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rules of politeness about how to handle this. For example, if you are male, at night it is acceptable to urinate as you continue waddling along the trail. This saves a little time and, under cover of darkness, no one behind you is likely to see the doodlings. During the day, this is considered a breach of etiquette. A host of people help to bring the 100-mile runner through the anticipated hazards.

Volunteers, often ultrarunners themselves,

serve at aid stations along the course, providing fluids, nutrition, information and encouragement. Family and friends – recast as the runner’s “crew” – caravan in vehicles from one aid station to another, providing similar support. (One old joke is that “crew” is actually an acronym for “cranky runner, endless waiting.”) At most races, beyond a certain point in time or distance, the runner may be joined by a pacer, who provides a measure of companionship and safety as day turns to night and the runner faces the race’s most challenging stages. By adopting ritual roles and going beyond physical, temporal

Above Left: Keira Henninger, first woman finisher at the Angeles Crest 100, August 2010, after a 105-mile day. She took an inadvertent 5-mile detour at mile 18, running 2-1/2 miles downhill adding over 1,000 feet of vertical gain and loss on a course that is already 29,000 feet of verticality.

Above Right: 100-mile runner and finisher Andy Jones-Wilkins [centre] is flanked by his two

pacers Bruce Hoff [left], and Andy Roth [right]. Roth paced from 50-75 miles, Bruce from 75 to 100. Roth took a shower and changed in the 6+ hour interval. Andy Jones-Wilkins was in an ICU within 3 hrs due to Rhabdomyolysis; he survived, and is back in the pink.

serious condition under any circumstance, and even more so in the remote wilderness settings where most hundreds take place. The medical bracelet also holds symbolic value. When a runner decides that he or she cannot continue, an aid station captain will confirm and reconfirm the decision to “drop” before cutting off the runner’s bracelet. This is an emotionally charged moment for all involved. Months of training and aspiration - “heat, dust, and dreams,” as one veteran finisher puts it - end irrevocably with the scissors’ quick snip. By contrast, many finishers continue to wear their bracelets for days and weeks after the race, as symbolic evidence of their accomplishment. Running 100 miles requires negotiating ordinary natural,

temporal, and social boundaries to face unanticipated challenges. Natural boundaries include mountain passes, sun-baked canyons, and turbulent rivers. At the Leadville 100, for example, Hope Pass (above 12,000 feet elevation) looms large; competitors must cross it once on the way out and again on their return. At Western States, many experts believe the “real” race begins around mile 78, where runners cross the American River. For the runner, the lived experience of the physical terrain is

inseparable from the experience of time. As first time finishers of a hundred will testify, the threshold where you realize that you have now run longer than ever before is both thrilling and intimidating.

100 miles too far beyond one’s previous limit? Running as the sun sets, through the night, and often into a new morning also takes most runners outside of their normal 24-hour routine. Dealing with bodily functions is just one, albeit exemplary instance of how 100-mile runners also negotiate social boundaries. If you run long enough, eventually you have to go. Outdoors and away from conventional facilities, ultrarunners adhere to informal


Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912). Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001.

Lyng, Stephen. “Edgework, Hermeneutic Reflexivity, and Reflexive Community: Toward a Critical Theory of Risk”, presented at the American Sociological Association Annual Meeting, San Francisco, CA, August 2009

and social boundaries, runners prepare themselves for the possibility of threshold experiences. Ultrarunners hold in high esteem the ability to maintain control in circumstances that most people would find beyond control. This is what sociologist Stephen Lyng calls edgework, i.e., voluntary risk-taking for its own sake. The point is not only to manage successfully all of the hazards that can be anticipated but also to face and manage those that are unanticipated. True edgework, Lyng suggests, necessarily involves “completely novel circumstances.” Scholars have long noted the focusing role of pain in ritual. Thus, Emile Durkheim observed that initiation rites involve systematic infliction of suffering on novices. The participants Durkheim studied understood pain as “a state of grace to be sought after… because of the powers and privileges it confers.” Though volunteers, crewmembers and pacers provide essential assistance, ultimately the runners themselves must manage the sensations of depleted bodies and fatigued minds to cover the entire distance on their own two feet.

Larry Gassan’s Finish Line Portrait Project documents what this

looks like in the end. Taken in a mobile studio within minutes of each runner crossing the finish line, his images capture individuals on the threshold: a headlamp still burns, arms are flexed in exultation, or hands rest on knees in contented fatigue. Pared by extraordinary effort to nothing extra, the finishers give testimony, not of transcendence but of immanence: Each runner is undeniably present, embodying in that moment a state of grace only found on the far side of one hundred miles.


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