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​Ultrarunners go the extra miles

Extreme conditions are par for the courses.

Battling the elements and the rugged Alaska terrain for 350 miles — it’s all in a days work or, actually four days work, for ultrarunner David Johnston.

The West Carrollton High School graduate, and now Willow, Alaska, resident, won his third consecutive Iditarod Trail Invitational in early March with a time of four days, eight hours and 45 minutes. At 350 miles, the invitational is the world’s longest winter ultramarathon and follows the historic Iditarod Trail.

One year earlier, Johnston set the Iditarod Trail Invitational’s foot division record in four days, one hour and 38 minutes, cutting more than 13 hours from the previous record.

“They had predicted that record was unbreakable, so it was neat to pull it off,” Johnston said.

It was 25 hours before the next person crossed the finish line last year.

“This year, it was only 14 hours, so it was a little closer,” he said.

Ultrarunners can take a break or stop to eat or sleep at any time along the route. Johnston said that he only sleeps about 1½ hours in a 24-hour period when he is competing.

Standard start

It all started with a traditional 5K.

Johnston, now 45, was just 8 years old when he ran his first 5K race.

“I finished in 29:29 and was so happy because I was under 30 minutes,” he said.

Running was a big part of Johnston’s life for the close to two decades that he lived in the Dayton area. He ran cross-country and track for the Pirates and competed in countless events with the Ohio River Road Runners.

Running was more than a pastime, however, it was family bonding time.

“The No. 1 thing that got me into running was that my dad did it,” Johnston said. “He worked a lot, so it was probably the only time we got to hang out together.”

He vividly remembers writing in his runner’s log every day, keeping track of his distances and times.

“It was something you could do on your own and have such a feeling of accomplishment when you were done,” he said.

Gradual progression

Johnston worked his way up to marathons and, after logging about 50 of them, began to wonder “now what?”

It wasn’t long before ultramarathons were on his radar. Participation in ultramarathons — defined as any distance beyond the standard 26.2-mile marathon — has grown exponentially in recent years. The number of runners who finished ultra-length races in North America increased from 15,500 in 1998 to 63,530 in 2012, according to UltraRunning Magazine.

Courses can vary greatly and include miles of rugged wooded trails or a single loop that runners circle for days.

First, for Johnston, it was 50 miles and, not long after, it was 100.

“Every race is a whole new thing, uncharted waters,” he said. “You push through the pain and you learn a lot about yourself.”

Johnston recently completed the Across the Years 6-Day Footrace in Arizona. He logged 551 miles in six days, an age-group record. His dad, Frank, who lives in Kettering, was there to cheer him on.

Getting started

Admittedly, Johnston still questions, from time to time, why he is out there, especially when he is powering through the pain and nausea. But he is hooked.

For marathon runners interested in taking the next step, his advice is simple.

“The best thing to do is just sign up for one and start training for it,” he said.

And while the prospect of such a lengthy race can be a bit daunting, a slower pace can offset the longer distance.

“You definitely get to go out a lot slower and really enjoy the course,” Johnston said. “Many people walk a whole lot of it.”

But at 50, 100, 350 or 500 miles, you will be pushed to your limits regardless of pace.

“It takes a lot of self discipline, but it’s so exciting.”

Next up for Johnston is the Boston Marathon — practically a sprint in comparison to his more recent ultra-events.

“That’s my kind of fun.”

Contact this contributing writer at

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