A College Course in Ultramarathon Running

Don Davis

Lehigh University broke new ground this fall by offering a course entitled Ultramarathon Running. It was part of the freshman seminar program. Every freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences must take one of these seminars, which are regular 3-credit courses with grades given. The topics of the seminars vary from year to year, and are often "non-traditional or interdisciplinary subjects of special interest to the professor." They are limited to 20 students and are supposed to "provide an intimate and supportive environment that facilitates the transition to university life." They are also supposed to "begin to develop many of the skills that serve as a framework for future scholarly work," such as reading, writing, thinking critically, and speaking.

Some of the freshman seminars offered this fall were "Popular Arguments on Evolution," conducted by Michael Behe, author of the controversial new book "Darwin's Black Box," "Personal Relationships in a Changing World," conducted by 5 administrators, including the President and Dean of Students, "Murder," conducted by the university Chaplain, and "Black Holes, Quantum Reality, and the Mind." There were 22 seminars altogether, and except for mine, each was offered out of one of the college's 19 departments. My course certainly did not fit into the Department of Mathematics, of which I am the chairman, and so it was called Arts & Science 90, only the second course to ever have the A&S designation, as far as I know.

Incoming freshmen receive a catalog describing all the seminars, and list the ir top choices. Then an administrator assigns students to seminars, trying to satisfy student preferences as much as possible. "Murder" was apparently the most popular selection. Nineteen students ended up in my seminar; of these, 11 were female. Most of these students had been involved in sports in high school, and 8 of them were recruited for Lehigh's sports teams. (2 men's track, 2 women's track, 2 women's basketball, 1 wrestling, and 1 women's soccer)

An amazing bit of luck accounted for the arrival of the 19th student, who turned out to be one of the most enthusiastic in the course. Keri Cohn was a national-class scholastic race walker. One Sunday morning in July, Keri slept in the back seat of her car as her mother drove her to a race in New York City. While stopped at a traffic light, the car was broadsided by a drunk driver, and Keri suffered three cracked vertebrae. She didn't sign up for my seminar because the description said that students will have to do some running, which she felt that she would be unable to do. Prior to the beginning of classes, I sent by e-mail a detailed course syllabus to my 18 registered students. The e- mail address of one of the students, Kelly Collins (daughter of Detroit Pistons coach Doug Collins), was listed incorrectly as kac2; it should have been kac5. You guessed it. kac2 was Keri Cohn, and so she received my detailed syllabus, which must have seemed a bit less threatening with respect to the running. So Keri contacted me, and got into the course.

The main activities of the course were as follows. More details on items 1, 2, 5, and 8 will be provided later.

  1. There were six guest speakers. 12% of the grade was based on a short paper which each student had to write about one of the speakers.
  2. I had purchased three copies of six books about ultramarathons, and sold them to the students, who read them and got together in groups of three to give oral reports to the class. This was 12% of the grade.
  3. I have saved all the issues of UltraRunning magazine since 1989. I l oaned 4 issues to each student and asked them to tell the class some things that they found interesting. That was 6% of the grade.
  4. Students subscribed to a listserve (a type of e-mail discussion group) devoted to ultramarathoning. Frequently I would begin class by asking "Did anyone read anything interesting on the listserve since our last class?" This generated some interesting discussions. Also, I expected the students to read the World Wide Web site Ultramarathon World, which gives complete coverage of the sport. I asked the students to write a short paper about their use of the internet, which counted for 6% of their grade.
  5. Students were expected to attend an ultramarathon race and write abou t their experience. This was 12% of the grade.
  6. Students were expected to do some running and write about it in a jou rnal. This 12% of their grade was based on their effort, both in running and journal writing. Six members of the class joined me as a team, Don's Ultra Stars, in the intramural Turkey Trot, a very hilly 2.5 mile race on campus.
  7. Class participation counted for 12% of the grade. This included thei r interactions with our guest speakers and their discussion of the internet, but also there were several days in which I asked them to read part of our text, "The Lore of Running" by Tim Noakes, for class discussion. Also entering into this part of the grade was several times when we had a little time to kill and I would ask them to identify the names of some of the people who had been mentioned in some previous classes.
  8. Midway through the semester, students selected research topics, some of their own devising and some from a list that I provided. They were to use printed sources, the listserve, and the World Wide Web as sources for a paper of at least eight pages. This paper was 24% of their grade, and an oral presentation that they gave to the class was 4%.

    Our six guest speakers came from within a 200-mile radius. The seminar series paid their driving expenses. The first was Mike Strzelecki, a Lehigh graduate who has run 64 ultramarathon races in the past 4 years. In 1995, Mike conducted the Trans-Maryland Race for the Homeless, a 5-day stage race which raised $6,000. Mike's wife Kelly accompanied him to our class, and their picture with me appeared in an Allentown Morning Call article about my seminar.

    Next, Neil Weygandt talked primarily about 6-day races, in which he has done as much as 462 miles. He spoke to us just four days after running in the national championship 24-hour race, so he provided a fresh perspective about that. Third was Bart Yasso, who works for nearby Runners World. Bart talked about Ultr a Adventur e Running. He gave a slide show about his experiences in the Badwater 146, a Himalayan stage race, and other exotic races to which he has been invited because of his association with RW. The class thought it was great that he could do those things as part of his job.

    Barry Lewis showed slides of the 1992 TransAmerica Footrace, about which he wrote a book. Because 3 students had just reported on that book, there was good discussion about some of the key figures in that famous race. Barry also talked about his feelings about road and trail races. Ellen McCurtin talked about her excitement in ascending to the upper echelo n of 50 mile and 100 km racing at a young age, and about running for the US in the world championship. She saw for the first time the Lehigh dormitory which shares her middle name, Drinker. Her great uncle, Henry Drinker, is a former president of Lehigh. Finally, Jeff Hinte talked about the major 100-mile trail races, such as Leadvil le, Western States, Wasatch, and Old Dominion. He offered free entry to any class member who runs in the Hinte-Anderson 50km trail race in March.

    The six books that were read by three students each were:

    I provided transportation to three ultramarathon races. The first was a NYRR C 50 km/100 km race on a 1.75 mile loop in a park in Brooklyn. I ran the 50 km race. This race occurred on the first weekend of the semester. It involved leaving my house at 4 AM. Only two students were brave enough to begin their college experience in this way. They spent the night before the race at my house. They helped me some at the race, helped the race director some, and walked several laps of the course. The second was the Sri Chinmoy Ultimate Ultra--1000 and 700 mile races going on simultaneously on a 1-mile loop in a park in New York City. I took 10 students in a van to spend 3 hours at the race. The Sri Chinmoy organizers were extremely hospitable. They arranged for Ted Corbitt and Antana Locs to speak to the class. The class was awed by Corbitt, whose biography had just been reported on, and intrigued by Locs, a Sri Chinmoy disciple who had recently completed a 2700 mile race. Our discussions involving Sri Chinmoy were probably our most animated of the semester. The class was also very intrigued with the setup, with sleeping tents, eating tents, medical tents, etc. The third race opportunity was the RAPTOR 40-mile point-to-point road race in Westchester County, New York, in which I ran. Five students went and handled an aid station by themselves. Two students were unable to take advantage of any of these opportunities. One went to the New York Marathon on his own, while the other received part credit by attending a discussion about Running and Inspiration by Runners World editor Mark Will-Weber.

    The topics for the research reports broke down as follows. Three were about specific races--Leadville, Barkley, and Comrades. Three were about medical aspects of ultrarunning, not too specific, while a fourth was just about stretching. Two were about the 6-day races in the 19th century. Two were about the Tarahumaras. One was about Running Addiction, and another about Runner's High. One was about Sri Chinmoy, and another about the running monks of Tibet and Japan. One was about transcontinental journey runners, and one was about Yiannis Kouros. One was about foods you eat while ultrarunning, and the last was a comparison of female and male ultrarunners.

    Almost all of them got useful input from the listserve, by posting questions to the 600 subscribers. Many of them used "The Lore of Running" or my UltraRunning magazines. I provided some hard-to-obtain books, such as Osler and Dodd's "Ultramarathoning," Shapiro's "Meditations from the Breakdown Lane," "Running Indians," and "Magic and Mystery in Tibet." Many of them obtained other books and articles. But the best and most inspired report was Stephanie Nelson's report on Yiannis Kouros.

    Kouros holds the world records for 24 hours, 48 hours, and 1000 miles by margins of 7% to 14% over the next best person. This magnitude of dominance of a sport is extremely rare, and yet Kouros remains an enigma. I had told the class he would make an interesting topic, but I didn't know of much information about him. Through the listserve, Stephanie got much useful information from Kouros' fellow Aussie Kevin Tiller. (Kouros grew up in Greece, but has moved to Australia.) Then she learned that New York runner Trishul Cherns knew Kouros quite well. With much difficulty, she found Cherns' telephone number and had a long conversation with him. He gave her Kouros' telephone number in Australia, and she called him there. He faxed her some pages from his soon-to- be-published book. Her report, entitled "The Golden Greek," emphasizes the artistic side of Kouros, his initial surprise at his success, and his fear of death while racing in a Tasmanian blizzard. This report, and many of the others, are on the World Wide Web at http://www.lehigh.edu/~dmd1/ultrasem.html. This web site also includes a day-by-day account of the seminar and some articles about the seminar.

    I think the class was a great success. It involved the students in the usual seminar activities of discussing, writing, speaking, and researching. It certainly made the students think about the importance of physical fitness. But it did much more than this. After visiting the class, Mike Strzelecki wrote to the listserve "I don't see the goal of the course to get them to run ultras, but rather to teach them motivation, commitment, and effort--and to build confidence. Hopefully, the course will inspire the students to excel at their own activities...It seems more like a psychology course than a physical education course."

    Student evaluations were uniformly glowing. One wrote "The only problem the class may offer is that I will expect to have such a good class again which may be unrealistic." Another wrote "In this seminar I learned a limitless amount of things about ultramarathon running, but I learned a lot more than that. Professor Davis taught us more than to go out and run because it's a great sport; he taught us life lessons. He encouraged us to be motivated and positive people...I loved all the class discussions and interactions. I got to know every person in that class not just by name, but by different aspects as well."

    So I think the course was successful beyond my greatest expectations. It will probably produce a few future ultramarathoners. One student wrote "Running is a part of my lifestyle, and now I can see how it will fit in for the rest of my years. I plan on running one of these puppies some time, not too far away, on trails." But it also taught students that you can succeed in just about anything if you want it badly enough.