When my fellow-scribes at the Bucks County Writer’s Workshop read my manuscript for Twenty-four Years to Boston they thought I was a tad off my rocker. Think of literary-types reading about some guy who gets his jollies running 26.2 miles, and you’ll get the picture.
That was two years ago, and now I’m off the hook. A new writer joined the group recently, an ultra-marathoner name Aaron. Aaron’s 100-mile and 24-hour races make my marathons seem pedestrian.
Metaphorically, the lesson of the ultramarathon is that there is more road ahead of us after we cross the finish line, regardless the race. Whenever a goal is reached, there is always more ground to cover, should we decide to pursue the challenge. Finishing a race is the first step in running a better time, greater distance, or qualifying for placement on a team. Completing a degree or an apprenticeship is only the beginning of learning the ropes of a profession or trade. Writing a book is only the first step to publication.
The marathon prepared me for writing and publishing my memoir. Writing a book, as Haruki Murakami puts it, is labor, and I’ve learned that finishing a book is only the first phase of the process. Next comes editing, rewriting, querying for an agent, and if you don’t find an agent, querying publishers. And then there are rejections… piles of them, unless, of course, your name happens to be Murakami, Rowling, Chabon or Doerr. I can just picture all of the agents and publishers who read my query letter, and said, “Jim who?”
And that was the point at which the marathon training was most valuable to me, mile twenty of the publishing process, the “six miles of truth.” Had it not been for the years of running long-distance races, I’m not certain I would have had the endurance for the long haul to publication. Writing and publishing, like any challenge in life, isn’t a sprint, it’s a marathon.
The following New York Times article, “Ultramarathon Runner Embraces Physical and Mental Challenge,” is complements of my friend Don who founded the Bucks County Writer’s Workshop. Don, a former CBS correspondent, hosted the show Book Beat that ran from 1982-1993, in which he interviewed literary luminaries including John Updike, Joyce Carol Oats and Norman Mailer. An audio library of all of the interviews are linked to Wired for Books. Don has been a major influence on my own literary journey.
Ultramarathon Runner Embraces Physical and Mental Challenge
By SUSAN VALERIAN
At 5 a.m., with the sky dark and the ground slippery, Alex Nemet took his first cautious steps in a 100-mile race in western Pennsylvania. The heavy morning fog on this
October Saturday made it seem as if he were in a cloud.
Nemet walked the first few miles, unsure if his aching Achilles’ tendon could withstand the pounding of running. He rolled his ankle and tripped several times trying to navigate the wet, leaf-covered rocks on the trail in Oil Creek State Park. So he tightened his shoelaces, hoping that would improve his footing.
Nemet, 38, said he was thinking, “I don’t know how I’m going to get through this thing.”
The Oil Creek 100 on Oct. 5 was Nemet’s third ultramarathon of 100 miles or more in six weeks, and his seventh in six months. Such a grueling schedule is extreme even for extreme runners, many of whom do no more than two or three a year.
That Nemet, who owns a wholesale furniture business in Cleveland, ran the Pennsylvania race at all was extraordinary. His doctor had warned him that his Achilles’ tendon could rupture if he pushed too far.
But pushing his body and his mind to their limits, tearing himself down to the core, is what Nemet craves. It is in this state that he finds emotional healing.
When the sun came up, Nemet’s spirits lifted. He started jogging. Slowly and steadily, he got into a groove.
At 5 feet 10 inches and about 180 pounds, Nemet is big for an ultramarathon runner. His body is about 11 percent body fat, lower than the average person but not super lean.
About Mile 31, he faced a steep uphill. It was 80 degrees and humid as he tackled the next segment of the race, and other runners started dropping out.
“This is miserable,” he recalled thinking.
Nemet has faced tough, seemingly overwhelming challenges all his life. His mother lost her business when he was young, and money was tight.
A few months after he graduated from high school, his daughter, Samantha, was born. About the same time, Nemet learned a well-kept family secret: The man who had raised him was not his birth father.
He rarely sees his biological father, whom he knew as a family friend, and they have never talked about their relationship.
“Maybe I’m trying to get his approval in some weird way,” Nemet said of his extreme running.
He is still trying to figure out his other motivations.
“I need to be just on the edge,” Nemet said. “I’m almost at my best when my back is against the wall.”
Nemet’s wife, Julie, described him as impulsive and said his running seemed like an addiction. She worries about the wear and tear on his body.
“I’m not crazy about it,” she said. “It doesn’t seem real balanced at times.”
But she also sees the benefits.
“He’s more stressed when he’s not doing something for himself, more disconnected,” she said. “He’s very connected when he comes home from a race.”
She added, “It somehow medicates him a little bit.”
At Mile 70, about 20 hours into the race, Nemet was all alone. Exhausted, he started to doze off on his feet. He kept shaking his head to stay awake.
At the next water station, the race staff saw he was falling apart. A woman offered to pace him during the final 25 miles. Nemet accepted.
He tried to eat but had trouble keeping food down. At Mile 80, he drank a bottle of water and a bottle of flat Coca-Cola.
As the sun rose on the second morning of the Oil Creek 100, Nemet experienced what he called a weird vertigo, and he sometimes could not tell whether he was running uphill or down. He popped Tums and drank ginger ale to try to settle his stomach.
About Mile 93, he finished his third and final 50-kilometer loop, then faced seven more miles of hilly terrain.
Nemet endures the pain of ultramarathons as few others do.
His friend Marshall Ulrich, a Coloradan who won the Badwater Ultramarathon through Death Valley four times, said: “I think that’s one of the keys to being an ultrarunner: You don’t let things bother you. You just kind of go with the flow. He’s a master at that.”
Nemet called his races “unbelievable therapy sessions.” Sometimes, in the middle of the woods at night, he shares his deepest feelings with strangers.
“I don’t feel like I’m getting judged,” he said.
Perhaps because nobody has the time. The runners are focused only on putting one foot in front of the other to finish the race.
“It is my escape,” Nemet said. “I can’t go on vacation and turn my brain off.”
Frank Fumich, who has run many ultramarathons with Nemet, said the races were a test of mettle.
“We don’t enjoy it,” said Fumich, who owns a business in Arlington, Va. “We just want to see if we can do it.”
Nemet agreed, saying, “It’s almost a masochistic mentality.”
In the past, Nemet said, he exercised little and smoked and drank too much.
During one of his particularly unhealthy phases years ago, Julie Nemet saw a segment on “Oprah” about a woman who had quit her job and climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. To motivate Nemet to get moving, and knowing he likes a big challenge, Julie suggested he climb Kilimanjaro, too.
Six months later, Nemet did. On that trip, he met Fumich, who suggested that he try long-distance racing.
Nemet had barely finished his only previous race, at five kilometers (3.1 miles). But he entered the 2005 Marathon des Sables, a multiday 150-mile race across the Sahara.
“It was kind of typical Alex to jump in way over his head,” Fumich said.
Nemet attacked his training with little thought. On the first day, he ran and walked 13 miles, causing shin splints that sidelined him for two weeks. Then Fumich recommended a trainer, who created a cross-training plan.
Nemet worked out for an hour a day during the week, biking, swimming or running. On weekends, he built up to five- to six-hour runs. Six months later, Nemet finished the Marathon des Sables 161st out of 780 racers.
“It felt like I could do anything after that,” Nemet said. “I thought I was Superman.”
He has since run nearly 30 ultramarathons, most of them 100 miles or more. This year, Nemet was one of four runners to complete the Midwest Super Slam, five 100-mile races from April to September. He did so with the lowest cumulative time, 135 hours.
Ultramarathon finishers receive belt buckles, and Nemet has more than two dozen that he keeps in a drawer, largely out of sight. But he takes pride in the collection and wants to add to it each time he races.
That determination will be tested next month in Nemet’s eighth and final ultramarathon this year, the 150-mile Coast to Kosciuszko, or Coast to Kosci, in Australia. The course begins on the New South Wales coast and heads inland, up and over Mount Kosciuszko, at 7,310 feet the highest peak in Australia. Runners have 46 hours to finish.
Nemet chose the race, in large part, because it helps him work toward two goals at once: climbing the highest mountain and running an ultramarathon on each of the seven continents. He has reached the summits and completed ultramarathons in Africa, Europe and South America, and he has completed an ultramarathon in Asia.
Nemet has promised Julie, who is due to have their third child in March, that he will take a break next year. That does not mean he will stop long-distance racing for good.
Twenty-nine hours 25 minutes 39 seconds after he started the Oil Creek 100, Nemet crossed the finish line in 36th place. Only 68 of the 142 starters completed the race.
Nemet’s Achilles’ tendon ached. His body was chafed.
But he recalled thinking, “Over all, it wasn’t too bad.”