Before a race, junior Phil Shaw, 21, is not worried about how he will feel three hours into the competition. Nor is he focused on how he will be holding up after six, or even 10 hours of running.
Instead, Shaw says, "It matters how you feel 20 hours in."
For his last race in August, Shaw clocked in at 20 hours and 28 minutes?an impressive finish for a 100-mile run.
Since he was 17, Shaw has run in nine ultra-marathons. An ultra-marathon is any race that is longer than a marathon's 26.2 miles. Shaw runs in 50- and 100-mile races, and he has been one of the top three finishers in at least 75 percent of the competitions.
Shaw grew up in Everett, Washington, near the North Cascade Mountains. He has always loved exploring the area, and in order to cover more ground, he started running very long distances there.
"The goal was never to run," Shaw says. "It was always just to be in the mountains."
In fact, Shaw did not even know that ultra-marathons existed until well after he was running the equivalent distances. At age 15, he was already logging up to 50 miles at a time. He did not actually compete until a couple of years later.
"Racing is a guilty pleasure of mine," he says.
That does not mean it is easy, by any measure. In June, Shaw entered a 100-mile race in California in sweltering 110- degree heat. Along the course, aid stations provided ice and buckets of water for runners to stick their heads in, in addition to the usual sport bars and water.
Although he completed the race the previous year, Shaw dropped out at mile 57 this time. Because of the severe heat, only half of the original competitors were able to finish the race. According to Shaw, a 75 percent finish rate is usually considered good for ultra-marathons.
For Shaw, a typical week of training in July consists of a 16- mile run on Monday, a 40-mile bike ride on Tuesday, a 16-mile mountain run with maximum vertical gain on Wednesday, a 40-mile bike ride on Thursday, a 12-mile run on Friday, a 30- to 35-mile mountain run on Saturday, and a 30- to 35-mile mountain run on Sunday.
When he is as at Bowdoin, Shaw will typically run along the bay down to Freeport and back to the College. For longer runs, he heads further inland. Although ice can be troublesome in the winter, Shaw will not miss a run due to weather.
Shaw does not think Maine's landscape compares to the North Cascades. He described the landscape near his home in Washington as "alive, full of energy," but thinks that Maine can be sleepy and depressing.
"Nonetheless, I operate on the principle that, no matter the circumstances, things will be better after a run. It always works," he says.
Although it is common for marathoners to enter half-marathons as part of their training, Shaw does not enter marathons to prepare for ultra-marathons. He estimates that he has run the equivalent distance or greater of a marathon on at least 80 occasions, but he does it on his own time.
"It allows me to visit places races would never go to," he says.
Shaw has never run on a cross-country or track team because he prefers to run alone, and he says he is slow. Furthermore, he believes that "ultra-running" builds stronger character than running on a team would.
"I can run very long distances, not because of some innate physical capacity, but because I believe it is the right thing for me to do, and I'm willing to suffer for it," he says.
On race day, Shaw is excited on the starting line, but he noted that it can be very nerve racking for runners who have been struggling with injuries. Despite his rigorous training, Shaw has only suffered from minor overuse injuries. However, according to Shaw, injuries are not the most common medical issue that ultra-marathoners encounter.
"The biggest problem for runners at that distance is to keep your food down, because your stomach shuts down under that much pressure," he says.
The food that Shaw consumes during a race is not exactly typical. While many runners eat sport bars and gels, Shaw prefers watermelon and peanut butter sandwiches.
Toward the end of the race, Shaw says the way he feels is hard to describe.
"Everything hurts?everything," he says.
But, he gets through it by fixating on the finish line. When he finally crosses it, he gets a rush.
"I feel like a god," he says.
In his last race, Shaw finished almost 12 hours before the 32-hour cut-off time. While his finish was faster than most, he says that 24 hours is generally considered a respectable finish for a 100-mile race. A runner who finishes in less than 24 hours has completed the race at an impressive speed. Shaw adds, "Plus, you get to brag, 'I ran 100 miles in a day.'"
After the race, Shaw experiences "total exhaustion." He says, "As soon as you sit down, you realize you can't get up without help."
But he can delay the exhaustion if he needs to. For instance, his last race in August was just a couple of days before he had to leave to come back to Bowdoin for the fall semester. Shaw did not want to miss his last chance to go into the mountains, so he hiked 30 miles the day after his race.
"That was a painful day, but I don't regret it," he says.
After all, his participation in these races stemmed from his love of the mountains. The mountains are big, beautiful, and brutal, he says.
"To head out there without strength, without intensity, is almost disrespectful," he says, "so I try to honor that."