Conquer a Mountain
Credit: Matt Trappe

Thirty years ago, at a bar in Prescott, Arizona, a drunk runner challenged some drunk cowboys to a race. The runner lost, but the contest was close enough that the race – a 50-mile ultra-marathon over steep mountains and rocky terrain, now known as Man Against Horse – has been repeated annually ever since.

They're not always racing beasts of burden, but runners are signing up for these kinds of events in ever-greater numbers. A prestigious American ultra, the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run, drew just 14 in its 1977 debut. For this year's race, 2,704 runners competed in a lottery for 270 spots. "I think the appeal stems from that primal instinct to survive," says Scott Jurek, one of the most accomplished American ultra-marathoners and the author of Eat and Run. "You're bringing yourself to the edge. And once you break through the discomfort, it's hugely satisfying."

Such satisfaction was elusive when I stalled out at mile 29 of Man Against Horse. My left ankle, which I'd turned in a creek bed hours earlier, was throbbing, and my heavy plod slowed to a walk. A brown horse moved past me up the dusty trail. "Easy there," said the rider, a middle-aged woman in a blue riding helmet. "Here we go."

According to Terri Schneider, an ultra-running coach and sports psychologist, great athletes achieve "a functional relationship with the pain – the pain becomes like dealing with a headwind when you're riding a bike.

It's kind of mind-blowing." That happened for me at around mile 45. Alone in the woods, runner's high in full effect, the pain suddenly receded. I floated down a series of switchbacks on the canyon's edge, as a desert rain shower blew over the dusty valley. Once I hit the valley floor, two horses trotted past me.

Shortly after, I shuffled ahead of a guy who looked close to collapsing. My finish time: 10 hours, 48 minutes – four hours behind the winner, a gray stallion named Dancers, and three hours behind the winning human. I collapsed almost immediately after checking into my hotel room. When I awoke, I looked at myself in the mirror to assess the damage. Amazingly, there was almost none: a blister on my right toe, some chafing on my thighs. Then it struck me that this is the allure of the ultra: It makes you feel, deep within your spasming muscles and fractured bones, that you can get through anything.

Or try these . . .

Speedgoat 50K

This 31.1-mile race in Utah includes more than 11,000 feet of high-altitude climbing. [karlmeltzer.com]

JFK 50 Mile

This Maryland race was created by President Kennedy to spur people to get into shape. [JFK50mile.org]