Shannon Farar-Griefer hears the call of the wild Badwater race

For runners like her, the 135-mile ultramarathon from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney has an allure that can be hard to comprehend.

Ultramarathons are to running what the Marquis de Sade was to romance. Not sure I support such extremism. When one of the sport's stars, a frantic rabbit by the name of Shannon Farar-Griefer, runs the infamous Badwater, she races on desert roads so hot they cheese-melt her shoes.

That's insane, right? I make it a point to make allegiances of madmen and misfits — they're just more entertaining. But this ultramarathoning? I wouldn't recommend it to my worst enemies, many of whom happen to be lizards.

By now, or maybe sooner, you're probably asking "Why?" Why would anyone attempt such a miserable, dangerous sport? Is it really a sport, or a sophisticated system of self-annihilation?

So far, no one can adequately explain it. It's like the machinations of hedge funds, or the demise of NBC's Thursday lineup. Ultramarathoning is beyond my comprehension and probably yours.

It makes sense only to the limited number of people who can do it, and is explainable only in that Hillaryesqe (Edmund, not Clinton) spirit of doing what few others would even try.

Farar-Griefer herself is so deep into this alternative lifestyle that she once finished the Badwater, running from the deepest snake pit in Death Valley to the finish line up Mt. Whitney, then doubled back to the race's original start, some 270 miles in all.

That's not just nuts, that's certifiable. What's next, a career in politics?

Farar-Griefer is a Hidden Hills mother of three who didn't start distance running until she was 35 and now seemingly can't stop. Can't stop when she reaches the usual marathon distance of 26 miles, which fondues most mortals, or stop when she reaches 100 miles, the distance of many ultras.

Ideally, she still feels pretty good 50 miles in, and confesses that at 80 miles no one feels very good in these things, even if you're among the small percentage of super-runners capable of such feats.

Her greatest race was "doubling" Badwater, which she did in 2001. Since then, she has run the race five more times, had a baby and been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. If you think Farar-Griefer is your typical Hidden Hills mom, you'd be wrong on two counts:

1) There's no such thing as a typical Hidden Hills mom, they're all snowflakes, some flakier than others (this is the hyper-wealthy 'hood where some of the Kardashians camp).

2) There's nothing typical about Farar-Griefer, one of the sports' founding mothers, a runner who doesn't break a sweat till 50 miles in, the point where the rest of us would be sitting down with God.

"People say, 'What's wrong with you, what's wrong with you?'" she explains of her passion. "But it's really about what's right with you."

Farar-Griefer, a hard-as-marbles 52, credits a stubborn streak and some Cherokee blood. Once, in the dark forests of Colorado, she heard footsteps and turned expecting a bear. Instead, it was a massive deer. After facing off for a minute, Farar-Griefer bounded down the trail, with the deer running along behind her.

"That moment is when I thought, 'I love this sport; I was meant to do this,'" she recalls.

Ultras, in the shorthand of the sport's hard-core, have been around since ancient times but reemerged in the late '70s, says Scott Mills, a renowned runner and longtime race director.

Farar-Griefer herself came to distance running 20 years ago. After having a baby, she gave the L.A. Marathon a shot. Hooked, she turned toward even more demanding events, such as Badwater and the Western States, both in California.

She has also turned into a pied piper of L.A. distance running, recruiting other carpooling moms for daily jaunts in the rolling hills near Calabasas, turning them into marathoners while tapping their resources for charity — the Chase Foundation and Act Today are two favorites.

Of key concern, of course, is the MS. She was first diagnosed at age 45, ran one more Badwater before beginning treatments, then flew to Tahiti with her husband for a little R&R.

Once back, she found she was pregnant (yes, at 45). The treatments were put on hold during the pregnancy, but once her baby was born, an MRI showed no new brain lesions. She credits running with holding the disease at bay, though there was a seizure in December that is keeping her and her doctors on their toes.

Still, Badwater beckons. This year, with the race seven weeks away, she runs 40 miles a week, plus frequent 50-mile races on weekends, building up her tolerances, especially for the heat.

Though she also manages a couple of clothing companies — one that makes runners' apparel, another that makes swimwear — training is easier now than when her kids were younger and she would drop them at school, drive to Palm Springs for a four-hour training run in the heat, then scurry back to pick the kids up.

"In the end, it's really a selfish sport," she admits.

If it's really a sport at all.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

 

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