Tough shoes to fill:
students organize ultrarunning club © Nov. 30, 2007 Norwich University Office of Communications

Photo of Zack Quigley running the trails on Paine Mountain.

photo by Jay Ericson Zack Quigley pushing himself on the trails at Paine Mountain.

Norwich can boast several world-class runners among its faculty and alumni, including a US Mountain Title winner and a World Eco-Challenge competitor. Now, two young men hope to join their ranks.

Students Zack Quigley and Tom Worthington have put into motion plans to start an ultrarunning club at the University. The club, expected to be active in the spring, will offer students the chance to train not just for marathon distance races, but ultramarathons, meaning any race longer than 26.2 miles.

“We hope to get the distance running club up and running—no pun intended—by early second semester,” Worthington said. “The focus of the club will be to train for marathon distance races and longer. We aren’t too worried about individual abilities, we’re looking for students who share our love for running.”

It may not come as a surprise that the community of ultrarunners isn’t very large; there are only approximately 10,000 in the US. However, it is a bit surprising that Norwich, given its relatively small size, is home to a healthy number of them, past and present. More impressively, the University’s faculty now includes two of the most accomplished runners in the country, Prof. Ray Zirblis and Prof. Paul Low.

Zirblis, a resident of Northfield and a history professor at Norwich, has run 50 marathons, mostly as training exercises for the 65 ultramarathons he has competed in. Sometimes he’ll run the five-mile loop around Berlin Pond 10 times in a row. This year, Zirblis won his age group at the US National 24-Hour Championship, where his previous record was 119 miles in one day.

Low, on the other hand, is a mountain/trail runner. The difference between the events, he said, has to do with time and terrain. “While some of the races that I run require more time to complete, the distance is still less than 26.2 miles.” However, the terrain is grueling. Low recently won the US Mountain Title at the Mount Washington Road Race in New Hampshire, a 7.6-mile race up 5,000 feet of mountain roads that he completed in a little over an hour.

I do not see myself being content with running a 50 or 100 mile race. I don’t know where I’ll stop, hopefully never, because I believe that self-satisfaction is the killer of self-improvement.

~ Zack Quigley

Norwich also has more than its fair share of outstanding alumni runners. Bill Harding, ’61, was inducted into the Norwich Athletic Hall of Fame for football and became an ultrarunner later in life, running 20 marathons, eight 50-mile races, and four 100-mile ultras, setting multiple records along the way. Kevin Dwyer, ’87, is an adventure racer whose team placed fourteenth in the World Eco-Challenge in Fiji recently, a torturous 300-mile race through some of the most extreme terrain imaginable.

Quigley and Worthington are the next generation in this illustrious line of physical excellence. Prof. Rowland Brucken, also an ultrarunner, has stepped forward to serve as a faculty advisor to the club. “Norwich is a natural home for distance running with its commitment to physical fitness and pushing oneself to new goals,” he said. And Brucken has pushed himself to new goals, claiming a ninth place position at the Vermont 100 in 2004 and finishing 30th in a national 100-miler in 2005.

Ultramarathons are typically 30, 50, or 100 miles long. The question that begs to be asked of these runners is why? Quigley, a member of the Corps and a senior English major who plans on becoming a Navy SEAL, said a competitive nature and a desire to test himself certainly have something to do with it.

“I do not fully understand why I do it,” Quigley said. “I believe the main reason, however, is competitiveness. I do not like to be beaten at anything, or to have things that other people can do that I can’t, so I do something that a very small portion of the population does: run extremely long distances. I also have a desire to test my limits. I do not see myself being content with running a 50- or 100-mile race. I don't know where I’ll stop, hopefully never, because I believe that self-satisfaction is the killer of self-improvement.”

Worthington, a junior in the criminal justice program who plans on commissioning into the Marines after graduation, said his love for running began late in his freshman year. After finishing his pledge in the Semper Fi Society, Quigley said he and others decided to run the Marine Corps Marathon in the fall. During that training, he said, he and Quigley began logging some major miles, often heading out before sunrise and finishing up in mid-morning. Shortly thereafter, he and Quigley entered the Vermont 50 at Brucken’s urging.

“We finished at about nine hours and six minutes,” Worthington said. “Looking back, almost 100 percent of my decision to do a 50-miler was based on pride. No way was I going to let Quigley go one up on me. Aside from that, I was curious to see if I could actually run 50 miles. And now that I have run 50, I want to reach 100.“

Photo of Prof. Rowley Brucken standing on the East Montpelier section of the Cross Vermont Trail.

photo by Jay Ericson Prof. Rowland Brucken, faculty advisor to the ultrarunner club, on the East Montpelier section of the Cross Vermont Trail.

Brucken, however, cites different reasons behind his motivation for reaching for such extraordinary feats. Diagnosed in his twenties with a liposarcoma, a very aggressive kind of tumor with no known cause, Brucken ran a marathon after a successful surgery to “…see if I could do it.” After that, he said, he was hooked.

“Doing what comes easy in many facets of life just doesn’t appeal to me since I can’t derive satisfaction out of things that don’t push me,” Brucken said. “I can run, and so the next question naturally for me is how far?”

Of course, there’s also the question of pain. For many people, the desire to run a marathon, let alone 50 or 100 miles, is tempered by the realization that their muscles, lungs and psyches couldn’t hack it. Brucken and the others view this differently, though.

“There are two types of pain: structural, which feels sharp and repetitive—this is injury, and soreness, which can be worked through,” Brucken says. “It’s amazing how far you can go with soreness. You go through hills and valleys all the time, emotional and hormonal. It’s about obtaining freedom—physical freedom by being outside, and mental freedom to reflect—no one can bother you.”

Quigley shared the story of a different kind of pain, one not so easy to overcome. “I did a five-plus hour training run with just a few lines from the John Parr song, St. Elmo’s Fire, stuck in my head—not a fun run.”

Nonetheless, these same questions will almost certainly be asked by runners in the upcoming months as Quigley and Worthington’s plan comes to fruition. Moreover, once the club is active, it’s likely Norwich will easily keep up the habit of producing determined, disciplined and ultra athletes.

“Norwich is ideal for an ultrarunning group, both because of the personality types attracted by the Corps of Cadets and because the terrain is excellent for it,” Quigley said. “Dirt roads, big hills, and nice trails are everywhere.”