For Arlington Man, a Marathon is Just a Warmup

(By Nathan Bilow -- Associated Press)
By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 25, 2005

Like many avid runners, John Dodds could often be seen jogging around Arlington and on the National Mall on 90-degree-plus days this summer, undaunted by the sweltering heat. What was different about Dodds was his layered running attire: a long-sleeve shirt, a short-sleeve shirt, a fleece-lined running jacket, sweat pants -- all topped off with a plastic rain jacket and pants.

Other times, the Arlington resident and Air Force attorney could be found sitting in 180-degree heat in a sauna for 45 minutes of what he delightedly calls "baking in the box." In fact, the sauna at the Pentagon, where he works, wasn't hot enough, so he'd go to the one at Fort Myer instead.

Some people might call it masochism. Dodds calls it training. In July, his hard work paid off when he spent 35 hours running a 135-mile race through the Death Valley desert in California. Known as the Badwater Ultramarathon, the race is run in temperatures as high as 130 degrees and is billed on its Web site as "the most demanding and extreme running race offered anywhere on the planet." Dodds finished in the top 10.

So why would anyone choose to subject his body to such torture, especially at age 54?

Dodds is what is known as an "ultrarunner" -- someone who runs races that are longer than a conventional 26.2-mile marathon. In Death Valley, Dodds's mission was partly noble -- to raise money to fight cerebral palsy. But he and other ultrarunners say their ultimate motivation is simply the love of the challenge.

"It's hard to explain," Dodds says. "It's like, why did I do my first marathon, then why did I do my first ultramarathon? It was always sort of the next achievement. Can you set a goal for yourself, train for it and then actually do it?"

Though the sport is still relatively small, it has grown substantially since the first ultramarathons were held in the 1970s. Several hundred ultramarathons are now held around the country, many of them 50- or 100-mile runs, said Scott Mills, a member of the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club who has been running ultramarathons for 20 years. Nationwide, approximately 5,000 to 10,000 people participate in the sport regularly, he said.

The Northern Virginia-based club, with nearly 300 members, is among the largest ultrarunning clubs in the country. Its members range in age from their 20s to 70s and come from all professions. About 25 percent of the members are women.

Mills attributes the sport's growth to the desire of some runners to move beyond conventional marathons and also to the nation's growing interest in fitness and a general love of nature. Most ultramarathons are also called "trail runs" because they are run in mountains and wooded areas and across streams and rivers.

Dodds came to appreciate the pleasures (some would say the pain) of ultrarunning relatively late in life, running his first ultramarathon at age 48.

As a child, Dodds played Little League baseball, and he played soccer for one year in high school in England. He never ran.

"To me, running was supposed to have a purpose," he said. "You would hit a baseball and run to first base. That was running. I would never had said, 'Wow, it's a nice day, let's go running.' "

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