Joanne Feinberg never thought of herself as a runner.
She's always been active, rock-climbing as a kid on the East Coast, camping and backpacking, even windsurfing. But running — that was something other people did. She remembers looking at runners and thinking, "No way that would ever be me."
Long-distance running is as old as humanity, but its current popularity can be traced to a man whose horse came up lame.
Historians of ultra running place its origins in a 100-mile California trail ride known as the Tevis Cup, which was organized in the mid-1950s to see whether horses and riders could still cover 100 miles in 24 hours. Their course followed mountain trails from Squaw Valley to Auburn along many of the routes used by early-day miners.
One of the riders in the 1973 competition, Gordon Ainsleigh, had to drop out when his favorite horse came up lame. The following year, he decided to enter the race on foot. To the riders' universal amazement, he finished the 100-mile course in just under 24 hours.
By 1977, there were enough runners interested in Ainsleigh's feat to organize the first Western States Endurance Run, also known as the Western States 100.
The idea took off, and before long there were "ultra" races on outdoor courses across the country, over distances that ranged from 50 kilometers (about 30 miles) to 100 miles.
Southern Oregon has its own ultra race, the 100-mile Pine to Palm, which drew 127 entrants this past September. Runners climb more than 20,000 vertical feet (about 4 miles) and descend 20,000 feet over the course, which starts in Williams and finishes in Ashland. Just 73 runners covered the full distance.
Gerad Dean, 35, of Mount Shasta, Calif., was the top male finisher, with a time of 19 hours, 53 minutes. Jenn Shelton, 28, of Ashland led the women, crossing the finish line at 22 hours, 24 minutes.
People change as they age. As her 50th birthday loomed, Feinberg was living in Ashland, working with the Ashland Independent Film Festival. She got it in her head that she wanted to run a marathon before she reached the half-century mark.
"It just didn't seem like there was much of a point in running a 10K," she says.
So she signed up for the Lithia Loop, the 26.2-mile trail marathon that starts and finishes in Ashland, and started training.
"I started with one mile and it killed me," she recalls. "It took a lot to get me out there again."
She gradually increased her distance to 2 miles, then 3, then 4 and more. As her mileage grew, she realized she was feeling good after that first mile. She trained for about six months before the race, slowly building endurance, and finished the 2009 Lithia Loop in just under five hours.
"Once I finished that marathon, I wanted to do more," she says.
She found herself drawn to even longer races, known as "ultra" running, where the course can stretch as far as 100 miles across open country, and runners put one foot in front of the other for 10 to 15 hours, and sometimes more, to reach the finish.
To prepare for such distances, they mix short and long workouts, but even the short runs can last three or four hours and cover more miles than anyone would attempt on a Sunday afternoon walk in the woods.
"The training part is what hooked me," Feinberg says, because it offered her a new way to spend time in the mountains and forests of Southern Oregon.
"I've been able to explore areas you wouldn't just go for a day hike," she says.
This past summer, for example, she entered the Siskiyou OutBack, a 50-mile run that winds across the Siskiyou Mountains along the Oregon/California border, traversing some remote sections of the Pacific Crest Trail. She crossed the finish line with a time of 11 hours, 23 minutes.
"I'd never been on that part of the trail where it goes into California," she recalls.
Feinberg says running provides a physical and mental break from her work as programming director for Ashland's popular film festival.
"I sit and watch hundreds of hours (of film) a year," she says, describing much of what she sees as "pretty intense. Getting out in the mountains is an incredible way for me to keep myself sane."
It's also done wonders for her physical condition.
"I see an enormous difference in my energy level and how my body feels," she says. "I feel strong, and I truly feel like I'm getting stronger and faster as a runner. That's really a motivator at my age."
On the trail, she has time to think, and talk with friends who are runners, too.
"We've worked out a lot of stuff on the trail," says Kathy Carter, 47, one of her training partners. "It's really a good way to get to know somebody.
"Those four or five hours we get on the trail somehow are a little mini-vacation from life," Carter says. "It's exhausting, and restorative."
Runners in their middle years, like Feinberg and Carter, seem especially drawn to extra-long distances, says Hal Koerner, an Ashland-based ultra runner who's won a number of prestigious races, including the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run (twice). Koerner says running 50 or 100 miles requires as much mental toughness as physical stamina, and many mature runners have mental determination that's acquired only through years of life experience.
"Much of the success that comes from these events centers around staying focused for hours on end," says Koerner, 36, "and an unparalleled passion for pursuit of a goal, a 'never-say-die' kind of attitude that we don't attribute to younger generations that look to easier solutions and quick fixes. When I began running these types of events in the 1990s, I was the youngest runner out there and I looked up to runners that were almost twice my age.
"The patience that's needed to settle in and let this type of distance come to the runner is something that usually takes years to acquire," Koerner says. "Joanne has been a prime example of someone who is passionate in her daily life. (She's) attuned to detail, and works hard, so it's no surprise that she made the transition to the ultra distance so easily."
Feinberg's goal is to finish the Pine to Palms, a 100-mile trail run that starts near Williams and follows the Siskiyou crest east before descending to Ashland.
"It's going to happen before I'm 100," she says.
Bill Kettler is a freelance writer living in Rogue River. Reach him at email@example.com.