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Paul Long: Most people struggle to stay awake for a day; these athletes run – and compete – for 24 hours

It’s a disarmingly simple, yet almost superhuman task: Run for 24 hours. Run more miles than anyone else, and you win the race.

Two local runners, who are among the best in the world at doing just that, are heading to Torino, Italy, next week to represent the United States in the 24-Hour World Championship.

“There is no greater honor than running as a representative of your country,” said Traci Falbo, 43, a pediatric nurse who lives in Charlestown, Indiana, about 100 miles downriver from Covington.

“This will be my second time on the team, and I am uber-excited to run for the USA again. When you run on the team, there is team scoring so it is much more than just running for yourself. I think that because I have run in the world championships before, I will be better able to stick to my race plan.”

Also returning to the team is Harvey Lewis, a Cincinnati school teacher who runs with and coaches for Tri State Running Company in Edgewood.

Harvey Lewis training at the Red River Gorge on Sunday. (Photo provided)

Harvey Lewis training at the Red River Gorge on Sunday. (Photo provided)

“I ran my first 24-hour race in 1996,” Lewis said. “I fell in love with the challenge. It was my first ultra… It’s an honor to represent the USA and the sports of running and ultra-running. It’s a privilege I probably take for granted.”

The event is set for April 11 – 12. The race has separate categories for men and women. Each country can run up to six men and six women; the miles of the top three men and top three women on each team are added for an overall team winner in each category. Gold, silver and bronze medals also are given to the top three women and the top three men.

A 24-hour race is run on a track, generally of less than a mile, and the runners go around and around the path, stopping or slowing down whenever they want, whether to eat, drink, or use a restroom. At this level, few runners actually stop for any length of time.

Competition for a spot on the team is determined in a series of sanctioned 24-hour races held in the year before the World Championships. It’s not easy. To qualify, a woman must run at least 120 miles in such a race; a man must run 135 miles.

Falbo and Lewis both qualified at two separate events. Falbo, who often runs the trails and road races in Louisville, had the second best qualifying miles among women. Lewis, 38, had the best mileage among men.

Falbo’s best mileage was 147.676. Her second best, which was 135.182 miles, occurred during a 48-hour race in something called Six Days in the Dome, held annually in Anchorage, Alaska. And yes, in addition to 24- and 48-hour races, that event also has a six-day race. Last year, a Georgia fellow won that by running 580.3 miles.

Lewis qualified by running 154.59 miles at a 24-hour race in Spartanburg, South Carolina. His closest competitor, Isaiah Janzen of Dubuque, Iowa, ran 154.587 miles at the North Coast 24-hour race in Cleveland in September. Over 24 hours, that’s a difference of less than 16 feet.

Traci Falbo as she breaks the American indoor record for a 48-hour race during the Six Days in the Dome in Anchorage, Alaska, last year. (Photo provided)

Traci Falbo as she breaks the American indoor record for a 48-hour race during the Six Days in the Dome in Anchorage, Alaska, last year. (Photo provided)

Some 10 years ago, Falbo lost 80 pounds and decided to run her first marathon. She hasn’t stopped. Since then, she has run a sub-four-hour marathon in all 50 states, winning 19 of them. She’s completed the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning — becoming one of only 39 women in 28 years to run four specific 100-miles races in a year. She’s broken the 15-hour mark in a 100-mile race. And she holds the world indoor record and the American overall record for miles in a 48-hour race, running 242.093 miles in the Six Days in the Dome race.

“I think a timed run is more difficult than a specific distance,” she said. “It’s much more tempting to slow down or want to quit, as you don’t have to cover a certain distance. The best way to run a 24-hour is as even paced as possible.”

For the World Championships, she’s training in much the same way she does for a 100-mile race, generally running 90-odd miles a week, sometimes doing half of that or more on back-to-back days.

When she was on the 2013 team, she finished fourth among women, and third on the U.S. team, helping it win a gold medal. This year, her goal is to do even better.

“I would like to break 150 miles, get on the podium individually, and score for the U.S. team,” she said.

Lewis has similarly high goals.

“I really want to pull off something special for everyone back home,” he said. “In that first 24-hour in 1996, I made 82 miles… Now I’m thinking 160 (a sub 9-minute mile for 24 hours straight), but I can see down the road the aim for Mike Morton’s American record and 172 miles plus (that’s a sub 8:30 mile for 24 hours straight). I always carry the belief that I can improve.”

Falbo, a few minutes after breaking the record (Photo provided)

Falbo, a few minutes after breaking the record (Photo provided)

That belief has carried him far. He won the 135-mile Badwater Ultra-marathon through the deserts of California in July 2014, then followed that up with a shared second place in the 135-mile Arrowhead Ultra-marathon in Minnesota in January. Earlier this month, he ran 54 miles to retrace the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march on its 50th anniversary. He paced the two-hour group at the Run The Bluegrass half marathon this past Saturday in Lexington. He finished a mere 26 seconds off his pace.

Ultra-marathons through deserts and wilderness have their place in his heart. But Lewis also enjoys the repetitiveness of a 24-hour race.

“You have to love the 24-hour race for what it covers,” he said, “the optimum opportunity to push your limits, the camaraderie, and the chance to get into a meditative trance as you continue to circle mile after mile across the same location; the light changes from sunrise, to peak, to sunset, and then you see the moon move across the sky. Generally in life I’m in such a hurry I don’t notice the subtleties, but when I’m running a 24-hour race I really notice the changes that happen across time.”

Paul Long, on the road (Photo by Kris Payler Staverman)

Paul Long, on the road (Photo by Kris Payler Staverman)

Paul Long writes weekly for the NKyTribune about running and runners. For his daily running stories, follow him at dailymile.com or on Twitter @Pogue57

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