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Runner goes the extra miles - across state

N.H. 'ultra' athlete recognizes no limits in long journeys that test mind and body

John Lacroix celebrated after running across New Hampshire. John Lacroix celebrated after running across New Hampshire. (Lisa Poole for the boston globe)
By Taryn Plumb
Globe Correspondent / November 2, 2008
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Here's John Lacroix's résumé:

Illinois, 150 miles: downhills like elevator shafts, mud the consistency of peanut butter.

Virginia, century run: rocks, heat - and at least two tongue-flicking rattlesnakes.

The Kancamagus Highway, 26.5 miles: eye-stinging cold, ice, wild drivers careening out of the night.

Special skills: No sleep, no stops - just willing aching legs one in front of the other all day and into the dark.

Yes, ultrarunning is agonizing, torturous - maybe a little insane. But for Lacroix, it's a life-altering challenge.

"It's hard for people to rationalize what we're doing," said the Newmarket, N.H., 27-year-old, who recently became the first person to run across New Hampshire. "I discover who I am through adven ture."

Most people think running stops at a marathon - that's the pinnacle, the ultimate proving ground.

But for the machine-like psyche of ultrarunners, 26.2 miles is just the beginning; they're barely getting their hamstrings warm.

For Lacroix, an outdoor-education major at the University of New Hampshire, even a double marathon isn't all that extraordinary; he jokes about feeling shortchanged after just 50 or so miles of repetitive sneaker-slamming. Since 2005, he's crossed the finish line in more than 20 ultras in 12 states, tallying 200 to 300 miles a month and blasting through four to five pairs of shoes a year.

"I'm definitely a 100-mile runner," said Lacroix, fleece and polyester outlining his slight frame.

And a pioneering one, at that. Just two weeks ago, LaCroix became the first person to run across New Hampshire - 124 nonstop miles. To raise money for the Make-A-Wish-Foundation, he kicked off in his size 8 1/2 Brooks sneakers in Chesterfield alongside his runner partner Nathan Sanel; 31 hours and 50 minutes later, he jogged to a rest in Rye. (Forty-year-old Sanel, of Penacook, N.H., dropped out after 70 miles with a foot injury.)

You're probably thinking: He must be crazy.

He gets that a lot.

The most common refrain: "I could never do that." His reply: "That's why you can't. We decided we could, and we do."

Like many athletes of the extreme, Lac roix possesses an intensity that he can't quite explain. He wants to keep motoring forward, running longer, farther, putting himself in impossible situations and jogging out on the other side.

He uses the runs as a metaphor for life: limitations are self-imposed. You can push through them, you can always take another step.

Whether or not they absorb this message, people are always intrigued.

He gets barraged with questions: What does he eat? Does he go to the bathroom? What does he think about?

Still, there's one thing he wishes people would ask: "Who besides yourself do you want this to change?"

The answer? "You."

It's difficult not to be stirred by that, said his brother-in-law Michael Robinson.

A soccer player and father from Nashua, he was inspired to run 30 miles - his farthest distance ever on two feet. When Lacroix made a 100-mile trek in Vermont, Robinson met him 70 miles in; he pushed off at 7 p.m. and finished in the dark of 3:30 a.m.

It hurt, he admitted, but at the end Robinson was "pumped, ecstatic." As for his dogged brother-in-law: "It was incredible to see how he was able to keep his sense of humor through the night as his body was aching."

Still, Robinson isn't a complete convert: He has no immediate plans to queue up his internal odometer for a full-on 100 miles.

But after a pause: "Who knows; he may convince me."

If so, he'll find himself among a driven class of iron men (and women) in a robust - albeit still fringe - sport.

According to Dan Brannen, executive director of the American Ultrarunning Association, there are 12,000 to 14,000 ultrarunners in the United States furiously wearing down the treads on their sneakers.

The sport is also popular in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and especially South Africa.

Events - of which there are roughly 400 annually in the United States - range from "simple" 30-milers to multiday, 3,100-mile odysseys.

Many include steep mountain climbs; some trace the desert; others boast monikers of "death," "666," or "funeral." Then there's Badwater, a brutal 135-miler that begins in the 120-degree heat of Death Valley.

All told, the sport takes a bit of obsession, a lot of determination, a passion for competition and a tireless personality - there's no giving up, the tank is never empty.

Many ultrarunners are also nonconformists, said Daniel Verrington of Bradford, who has motored his calves through 10 ultramarathons.

"It's about being stubborn," said the 46-year-old, a cemetery superintendent. "Your body gets to a certain point where it doesn't want to go anymore, but you just bear through it."

Ultras are akin to a game of chess, he said - you're strategic and calculating. And there's no letting up. "I'll do it another 50, 60 years anyway," Verrington quipped.

Lacroix also sees the future stretching out in thousands upon thousands of feet-grinding miles.

One goal: Now that he's battled the Granite State horizontally, he'd like to tackle it vertically. ("It's only 276 miles.") Another: A 3,000-plus mile trek across the country.

Ultrarunning requires the ability to endure often extreme discomfort, he said; but most notably, it's about keeping the mind fresh and surging through discouragement, despite daunting obstacles and severe conditions.

During his expeditions, sometimes there's conversation; other times, he pushes forward, stays silent.

Energy soars and dips. Then there are blisters, headaches, fatigue, swelling, stiff-as-steel knees - even hallucinations.

To stay fueled, Lacroix consumes 300 calories an hour - protein shakes, peanut butter and jelly, soup, sports drinks, and as much water as he can handle without cramping.

And he won't lie. At the end, it's painful, exhausting. Things tighten up; it's like walking around on wooden legs.

"I'll be the first guy to tell you 'I'm never doing that again,' " he said.

But after a couple of days, euphoria and pride take over.

And within a week, he's back out, pounding the asphalt, running, running.

To learn more, visit sherpajohn.blogspot.com or runnh.blogspot.com.

Long may you run

Since 2005, John Lacroix has crossed the finish line in ultramarathons - any organized foot race extending beyond the standard marathon distance of 26 miles, 385 yards (42k) - 22 times. Among the most memorable:

Longest run: 124 miles, 31:50, Run Across New Hampshire (above), Oct. 19

Fastest 50 miles: 8:58, Vermont, Sept. 28

Fastest 100 miles: 23:19, Vermont, July 21, 2007

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