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The Liminality of the Long-Distance Runner Words by Andy Lee Roth


Photography by Larry Gassan


Rituals remake the person, establishing new identities and relations. Thus, for example, traditional rites of passage marking birth and adulthood transform infants into sons and daughters, and boys and girls into men and women. Similarly, competitors in 100-mile ultramarathons can be understood as initiates in one contemporary, secular rite of passage. In mundane terms, the ultrarunner’s goal is


to travel by foot from start to finish in the race’s allotted time frame. Step by step, through the heat of day and cold of night, the runner faces the challenge of covering extraordinary distance across wild landscapes, while addressing hazards that include dehydration, sleep deprivation, and demoralization. As in all pilgrimages, the outer, visible journey serves as the route to a liminal world: outside the confines of normal routine and convention, participants enact ideal versions of their selves and their world. Running long distances alters participants from ordinary, everyday roles - as parents and employees, for example - to heroic actors in grueling but potentially transformative physical dramas. To finish a 100-mile ultramarathon run is to As in other rites of passage


recast oneself. the process of transformation is not solitary. It


Left: Mari Lemus at the finish line of the Angeles Crest 100, August 2010. Wife of Jorge Pacheco, Mari got tired of just crewing Jorge and decided to try her luck.


is intensely social. The meanings that runners attribute to finishing a 100-mile run - not to mention their ability to finish - depend on the support of others, including fellow competitors, race directors and volunteers, family and friends. Each runner’s individual experience is the product of collective effort. Traditionally, symbolic decorations – such as painted images of a totemic figure – mark initiates’ bodies. Race numbers and medical bracelets signify the runner’s status in a 100- mile ultramarathon. The numbers provide a practical means of tracking each athlete’s progress on the course; the plastic bracelets bear each competitor’s pulse rate, blood pressure and starting weight. Medical personnel at checkpoints along the course monitor these vital signs. A three percent decrease in body weight indicates dehydration, which must be addressed before officials allow the runner to continue. Extreme dehydration can lead to renal failure, a


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