Running a marathon takes most people months of training, a reimagined threshold for pain and an extraordinary level of focus and commitment. For Hong De Sa, a fourth-year medical student at Drexel University, it’s only after 26.2 miles that the true challenge begins.
After years of running marathons, De Sa has learned to push herself further, trying her hand at an entirely different endurance sport known as ultra running. After completing her first 50-mile race as a second-year medical student — at the insistence of her brother, Thang, who suggested marathons aren’t as impressive as they once were — she took on a 100-mile course this summer. And then, like any committed medical student, she went to work the next day.
“The scariest part is probably not being able to sleep the night before, like, ‘What am I doing? Why am I doing this?’” said De Sa. “And then the first 40 miles while you’re warming up. Once the pain settles in, it’s like, OK, this is how it’s supposed to be, and you just do it.”
De Sa first got into running in the wake of her father’s death when she was 15. Her sister asked her to join her for a half-marathon in his honor, a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, and that’s all it took to get her hooked. She’s since run nine marathons, but last year she found herself looking for something even more grueling. She finished third out of nearly 60 women and 21st overall out of more than 200 runners in the 50-mile North Face Endurance Challenge in Washington, D.C. Running helps reduce her anxiety and gives her a way to cope with life’s challenges, she said.
“I like endurance running so much because I feel like I can push through long periods of time when I’m in pain, but I’m not naturally fast,” said De Sa. “If I were to try to do an 800-meter, I would be smoked by normal runners. I can’t run that fast. But I’ll beat you in the long run.”
De Sa showed that this summer when she went on a run long enough to give most people sore ankles just thinking about it. For 22 hours and 59 minutes she ran through Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio on the way to finishing fourth among women in the 102.2-mile race. (She actually ran closer to 103 miles because of a few missed turns, she admitted.) To train, she would run 20 miles on a Saturday, followed by 30 miles the day after, because ultra runners she consulted agreed that any run longer than 32 miles is too long for quick recovery. From there, it was all muscle memory, she said.
The race started at 4 a.m. and lasted into the small hours of the following morning. De Sa ran alongside her brother for the first 35 miles, then realized upon splitting off from him that she had no music to keep her mind occupied – her iPod had been playing in her backpack the whole time and gave out as soon as she picked it up. For the rest of the run, she had time to contemplate the strange dynamics of endurance sports as she pushed herself through the pain of one mile after the next.
“Your body can always take more than you think,” said De Sa. “Mentally, I was broken down the last 15 miles. I was miserable, I didn’t want to run anymore and because of that I felt like I couldn’t run, but then when I saw the finish line 100 yards away I sprinted. I was totally capable of running, you just have to tell yourself that you can do something.”
The same attitude applies to medical school, she said, which is why the day after she finished a race that would give most seasoned distance runners pause, she was at work for the first day of her sub-internship. She didn’t want to miss the first day, and her body would have been just as sore for the rest of the week, she said.
“In medical school, you’re constantly questioning, do I want to do this?” said De Sa. “I don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to go to work some days. … Yeah, you do. There’s always more that you can give.”
With her first 100-mile race in the books, De Sa has a few goals for the future. She’s hoping to win a lottery that would allow her to race in a Western States Endurance Run in California – “the Boston Marathon of ultra running,” she said – and she’s hoping to get into a residency in internal medicine and pediatrics, which she’s applying for now. Her next race, though, is pedestrian in comparison. She’s training for a 5K in November, hoping to get her speed back after adjusting her gait to the pace of ultra running. If her past success is any indication, she should do just fine.