Dr. Hartings: Running on happy for 100 miles through the woods

Dr. Jed Hartings savors solitude and a comfortable pace during a 100-mile run.
Dr. Jed Hartings savors solitude and a comfortable pace during the 100-mile run in Hell, Mich.
Photo courtesy of Sandi Manuel.

Jed Hartings, PhD, has traveled the world as a researcher for the Mayfield Clinic and the University of Cincinnati Department of Neurosurgery. In the last two years alone he has traveled to Austria, England, Belgium and Iran to explain his scholarly research about what happens inside the brain after stroke or trauma. His most recent excursion filled the final page of his passport. But one of the most memorable journeys Dr. Hartings has ever taken was to the small, touristy town of Hell, Mich., where he recently ran 100 miles in 22 hours and 12 minutes.

The race, dubbed the “Hallucination 100,” was part of Run Woodstock, an annual festival held in Pinckney State Park, not far from Ann Arbor. The 100-mile course is a 16.6-mile loop that participants run (or try to run) six times. Ninety-four of 175 total runners finished this year’s race, and Dr. Hartings, who is 40, finished 11th overall and second in his age group.

The accomplishment also put Dr. Hartings in a perfect position to tell us about the brain’s response to a demanding activity that would cause ordinary mortals to fall asleep in their sneakers, either from exhaustion or sheer boredom.

“What’s surprising to a lot of people, including me, is that you don’t ever get bored,” Dr. Hartings says. “There is a lot to think about to make sure you can keep going. One of the most important things about surviving, or being able to complete a 100-mile run to the best of your ability, is balancing your energy expenditure and your energy intake. You’re always checking in with yourself: Am I going too fast? What’s my heart rate? How do I feel? Do I need to eat more, or drink more, or did I overdo it at the last aid station?  What will I do at the next one?

“And on the nutritional side, learning to decipher your body’s needs is critical. Am I thirsty? For water, or for sugar-water? You can’t pick the wrong beverage based on what you think you need; you have to listen to your body’s cravings.  Does salty food taste good?  Well, then you need more salt. If you’re running too fast and your heart rate is too high, blood is diverted to your muscles and away from your stomach, and digestion becomes a problem. If that happens and you lose your appetite, you’re in trouble, because you’re not going to be able to take in the 12,000 calories you need to get through the race. So your mind is always engaged with thinking about those things.”

Dr. Hartings, a veteran of 15 previous marathons and ultramarathons, drove to Michigan after work on Thursday, Sept. 5, slept in as much as possible Friday morning, had a big breakfast and lunch, and began the race at 4 p.m. He got off to a rough start. He successfully followed his plan to “start slow and then slow down,” knowing that it is human nature to be overzealous at the beginning of an ultra-race. But the lunch, he soon realized, had been too big. “I was running heavy and I felt awful,” he says.

After 30 miles, Dr. Hartings was about ready to drop out. It was 11 p.m. and dark. Spectators and staff had gone back to their hotels to sleep. Resting, Dr. Hartings sipped some chicken soup and considered his options. As the minutes ticked by, it became clear that he would be spending the night with the stars and the crickets in the middle of Pinckney State Park in Hell, Mich. “There was no place to go, nothing to do, no place to sleep if I really were to quit,” he reflects. “I didn’t have a ride back to the hotel even if I wanted one.”

With nothing else to do but go back on the course, Dr. Hartings got up and began running again. And suddenly, in an experience that only a long-distance runner can understand, his breathing and stride aligned in a perfect cadence.

“Things turned around completely and I was happy and feeling good,” Dr. Hartings says. “Once my stomach had settled, I was in the heart of the race, and it was a lot of fun. The temperature had cooled and it was a completely clear night. Most of the run is through the woods, so you have this very peaceful experience of running through the woods, mostly on your own. You can see stars overhead, even shooting stars, and all you hear are the crickets and the insects, and there’s a halo around you through the glow of your headlamp. You put on a little music, and the miles go by.”

Over the next several hours, Dr. Hartings ran, enveloped in a peaceful, meditative state that ultra-runners describe as “being in the zone,” “running happy,” or even “zombie running.”

That sensation, Dr. Hartings says, occurs because the brain slows down as energy is diverted to the muscles. At the same time, the vigorous exercise floods the brain with endorphins, chemicals that act as sedatives and reduce the perception of pain.

“So I don’t think you have quite the need to keep yourself entertained and occupied that you normally would,” Dr. Hartings says. “And of course you’re in these magical surroundings. This mental state is the goal of an ultra-runner, and that’s why we do it. It’s surprising, but it is not all pain after 20 miles. To the contrary, it is just a prolonged, peaceful, meditative, fun, exciting adventure through the woods.”

The dawn was especially poignant.

“It is physically beautiful because you experience the gradual onset of light, something they call ‘begin morning nautical twilight,’ the period between dawn and sunrise. You can see the progressive onset of light and hear the sounds of the forest waking up. It also is the best part of the race, because you’ve been running overnight for 10 hours in the dark and not seeing your support crew – which for me was my girlfriend, Andrea — and you know that people back home will check the race progress online when they wake up. The whole night builds up to the dawn, where you reach the point where you can see your support crew again and let everyone know you made it through the night.”

With 20 miles to go, less than a full marathon, Dr. Hartings eased out of the meditative zone and began to push himself. He knew that he was not only going to finish, but that he was going to finish well. He began to compete. His reward for completing the Hallucination 100 was a belt buckle, the staple award at all 100-mile races. His reward for placing second in his age group was a toy Volkswagen bus. His ultimate reward was having done it and the anticipation – “yes, definitely,” — that he would do it again.

— Cindy Starr