For Arlington Man, a Marathon is Just a Warmup

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.' "

The first time Dodds ever ran a mile was for a physical fitness test before he joined the U.S. Army. While in the Army, he ran three miles in formation several mornings a week. He didn't enjoy it.

Dodds, the son of an Air Force officer, lived all over the world and graduated from Lafayette College in Pennsylvania on an ROTC scholarship. He graduated from George Washington University Law School in 1976 and became an Air Force attorney in 1983. He now works in the Air Force general counsel's office. It was when he saw the photo on his new ID card that Dodds had what he calls his "epiphany." At 5 feet 8 and 162 pounds, he felt that his face looked "chunky."

"I held that ID card up to the person who took the photo and said, 'Do you think that looks like me?' and she said 'Yes,' " he said. "I just knew I had to do something about my weight."

That something soon became running. Dodd did not start small. Reading about the Air Force's upcoming first-ever marathon, "I thought, 'Wow, maybe I could start running,' " he said. "The pinnacle of running was the marathon. The guys who could do that were in great shape. I thought if I ran a marathon, I would lose weight."

Dodds called a friend in Colorado who ran marathons, and they devised a training regimen. On July 20, 1997, Dodds began his running career with a jaunt of less than two miles from his Arlington home to Yorktown High School, around the track and back home.

He remembers the details because he immediately started a running log. To this day, he can tell you every time he has run, the distance and whether anyone ran with him.

Naturally athletic, Dodds soon worked up to a 15-mile run, but when he tried 20 miles he hit what runners call "the wall." "I just could not run anymore," he said. "I had no energy. It was like someone had taken control of your body."

Dodds figured out that he hadn't been drinking enough water. After making adjustments, he broke through the wall and completed his first marathon in September 1997 in 4 hours 5 minutes.

He decided to run another marathon to lower his time, and he kept competing. In April 1998 he ran his first Boston Marathon. By August 1999, his best marathon time was down to 3 hours 19 minutes. That month, he ran a marathon in Upstate New York that happened to be a trail run, through the woods and hills.

"I loved it," said Dodds, now 142 pounds with a slight build. "And after the race, I heard people talking about other kinds of races. They were talking about a 100-mile run. It was my first exposure to that."

Dodds graduated to ultrarunning by trying a 50-mile run called Mountain Masochist, near Lynchburg, Va., in October 1999. "I just wanted the whole experience," he said. "Was it grueling? Was it tough? Would I have the determination to finish it?"

Dodds finished the race in 10 hours 5 minutes, joined the Virginia Happy Trails Club a few months later and was off and running, so to speak. He ran his first 100-mile race in 2000 and has run one or more every year since.

The 50-mile runs are not that much harder than regular marathons, but 100-milers "are a whole different ballgame," Dodds said. He prepares for the longer races by running extended distances five to six times a week and trying to train in the woods or mountains. The regular 26.2-mile marathons with which he started are now simply part of his training regimen.

Until this year, however, Dodds had not attempted the Badwater, which starts at the lowest point in the Western Hemisphere and goes partway up Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the lower 48 states. The race is run on a paved road with a surface temperature of 200 degrees. Air temperatures can reach 130 degrees.

"Badwater is in its own class because of the extreme conditions. Not a lot of people want to do it," Dodds said.

It was in preparing to run Badwater that Dodds would jog through the National Mall and through Arlington on 90-degree days wearing multiple layers of clothing. Sometimes, he would wear a white jacket and white pants and drag a tire behind him, all to prepare for the conditions of Badwater.

Participants generally run all the way through an ultramarathon but occasionally stop at aid stations along the route to drink water and eat foods such as pretzels and even sandwiches. Like racecar drivers, some ultrarunners have "crews" of people who wait at the aid stations and help them recharge. All runners carry water or some sort of liquid with them, some on fanny packs around their waists.

Occasionally, runners might sleep for an hour or two during a longer ultramarathon, but Dodds says he never does.

During the Badwater climb, however, exhaustion forced Dodds and most other runners to stop and walk on occasion.

Still, "it wasn't as bad as I thought it was going to be," Dodds said. "I had a friend make this cloth tube that I wore around my neck and we put ice cubes in it. I call it my ice necklace."

Dodds started the Badwater early on a Monday morning and finished early Tuesday evening, in 35 hours 25 minutes, coming in ninth out of the 81 runners who started the race. Only 67 runners finished.

The Badwater was the first time Dodds ran to raise money to fight cerebral palsy. The disease was diagnosed in his son, Matthew, now 14, when he was 1 year old. Dodds raised about $5,500 in contributions for United Cerebral Palsy's research and educational foundation.

"I feel pretty good about it," he said. "It's probably not a lot of money in the scheme of things from UCP's standpoint, but every little bit helps."

During the Badwater, members of Dodd's three-member crew would call in occasional updates on his progress to the Virginia Happy Trails Running Club, which would post them on its Web site, at http://www.vhtrc.org/ .

Anstr Davidson, the running club's webmaster and treasurer, says that while Dodds started running later than most, he is part of a general class of ultrarunners who are in their late thirties or forties.

"There are some very young hotshots, but generally the very good ultrarunners are relatively older," Davidson said. "Faster people are going to do better, but it's not about raw speed by itself. There is an element of maturity."

More mature runners, he added, are more likely to pace themselves and avoid the physical hardships that can occasionally afflict ultrarunners, which range from blisters and twisted ankles to heatstroke and even hallucinations. Dodds plays down any health risks, though he says that ultrarunners should be properly trained.

Dodds said he plans to continue running for the foreseeable future. He points out that one of his best "running buddies" is 61.

"Am I going to last that long? I don't know," he said. "Guys like that are pretty incredible. But I am running faster now than I ever have."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company