Niswonger already has completed a 31-mile ultra marathon and covered 50 1/2 miles in a timed 10-hour nighttime ultra marathon this summer. And on Saturday, the Oak Ridge coach will be setting out on his greatest challenge yet — a 100-mile ultra run that must be completed in 30 hours.
"When I say we're going to go out to run 5 miles, the kids can't complain," Niswonger said. "If they try to complain, I can only say, 'Hey, look what I did.'"
Niswonger and his former Central high school cross country teammate, Frank Dietiker, are competing in the Burning River 100-Mile Endurance Run in Northeast Ohio. It begins at 5 a.m. Saturday. They have until 11 a.m. Sunday to complete the course.
Central assistant cross country coach Bryan Kelpe, a good friend of both Niswonger and Dietiker, also is running a 100-mile ultra marathon this month.
Kelpe will compete in the Leadville Trail 100 in Colorado on Aug. 16 and 17. The Leadville trail's elevation ranges from 9,200 feet to 12,600 feet.
Niswonger said he and his friends decided to compete in ultra marathons because regular marathons — 26.2 miles — have lost some of their prestige recently with celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey and Sean "Puffy" Combs, running them.
"I ran a marathon when I was 16, and back then it was a pretty big deal," Niswonger said. "Since then it seems like anybody can run a marathon. There are T-shirts that say, 'I run ultras because Oprah killed the marathons.' ... Some friends of mine and I just thought, 'We need to try an ultra.' That is a big deal now."
Niswonger, 34, Dietiker, 35, and Kelpe, 30, all know they are in for a difficult challenge. None of the three men has run 100 miles at one time, and the completion rate of last year's Burning River 100 was low. Sixty-eight of the 144 runners who entered were able to finish.
Niswonger and Dietiker are hoping to complete the course in 26 to 27 hours, or by Sunday at approximately 7 a.m. Kelpe hopes to finish his race in 28 hours.
"Forty-four miles is the farthest I've went so far," Dietiker said. "So this will be over twice as far as I've ever ran [at one time]. ... I'm not really nervous. I know it's going to be difficult. When you look at nationwide averages, about 48 percent of the people who enter actually finish. ... All you can do is take it one aid station at a time and do your best."
While Dietiker, Niswonger and Kelpe have never competed in a 100-mile race, they have run at nighttime. The three men participated in the Run Under The Stars Endurance Run in Paducah, Ky., in June. The race started at 8 p.m. and ended the following day at 6 a.m. They thought it would be good night training for their 100-mile run.
The object of the race was to run around a track as many times as possible in the 10-hour time period.
"The main reason why we picked that run was to kind of get a feel of being up all day and the running overnight," Dietiker said. "Really, the actual tired part of it, like getting sleepy tired, wasn't really a problem at all. We all did fine as far as that part."
The three runners have trained hard for their 100-milers, increasing their weekly workouts entering other ultras of lesser distances.
Niswonger completed 50 1/2 miles in the Run Under the Stars, while Dietiker dashed 44 miles. Kelpe stopped after running 36 miles in six hours with swelling from his knee to his ankle.
Niswonger and Dietiker also participated in a 31-mile trail run in Kansas over the Fourth of July weekend. Spots along the trail had 6- to 8-inch deep mud.
Dietiker said he has tripled his practice mileage per week, putting him between 60 to 70 hours. Much of his training is done with Niswonger, who has increased his training, too. Before this year, Niswonger tried to run every mile with his team during the fall, but would take off six months after the season.
Niswonger has trained daily outside of the cross country season. He said most of his long workouts are on the weekends, including running between 15 to 20 miles each Sunday.
Kelpe does much of his training with the Central cross country team. He said before running in Paducah, he was around 80 to 85 miles per week. He has reduced the training to 40 to 50 hours per week since the swelling occurred. He doesn't expect the injury to be a problem when he runs the Leadville 100.
Running the course
Dietiker said that he and Niswonger ran their first marathon together in 1989. Back then he didn't think about the total mileage. He instead set small goals of making it from aid station to aid station. He plans to take the same approach at the Burning River 100, which has 21 manned aid stations along the course.
"What's nice about it is that you can break it into short races so instead of thinking about running 100 miles, you can think about, 'I've got to run 4 miles to the next aid station or 5 miles to the next aid station,'" said Dietiker, who is a certified public accountant and lives in Jackson. "The first marathon I ran that was kind of the approach — you run from aid station to aid station and you don't think about the overall distance."
Another challenge of the course, besides distance, is that each aid station has a cutoff time. If runners are unable to arrive at a station by its cutoff time, they are eliminated and unable to finish the rest of the competition.
The first aid station on the Burning River trail is 4.8 miles past the starting line. Runners must arrive there within 1 hour, 25 minutes (by 6:25 a.m.). The third station is 4.8 miles past the second station and must be reached by 7:51 a.m.
The runners are able to have their own crew, consisting of family and friends, that can give assistance at 13 of the 21 aid stations. Crews are able to provide runners with new shoes, socks, special food, drinks, bug spray, sunscreen and other items. The three men will be brining along multiple pairs of sneakers because of creek crossings and other possible unfavorable running conditions.
There are no rules against walking, Niswonger said, and no specified time limits for time spent at an aid station.
"You don't want to sit down unless you're changing shoes or something because that's when you're really tempted to stop," Niswonger said. "I've read, 'Be aware of the chair' because if you get down, it's hard to get back up. So I don't plan on resting any."
Dietiker said he and Niswonger likely are to take two- or three-minute breaks at each station. Dietiker said they probably will eat at every station, estimating that during the 100-mile course, runners likely will burn 15,000 calories.
The Leadville 100 has 10 stations. Each station, like the Burning River 10, has a cutoff time that if not achieved by a runner results in disqualification.
Kelpe, who will be a member of Niswonger's and Dietiker's crew this weekend, said he likely would take five- to 10-minute breaks at each of his stations.
All three runners think a big mental challenge will be maintaining their motivation once the sun sets after running all morning, afternoon and evening.
"I'll be running whenever the sun comes up, and I'll still be going whenever the sun goes back down," Kelpe said. "That will probably be the biggest mental challenge at that point is once I go back into the nighttime. Hopefully, I'll be finished before or close to when the sun comes back up.
"I'm going to be doing a little bit of the unknown and pushing my body to its limits. I'm excited, but nervous at the same time."
Niswonger said the biggest challenges are the duration of time along with sleep deprivation. He and Dietiker plan to go to sleep today at 9 p.m. after eating a pasta dinner. But the Oak Ridge coach also said that he has read that many who run in ultra marathons are too nervous and pumped to sleep the night before.
"I suspect it's not going to be real easy to sleep the night before," Dietiker said. "I imagine it's going to be like 40 hours without sleeping.
"I don't know because I've never been in that fatigued position. Being up 24-plus hours doesn't really concern me. I've done that enough in my life that that really doesn't scare me. But the concept of doing that while you're exerting yourself physically is a little different."