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Dr. J. on Running

Barbara Bellows

I Run; Therefore I Am

Published June 21, 1999, in The Post-Standard.

By Dr Kamal Jabbour, Contributing Writer

At the completion of the Highland Forest 1-2-3 trail run last May, I chatted with the women's winner Barbara Bellows about ultra-running. As she replenished her energy with a plateful of chocolate cake, Italian bread and vegetable soup, she relived the 30-mile run that she had just finished in 4 hours 45 minutes 18 seconds, and recalled similar long distance adventures.

Bellows grew up in a Wisconsin farming community 25 miles west of Madison. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in South Asian Studies, but quickly turned her attention to agriculture and the environment. As outreach coordinator for the Agricultural Environmental Management at the Cornell Cooperative Extension, Bellows develops informational resources on critical farming environmental practices.

The daughter of an "almost four-minute-miler", Bellows started running on and off since she was 6 years old. She ran cross-country and track in high school, and ran her best collegiate mile of 6 minutes as a freshman. However, she did not start serious running until 1988. At age 44, she is feared on the track and on the trails. Her breadth as a masters runner includes the 1997 Hartshorne mile of 5:27.34, the 1995 Portland Marathon in 3:02:24, the 1998 Sunmart Texas Trail Endurance 50-mile run in 8:00:42, and the 1997 Vermont 100-mile trail run in 21:10:03.

The Washington State University 100K relay got Bellows interested in ultra-marathons. She ran 1 leg in her first year, 2 legs in the second year, and the whole 100K in the third year in 10 hours 15 minutes. Her success in conquering the distance got her hooked on running ultras, the nickname given for races that exceed the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles.

As other ultra-runners gathered around us, my seemingly innocent question of "why do you run?" drew big laughter and a rhetorical reply of "why do I exist?" Bellows confided that she started running for stress release. Therapy was her primary reason. Enjoyment was secondary. Since she discovered ultra-running, enjoyment became her primary reason for running. "I can't imagine life without it," she quipped.

Bellows' weekly training schedule includes 4 days of 5 to 8 miles, and a long 20-mile run on the weekend. Sometimes, she runs two 20-25-mile long runs in consecutive days, to prepare for an upcoming ultra. Once she reaches a desired fitness levels, she maintains it from race to race. For example, her Highland Forest 30-miler came only 2 weeks after her 28:03:55 Massanutten Mountain 100-mile trail run in West Virginia.

In her account of the 1997 Vermont 100-mile Endurance Run, her first 100-miler, Bellows recalled the 3:30am pre-race meeting in which the race director laid down the rules. The first rule was to have fun! Having fun running 100 miles sounded like an oxymoron. Yet, for Bellows, running for up to 30 hours with over 14,000 feet of elevation gain is indeed a strange way of having fun. "The excitement of the runners, the energy of the volunteers, and the enthusiasm of the handlers left me enveloped in a blanket of sheer joy, vowing to make this race an annual event."

Out of concern for dehydration, officials weigh each runner at regular intervals. A 3 percent weight loss results in temporarily pulling out a runner, until he eats and drinks the lost weight. A 7 percent weight loss results in immediate disqualification. Worried about losing too much weight, Bellows feasted on turkey sandwiches, cookies and potato chips at each aid station. However, by mile 70, she switched to a diet of Tums, Ibuprophen and chicken soup.

By 86 miles, lack of sleep and fatigue had set in. She took a 4-minute nap to recover, and turned to caffeine to bring her home. With her hopes of finishing under 20 hours dashed, her only remaining motivation to move forward was to get to a bed sooner than later. As the sun set, the runners' tiny headlamps picked out the trail, as they meandered from one glow stick to the next, all the way to the finish line.

Kamal Jabbour runs the Highland Forest trails Wednesday mornings throughout the summer. His RUNNING Column appears in The Post-Standard on Mondays. He maintains The Syracuse Running Page and receives email at jabbour@syr.edu.


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