The (Long) Long-Distance Runner
Two Campus Staffers Compete in Ultra-Marathons, Running as Many as 100 Miles in 24 Hours
By Julia Sommer, Public Affairs
The Bay Area abounds with runners, but very few are ultra-marathonners, or "ultra runners" -- those who run races longer than the 26.2-mile marathon. Two of this rare breed are on Berkeley's staff: Mike Palmer, an AA II at Summer Sessions, and Eric Robinson, an AA III at Fleet Services.
For Palmer, 45, it all started a dozen years ago when he noticed he was putting on weight and puffing as he climbed stairs. "I didn't want to age that way," he recalls.
He had run track in high school and decided to start workouts again. He did a 10K race, and later a 10-mile race. "I'd always been curious about long distances, but all I got to do in high school was two miles," he says.
A fellow-runner convinced him to try a marathon. He did, and qualified for the Boston Marathon.
Palmer then did a 50K race, next a 50-miler and finally he found himself face to face with the ultimate -- the 100-mile race. He's run nine of them to date, with a best time of 25:16:18. Now he's preparing for his sixth go at the best-known 100-miler, Western States, June 26 to 27. Some 400 qualifying applicants, chosen by lottery, start in Squaw Valley and end in Auburn. They have up to 30 hours to finish.
Robinson, 31, started long-distance running with his parents when he was 9. At age 11 he competed in a 40-mile race with them.
He ran cross-country in high school, but the longest race was 5 KM -- "way too short for me," he recalls.
After a hiatus while a student at Cal, Robinson started ultra-running seriously again in 1994. "Immediately I felt much healthier -- mentally, emotionally and physically," he says.
He did his first trail marathon in 1995, then a 50K and a 24-hour track run, where he covered 105 miles.
Then he tackled his first 100-mile trail run -- the Rocky Racoon in Texas, which he ran in 21:31:54, his best time ever.
Most ultra-marathonners run and walk continuously, stopping at aid stations for food and water and finding their way at night with flashlights, say Palmer and Robinson.
A "pacer" may accompany each runner for the last 30 to 50 miles to make sure everything is OK. (Celeste Langan, associate professor of English, paced Palmer for the Western States race in 1994. She had run the race in 1992.) Last year, due to the El NiŅo winter, the first 20 miles of the race was on ice, Palmer recalls.
Robinson has sought out the toughest 100-milers in the country. His favorite so far is the Hard Rock 100 in Colorado, at an average elevation of 11,500 feet. It took him 38:32:43 last year, including a total of 90 minutes eating and resting at aid stations. His parents were there to help out. He'll do it again in July.
At the end of March, Robinson took advantage of the three-day weekend to fly to Florida and compete in a 50-mile run.
Palmer and Robinson have very different ways of training for their sport. Palmer runs about two hours after work every day in Tilden Park or Strawberry Canyon. Weekends he runs five or six hours each day, often at Mt. Tamalpais. He walks to work and does weight training twice a week after running.
Robinson typically runs for eight hours just once a week. He also trains by taking part in "shorter" races, like the one in Florida. He walks to work, about five miles round-trip, and gets as much rest as possible.
As one might expect, both Palmer and Robinson are very slim. Both emanate a detached inner peace and physical ease.
"It's a great feeling to be running on a trail, crest a ridge, and know that you can travel as far as the eye can see," says Robinson. "Once you're out there, how can you not want to be there? Often the only way to see this country is on foot. And I get to be with people I enjoy and take on a huge challenge. Most people are capable of so much more than they realize."
Says Palmer: "After I did my first 50K, I felt I could take on anything -- I was on top of the world. When I run, I feel more alive, more connected with the way we were before automobiles."
Like Robinson, he enjoys the camaraderie among ultra runners. "It's a tight-knit group, like a sub-culture," he says.
Adds Robinson, "It's very inspiring to see the wide range of ages taking part, up to people in their 70s, and more women are taking part every year."
Both runners also relish the amateur status of their sport. "Ultra running is not tainted by commercial encroachment," says Palmer. But he predicts that the 100K race, an international event since 1987, will be an Olympic event soon.
"Fortunately, this sport will probably never be a huge hit," adds Robinson.