Studying the Body of an Ultramarathon Runner


One runner. 497 miles. Eight days. Working off two to four hours of sleep a night. That is the goal of some athletes who push themselves beyond the normal marathon length of 26.2 miles. Ultramarathons are growing in popularity, and those who participate in them push their bodies to the limit.

Andrew Creer, an associate professor in the Exercise Science Department at Utah Valley University,  is measuring the effects that running these great distances have on physical and mental well-being. He is following ultrarunner Ben Light’s run from September 1-8 in Spain.

“People can run these incredible feats — we just don’t understand what is happening to their body, how does their body adapt to allow them to keep going?” Creer said. “This project might provide an insight into what is happening to the body that way.” 

Earlier this year, professional ultrarunner Ben Light approached Creer and requested that Creer collect physiological and cognitive data, while Light runs the Pyrenean Haute Route. The ultrarunner is attempting to set the fastest known time for trail completion, and plans to run the trail in eight and a half days.

Last fall, Creer used a video clip of one of Light’s previous runs, showcasing gastrointestinal distress, in his sports nutrition class. Taran Bailey, one of Creer’s students, who is now involved with the project, posted this to Instagram and tagged Light. Light then offered to speak in Creer’s class about his experience as an ultrarunner.

After seeing some of the equipment in UVU’s facility, Light asked Creer to become involved with the Pyrenees Project.

“I am interested in seeing the effects that ultra-endurance events have on the body,” Creer said. “For me, there just isn’t a lot of information about what happens when people set off to do these types of things, and they are becoming more popular.”

The Pyrenean Haute Route is a grueling 497-mile mountain trail along the border of Northern Spain. To finish the trail in just over eight days, Light will need to run about 60 miles a day. “I’m anxious, as in I’m excited, but also scared, the wonder of the unknown and the accomplishment of it all,” Light said. 

Data for this project will be collected before, during, and after the attempt. Creer and his students will perform several tests to measure the impact of the ultramarathon on the runner. “I’m excited, it’s cool that UVU can give undergrads the opportunity to be a part of projects like this, opportunities that students at other universities could never dream of,” Bailey said.

To measure muscle quality throughout an eight-plus day run, Creer will use a portable ultrasound device to scan the muscles in the thigh. Once scanned, the images are analyzed for fuel status, size, and quality.

Another aspect that Creer and his students are looking at is blood lactate production levels. This test will help to identify the intensity of the workout, and the speed at which the runner will begin to fatigue more quickly.

A unique factor that Creer is interested in studying is the effect that sleep deprivation has on the thought process. Throughout the project, Light will only sleep two to four hours a night. Light will then be asked to solve basic games on a tablet to measure the impact lack of sleep is having on his body.

Creer will collect data about once a day when Light stops to resupply. The evaluation team is not allowed to provide support, but will only monitor his physical progress. “We can’t give Light any aid. We can do some basic assessments on him, but we can’t give him any food, water, or help of any kind,” Creer said.

Creer’s experience on similar projects prepared him for the evaluation of an ultra-endurance runner, but this will be his most elaborate. “It is five-times longer than anything I’ve been involved with before, so the variables that we are measuring are going to be similar — but the two primary big differences are that it is a multiweek project and it will be on a different continent,” he said.

Light is partnering with Neuroworx, a Utah nonprofit organization that focuses on the rehabilitation of people who experience spinal cord and other neurological injuries. His goal is to raise $75,00 in donations. “I’m running to support those who physically can’t run,” Light said.

Ultrarunner Ben Light.

Ultrarunner Ben Light.

Ultrarunner Ben Light.

Ultrarunner Ben Light.