This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
The Western States Endurance Run takes place this weekend. Runners start at what used to be the bottom of the downhill ski course for the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley. Depending on the year, there can be a ground cover of snow on an early June morning. Years ago, I covered the Western States race a few times for ABC Sports. The first time, my assignment was to run up the mountain with the pack. The camera crew would be waiting for me at a designated spot at the top, I was supposed to deliver what they call a scene set to camera, a paragraph or so to bring viewers at home into the heart of the scene, really make them feel it. The cameraman had positioned himself so that runners would be streaming behind me, as they reached the summit and headed down into the canyons.
The snow was actually ankle-deep that morning. My running sneakers were buried in powder at the start. I had just retired from a career of marathon swimming and was considered a fitness icon of sorts, so hanging with the pack for just the first part of this race hadn't seemed intimidating.
It was dark and cold. The gun sounded and our mass of bodies, collective breath visible in the dawn air, bent forward to meet the steep grade. Not even a mile up, my legs turned to lead. The cold, combined with the altitude, severely compromised my oxygen intake. I gasped for air. Men and women flew by me, as if I were standing still. I had my pride so I pumped my arms, determined not to be the last to the top. I had written what I thought was some nice poetry about the extreme conditions and the extreme drive of these competitors but when I finally got to the camera, I doubled over, hands on knees, gulping oxygen like a middle-aged man out to prove himself at full-court basketball for the first time since high school.
The cameraman frantically urged me with a hand signal to speak, while there were still a few runners behind me to set the scene. I false-started a couple of times. I needed air too badly. Still gasping, I did manage to blurt out, in broken syllables, "These; ultramarathoners have just completed 5.9 miles. The grade. Almost vertical. The temperature. 30 degrees. Now they head into the canyons where they will encounter treacherous, jagged terrain and scorching heat of over 120 degrees. Only 94.1 miles to go!"
I didn't really have to follow those men and women for the next thirty hours, witnessing their sprained ankles, their bleeding blisters, their hallucinations, their leg spasms from low glycogen levels. They had my profound respect back at the Squaw Valley summit.
The ultra-marathoner is a unique animal, to be sure. A standard 26.2-mile marathon isn't anywhere near enough for them. There's almost a comaraderie of superiority shared among the ultras. As if each earns a badge of courage by enduring the gashes and the bone bruises and the full-fledged sleep walking that comes when the brain can no longer tolerate the lack of sleep and the body sputters with the lack of fuel. They almost all reach a state called "catabolic;".; That means they are now feeding off their own muscle tissue, no matter how much Gatorade they drink.
In my 102.5-mile swim from the Bahamas to Florida, even eating close to 1,000 calories every hour, I still lost 29 pounds in just under two days. As an ex ultra-athlete myself, I can guarantee one thing that will happen at the finish line of this weekend's Western States Run. Whether they stick to it or not, 100% of the finishers will state emphatically that they will never, ever do anything like that again.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.