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It was a perfect night for hallucinations. And the perfect place, too–a plateau a few miles east of the Sierra Nevada.
"There was a big fire in the Sierra National Forest," Ian Parker recalled. "The smoke was blowing toward us. It was this moonlit night, but there was all this smoke in the air so everything was a strange dark red color. It was turning the bushes into comfortable-looking chairs and tables to go and sit down on. I kept thinking, 'Oh, the local county has set up a little rest area. I'll go and sit down and picnic.' Once or twice after I got sufficiently convinced, I wandered off the road and checked, [but] it was just bushes."
That was last year. Parker, a 52-year-old neurobiology and behavior professor at UC Irvine, hopes for better hallucinations this year.
His drug of choice isn't made in a lab, but in the blistering heat of a California desert.
Every morning, while most men his age are reading the paper, he slips out the back door to train for the July 22 Badwater Ultramarathon 2003, a 135-mile footrace from the bottom of Death Valley to Whitney Portal.
Looking at Parker, you wouldn't imagine his small body capable of covering ultramarathon distances. He has moppish gray hair resembling a badly cared-for wig from a little girl's dress-up chest and curvy, almost womanly hips. His voice bears a lilting English accent reminiscent of a small cartoonish mouse and he sports a large silver belt buckle that reads "100 MILES!"–a prize from a past ultra race. During this interview, he's wearing a "Badwater 2002" T-shirt.
Despite his stamina and seeming suicidal tendencies, Parker appears to be an endearing and normal middle-aged man. There is real softness in his voice when he addresses his son Cameron, 13, as "Cammie" over the phone, and passion in his description of lecturing for 450 students on the mysteries of cell signaling–how signals are transmitted within a single cell–which is his area of expertise.
His quaint office is cluttered with an enormous computer, books and an impressive collection of hundreds of frog figurines, but the walls are bare except for two framed certificates hanging above his desk. The first is a Psychobiology Academy award presented by his office staff for "outstanding performance in a comic drama in the role of acting chair." The other is a document certifying his completion of a Badwater Ultramarathon.
The race is notoriously difficult. New rules require the runner to hit the open desert at the hottest part of the day. And hallucinations aren't the only serious health risks. Foot blisters can cause serious infection, and there's also the potential for stomach trouble, vomiting along the trail, kidney malfunctions, hypothermia and overheating.
"You run a 5k and you think, 'Yeah, that's pretty tough,' but there's a 10k on next week and you give that a go, and you think, 'Oh that wasn't so bad, let's try a half marathon,' then a marathon," said Parker. "A 50-miler is the next challenge, then 100k, which isn't that much more than 50 miles. Then you think, 'I've done 100k, how about 100 miles?'"
He ran his first ultra in 1993. Tired of traditional marathons through urban streets crowded with 20,000 other runners, he now prefers the intimacy and remoteness of the ultramarathon community. His fellow runners are mostly contemporaries; ultramarathons tend to attract an older crowd.
"Speed certainly goes [away] with age; sprinters are all young," Parker explained. "But with ultramarathons, if the motivation stays with you, it seems it's something you can keep on doing for a long, long time."
His family and co-workers often make up his support crew on the ultras, and last year Parker's 15-year-old son Robin accompanied his father for stretches on the trail. "Sometimes I feel a bit selfish asking the whole family to pack up the minivan and hang out in 100-degree heat for the weekend," Parker noted apologetically. "But I think ultimately we all get a lot out of it. It's a very nice community."
He says he isn't running for enlightenment. He described conversations with other runners during races as "strange and disjointed [because] your mind isn't working quite straight." Neither is he running for toned calves and bulging guns. "I don't think you do these races for your health," he said.
Instead, he says, he runs for the same reason we like The Osbournes. Ultramarathon runners create an exclusive, slightly dysfunctional family.
"It's totally crazy. Why would you want to do it?" asked Parker. "I guess ultimately because it's enjoyable. It often doesn't feel like it at the time. But you're trying to do something that few people can do or try to do. There's a satisfaction in doing something that's very hard to do, even though it's totally useless, and there's no point in doing it."