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Terranova is in it for the long run

Brom Hoban
Meredith Terranova finished the Western States 100-miler in 23 hours, 56 minutes.

For many runners, the marathon is the ultimate distance. For a smaller, but increasing, number of runners like Meredith Terranova, it's a stop along the way.

Terranova ran her first marathon in Houston 10 years ago, and, although it was a challenge and an achievement, she was attracted to the SunMart 50K, a 31-mile race through the pine forests of Huntsville State Park about 35 miles north of Houston.

Welcome to Ultra World, the place some runners go after passing through the marathon.

"The sport of ultra running is becoming more mainstream," says Jamie Donaldson, a Littleton, Colo., runner who owns the course record for the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-mile race from Death Valley to Mount Whitney in California.

Think Tour de France stage but without the bicycles. The Badwater route goes from the lowest elevation in North America up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Sequoia National Park.

"Some of the ultra races you apply to get into are filled within literally minutes," says Donaldson. "A lot of people are crossing over from marathons. They realize if they can do a marathon, they can do a 50K, and then a 100-miler."

Terranova is 35 and her husband, Paul, also is an ultra runner. She recalls improving after the SunMart and moving up to the 50-mile distance, winning the 2009 Rocky Raccoon 50-Miler in 8:02 and taking second there in 2010. The Raccoon also is run in Huntsville State Park.

And, you guessed it, 50 miles is not the new marathon. Try 100 miles. And while you're at it, try it over challenging terrain rather than pavement, and try it at, say, 10,430 feet. That's where Leadville, Colo., is and where the Leadville Trail 100 is run.

That's just one of them. There's also the Hardrock 100 Endurance Run through Colorado's San Juan range, and the Western States Endurance Run in California's Sierra Nevadas. All are off-the-charts endurance events and brutally unforgiving. The Hardrock says if you don't finish in 48 hours, you don't get listed in the results.

Terranova attempted the Western States race two times, once in 2006, and once in 2007, but fell short both times. "The first time I went out too hard, and didn't respect the distance. I ended up vomiting and got pulled at mile 50 due to weight loss," she says.

"They measure your weight six times along the course, and if you drop more than 7 percent of your starting weight, you are not allowed to continue."

In 2007 Terranova developed breathing problems due to the extremely dusty conditions. "At mile 55, I just couldn't breathe. I later developed a pretty bad lung infection," she says.

This year was different. On June 27, Terranova saw the finish line at the Placer High School track in Auburn, Calif., and earned a silver belt buckle for breaking 24 hours as well.

A huge mileage build-up and a methodical approach are what made the difference.

"To prepare, I ran back-to-back 20 and 30-mile courses, stringing together many of the biggest hills in Austin," says Terranova. "My biggest week I ran 140 miles."

But more importantly, to really get a feel for the rigors of the Sierra Nevadas, Terranova traveled to California, completing three 50-mile races, all with at least 10,000 feet of climbing to simulate Western States: the Lake Sonoma 50 Miler in March, the Leona Divide 50 Miler in April, and the Quicksilver 50 in May, which she won.

Support teams are vital to ultra runners. In the Western States, Terranova had two key supporters.

"Paul had my fuel bottles ready when he saw me at miles 23, 38, 55, 62 and 78," she says. "He helped to get me out of the aid stations in two to three minutes."

Donaldson also helped by pacing Terranova throught the last 22 miles of the race.

"You're allowed a pacer for the last 38 miles of Western States," says Donaldson. "The whole point is to provide a psychological boost. Things come up: chafing, stomach problems, etc. So the pacer's job is to be upbeat and to keep things in forward motion, and to be very positive."

To avoid stomach issues, Terranova, who is a sports nutritionist, ignored the goodies at aid stations, which offered cookies, pizza and sandwiches, instead taking in only liquids for fuel.

"I prefer mixing electrolytes and carbohydrates in my water bottles," she says. "I make a kind of a custom sports drink. I know exactly how much I need to take in — between 85 and 100 grams per hour."

A late-race collision almost caused Terranova to miss her goal of breaking 24 hours.

"We were running up the final climb, and I went to pass this guy. He and I collided, and I fell hard at mile 98. There is nothing like the slam of exhausted muscles after 98 miles of running. But I got up, limped for a bit, and hit the road with 1.3 miles to go."

Hitting the track at the finish line, Terranova exulted in her accomplishment.

"Twenty-three hours and 56 minutes was never so sweet," she says.

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Upcoming races

Wednesday: Sunstroke Summer Stampede Race #9, 7 p.m. at Brushy Creek Trail, Cedar Park. See www.summerstampede.com.

Saturday: Toughest 10K In Texas, 8 a.m. at Hancock Park Pavillion, Lampasas. See www.runtex.com.

Saturday: Brown Santa Christmas, 8 a.m. in July 5K at Williamson County Southwest Regional Park in Leander. See www.wilcobrownsanta.com.