Photo: Daniel Weiss
Chris Rice, 6’1” and 188 pounds, is the kind of guy you might meet sipping his morning coffee and reading The Wall Street Journal on the 6:22 commuter train from Suffern, N.Y., for the hour-plus trip to a banking institution in Manhattan, where he’s a development manager in technology. But Rice doesn’t take the train. Instead, he parks near the George Washington Bridge and runs 10 miles most mornings to his office—or, rather, to a gym, where he stores 10 business suits and gets his running laundry done.
Rice’s logistical weekday wizardry—he actually has two offices, one in Jersey City, and uses two gyms—involves multiple clothing changes, running through rush-hour traffic, bicycling, and CrossFit workouts along with swimming and full-court basketball, and an occasional subway ride for connections. Somewhere in that byzantine schedule, Rice does another 10 miles of running per week, so that from Monday to Friday, he logs about 60 miles, adding another 15 or so on weekends.
In mastering this system, Rice, 43, can usually be home for dinner with his wife, Patty, and their three sons— Peyton, 16 ; Teague, 14; and Asher,9—and try to be a regular dad who barbecues in the burbs on weekends.
“It goes family first, then work, then athletics,” says Rice. “If I have a conflict between work and running, work wins. But sleep might suffer.”
If work wins and Rice can’t get in all his weekday mileage, he might meet an ultra-running friend at midnight on a Friday (that is, Saturday morning) and run nonstop through the night until 5 a.m. on the Appalachian Trail with a headlamp and flashlight. How does that after-hours duty go down with Patty? “She’s fine with it,” says Chris.
Running five hours through the night adds to Rice’s reservoir of toughness, which he considers his calling card. Since 1999, he has done almost 200 ultras and adventure events—averaging about one a month—specializing in events of 100 miles and up and multi-day races. Rice’s prolific achievements fly in the face of recovery-time doctrine, defying what the body goes through when taken to the limit.
Photo: Daniel Weiss
Even the best ultra-runners need a break. How does Rice, who’s won a number of major events, deal with the body’s inevitable breakdown in a 100-miler when he’s got another 100, or maybe a 72-hour adventure contest, coming up only a month later?
“I ignore it,” Rice says of whatever cry emerges from his ravaged body. He adds, in defense of the non-scientific method, “I don’t do V02 max. I don’t pay attention to what I’m eating during races. I don’t carry fluids. Other people might out-science me, but I try to out-tough them.”
Rice’s latest opportunity to test his toughness was on June 17 at the Great New York 100 Mile Running Exposition, which starts and finishes in Times Square and travels through just about every park and ethnic neighborhood in the outer boroughs. Rice placed fourth in 2013 and fifth in 2014. Only a few competitors complete the route in less than 20 hours.
As usual, Rice will take the line at 5 a.m. with no elaborate fuel-replacement strategy, no tinkered-with running shoes, no mind-body practice to guide him, no coaching wisdom or biblical mantras, and feel quite chipper despite a serious lack of sleep.
Rice relies on a high pain threshold, which he feels comes from his father, a West Point man who saw action in Vietnam. “Success,” says Rice, “depends on two things—a high level of patience and high level of pain tolerance. The older I get, the more pain I can endure.”
In his adventures, Rice savors both the pain and rhapsody that he longs to experience again and again. “As soon as I finish one race,” he says, “it’s like an addiction. I need to have the next one coming up.”
Rice can’t let go because he feels there’s too much at stake: the opportunity to accomplish something few people can and, as he puts it, “cannot be taken away. I’ve done it. It’s mine.”
Just about anyone can run a marathon—these days it’s as much of a happening as a sport. Why join the masses running 26 miles when you can link with like-minded people running four times as long and experience the transcendence of what Rice calls “being out there” in a different world. He says that while racing hours upon hours in an ultra, “I’m blank and there’s clarity. It’s like meditating. There’s no stress. I have a singular focus of finishing.”
In the New York 100, Rice says he most anticipated the “surreal weirdness” of the 80-mile point when he emerged from the solitude of his internal rhythms and onto the splashy Coney Island boardwalk packed with Saturday night revelers and, as he says, “Brooklyn hipsters.” While Rice finds the contrast jarring, it’s a moment he treasures: an elusive taste of a cultural touchpoint while he’s at his most vulnerable.
In 2014, Rice ran the Badwater 135, placing 25th out of 100 starters.
The revelry and smell of the sea carry Rice onward, but it’s not his most precious race experience of all. That one occurs hours from any drop of water, in Death Valley, Calif., in the struggle to complete the 135 miles of the notorious Badwater. Rice did Badwater—“the hardest race on the planet,” he says— in 2014, placing 25th out of 100 starters. And he did it one month after the New York 100, which followed three ultras, including the New Jersey 100, in the previous four months.
“In Badwater,” says Rice, “you’re basically racing foot pain. With the massive heat, your feet are constantly wet from sweat. You can see 30 miles in front of you. You have to calm your mind. You keep asking yourself, ‘Can I make it to the end before my feet just give in?’” Rice completed the 2014 race in 34 hours and 21 minutes.
Before Badwater, Rice trained about 100 miles a week but did not do long runs of even 20 miles or more, standard for regular marathoners going a mere 26.2 miles. Rice uses his monthly ultra races as training, figuring that each long event functions as training for the next one. Admitting that his approach may seem counterintuitive, he says that constant activity aids recovery and prepares him for the next event all at once.
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Rice’s claim of increasing pain tolerance bears out in a string of recent victories. Last July in extreme heat—temperatures in the 80s and humidity in the 90s—Rice won the Viaduct Trail 100 Miler in the northeast Pennsylvania wilderness by more than an hour. This past January, in a snowstorm, Rice won the Watchung 50K in New Jersey by more than 9 minutes. “I like adverse weather,” he says.
Rice’s first 100, in 2010, about a decade after his first ultra, came after adversity that would have overwhelmed lesser athletes. In 2009, as a result of back surgery, Rice contracted a rare, life-threatening staph infection in his spinal column that required a second emergency operation for spinal fusion. Within 24 hours following the second surgery, Rice was walking laps around the hospital corridors. But he’d lost months of training, had 14 inches of staples in his back and had to be on antibiotics for a year.
Once the staples were removed, Rice could run but would have a permanent “cage” in his lower back consisting of bolted titanium rods. Even in his weakened state, Rice chose a predicable route to get back in shape: By embarking on his first 100.
What about the contraption imbedded in his back? “I don’t even think about it,” he says. Twelve months after the surgery, Rice did the New Jersey 100, now called the New Jersey Ultra Festival, and was on his way
Rice has no residual back problems, but he also has a plate and ten screws in his right hand after falling during a 25-mile trail run near his home. “I try not to think about that either,” he says.
The episode weakened Rice’s right-hand grip, an impediment for him in Spartan and Tough Mudder events that require climbing ropes and walls. Rice also uses his hands in adventure races that typically include canoeing and mountain biking along with running (in a trekking or orienteering way) for 24, 48 or 72 hours, sleep be damned. Rice competes in these events individually or as part of a team. (In team competition, each member must complete all disciplines.)
The kinds of races Rice runs in sometimes offers unusual rewards in place of medals, like this spike for the Viaduct Trail Ultramarathon. Photo: Daniel Weiss
In one Spartan Death Race, a 48-hour event in Vermont, Rice’s four-man team was victorious. The challenges included running up and down a mountain hauling a 70-pound sandbag in your backpack. And on virtually no sleep either, or the opposition would get ahead. “I popped caffeine pills,” Rice says.
In his most recent adventure event—the 72-hour Florida Sea to Sea race in March—Rice and a partner, Bruce Swanson, 53, took fourth in the overall two-man team competition. Traveling via land, water and wheels from the state’s east coast near Daytona Beach to its west coast at Crystal Springs, the pair took 66 hours, 54 minutes to navigate the backwoods crossing. They did get a bit of sleep—there was a mandatory “dark zone.”
Rice holds that just about anyone can find his ultra “soul” by shedding perceived limits. “People have a mental map that sets borders, that says, ‘This is the edge of your reality,’” Rice says. “Every time you do something you didn’t think you could do, you redefine that border.”
One time, in a four-day, 250-mile event with the finish nearing, Rice almost had to alter the borders of the race course. In a contest of trekking, mountain biking, rappelling and navigating unmarked terrain in the Appalachian Extreme in Maine and New Hampshire, Rice and his teammates emerged from a night of racing through the woods and into the daylight when Rice encountered something that nearly scared the life out of him.
“A moose,” he says. “You don’t know how big a moose is until he’s right in front of you. The sun had just come up and he’s staring at me, with smoke coming out of his nose.”
But the moose must have seen something that impressed him. Before Rice could find a way to retreat, the moose ran away.