks, many, like Leadville, demand that participants run 100 miles over rough mountain trails that are sometimes blocked by tree trunks, rocks, and even boulders. Runners regularly stumble and fall in this treacherous terrain. Byrne says he had to mentally train himself to "fall into the mountain," so as not to tumble off the edge of the trail.

"Countless times, I went flat on my chest," he says. "After 30 or 40 miles, what your brain tells your body to do and what your body actually does are two different things. I'd see a rock on the path and think 'OK, that rock is six inches high, so lift your foot eight inches.' Instead, I'd lift it five inches, stumble, and go down."

Getting lost is another problem. Although trails are marked with ribbons by day and by glowing flares at night, runners are so busy looking out for obstructions in the trail that they often miss the markers—with heartbreaking results.

Byrne By mile 35 of the Leadville 100, exhaustion and doubt weighed heavily on Byrne's mind.

"The first year at Wasatch, about 12 runners and I made a wrong turn," says Demoney. "It was four to five hours before I got back on the course. That was the end of the race for all of us."

Most runners will agree that physical challenges like aching muscles, wrong turns, and precarious trails are just half the battle. Equally crucial is the mental effort that goes into getting your body to ignore the instinct to stop.

"You have to have positive thoughts," says Demoney. "If you start thinking about all the problems and why you should quit, you're probably done."

Some runners occupy their minds by listening to music. Byrne jokes that his best friend during the Leadville run was his MP3 player, which he had loaded with inspirational music like the themes from the Rocky and Superman movies. Still, he admits that mental demons began to creep in around mile marker 35. Although he'd succeeded in running farther than ever before, he still had a long way to go.

"Your mind starts to play games with you," he says. "I was thinking, 'OK, I've made it 35 miles. Now my hips and knees hurt, I'm gasping for air, and I still have two-thirds of the race left. Plus, there are two monster mountains to climb.' It looked pretty grim."

When even Rocky and Superman could no longer sustain him, Byrne found help in the shape of his family. Led by his wife, Joan, a team of relatives that included his brother, his in-laws, and his children met him at every checkpoint and followed his progress through the race. Joan, who has run a marathon herself, served as team leader, emotional cheerleader, and head motivator.

It wasn't easy, especially as the miles began to pile up and time started to slip away. Joan remembers how disheartening it was at each checkpoint to watch people who'd learned their runner was not going to finish the race. They would slowly pack up their belongings and leave.

"It was funny how quiet it would be," she says.

She resolved that it would not happen to John.

"Mile 72. That was a really hard one," she says. "That was the point where I said, 'OK, this is not working. He can't run any more by himself. He's way off his pace time. We need to get more serious and focus on getting him through this race."

At Leadville, friends and family members can accompany runners after the halfway point. Joan Byrne made sure that someone was with her husband for every mile. Byrne's brother, Terry, 84BA, who had prepared to run eight miles, ended up enduring 25 miles.

As Byrne approached the finish line, his family surrounded him, urging him on and cheering every step.

"I had about a half-mile left, and I could see the clock up there," he recalls. "And I thought, 'I can do this!' A sudden burst of energy came into me. I actually jogged the last half-mile. I wanted to run—not walk—into the tape."


So, was it worth it? Both Demoney and Byrne say so. In fact, Demoney ran another race last year. It's good for his health, he says, and he gets to meet people from all over the world.

Byrne, on the other hand, may never run another ultra again. He went to Leadville in search of inspiration, and he earned it the hard way. If he needs a reminder of what he discovered high up in the Rocky Mountains, he only has to pick up his official race wristband with its short, simple inscription: "Dig Deep."