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'Ultra' racer has to step it down

By John Powers, Globe Staff, 4/10/2001

Jim Garcia. (Globe Staff Photo / Tom Landers )

im Garcia hears it every spring. ''You're running the Marathon, right?'' And if not, why not? He's a world-level road racer, isn't he? He went to MIT. He works in Lexington. He lives in Westford. He can click off a 2:40 in his sleep.

''Well, I have a bigger race,'' Garcia might say. Such as the US 100-kilometer championships in late March, which determine the world team.

Bigger race? Bigger than the granddaddy of all road races?

''There's no such thing as a bigger race than Boston,'' Garcia says. ''It's the one you're supposed to sign up for, whether you want to or not.''

So Garcia is back on the entry list for - what? - the 16th time? Even though his calves are still knotted from that 18-mile trail race he ran in cross-country spikes in Boxford a couple of weekends ago. Even though the weather is likely to be chilly and windy like last year, when Garcia seized up and struggled home in 2:42.

''It's only a marathon,'' people tell him, as if it's just the first lap of a mile, merely something to set a pace with. For Garcia, still one of America's best ultrarunners at 42, a 2:42 marathon is merely a checkpoint.

Garcia does 100K races, which are the equivalent of two marathons plus another 10 miles. He does 100-mile races, which are just under four marathons end-to-end. On Saturdays and Sundays, each of his 20-mile training runs amounts to the distance between Hopkinton and Heartbreak Hill. For Garcia, a 100K and an 18-miler and a marathon in a three-week span is normal.

Of course, normal in the ultra world - ''ultra'' is defined as any distance longer than a marathon - is relative. There are 12-hour, 24-hour, 48-hour, 6-day, and 10-day races. There are 1,000-mile races - a Ukrainian named Georgs Jermolajevs holds the world record (12 days, 20 hours, 14 minutes, 27 seconds).

There's even a Million Mile Ultra Run, which officially began in 1997 but which you can join anytime. The finish date is Dec. 31, 2096, which means you only have to average a marathon a day.

A grueling test

Ultra running is all about splits and refueling, which is how Garcia explains it to folks who think he's crazy to cover 100 miles in anything other than a motor vehicle.

''Sometimes they say, `It's impossible, you're lying,''' says Garcia, whose annual menu might include three 100-milers, three 100Ks, a 50-miler, a marathon, and sundry mountain and trail races. ''But when you break it down for them ...''

It's not one of these survivalist things where they send you out with a knife and a canteen, he tells people. It's more like a supported hike, without carrying a pack.

''It's grueling,'' Garcia concedes. ''But it's not torture.''

OK, one time it was torture when Garcia was running a 100-miler 2 miles high in Leadville, Colo., got hypothermia, and dropped out after 85 miles. And that stretch between 30 and 40 miles in the 50-miler is nasty, he testifies.

''You're at rock-bottom,'' Garcia says. ''You're thinking: I've got 15 miles to go. It's really sobering. And when you run 100K, you feel just as bad - and you have 25 miles to go.''

An ultra race is mostly about patience, persistence, and pit stops. Just keep looping the loops and stay out of trouble. That's how Garcia won the Chancellor Challenge 100K in Boston two years ago.

Jan Vandendriessche was leading him by more than three minutes with one 10-kilometer loop to go. Then the Belgian cramped and crashed 20 yards from the finish as Garcia was passing him.

''I stepped on his foot and nobody saw it,'' Garcia says. ''They sanitized it and said he fell down, but ...''

Bumps, breakdowns, and bad luck are all part of the game once you're on the far side of 26 miles. It's no different than the Indy 500.

''It's like a car race,'' says Garcia, who works as a mechanical engineer at MIT's Lincoln Laboratory. ''How does the engine sound? How do the tires feel? People always ask me, `What are you thinking about?' I'm thinking about eating and drinking and what my splits are.''

It's all about pacing and fuel intake.

''The short and sweet of it is, you have to have fat and protein and salt and water,'' says Garcia. ''Unless you stay on top of it, after 30 miles, no matter how easy you run, you crap out.''

So Garcia's race-day breakfast might be a burrito, beans and rice, and a sausage. Then, every 5 miles, he'll swig 8 ounces of a sports drink. He'll have water, some cheese and crackers. At 30 miles, he'll down another can of energy.

''From 40 miles to the end,'' Garcia says, ''I just slam GU and Pepsi. You get jacked up on caffeine.''

There's no operator's manual in the ultra world except a primal one: Listen to your body. If it keeps breaking down, you're doing something wrong.

It isn't as though Garcia is some kind of perfect macadam machine, cranking out endless seven-minute miles.

Garcia's left leg is a quarter-inch shorter than his right. His right foot pronates because a broken toe healed wrong.

''Biomechanically, I stink,'' Garcia says. ''I saw myself in a video and I looked hilarious. My hips are gyrating, my arms are flailing like a windmill.''

His first steps

He never set out to be a distance runner. Garcia was a tennis player at MIT. In 1978, he and a few teammates were hanging out at Wellesley College during the marathon.

''Gayle Barron came by and we thought, `Holy Moly, she's good-looking, let's all run Boston next year,''' Garcia remembers.

Only Garcia did. He ran the Marine Corps marathon to qualify, lined up with Bill Rodgers and 7,925 others by the doughboy statue, and ran away from tennis.

After he got out of the Army, he began doing road races and marathons with the Central Mass. Striders. When Garcia went back to MIT for grad school, he ended up getting a varsity letter (at 31) in cross-country.

Gradually, the races got longer. Garcia ran the Nifty Fifty (as in miles) in Rhode Island. Then someone told him he had to do the Vermont 100-miler.

''The last 25 miles I struggled in, and I said, `Never again,''' Garcia remembers. ''Two months later, I was thinking about another one.''

His wife thought the very idea of a 100-miler was crazy. So Garcia simply stopped mentioning distances.

''I'd just say, I'm going to run a race,'' he says.

When Steve Vaitones, the New England director for USA Track & Field, told him there was a US 100K team, Garcia flew to Sacramento in 1995 to try for it.

''All the big boys were there, like [Alberto] Salazar,'' he remembers.

Garcia ended up third alternate for the world team, and when three guys got injured, he found himself in Holland, winning a team silver medal.

Garcia has made every US team since, and he'll be on the line again in France in August, assuming the European foot-and-mouth epidemic doesn't get every road runner's shoes impounded by then.

Yet while he's a household word among the ultra set, Garcia keeps his hobby on the down-low elsewhere. One man's ultra is another man's extreme is another man's insane.

''If you do everything in moderation, it's cool,'' he says. ''If you do it too much, it's obsessive. If I tell people how many races I do, it's `Get a life. You're spending way too much time on this.'''

Garcia runs seven days a week, but his training mileage is modest. Less than 80 miles total - seven during workday lunches, 20 a day on weekends.

It's the triple-figure races, though, and how Garcia looks and feels afterward, that raise eyebrows.

''I come home and I can barely walk,'' he says. ''And my sons say, `You call that fun?'''

The miles do take their toll.

''The stress on the body,'' Garcia nods. ''I'm 42 and I look 50. Every doctor you talk to says it's not healthy for you.''

So why keep going? His subsidy from USA Track & Field is a princely $85. Last year, he made $3,000 in prize money and spent $4,000 on travel.

Garcia runs because he keeps beating people, keeps getting these USA uniforms, keeps winning global medals. Maybe if television, with its growing appetite for reality-based fare, discovered the human drama (OK, agony) of a 100-miler, the man from Westford could become the seven-hour Maurice Greene.

''It's cool,'' Jim Garcia muses. ''You get guys crawling across the finish line. Once people realize it's gut-wrenching and tear-jerking, it'll take off.''

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