We have all seen bits and pieces of marathons being run on television, watched portions of the race during an Olympics broadcast, or have even seen a stage live depending on where you live. But, have you ever heard of an ultramarathon?
To be quite honest, I have heard of the term before but never really put much thought into it and I have been around running, literally, since I was six years old. However, when I describe it that way I need to substantiate the statement.
I have been a track and field competitor, coach, and certified official for United States of America Track and Field throughout my life. But, I have never given a second thought to ultramarathon running.
So, what exactly is an ultramarathon? An ultramarathon describes any footrace that is longer than a traditional marathon which covers 42.195 kilometers or 26 miles 385 yards.
Most ultramarathons are broken into distances between 31 miles to 62 miles; however, there are also races that cover 100-200 miles that are multi-day races run in stages throughout different terrains with breaks for sleep.
There is no doubt that you are wondering the same thing I did when I first read the definition, and to make the phrase one that I can write, it is – What the #@&%!
Lt. Col. John Bezou (Ret.); a Mississippi Gulf Coast native, recently completed an ultramarathon race which is also the first leg of a monumental five-stage feat that Bezou is challenging called the 4 Deserts Grand Slam Plus. It means that Bezou will compete on five different continents before Christmas – South America, Europe, Asia, Africa, and Antarctica.
This challenge is Mount Everest for endurance athletes. To date, there have only been eight athletes in the world that have successfully completed the challenge and two of the eight are Americans. When Bezou completes this challenge in December, he will become only the third American and the ninth person ever to do so.
The Namib race took place May 1-7 in the oldest desert with the largest sand dunes in the world. It traversed mountain outcrops, Atlantic waves crashing on the desert shoreline, and moon-like landscape.
The second stage of the feat is set for the Republic of Georgia from June 19-25. This is a special edition race for 2022 due to the Gobi March in Mongolia cannot be run due to lingering concerns with COVID. In Georgia Bezou will run through lush green valleys, medieval monasteries, and countryside villages in the Southern Caucasus Mountains.
The third leg of the challenge will be held in Finland. The Lapland race is set for August 14-20 in the “land of the midnight sun” as the sun does not set in summer. This is one of the best places to view the Northern Lights and competitors will traverse “rakka” rocks from the Ice Age, great Taiga forests, pristine lakes, gnarly gorges, and run-ins with reindeer.
The fourth leg of the challenge is set for September 25 to October 1 and is called Atacama Crossing and is located in Chile. The runners will slog through salt flats, freezing canyons, and river crossings in the foothills of the Andes Mountains.
The final leg of the challenge will take place in “The Last Desert” on the continent of Antarctica November 25 to December 1. In the “White Desert,” the runners will navigate through icebergs, mountains, research bases, and among seals, arctic birds, and penguins.
Bezou recently returned from Namibia on the continent of Africa where he completed the seven-day 155-mile footrace through the Namib Desert. In an ultramarathon, the competitor is completely self-supported throughout the race and must carry the necessary nutrients, clothes, and other items needed throughout the race in a pack that can weigh up to an additional 20-pounds. Needless to say, there is more to this race than just training as a runner. After his return from Namibia, I sat down with the ultramarathoner to understand why he wanted to do this, and, more importantly, how he did this.
Bezou commented, “Competing in ultramarathons makes sense to me. It is tuned into my core values of self-determination, the ability to challenge myself, and a sense of adventure. Mankind was designed to endure and to do that we tackle challenges. That is what an ultramarathon does. I am determined to complete this and I prepare for the challenge through training. In the race, the runner takes on an adventure through different terrain such as trails, desert, mountains, and other places in different parts of the world.”
Bezou, who spent 20 years in the United States Army, added that he trains up to six days a week and sometimes up to three sessions per day. The training can consist of walking/hiking with a pack, moderate intensity run, speed sessions, weight training, cross-training, cardiovascular work, and core workouts. There are also recovery sessions where he visits with a chiropractor, massage therapist, as well as a sports psychologist to prepare his mental approach for the race.
When he first started, Bezou trained under a coach who guided him through workouts. That has evolved into his coaching other athletes now.
Bezou continued, “There are four main areas that focus on which include mechanical, cardiovascular, metabolic, and psychological. You have to have your body prepared in all four areas to complete the race. Mechanical is the training of the body to handle the rigors of the race. There is different terrain, temperatures, and climates. I try to train in different locations depending on what types of terrain I will encounter. I have trained in mountain ranges, in Death Valley for high temperatures, and down home on the Mississippi Gulf Coast with its suffocating humidity. The cardiovascular area is getting the lungs and heart controlling the body to handle the stresses. The metabolic area deals with diet and processing food. These races require a minimum amount of calories you have to bring which is roughly 14,000 calories. For the Namib race, I carried 19,000 calories in my pack. I learned a few things from that race which will affect how I pack for Georgia. I burn about a thousand calories a day training but as the race gets near I need to train my body to be calorie specific with proteins and specific calories. I try to stay away from refined sugars, eat lots of vegetables, nuts, vitamins, minerals, and so on. When competing you have to fuel the body properly. Psychologically, I have to train my mind and body to handle all the negative effects of the race. You have to train your mindset so you don’t quit. My military training has certainly helped with the training of my mind. For so long in the military, I was trained to meet the challenge, find the solution, and work through it. That has certainly helped.”
Bezou does not have carry shelter for when he sleeps in the evening, extra water, or utensils to cook his food. The race organizers provide them with a water ration for the day which includes what the runner carries during the footrace, water to cook with at night, the tools to cook with, and shelter for the runners. All of these essential items are waiting on the runners at the end of each stage.
There are also aid stations throughout each stage if runners need to stop to fuel up their bodies, tend to injuries, and the like. In the Namib race, Bezou acknowledged that race organizers and personnel pulled everyone off the course for a period of time as temperatures in the desert reached 130 degrees or more. The organizers waited until it was safe to allow the runners to finish the stage.
Bezou added, “In the Namib race, it was Day 3 when they took us off the course. I was not suffering from the physical aspects of the race but I could see other competitors suffering from the mental stresses of the course. These are competitors that I got to know and are highly trained endurance athletes that are suffering. I began to wonder when this would happen to me. I was able to break through that wall and finish the stage. These competitions are as much a mental grind as they are a physical grind, sometimes even moreso.”
Bezou stated that recovery in the evening is absolutely vital to surviving the race. It is a time to nurse injuries, refuel the body, rehydrate, and most of all relax and let the body heal. He added that when he completed the Namib race, it took him about an entire week to recover to where he could actually feel well enough to run again.
Bezou is retired from the military and now trains, competes, and coaches full time. This trio of time takes him away from his home a great deal. Bezou explained, “This is what I love to do and I am doing it full time. But, it does come with a cost. I cannot train nor accomplish what I have set out to do without my wife, Karen, who takes care of our home while I am gone. My parents have also supported us when we spend time in Bay St. Louis. Our community and friends here in Colorado Springs and our community and friends in Bay St. Louis have supported us. It takes a load off your shoulders knowing that everything is cared for while you are half a world away chasing your dream.”
After all the discussion on how he trained and prepared for this ultimate test of endurance, I simply asked him what was going through his mind out there alone in the desert competing against himself. He recalled, “Mainly, I kept thinking that I couldn’t believe it was finally happening. I was supposed to complete the Grand Slam in 2020 but everything was delayed two years because of COVID. So, I guess I was just in awe that it was finally happening. I was also very proud of myself for sticking with the training and focusing for so long. I had a lot of setbacks, both physically and mentally, between 2020 and 2022 and I was proud of my resilience. I am more proud of what I am becoming rather than what I hope to accomplish. Doing hard things – truly difficult things that push us physically, mentally, emotionally and collectively – is a great way to learn about oneself and a great way to appreciate all of the sacrifices made by others to help us get there.”