Westbrook a veteran of ‘ultra’ marathon

Posted: June 27, 2013 by smrtnsasy in Race Reports
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By John D. Thomas                  FOR THE JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

For ultramarathon runner Richard Westbrook, Kansas was a sloppy hellhole.

“We went through the northern part of Kansas on Highway 36, and it was all hills,” Westbrook says, relaxing in the kitchen of his Jonesboro home. “We had rain every morning, and it was cold. You had to get up and run 60 miles battling the winds and hills all day. And it stunk. The trucks came by and threw water and stink all over us from the pig farms. It was not a happy place to be.”

Westbrook, the 45-year-old cross country and track coach at Lovejoy High School, is reminiscing about the 3,000-mile World Trans America Footrace, the first contest of its kind since 1929, which began at Huntington Beach, Calif. on June 20 and ended in New York City’s Central Park on Aug.22

Athletes ran 64 individual stage races, with nary a day off, ranging from 28 to 62 miles per day. Twenty-five of the world’s best ultramarathoners began the race, and 13 crossed the line in New York. Westbrook was the master’s division (over 40) champion and came in fourth overall, 15 hours and 57 minutes behind the winner, 35-year-old David Warady of Huntington Beach, Calif.

Westbrook began running ultramarathons in the early 1980s after completing a number of regular marathons. He decided to run this race to get an eyeful of America.

“One goal I had was to run across the country and see America from that perspective, and so I was hardly ever bored, except maybe in Kansas,” he says. “There were places in Utah where you would come over a peak and it seemed like the whole world opened up, all those gorges and valleys below you. They were just fantastic scenes. You may see pictures of it, but you can’t [really know what it’s like].”

It is said that marathon runners hit a “the wall” at around the 20-mile mark, when the body begins to rebel against the abuse being heaped upon it. In this race Westbrook slammed into his wall at around mile 1,950. He already had covered the Mojave Desert in 110-degree heat and scaled the Colorado Rockies, including 12,000-foot Loveland Pass. Hannibal, however, was not so kind.

“I had the reputation as the only American in the race, and eventually the only person who was not having any physical problems,” he recalls. “But boy, that changed when Hannibal got there.”

LOVEJOY HIGH SCHOOL cross country coach Richard Westbrook )left) was fourth overall behind David Warady in an ultramarathon across the country.

LOVEJOY HIGH SCHOOL cross country coach Richard Westbrook (left) was fourth overall behind David Warady in an ultramarathon across the country.

Westbrook: Ran across the country in two months, 4 million strides

The morning after completing the stage through Hannibal that led into Illinois, Westbrook’s left calf was swollen and extremely tender. “It was swollen and hurting in one spot, and if you touched it the pain would shoot me through the roof,” he remembers. “And when it hurts in one spot, it usually means a stress fracture, and I thought, God, I’m going to be fractured.”

They manipulated the calf area, put some inserts in his shoes, gave him some medicine for the inflammation, and strapped on an ice bag. Then, through the entire states of Illinois and Indiana, Westbrook alternately ran, jogged, and walked, stopping intermittently to strap a new bag of ice on once the last one had melted.

Although his pace slipped below the disqualification cutoff time on several occasions while he was on the course, Westbrook was always able to surge just enough to stay in the race. “I would get into the run and be behind the cutoff time, but I would be getting closer and closer to making it,” he says. “I figured if I could just put up with the pain and keep jogging that by the end of the stage I would be close enough to the cutoff time to gut it out and get under it.” Westbrook says that the pain in his left leg began to subside about the time he crossed into Ohio, and he was then able to get back on the good foot.

Accomodations were another daunting aspect of the race. Forget four-star hotels. Competitors stayed in stuffy, un-airconditioned high school gyms, National Guard Armories, Legion Halls, churches, and sometimes on the side of the road.

Fuel was another problem. The race organizers estimated that during the event each runner would burn close to 384,000 calories. Westbrook did the majority of his chow hounding at dinner. And, to keep cost down, the runners were fed after each stage by groups from organizations like local churches. The meals, however, became depressingly predictable.

There would be a big meal between 5:30 and 6:30, and you would eat everything you could, no matter what it was,” he says. “Everyone needed all the calories to recover and sustain them through the next day. People would come out to feed us, and as everyone knows, runners need carbohydrates, like spaghetti. So we ate more spaghetti than you would want to believe. I don’t want to eat any more spaghetti for a long, long time.”

The finish in Central Park, which came after logging more than 4 million strides across 13 states, was an almost spiritual epiphany for Westbrook. “We came into New York over some peaks and you could see the skyline,” he recalls. “The first time was saw the pinnacles of the George Washington Bridge, everyone wanted to sprint, but we still had quite a few miles to go.

“Running through New York approaching Central Park, the traffic stopped and they let is through. There were so many people there. Across the finish line I just wanted to see the guys I had finished with to congratulate them, and we just started hugging everybody. At the same time I was looking for my wife and kids. It’s like you wanted 100-yard-long arms to hug everyone all at once. They had said in the race information sheet that it would be the experience of a lifetime, and it very well may have been.”

Richard Westbrook shaking hands with Harry Abrams, the lone survivor from the 1929 TransAm race

Richard Westbrook shaking hands with Harry Abrams, the lone survivor from the 1929 TransAm race.

The finishers (survivors) of the TransAm in Central Park, New York

The finishers (survivors) of the 1992 TransAm in Central Park, New York

Comments
  1. David Warady says:

    Richard and Tom Rogozinski were, by far, my 2 toughest competitors in the TransAm, the only 2 runners I was ever concerned about as the race wore on. Not only did we share an unshakeable mental and emotional toughness, all 3 of us, I felt, were willing to die for our cause, to do anything within our powers to make it 3000 miles from CA to NYC. I had and will always have the ultimate respect for both, as athletes, competitors, and friends.

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