The ultra people: Why distance runners do what they do

By Byron Connolly

Ray James is sitting in a street level café at the bottom of the Law Courts Building in Sydney’s CBD on a Tuesday afternoon in February. The softly spoken lawyer, dressed in a suit and bow tie, reveals that a few days earlier he completed a marathon, 84 laps of a 500-metre track in Caboolture in South East Queensland.

“It’s as boring as hell and I hate it, but it’s done,” he says.

It’s one of 280 marathons James has completed since 1982. By April 2009, minus a 10-year break while in the clutches of alcohol, he had finished his first 100 marathons and six years later, he hit the 200 mark. He’s also completed eleven 100 mile ultramarathons and the grueling 240km event, Coast to Kosciuszko. Right now, he’s third on the list of Australians in the 100 marathon club, behind Grahame Kerruish with 312 and leader Trent Morrow with 317.

As a schoolboy in Sydney’s south west, James played rugby and in 1966, represented NSW in a 400-metre track event, placing third in the state. He studied law at the University of Sydney and despite continuing his rugby, running got the flick. But after a few City to Surfs, James finished his first 42.2 kilometre jaunt, the Legal and General Harbord Diggers Marathon, in four hours and 25 minutes.

“It was horrible, I remember running well until Dee Why on the way back and I was like, ‘man this is a long way,’” says James. “I ran one or two more around that time – my son was born in May 1984 … and I never ran again until I got out of detox.”

That was the Cities Marathon in 1997 after a 10-year stint of heavy drinking. A traumatic couple of days at work early that year forced James to make a change.

“I said to the secretary, ‘you need to call an ambulance and tell them to take me here [to rehab]. “I’d had a couple of bad days and I knew that something serious was going to happen to somebody through me not being in control so it was time to get out,” he says.

James spent five weeks in rehabilitation trying to work out why alcohol had become such a big part of his life.

“I don’t think I ever did work it out except that I was probably just getting older, things were happening with work that maybe I got upset with and from being a non-drinker, it just got out of control. I would drink 24×7, seven days a week, always topping up – going through at least a bottle of scotch in a day and a half. I drank alone, nobody knew.”

While in rehab, James would take morning walks and runs. His doctor knew he had been a runner and let him out under the proviso that he would be breath tested when he got back.

“I had no drama with that,” James says. “A lot of people in there were so ill, I was pretty lucky, I’d been off the booze for nearly six months anyway and I had done a bit of exercise and lost a bit of weight. I came home and got to reflect on what I wanted to do.”

Ray James

James trained for the Canberra marathon in 1998 and finished the run in 3 hours and 16 minutes, surprised that he was so much quicker than he had been 15 years earlier.

“I said to my wife, ‘this I what I would prefer to do than go to AA meetings,’” he says. “There’s one [AA meeting] around at the church here [near the law courts] that I used to go to. A few judges go to it, but you don’t say anything, you’re anonymous in there and you are anonymous outside. And you would never wink or nod to anybody who you see,” he says.

James was sick of ex-drunks telling their stories; he needed to run.

“I don’t think my wife really understood that was how it was going to be. I am not saying she was against it, I am saying she couldn’t understand that when I ran one [marathon], I’d be asking, ‘when is the next one and the next one?’ until it got to a point where I was away every second weekend.

“But now [she’s] fully supportive and you can’t stop the tide of inevitability. Now she travels with me and enjoys the friendship.”

At this point, James doesn’t feel he needs running to keep his demons at bay. He says individuals can come out of rehab completely dry and still have the same issues and although he never really identified what his problems were, he says he has well and truly left them behind.

“Indeed, I have a medication I have to take every day, it’s in a cupboard. I open it up and all the alcohol that’s in the house is sitting there; it’s as if it is not there,” he says.

The medication is used to treat James’ prostate cancer, which was diagnosed in 2013. James had been seeing a urologist who found that his prostate-specific antigen (PSA) had risen significantly. PSA is a protein produced by cells of the prostate gland. The blood level of this protein is often high in men with the disease.

His prostate was removed but cancerous cells had escaped and were present in surrounding lymph nodes. He was initially treated with radiotherapy.

“They couldn’t operate because it was in too many places so now I have hormone therapy – the cancer that comes from the prostate usually grows from testosterone, that’s its preferred food. The hormone treatment tells your pituitary gland that you are overproducing testosterone and the body stops [producing the hormone]. Every three months I have a slow release injection.

“For the last two and half years, the PSA reading has been undetectable … so essentially it’s not active,” he says.

James is now in remission. Despite tiredness and some weight gain from treatment, he’s still running.

“I’ve got great supporting running friends who tell me it doesn’t matter how fast you go when you are out there – don’t give up because you’re slow, do what you need to do in the capacity that you have got.”

He is nowhere near as quick these days – it took him six hours and 25 minutes to complete the Caboolture ‘Dawn to Dusk’ marathon in February. But given what he’s gone through, this has taken great courage and determination.

James is positive about his future, he feels healthy and watches his diet closely.

“I’m not very active on Facebook but I have a page. I run around the bay at Five Dock – most of my photos are sunrises around the bay because I am out early and it just gives you a positive feeling. I think being positive about everything, [allows you] to move forward,” he says.

A rare breed

The World Health Organisation recommends adults aged 18 to 64 only need to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity each week to reduce the risk of developing a bunch of life-shortening diseases. Fitness movements like Parkrun are helping get people off the couch and into regular physical activity over 5km courses in towns and cities across Australia and worldwide.

So it’s hard to imagine why Gold Coast resident and former computer programmer Kelvin Marshall, 53, would go to such extreme lengths with his running. Marshall is a very rare breed of runner who has knocked over 358 ultramarathons in Australia and overseas since 1992 (he’s the only Australian to have done this). He’s also completed 182 marathons since 1986 – that’s around 17 marathon and ultramarathon events every year for the past 32 years.

Marshall is on the phone, he’s warm and friendly and starts talking about running before he’s even asked a single question. He grew up in Melbourne, completing his first marathon at age 22.

“At that point in time I was living in Elsternwick and the Melbourne Marathon used to go up the Nepean Highway, straight past where I was living. I remember watching it the year before in 1985 and thinking, ‘that’s something I ought to do next year,’” he says.

There was no car in Marshall’s family when he was a kid so he walked everywhere. Marshall would often walk the dog with his father for 15km to 20km of a Sunday afternoon. They had a close relationship.

Marshall completed his first ultramarathon on January 5, 1992, a 60km event from Bogong to Mount Hotham in Victoria’s Alpine High Country. Just three weeks later on January 26, he did another, a 50km run from Mansfield to Mount Buller in Victoria. The following week, he received a certificate of completion and photo of him running during the event.

“I remember showing that photo to my father and about half an hour later, he died. It was the first time he’d ever seen a photo of me running. I can remember it like it was yesterday … getting him out of bed because he wanted to watch the TV sitcom, Cheers. And I said, ‘I’ll give you a hand out of bed’, and he died in my arm; one moment he was there and the next, he wasn’t. I always joke that the sight of him seeing me running 50kms killed him and it’s very black humour when I say that,” Marshall says.

His father had been battling bowel cancer for quite some time.

Marshall remembers his mother not recovering well from her husband’s passing. He figured she would benefit from joining him on his running excursions across the country.

“Mum was a bit lost without dad. For many years, we travelled Australia. I did the Alice Springs marathon in 1992 and the week after was the Adelaide Marathon which is a fairly long road trip. All her family were up in Queensland so that was a good thing; we could head up to various races interstate, she enjoyed that,” he says.

Canberra marathon 1994_Kelvin Marshall
Kelvin Marshall completing the 1994 Canberra Marathon in under 3 hours

Right now, Marshall is injured and it’s understandable. When he is not running, he walks as part of his job reading electricity metres. He is a Six Foot Track Living Legend, one of a small cohort of runners who have completed the iconic annual 45km race along the fire trails from Katoomba to Jenolan Caves at least 24 times.

These days, the event is notoriously difficult for newbies to enter due to its popularity. On the morning that entries open, would-be Six Foot Trackers can be seen madly refreshing the website, hoping to get to a landing page where they enter their credit card details and pay the $195 fee. This is usually months before race day. Marshall doesn’t have that problem; he has earned a lifetime sequential race number.

But this year, he was forced to pull out of the event for the first time.

“To be honest, I think I injured myself playing beach cricket on Christmas Eve with my cousins,” he says. “I walk for 15km to 20km per day [reading metres] and it got to the point where I could walk for about four hours and then I was a bit of a wreck,” he says.

“One day, I did my full day’s work and I couldn’t get back in the car because my back was so bad.”

Toughest race

Marshall says his most difficult ultra marathon was the Great North Walk, a 100 mile event along the 250km walking track from Sydney to Newcastle.

“I’m a bit infamous for my lack of navigation skills,” he says. “You’re running 30km with no aid stations in between. I am still quite convinced that this is my hardest.”

Coast_to_Kosci_2005_Kelvin Marshall
Kelvin Marshall (front) during the 2005 Coast to Kosci

It’s surprising because Marshall has completed the Badwater 135 mile (217km) course in California’s Death Valley three times. The course, which begins at 279 feet (85 metres) below sea level and ends at 8360 feet (2548 metres) above, is believed to be the toughest footrace in the world. It’s also run in mid-July when the temperature can reach 130 degrees fahrenheit (54 degree celsius). Marshall’s best time in this event was in 2009 when he finished in 37 hours and 36 minutes.

“Badwater after the first 25kms or so, your crew can run with you pretty much whenever you want to. It’s a dry heat [in the Californian desert]. It’s better than some of the humidity we get up north here [in QLD],” he says.

He recalls his first time attempting Badwater, trundling along in the hot desert humidity following a storm that hit the night before and having to change his shorts every five miles or so because the chaffing was so bad.

“It was just one of those races. Once the sun goes down, the temperature drops from 120 degrees fahrenheit (48 celsius) to 30 (celsius). It feels like it’s so cool and you can run forever, I’m saying to myself, ‘don’t stop now, just keep going and going’ and I think I hit a wall because I had to lie down on the ground for quite a while,” he says.

“You’re out there that long, a lot of things can happen. But to me that Great North Walk was harder simply because during the day it was hot and during the night it was really cold.”

One kidney down

Adam Connor is a 50-year-old Sydneysider who found out a couple of weeks before completing the Badwater event last year that he only has one kidney.

“I’ve had elevated liver function so the doctor thought I’d been lying to him about drinking. He sent me off for an ultrasound and the ultrasound lady said, ‘your liver is fine but I can only see one kidney.’”

Connor didn’t tell his doctor about Badwater.

These days, Connor is a galaxy away from what he describes as the “lazy kid who was made reserve in the squash team so he could play video games.”

“I was dedicated non-exerciser,” he says.

In 2003, Connor split from his partner of 12 years and three years later, his computer retail business of 15 years, which at one stage was a BRW Fast 100 company, went bust.

“I’d had pretty good success in business before that. I’d gone from [running a business] turning over millions and millions of dollars per year to being out of work before Christmas and having lost 10 people their jobs,” he says.

He walked away from the business and the relationship with nothing, borrowing money from his parents to buy furniture.

“It was pretty grim … I was horribly depressed,” he says. “I [had] some fairly horrendous personal habits, eating everything in sight and doing a very good job of killing my future prospects.”

Connor knew that he could regain some of the early success he had achieved in business but needed a healthy distraction to start moving in the right direction again. Worried about his ability to get another girlfriend, Connor hired personal trainer Matthew Reid to help him lose weight. After his business failed, Reid, a former boxer and rugby player from Blacktown, would travel into North Sydney and run with him free of charge.

“When you are in a really bad way there are often some very giving people. This is a bloke who didn’t have a lot, not like millionaires around here [on Sydney’s North Shore], and yet he gave up his own time twice a week to make sure I was ok. To this day, I will be happy to bail him out whenever,” Connor says.

Connor is now married with a young son and since 2011, he has completed the North Face 100 ultramarathon in the NSW Blue Mountains seven times, the 240km Coast to Kosciuszko run twice, as well as three attempts at the Great North Walk with two finishes.

“It [Great North Walk] is a deeply scary race, it’s horrendous. It’s not just the terrain, the climbs and the fact that it’s unmarked but it’s 175km and you’ve only got 36 hours to finish it. I met a guy going the wrong way the last time; he hadn’t seen a human being for nine hours,” he says.

Adam Connor during Badwater_2017
Adam Connor during the 2017 Badwater race.

Unfortunately, Connor’s travels in recent years have taken their toll. His knee is hurting and it is sporting a keloid scar which hides something more sinister underneath.

“I fell over just before Badwater and was able to do the race ok but four weeks later, my knee swelled up. I probably should seek some medical attention; it’s been a few months now, I’m sure it’s fixable,” he says.

Connor did go to the doctor and a recent MRI scan revealed he has fluid in his knee, small amounts of missing cartilage in the patella and tibial plateau and some bone bruising. But this sort of damage doesn’t seem to bother him and he’s not overly concerned about the prospect of not being able to run in the future.

“If I couldn’t run again, I’d have to find some other sport because of the way I eat. Running isn’t this magic, intrinsically superb thing that I need to do every day. I don’t have any drive to do running except to be a better me and running has been very good to me. I’ve made so many friends and been to many awesome places and had incredible adventures,” he says.

There’s a camaraderie in ultra running, says Kelvin Marshall.

“You meet all these people who for want of a better word are as mad as you are. You might be totally different people but you have one thing in common. At the end of the race, you are totally worn out and chatting with people you know by sight. You’ve all been through the same thing.”

Byron Connolly is a Sydney-based writer, yoga and running enthusiast who completed the North Face 100 ultramarathon in the NSW Blue Mountains in 2012 and 2013. He was the 2011 ‘Rookie of the Year’ at Campbelltown Joggers Club. He’s also won a few Parkruns.


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