How—and why—an average guy became an ultramarathoner

By Jeff Wise

It’s a pitch-black winter night and Troy Espiritu is in the middle of a forest somewhere in western Georgia. Espiritu, a compact, wiry man with close-cropped hair, jogs along the wilderness trail with a steady, dogged pace, his face a mask of exhaustion. He’s been on the run since yesterday morning, nearly 20 hours ago, and he’s utterly spent. Shivering uncontrollably from the cold, he notices that the trees on the margins of his headlamp beam seem to be falling on him. I’m hallucinating, he realizes. He’s already run the equivalent of three consecutive marathons, and he’s got a fourth left to go. If he can keep pace, he’ll cross the 100-mile mark just as the sun rises.

Ultramarathons like this one are among the most grueling competitions ever devised, defying conventional notions of what the human body can do. But Espiritu is tough: He’s completed four 100-mile races. And what’s even more remarkable is that just five years ago, he was an ordinary guy who couldn’t jog more than two miles at a stretch.

At age 35, Espiritu, a podiatrist, was raising a family and managing a growing medical practice. “We had a 4-year-old, 2-year-old twins, and a newborn, with no family nearby to help,” he says in his genteel Southern accent. The thought of taking on another challenge, not to mention a superhuman one, would seem inadvisable at the least. But as Espiritu was to discover, pushing yourself in one area can have positive ripple effects in other domains.

Espiritu’s transformation started with a few words from a friend. At the time, Espiritu was jogging a mile and a half each weekend to keep fit. At church, a member of the congregation mentioned that he’d noticed Espiritu out running. “There’s a group of us that meets every Saturday morning,” the man told him. “You ought to come out.”

With his fellow runners’ encouragement, he achieved longer and longer distances. After a few months, he was able to make it to three miles—though, he says, “I was sore for about a week after.” What kept him coming back was the group bonhomie. “It’s like hanging out in the bar and having a beer,” he says. “It’s guy time.”

Within a few months, some of his running buddies started training for a marathon, and suggested he join them. Espiritu agreed. “I love putting a plan together, and working at that plan, and checking things off on the calendar,” he says. “I’m a very goal-oriented person.”

Espiritu’s wife, Mary Denise, wasn’t surprised at the turn her husband’s hobby was taking. “I knew that eventually he’d start running marathons,” she says. “That’s just the way he is. I don’t want to say he’s obsessive, but when he does something, he does it 120 percent.”

As Espiritu notched up marathon after marathon, he learned about races that were longer still—the so-called ultramarathons, which can range from 32 miles to more than 100. At first, such distances seemed absurd, but Espiritu kept thinking about it, and realized that if he could run 26.2, then 32 wouldn’t be that much harder. And once he’d done his first 32-miler, 40 didn’t seem out of reach.

To prepare his body, Espiritu gradually inured himself to the hardships of extreme distance. He would come home each Friday evening after working all day long, eat dinner with his family, put his kids to bed, and then start running at 10 p.m. He’d return at 6 a.m., shower, coach his kids’ soccer game, and keep going all day. “With practice, it definitely got easier to handle,” he says. “I can function now on less sleep than I did before.”

Early on in his all-night runs, Espiritu passes the time with mental games, such as spending 10 minutes thinking about each of his children. But by the later stages, he’s so exhausted that he’s frequently hallucinating or falling asleep on his feet. “The way I handle it is to break things up into very small, manageable pieces,” he says. “The idea of running 100 miles is incomprehensible, even for me, sometimes. My only goal is to get to the next aid station. That’s it.”

In an ironic twist, Espiritu is a podiatrist engaging in a hobby that nearly guarantees multiple foot ailments. Espiritu has had heel spurs and stress fractures—conditions he says make him a much better and more sympathetic doctor, especially to the running aficionados who now seek him out to get his first-hand expertise.

Espiritu understands that his pastime can be hard for others, including exercise buffs, to fathom. “Patients ask me all the time, ‘Why would you do that?’ The short response is, ‘Because I can.’ I’ve learned I can do it, so why not do it? If you knew that you could run 10 miles, why would you want to run just two?”

His wife teases him by saying, “Your heart is in great shape, but you should get your head checked.” She’s not the only one to suggest he might be a little bit crazy. “Let’s face it, running 100 miles is abnormal. Statistically, probably less than 1 percent of the population can do that,” says psychologist Jonathan Abramowitz, who specializes in the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorders. But, he says, Espiritu’s behavior is very different from this illness—the struggle to contain or prevent thoughts about an outcome that a patient wants to avoid.

Rather, says Abramowitz, Espiritu is unusual in the degree to which he becomes attached to positive goals. “Some people have an all-or-none personality. They feel that they either have to do something perfectly or it’s 100 percent crap. When that mind-set causes distress, that’s a problem. But if it’s not getting in the way of your life, then I wouldn’t say you have a disorder.”

Beyond his love for long-term planning and execution, it’s likely that Espiritu is driven by the many mood boosters hidden in the training process: “Achievements give us a temporary feeling of elation,” says Sonja Lyubomirsky, a social psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness. “But it’s the pursuit of goals rather than the achievement that creates happiness. When people run long distance, they often get into an engaged state of concentration called flow. They are truly in the present moment, and the present is all we have.”

For her part, Mary Denise says that her husband’s extreme regimen has actually been a boon for their home life. “When our children were small, he took up golf for a little while, and that just wasn’t working. He’d leave at 9am on Sunday morning and come home at 2pm,” she says. “This is healthier for him, and we get to have him around more. He can run all night and still spend the next day with the kids.” Mary Denise has become an avid runner herself—the two sometimes hire a babysitter so they can train together. She even paced her husband for a full 25 miles during one of his ultramarathons—a bonding experience that they will always remember.

John Cobis, a high school teacher and fellow ultramarathoner who has trained with Espiritu, affirms that Espiritu is, in fact, as balanced as he appears to be. “Troy doesn’t miss a beat with his children. He runs a thriving medical practice and his patients love him,” Cobis says.

For all the pain, both mental and physical, that long-distance running has caused him, Espiritu considers it an irreplaceable part of who he is. It’s made him more even-keeled: “I’m an avid LSU football fan,” he says, “and before, when I would watch a game on TV that wasn’t going well, I would scream and yell. The dogs would be all nervous and running around, and Mary Denise would take the kids and say, ‘You know what? We’re going to leave the house for a little while.’ Now, when my team’s losing, my attitude is: ‘Ah, no big deal.’”

Right now Espiritu is in the process of buying property and hiring an architect and a contractor to build a new medical building. “I’ve been meeting with banks and architects, civic designers and engineers, real estate agents,” he says. “It’s an elaborate process. A couple of years ago, I would have said, ‘I just can’t do it all.’ And now it’s like, ‘If I can find time to run 90 miles a week and have four kids and run a practice, surely I can do this.’”

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