Nicki Anderson: 25-year-old finds ultra passion
By Nicki Anderson email@example.com August 6, 2012 3:04PM
Mike Birkenheier, 25, is an ultra marathoner who works at Buonaro’s restaurant in Naperville. | Submitted
Updated: September 9, 2012 6:08AM
At Buonaro’s restaurant in Naperville, there is never a shortage of energy and smiles, especially when you meet Mike Birkenheier. The 25-year-old server also is an ultra marathoner. His adventures are nothing short of amazing.
If you think watching Olympic athletes is impressive, this young man’s resume likely will impress you, too, and perhaps beg the question, “Why?” This ultra marathoner will be more than happy to tell you the reasons, if you can catch him between his ultra events and busy work schedule.
So what defines an ultra marathoner? According to the website, ultrunr.com, “An ultra marathon is an organized foot race extending beyond the standard marathon running distance of 42 kilometers, 195 meters (26 miles, 385 yards). Ultra races typically begin at 50 kilometers and can extend to enormous distances. There is no limit. Ultra marathons can be run on roads, trails and tracks.”
“Individuals clearly think I’m insane for doing such extreme events,” Birkenheier said. “I am a little crazy — I’d admit that — but the combination, including the unique aspects of ultras and a bit of fear, keeps me wanting more.
“Mentally and physically it is hard, but when it comes down to doing a race, it’s not about placing in the top 20, it’s about finishing.”
Mike didn’t grow up with the ambition of completing ultras. In fact, it wasn’t until he was in college when a buddy talked him into doing his first one during April 2010 in Pekin, Ill.
“I had never run a race in my life before this 50 miler,” he said. “Talk about a tough course. In fact, it’s one of the hardest in the Midwest. Fighting against this course is like fighting a good boxer that has an unstoppable jab, breaking you down after every loop!”
He ended up finishing that first 50-mile race in 13:32:44 — yes, that’s 13 hours. The next year, he did it again, the course was muddy, and so his time was about a minute longer. But this past April, he went back for more and hit his best time yet. He finished in 12:30:33.
With this type of stress on the body, some serious mental toughness is needed for this type of running. It certainly is not for everyone, but if you’re ready to test your mental and physical toughness, this may be for you.
“The mental struggle/game you play with yourself is almost unbearable,” he said. “The body is telling you to quit when you know you still have fight left in you! You really find out what your body is made of. You find yourself putting walls up that you must push down.”
Birkenheier’s positive attitude is catching.
“Always stay positive, talk to other runners, keep your head high, fight if you feel right, and don’t give up, always keep going!” he said.
Since 2010, Mike has completed five ultras, three of which were 50 milers, and two 30 milers, all in Illinois. He also completed the 50 Ultra Miles in Circleville, Ohio. In Grand Rivers, Ken., he completed two ultras. His most recent run in Kentucky set his personal best, finishing in 10:13.00.
However, one of his favorites and most recent to date, was the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim, a 45-mile course.
“We started at 1:30 a.m. at the South Kaibab trail heading into the canyon,” he said. “We then hiked across to the North Kaibab trail, up the north side. We ate, and then hiked down the north across to the south side. We went up the Bright Angel Trail, which was a smart thing to do because there are water stops along the way.”
He finished this feat all in a little over 18 hours. According to everytrail.com, the average rim-to-rim is a four-day hike.
“Not even 1 percent of the world can complete this hike in one day,” Birkenheier said. “The Grand Canyon was really one of the best times of my life, almost life changing.”
The adage that there is something for everyone holds true. It seems Mike has found his niche and loves it. This October he will participate in his first Chicago Marathon. But my hunch is that a marathon will just be his warm up!
Do you have an inspiring story about your journey to fitness? Share it with columnist Nicki Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.