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FOR 'ULTRA' RUNNERS, MILEAGE IS THEIR CIRCULAR SENSATION

'Round and 'round they'll go. Where they'll stop, nobody knows.

That's a short description of Sunday's Buffalo Philharmonic Athletic Club Six-Hour Distance Classic in Delaware Park. About 25 to 30 runners will circle the park's 1.77-mile ring road over and over again, starting at 8 a.m. The winner will have gone the farthest as of 2 p.m.

An ultramarathon is a race that goes past the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles, and this race qualifies. It's the only one on the Western New York yearly sports calendar, and the participants love it.

"It's one of my favorite races," Peggie Hillery of Hamburg said.

"If you work your way up to the distance, it becomes fun," said Keith Gregoire of Depew.

But that's not to say the runners don't question their own mental health when running for that length of time.

"When it comes to ultramarathons, we're all nuts," Dave Smith of Williamsville said.

Last year's winner, Todd Baum of suburban Syracuse, ran 41.19 miles in six hours. If he hadn't run in circles, Baum could have headed to Main Street and kept running on Route 5 to approximately Batavia. For comparison's sake, a marathon run would have taken him merely to Akron.

"It's a six-hour race. Anyone can do it," said race director Carl Pegels, a University at Buffalo professor who went more than 12 miles last year at age 71. "I think the local people enjoy the chance to have a race like this here. Some people do the entire six hours, while some quit when they get tired."

"I like the format," Gregoire said. "In the marathon, the best runners in the world, like theKenyans, are done in something like 2 hours, 5 minutes. Here, everyone has to go for six hours."

The race has been around in one form or another since 1980, which makes Sunday's race a 25th anniversary.

"Dave Broad (who did 26.56 miles last year) ran in our first race, a 50-miler," Pegels said. "There's still a few people around who ran in that first one.

"For a couple of years, we had a 100-mile race in the park. We also had a 24-hour race, which is about the same thing. I think I took about 21 hours to finish that one. The advantage to a timed race is that everyone is a finisher."

Training methods vary by the participant, as each runner has his or her own way of reaching the desired level of fitness.

"I had knee surgery, so I cut down on my total mileage," Gregoire said. "I try to do more cross-training now. I take long runs on Sundays. Every other Sunday I'll run for three hours."

"I don't train that much for this race," said Hillery, who works out when she can on the hills of Chestnut Ridge.

Any sort of race in Buffalo in April takes its chances when it comes to weather. This one is no exception.

"Last year was a horrible day for a race. It poured," Hillery said. "I changed my clothes five times in a van. I think I brought every bit of running clothes I had. But I didn't give up."

This year's race is the kickoff to the Western New York Ultra Series of races throughout the region. It includes a 30-mile run through Highland Forest south of Syracuse; a 50-mile jaunt through the Finger Lakes National Forest; 50 miles around Canandaigua Lake; and 50 kilometers of running in Mendon Ponds Park in Pittsford.

But a race like this really isn't about winning for most of the competitors. It's more a matter of testing personal limits.

"I do not look like a runner," Hillery said. "I'm not tall and muscular. I'm a mom with four kids. I go out and set my mind to it. The kids see me not giving up. It's a good life lesson."

e-mail: bbailey@buffnews.com

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