These ultramarathoners say life is easier after running 40 miles on frozen backwoods trails

By exploring their limits, extreme athletes are more equipped to cope with physical and non-physical stresses.
winter ultramarathon
‘I could do this all night,’ O’Neill thought. Ackerman + Gruber

It is 10°F outside of the wood-beamed shelter at St. Croix State Park, a 34,000-acre pine-and-oak expanse in eastern Minnesota. Hell, it’s cold inside, despite two fireplaces blazing, their smoke pulled into flared metal chimneys that resemble the business ends of rockets. The 54 athletes standing around keep their hats on, for the most part. Each has spent good money to embark on exactly the kind of endeavor most people would pay to avoid: running or skiing—whichever suits their fancy—for 40 miles. At night. In Minnesota. In January. While pulling a sled packed with 30-plus pounds of supplies.

This torturefest is called the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra, and its participants find pleasure in the hardship. At 4:30 p.m. they jiggle their legs and apply insulating tape to their cheeks and noses while the organizers give a prerace pep talk.

Of sorts.

“No one died last year,” says Jamison Swift, deadpanning. “Let’s keep it going.”

He soon passes the stage to Lisa Kapsner-Swift, his co-organizer and wife, who talks about what the racers can do if they feel like they’re coming down with the winter-ultra baddies: trench foot, frostbite, hypothermia.

The advice washes over Meredith O’Neill, who wears glasses and bright blue snow pants; two Heidi braids hang down her shoulders. She’s prepared for months, training to be alone, cold, and tired for what might feel like forever as she runs across an Upper Midwest oak savanna, passes through stands of pines, and treks across acres of trees felled by a storm. She’ll go and go and go until she returns, finally, hopefully, to this same building sometime tomorrow.

It’s fun. Not the normal, easy kind that comes with games of horseshoes or beach volleyball. Wilderness-seeking enthusiasts often call that “Type I Fun.” Instead, this is the more complicated variety, “Type II Fun,” which basically encompasses an activity—like backpacking up a steep mountain or scaling a sheer rock face—that suuuuuucks when you’re doing it but seems cool in retrospect. (Their categorization system also includes “Type III” activity, which is never actual fun and puts your life in danger.)

Type II recreation appeals to a variety of nature-loving folks, including a growing community of runners called ultramarathoners—those who think the traditional 26.2-mile course isn’t a big-enough test of physical endurance and mental fortitude. Their events mostly take place on remote trails, rather than on big-city streets with live bands and aid stations stocked like curbside Trader Joe’s. There were just over 100,000 finishes in ultraraces around the world in 2018, compared to 1.1 million for marathons. The extreme feats have to cover at least 31 miles (50 kilometers) and sometimes include extra challenges, like St. Croix’s sleds and snow. For tonight’s contest, participants must bring along, among other things, insulated water containers, gear for sleeping in the elements, a stove kit, and enough food to finish the course with 3,000 calories to spare.

winter ultramarathon
The St. Croix winter ultramarathon covers 40 miles—from dusk till done—and draws athletes considering longer events. Ackerman + Gruber

Sports psychologists have investigated the why of races like this one, looking closely at people who think that “more than a marathon” sounds like a terrific Saturday. What they’ve found is that ultrarunners get a kick out of tackling self-imposed challenges, forming community while also pursuing solitude, exploring the wilderness as well as their own limits, and then applying the idea that they can nudge their own boundaries to their tamer everyday lives.

If you ask athletes like O’Neill why they push themselves to and through mile 37 toward the finish line, their anecdata matches scientists’ findings pretty well. “In road marathons, there’s a lot of people, and I’m more introverted,” she says. “I wanted something a little quieter, more nature-filled.”

After her first ultra, a 31-miler outside of Minneapolis, O’Neill knew this was the sport for her. It wasn’t about fast finish times or jostling with other competitors. Participants like her go slower, mostly alone, through pretty places. She liked that. “I could do this for eight hours,” she thought. “I could do this for 12 hours; I could do this all night.”

O’Neill realized she could continue beyond where her biology told her to stop. That it was thrilling to go past her usual boundaries. “Your brain is holding you back a little bit to protect you,” she says. “But that’s sort of a wiggly, wobbly line that you can push further.”

It’s an idea exercise scientist Tim Noakes first suggested in the 1990s and dubbed the “central governor” theory: Your brain sends a signal to the rest of your body, informing the muscles that they’re too tired to possibly go on, and that if they do, they might damage themselves. But that signal comes long before it needs to, when the body still has tons of energy left.

Finding out how much literal and figurative fuel she has propels O’Neill into the now-single-digit Minnesota night—that, and seeking the kind of peace physical exertion provides. “It’s one of the few times I don’t really think about anything other than how far I’ve gone and how far I have to go and whether I feel okay,” she says. “I’m very present. I like it. I like having that calm.”

At 5:55 p.m., when it’s just below 10°F, O’Neill stands in full moonlight next to her sled, which is about the size of a Flexible Flyer a kid would ride downhill. Some entrants have wrapped their gear in fancy REI stowage; others merely tote big, blue IKEA bags with the handles knotted together. O’Neill’s kit hides in a black duffel. Her camp stove, like everyone else’s, rests atop the snow, ready to be lit in order to show that she can boil water in the cold—required before she can start moving her legs. Unlike road races and traditional ultras, this event requires all runners to demonstrate not just that they’re able to last a long time, but also that they have survival skills to fall back on. When the official says, “GO!” to signal the start, O’Neill’s cooker engulfs itself in a ball of flame, then settles down. A hundred feet away, two rows of primary-colored triangle flags wave from the start of the course.

Across the snowy ground, a participant named Bill Hansel has decked out his sled with Christmas lights, their blinks reflecting aggressively off the white flakes. Nearby, a spectator in an inflatable T. rex costume dances, a Cretaceous cheerleader. Hansel is a veteran ultrarunner who also organizes his own events, the Storm Trail Race Series, as a fundraiser for youth mental-health initiatives. Like O’Neill, Hansel loves what distance challenges do to his brain. “You’re alone with your thoughts a lot,” he says. “It’s my meditation.” But he also enjoys the community. “Trail runners are a very welcoming group. Everybody wants to help everybody,” he continues. Even if you’re mindfully alone for 25 miles, “you can pick up a random person” in the middle of nowhere and chitchat through ragged breaths.

winter ultramarathon
Runner ­Meredith O’Neill likes being surrounded by nature. Ackerman + Gruber

Hansel starts working to get his cold fuel to light.

Standing still like that, the elements start to intrude. At first it doesn’t feel so bad. Crisp! But then you breathe in sharply, and the insides of your nose flash-freeze together for a second. Frigid! Your lungs contract. Ouch! Then all of a sudden you realize that the iciness has slithered into your veins. It’s part of you now. And just as you can’t really remember exactly what it felt like to be a teenager, you can’t recall what it felt like to be warm. Maybe, you think, you never were. Maybe you’ll never be again. But the seemingly never-ending chill is temporary.

This, too, shall pass. Hansel talks in phrases like this sometimes—aphorisms interspersed with regular sentences, snippets of wisdom that are about running but really could be about anything: “There’s ups and downs, and it will get better if you keep going.” “Even if you run the same race, it’s not the same course.” “Don’t look at the big picture.”

That last one will buoy him throughout this challenge, as it has during every other ultra. He always, for instance, sets the timer on his watch for 10 minutes. When it’s up, he’ll take a drink of water. He’ll reset his watch. He’ll shift his attention to the next interval. “I have run 200 miles, 95 hours, 10 minutes at a time,” he says. He’s persisted so long that he’s hallucinated recreational vehicles (multiple times)—tales he swaps like drinking stories with other Type II enthusiasts.

This, though, is his first winter ultra, and he’s going into it with the same three big aims he always has: to finish, to have fun, to not die. He likes to play around with what he calls his superpower, which is the ability to go very slowly for a very long time. To take pleasure in how the moonlight hits the snow, to really notice his body at work, to hear only his footsteps and internal monologue, and to feel from afar the support of friends and family.

Soon, the water in his stove bubbles, and he begins moving toward his trifecta of goals. As the yellow moon rises over the trees, Hansel jogs between the flags, which lead down a snowmobile trail. He and O’Neill and the others will follow the path for the first 24 miles of the race, watching for yellow signs with blue reflective arrows to appear out of the darkness, showing the way to the only checkpoint.

More than one-quarter of the 54 people who set out on this evening will quit there.

winter ultramarathon
O’Neill prepped for months to run the St. Croix trail ­ultra in frigid temperatures Ackerman + Gruber

So, yeah, the St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra does claim some victims. But it’s actually one of the easier cold-weather endurance events out there. The Swifts founded it specifically for people who weren’t ready yet for the truly masochistic affairs: the Iditarod Trail Invitational 1,000, the Alaskan original and still the mother of all these races; the Tuscobia Winter Ultra, whose 160-mile route is a step toward qualifying for the Iditarod; and the Arrowhead 135, a challenge that begins at International Falls in northern Minnesota and that more than half of all starters don’t finish. (The numbers in the names refer, of course, to distance in miles.)

The Swifts want to give anyone interested in trying a winter ultra a safe place to practice something “short”—especially considering that even out here, in a straightforward test, it’s not very hard to die simply by standing still for too long. That’s why the runners have to show off their survival skills: so that someday, if they do have to set up a subzero camp, they’ll be ready.

Kapsner-Swift gets that. She does similar races herself. Last year she completed her first 24-hour run. “It was terrible,” she says, “and I loved it so much.” Her statement echoes the dichotomy articulated by another St. Croix participant, Adam Warden: “You want something that’s going to suck,” he says. “And be beautiful.”

For Kapsner-Swift and Warden, and for most ultrarunners, getting through the gut-wrenching parts is a game, like a tough chess match. “Not to get all existential,” Kapsner-Swift says, “but we have this incredible privilege of having, generally speaking, very comfortable lives.” That’s great—most of the time. But challenge is good for human beings. It’s how we grow. “Sometimes a little fear and self-doubt go a long way,” another participant, Kari Gibbons, explains. “I don’t feel that anywhere else in my life. That means I’m not pushing myself. I’m not taking a risk. If I do feel that, I know I’m doing something important.”

If life doesn’t give you lemons, in other words, you should probably pluck a few and bite down. Then, when you actually do get lemons, you’ll know what to do with them. That shift—from athletic challenge to regular existence—may be easy for ultrarunners, according to a 2014 dissertation from organizational psychologist Anthony Holly, now a director of strategy and analytics at PRO Unlimited, a workforce management company. He wanted to understand how these athletes’ mental toughness plays out in the workplace. By interviewing runners, he projected that the discipline, patience, and tenacity they use to complete races are skills they could transfer to job environments. It sounds a little Hallmarkian to say, “Because I could plod more miles, I knew I could handle the frustrations of office politics and rough deadlines.” But it seems to work. The St. Croix athletes have found that the extremes help them cope with personal and professional troubles.

winter ultramarathon
St. Croix athletes pull sleds with emergency supplies. Ackerman + Gruber

To understand why people initially decide to go to such lengths, Rhonna Krouse-Adams, an associate professor of health science at the College of Western Idaho, studied endurance athletes. After she failed to find any data on women ultrarunners, she decided to focus her research on them. She herself was one, and had become fascinated by the community and camaraderie among these women, who technically are competitors and mostly fly solo. “They’re noncompetitive people who form almost a family unit through this process,” she thought.

Surveying 344 participants, Krouse-Adams found they cared about health and used running to give themselves a sense of well-being. They focused on self-centric goals, like just finishing the race, rather than outward-facing ones, like besting a competitor. “The sense of freedom and accomplishment” topped the “why” list. “A sense of belonging was really high,” she says. It’s a whole identity—not just a hobby. According to a 2018 study, finishers are more motivated by their group affiliation and a feeling of happiness and fulfillment than those who complete shorter distances.

This is a self-selecting bunch, though, Krouse-Adams points out. “You can’t commit to something for 25 hours a week and have a lot of other commitments,” she says. “This was not a sport chosen by families. Not by moms.” Perhaps not surprisingly, other researchers have found that ultrarunners in the United States are around 85 percent male, 90 percent white, and more educated and richer than average. It’s a pursuit often taken up by those with lots of leisure time and money to spend on the $100-plus entry fees.

Life circumstances aside, not everyone is mentally suited to endurance events. Gavin Breslin, a sports and exercise psychologist at Ulster University, sees a focus on self-challenge. “The marathon is achievable,” says Breslin, who also coaches a team of Olympic hopefuls. Ultrarunners ask, “‘What can you do above that?’ There’s risk-taking involved.” The uncertainty is that you might not be able to do what you set out to do. The fist-pumping triumph is when you do it anyway. As O’Neill puts it, “That was liberating, to know that when I thought things were over and done, I had a little more.”

Breslin and his associates have also looked at how distance athletes score on a personality test of five major traits, sometimes called the Big Five, which in concert can define character: extroversion, agreeableness, openness, neuroticism, and conscientiousness. Ultrarunners tend to score significantly higher than average for that last trait, thanks to some mysterious mix of genetics and upbringing. You can cultivate this quality, he says. “You can develop goal setting. Somewhere within us all, there’s a level of ultraendurance.”

At the 24-mile checkpoint, some of the St. Croix participants might be questioning Breslin’s assessment. The ones who decide to bow out join volunteers inside a billowing warming tent that looks like it was fashioned from the inflatable T. rex at the starting point. Other crew members stand slump-shouldered around a fire, waiting for each bedraggled, frigid racer to emerge from the darkness.

The first athlete arrives around 10 p.m., but the last runner doesn’t get there until around 2:30 a.m. If they plan to take on the last 16 miles, they have to again prove they have the skills to stay alive in an emergency. They must stop, set up their bivy sack (basically a body-shaped tent that envelops their sleeping bag), climb into the makeshift bed, wait around 30 seconds, then pack it all up before leaving. That sounds like a pain, sure. But no big deal compared to running 40 miles, right?

winter ultramarathon
Counterclockwise from top: foam pad, sleeping bag and bivy sack, water bottle sleeves, camp pot and stove, fuel (red canister), snacks, trekking poles, microspikes. Ackerman + Gruber

Wrong: When the temp nears zero, and you’re sweaty, you get cold quick—the kind of chill that seems to attach itself to your DNA. Some who feel too frosty after their survival demo, or just beaten, call it quits and either walk a mile (as the crow flies) on a road back to the finish line or catch a ride in a volunteer’s car.

Around 3 a.m., back at the starting point, the race crew begins making breakfast in the shelter for the people who’ve returned, either humbled from the checkpoint or triumphant from the trail. There are flaky eggs, bacon, Krusteaz pancakes, bags of Colby Jack cheese, and Activia probiotic yogurt. Also a big orange cooler with a piece of paper taped to its side: “TANG!” On the registration table, not-yet-cooked bacon languishes—which is fine, because it’s still too cold inside for bacteria to propagate.

Hansel comes in around 4 a.m., shaken. Shaky, actually. His lips are blue like Frost Glacier Freeze Gatorade, and his fork wobbles as he brings eggs up to them, or tries to cut into the pancakes.

“I had dark times starting after about five miles,” Hansel says. He didn’t really see anyone else—at all—till the checkpoint. “I’m used to dark times,” he continues, “but not that early.”

To keep going, he says he thought of his family and all of the people who support him. Would he do it again? No. “Was it fun?” Hansel asks aloud. “Yes,” he answers himself. Perhaps that’s Type 2.5 Fun. (Within a couple months, though, he would be training for next year’s St. Croix 40 Winter Ultra.)

When O’Neill comes in around two hours later, after more than 12 hours on the trail, she looks jubilant. She caught that heightened state of being she’s always chasing through the woods—what psychologists call “flow,” or total absorption in a task. You lose track of time, you feel totally in control, like you are in charge of yourself and the world. “I’m not thinking of anything but what I’m doing, my footsteps, what’s around me,” she says.

She removes her coat, revealing a pale blue argyle sweater, the kind you might wear to the office, and a down running skirt over her bright blue snow pants. The race appears to have barely fazed her. She says, in fact, that it was “90 percent Type I fun.” Her only trouble was that all her food froze—except for a stash of Twinkies. But no big deal: She just ate Twinkies, fully present to sense their spongy outsides, their gooey centers, their sugar flowing into her veins. Crisis averted. Achievement unlocked. Game won, and over.

This story appeared in the Summer 2020, Play issue of Popular Science.