Winter 1998

Run For Your Life
The Long-Distance Adventures of JMU's Alumni Marathoners

by Bill Gentry

Last spring, American Funds investment broker Buddy Gadams ('93) returned to work from a two-week vacation 20 pounds lighter than when he'd departed. Only a telltale sunburn and ginger gait offered clues to the cause of this remarkable transformation.

Buddy Gadams in the Marathon des Sables

Photo courtesy Buddy Gadams

Along with the 20 pounds, Gadams had shed his conservative corporate image during that fortnight to test his grit against the six-day, 150-mile Marathon des Sables - or Marathon of the Sands. He and 350 fellow extremists ran what's billed as "the world's toughest foot race" in the Sahara desert - the exotic land of National Geographic specials, sandstorms, undying thirst, camels, scorpions, blistering sand, scorching daytime heat and frigid nighttime cold.

The grueling desert trek put Gadams into the leagues of running's ultramarathoners, a growing band of individualists who constantly redefine the extremes of physical endurance. Their zealotry transcends that of traditional marathoners like Kelly Barton ('88/M.S. '92), Ken Monger ('92) and Mike Fitch ('87), whose own commitments to running are just as serious. Their multi-mile ordeals constitute much more than a series of races. For them, long-distance running is a lifestyle and an attitude they share with Gadams.

To many of Gadams' acquaintances who are not runners, however, the run of his life sounded more like a run for his life.

"There was one group who could relate - not necessarily to running 150 miles, but to stepping up to a challenge," Gadams says. "Then there were the others, people who just could not understand, people who just flat out thought I was crazy."

The 12th-annual des Sables featured six runs varying from 15 to 50 miles. Instead of the normal ascetic marathon ensemble - shorts, top, shoes and bib, competitors carried almost all of their supplies with them - food, personal effects, extra shoes, band-aids, even a sleeping bag and water, which was strictly rationed during each stage.

"I lost 20 pounds, four toenails and had about 10 serious blisters," Gadams says of the epic battle with himself.

It's a battle that will provide him plenty of fodder for story times with future grandchildren. And these tales won't be the typical exaggerations of walking to school in 10-foot snowdrifts and fighting off grizzly bears. Gadams really did fight off thieves who tried to steal his water supply from his backpack. (A teammate who helped thwart the theft earned a conk on the head with a rock.) And he really did run on hard-packed desert roads, crawl up steep 500-foot dunes, sprint through hostile villages, wade across a sewage-filled creek and endure 125-degree days.

"One thing I found out quickly was that all the heat collects at the bottom of the dunes. It was just so hot that you baked every day," Gadams says, adding that sleeping conditions offered no respite. "We had open-air tents ... . But then you had frigid temperatures and sandstorms. You were up every hour on the hour. I never slept more than three hours a night."

Breakfast consisted of three packs of oatmeal. He subsisted on Powerbars and various edible sports gel products during the runs, then threw together "one big meal at night," he says.

Some runners fell to dehydration, requiring IVs from a standby French medical team that also answered blister maladies by peeling the skin from runners' feet. Gadams passed on both the IVs and makeshift podiatry magic, but he did have some close calls.

Nearing the end of the 50-mile-long fourth stage, Gadams realized he was lost. Darkness was falling - along with the Saharan temperatures. "I saw this light way off in the distance, and so we just started running toward it," Gadams says of himself and a fellow competitor. They had guessed correctly and wound up at that day's finish line a staggering 13 hours after beginning that day's run.

"Thank goodness that was the right light. It's hard to tell what would've happened to us if it hadn't been," Gadams chuckles.

Gadams came closest to dropping out about 10 hours into the miserably long 50-mile stage. But after a year's training, nine preparatory marathons and an outlay of $4,000, he couldn't simply quit. "I just told myself that there was no way I wanted to drop out and feel like I would have to come back and do this again," he says.

From that low point, Gadams managed to rally the final two days, moving through hordes of runners en route to a top-third placing.

"There are basically two types of people who do this race," Gadams says, "those who are trying to win the race and then those who are trying to finish."

The same can be said of "traditional" marathoners, who run under less extreme conditions, but whose long-distance efforts require no less dedication.

Whether ultra or traditional, distance runners seem to agree they are a focused, disciplined lot who are able to tackle ambitious goals because they tend to take the long view on life in general. Persistent and patient, they are able to set and achieve a series of small goals in order to attain the ultimate one.

"I definitely know I can go [faster than] three hours," says Kelly Barton. "Where I can go from there I'm not sure about."

Cristi Ferran

Photos of Ferran and Fitch courtesy of Richmond Times-Dispatch

After finishing 33rd among women in the 1996 Chicago Marathon, the 32-year-old Columbia, Md., resident has set her sights on joining the next Olympic Trials Marathon field. To do so, the Geriatric Research Education and Clinical Center research dietitian needs to chop about 25 minutes from her best marathon.

"My first marathon was a 3:25, and I've gotten down to 3:04. For me to qualify for the Olympic Trials would take a lot of work," she admits, but adds she thinks she might have what it takes.

For the next few years, she expects to live the somewhat Spartan life of a budding national-class marathoner. Trials qualifier or not, Barton knows she's found her sport.

"It's something I do now for the competitiveness but also for the social [aspect]," she says, citing a growing interest in race directing and training clinics geared to first-time woman runners. "It's such a part of my life. I'll always keep running."

It's difficult to imagine that Ken Monger would ever stop either. The 36-year-old Columbia/HCA controller and CPA experienced his greatest success during a two-year stint in 1994 and 1995 while training with a driven group of Roanoke, Va., runners. "I ... averaged about 60 miles per week with three speed workouts and one long run," he says.

He has achieved a 2:45 marathon and many local and regional awards. In the 100th Boston Marathon, in which he ran behind running legend Bill Rodgers, Monger's 2:54 placed 1,360 out of approximately 40,000 starters.

Perhaps his fondest recollection comes from the 1995 Charlotte Observer Marathon, where he ran fast enough to catch up to some of the U.S. men's national marathon championship field finishers, who had a 15-minute lead.

Ken Monger

photo by Susan Alford

"When I crossed the finish line, they thought I was an elite and put the 16th- or 18th-place medal around my neck. I was too fatigued to speak loud enough [to tell them I wasn't]," he says. He placed 12th in the open division nonetheless.

Whether it's the prestigious Boston or Chicago Marathon, or a smaller community affair, make no mistake, winning is "a great feeling," says Cristi Ferran ('96). Nursing an Achilles' injury, she crossed the finish line as the winner of the Richmond Times-Dispatch Marathon's five-mile race last October.

Ferran, assistant account executive at Richmond's Martin Agency, has a winning track record. The 1995 JMU women's cross-country MVP and 1995 track MVP won the 1996 RT-D half-marathon and took third place in the Virginia 10-Miler with a 1:03:20 in Lynchburg last October.

Mike Fitch relished that same winning feeling when he won the RT-D 26-mile men's marathon on the same day Ferran took the five-miler. Fitch, a research scientist for the Highway Research Council in Charlottesville, owns a 2:24 marathon best but until last October had not hit the finish tape first. Claiming the marathon title "was literally like somebody had taken the weight off my shoulders. ... It was nice," says the 100-mile-per-week runner and JMU track and cross country competitor. "In the marathon, you get so many people participating that you never know if you will really ever get a chance to win one. I think you have to have a pretty good day and you also have to have luck on your side It was well worth it."

Like most runners, Fitch sees himself running well into his elder years. "It's definitely a way of life for me. And I do love the competition."

Perhaps ultramarathoner Gadams' explanation of his des Sables experience best sums up all these competitors' feelings.

"You do this to see how far you can push yourself mentally and physically, if you can push yourself beyond pushing yourself really," he says. "After having made it through this, I feel like there isn't much that I can't accomplish now."

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