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The ultramarathon: if a marathon just isn’t enough

It is 3 p.m. on Sat., Mar. 6, the first day of Spring Break. Yalies around the globe are reading, sleeping in, and laying out on the beach.

But for Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, BR ’12, it’s not time to rest, at least not yet. It’s time to run—run the longest race of his life. There are 62 miles between him and the finish. It’s going to be a long day.

The Coyote Two Moon Ultramarathon is a treacherous 100-kilometer race whose course winds through the mountains of Southern California. Over the 60-mile stretch, the runner gains 19,000 feet of elevation. In rough terms, it’s like running from New Haven to New York City while climbing up and down Mt. Kilimanjaro. In short, it is pure insanity. The race organizers call it “organized chaos.” In its third year, Coyote Two Moon remains in its infancy, but today it has attracted 35 erstwhile contestants. Only a quarter of them will make it to the finish line.

Upon meeting Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins for the first time, it’d be difficult to guess he is an ultramarathon runner. He’s not particularly imposing. His most striking physical features are his perpetually ruffled blond hair and his constant smile. He exudes cheerfulness, not intensity.

Today, though, Jonathan will need all the intensity he can muster.

Jonathan shouldn’t even be allowed in the race. The course is dangerous, and race organizers don’t have the time or resources to deal with inexperienced runners who pass out or become injured during the race. Running in the race is a privilege granted only to those with a strong ultramarathon background, a background Jonathan doesn’t have. Later, Jonathan admits he only managed “to beg and cajole my way in with an understanding that I’d train like a man possessed.”

Before the Coyote Two Moon Ultramarathon, Jonathan had run a grand total of exactly one marathon, officially. But his training runs occasionally stretched longer. A jog to Wesleyan and back. A little jaunt to Hartford, 40 miles away. One day, a 60-mile run to Massachusetts, before hitching a ride back to New Haven with a friend. While in preparation, he regularly ran 70 or more miles a week, peaking at over 100 miles a week. He ran at night, when there were fewer scheduling conflicts. Occasionally, he admits, “sleepy time [took] one for the team.”

By the time Jonathan starts, most of the racers are already on the course. The race organizers stagger the contestants, trying to arrange skill levels so that everyone completes the race in roughly the same time. The first start was at 6 p.m. on Friday. Nearly 24 hours later, Jonathan’s group begins. “We started out as a group. By the time we reached ridgeline,” Jonathan later recalls, “the rain had turned to snow.”

The conditions are, frankly, miserable. At low altitudes, rain. At higher altitudes, snow. In between, the worst of both worlds—freezing rain. Chilly, wet, difficult weather. Jonathan, though, feels right at home. A native of Sitka, Alaska, (population 8,800), he’s used to cold. Later, Jonathan calls the weather “a sort of meteorological home-field advantage.” Even on the bitterest winter New Haven nights, Jonathan’s running apparel consists of no more than a t-shirt and shorts.

“I hate heat and run horribly in it,” Jonathan explains. “But for me the snow and rain was perfect weather.”

Twenty miles into the race, Jonathan’s spirits are high. He’s in the middle of the blizzard on an exposed 5,000 foot ridge line and completely happy. Later, he’ll jot down his thoughts on that moment in a journal: “The wind blows the snow sideways and [there’s] not a soul within miles of me, and a Thomas Tallis motet plays on my iPod—it is like this rapturous experience. I can’t wipe the grin off my face.” He’s run almost a marathon. Two-thirds of the race is left.

Forty miles in, Jonathan is still going strong. The race director informs him that all the runners who had started after him—the highest-seeded racers—have dropped out. Jonathan realizes, incredibly, he might be in first. He decides to turn it up a notch, reeling in runner after runner. As he passes a first aid station, though, Jonathan forgets to fill up his Camelbak, the water-bottle-cum-backpack ultramarathoners wear to stay hydrated. Miles later, after a “sustained climb,” he’s dehydrated. And cold.

He is 50 miles into the race. It’s 4 a.m., 13 hours after he began. It was at this point, he remembers, that “my legs just froze up.”

12 hours of constant precipitation have left the course’s clay-like soil dangerously slick, and the last part of the race is a steep downhill. His intense dehydration at mile 50 has left Jonathan desperately weak. “I never recovered. My wheels just fell off,” he later recalls. He describes it quite aptly as “trying to run up or down a sheet of stainless steel with a thick coat of Vaseline on it.” The last dozen miles are “painfully slow.”

With just two miles to go, Jonathan is passed for the first time. “I was totally pooped. My downhill muscles were just so shot there was no way I could’ve latched onto him,” Jonathan remembers. Jonathan pulled to the finish, placing second in 17 hours, 27 minutes, the third-place finisher almost an hour behind. Of the 35 runners who started the Coyote Two Moons, only nine finish. At the finish line, Jonathan lies down and falls asleep. They wake him up when his name is called at the awards ceremony. He shuffles over to the table but passes out once again. Later he finds out he was suffering from an electrolyte deficiency.

It will be two days before Jonathan can walk on a flat surface, and four days before he can climb stairs, but emotionally, he’s complete.

Flash forward to the present: Back at Yale, Jonathan is happily preparing for his next big race, the Boston Marathon, while juggling his usual set of activities—the Yale Symphony Orchestra (he plays bass and cello), ReadySetLaunch (a college admissions mentoring program), and leading Yale Outdoors, while trying to keep abreast of Alaskan politics. Compared to Coyote Two Moons, Boston is, topographically, child’s play, but offers its own challenges—a much larger field of competitors, for instance.

On Mon., Apr. 19, at noon, I’ll be rolling out of bed for my first class. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins will be rolling through his thirteenth mile, using the wisdom gleaned from the mountains of California to push through a flatter, simpler course.

We’ll see where he finishes. Safe to say, it will be miles ahead of the rest of us.