Ever thought about competing in an ultramarathon? What about a 555-kilometre run in the Himalayas? This is exactly what ultra-runner and all-round superhuman Jason Reardon has accomplished and wow is he modest about it!
It takes a certain mindful individual to be able to train, concentrate and complete a marathon. Despite the pain your body endures from constant adrenaline spikes and high-impact movement, the biggest battle is to remain focused and positive within. When I spoke with Jason, he was very calm and collected and my constant exclamations of awe were met with humble and inspiring words: ‘I do this to show other people that you can achieve anything,’ he says.
Some people may think Jason is crazy or is simply running to the extreme to bolster his online profile. However, there is a much deeper and more harrowing reason why Jason takes on such marathons.
When Jason was 23, he joined the Australian defence force. He entered the army a married man and within the first six months of being out in the field his wife gave birth to a son. A few days after the birth, the baby tragically died. Jason didn’t learn of his son’s death until a few weeks later due to being out on exercise.
It is more than fair to say that these extreme circumstances took a terrible toll on Jason. He was flung into a downwards spiral, finding himself held hostage to depressive thoughts, suicidal actions and a reliance on alcohol. Jason had lost all motivation and care for his life. He left the army and internalised his feelings, trapped in self-deprivation. He didn’t reach out to family members, friends or seek professional advice. Jason didn’t feel anyone could give him the support he needed.
After a long period of darkness, Jason’s focus finally shifted when he realised the power of mindfulness. He started taking small steps to help himself feel better. Retraining his mind, it was as if he was teaching himself to walk again.
Jason turned his attention towards running. He tells me that he has always been into fitness and pushing his body. Once he took the steps to train and build up the confidence to compete, Jason began entering half marathons.
‘When I train for any type of distance running, I combine strength training at the gym with 50km to 100km runs per week,’ says Jason.
Looking at him, Jason breaks the norm of a typical low bodyweight long-distance runner. He has a strong, muscular build and believes his body requires all aspects of training to endure the long distances and potential unforeseen circumstances that are characteristic of marathon running.
It was after a car accident while overseas in 2013 that Jason’s willpower was tested once again. Jason came out of the crash with a fractured pelvis, a punctured lung and a serious head trauma. It was as if all odds were against him as doctors delivered the news that he would never be able to run long distances or push his body again.
In 2018, Jason’s steps to refocusing on his mental and physical recovery propelled him into ultramarathon running. He was determined to prove the doctors wrong. Jason explains that running extensive distances is not easy or conquerable by any means as it is a constant battle between the mind and physical fitness: ‘Running at such distances, you get to see what really drives you and how to manipulate focus,’ he says.
Later that year, Jason entered the 222km La Ultra marathon in Laddakh, India. The track weaves its way through the Himalayas up to extreme summits and gruelling stone tracks. If the distance doesn’t affect you, the altitude definitely will as it play tricks on your body. Jason explains that just walking down the street puts a toll on your body: ‘When you walk down the street, your breath sounds like you have just run a race, it is heavy and if you do not get to the location a week before you enter the race you will struggle because it is unlike the altitude back home,’ Jason explains.
It is clear to see why La Ultra is called the world’s cruellest ultramarathon. Jason explains that the race involves crossing two mountain passes, which reach over 17,400 feet in height and are to be cleared in no more than 48 hours. Snowstorms and subzero climates consume the participants but it’s not only nature you are fighting against but your inner body clock: ‘We race way into the night and over the course of the race I think I slept about 3 hours,’ Jason explains.
Jason tells me that sleep does not always include fully closing his eyes but resting, laying down and attending to aches and pains, changing clothes and shoes, and eating. It is a race of perseverance and resilience and this experience is one which is not comparable to the next participant.
‘You don’t know the other participants’ fitness levels but the one thing we all have in common is that we don’t know how strong our mindsets are until we are in the race,’ says Jason.
In a heroic effort, Jason completed the 2018 222km La Ultra, coming in at first place, making him the first Australian ever to complete it.
Jason didn’t stop there, in August 2019, to mark the 10th year this event has been running, a 555km ultramarathon was added to the La Ultra race distance. Naturally Jason had to enter. He had completed the 222km category, so what was another 333kms?
‘Runners from all over the world compete in this event. In the 555km category we had participants from India, one from Poland and the USA, as well as me [from Australia],’ says Jason.
Jason goes on to explain that this time around there were five mountain peaks to cross averaging out to one peak every 100km.
‘It’s about taking small steps and focusing on the checkpoints, which were every 40km or so,’ says Jason.
You are not alone in this race. 80 people started the La Ultra Series, and each runner has a support crew: ‘The support crew were from all over the world. They run next to me during the race or in the support crew car.’
For anyone when running, thoughts consume you. Questions like: Can I keep going? And thoughts of pain come rushing through the mind. When I asked Jason how he keeps these thoughts and emotions at bay, he said running, for him, is like meditation. Jason distracts himself with audiobooks when he has headphones in: ‘The race brings everything back into perspective,’ Jason says, ‘I just think about getting it done and setting myself little goals. If I reach the next check point, I can tick that off the list and make another one.’
Jason summits the first pass, then next travelled along a flat road for 60km, up 3,500 metres to the next pass reaching an altitude of 5,400 metres and winding down for 28kms to another flat road. At this point the headaches begin to subside from days of being at different altitudes, but it is when you pass the 24-hour mark that your mind, as Jason says, ‘becomes mush and you can’t really think about much.’
Between the environmental elements, lack of sleep, extreme exercise and mental willpower, Jason explains that the race also has cut off times: ‘There is an amount of time you can spend reaching the next checkpoint. These checkpoints can make or break the runner.’
There were times near the end of the race that were extremely difficult for Jason because he truly believed his support crew were playing tricks on him and not informing him of the right time he was tracking. Jason details the incredible sunsets, hallucinations and even having a gun pulled out on him in the dark of night while running. It is almost impossible to comprehend how mentally and physically draining such a race can be whilst dodging the unexplainable circumstances he endured.
By the time Jason reached the last 50km there was nothing more to do but finish the race. Reaching the last 50 metres, Jason jogged as he saw the end. He crossed the ribbon and was presented with a trophy. The first-ever winner of the La Ultra 555km race. Completed!
‘My immune system was down, I was dehydrated, and I couldn’t really speak and say thank you because I had ulcers in my mouth,’ Jason says. ‘After the race I just wanted pizza. Three people got to the 555km mark and six had attempted it.’
During the many marathons Jason has completed, he has crossed paths with many different people from all over the world who, like him, have suffered with coming to terms with mental illness. He says, humbly, that what he does inspires others and that’s why he competes in such events. Jason shares stories to prove to others that you can overcome such intrusive, negative thoughts: ‘I feel like I can do anything and that if support is there, you use it. You don’t have to do everything yourself. Use the help,’ he says.
Since speaking with Jason, he has gone on to win the 100km Lycian Way Ultramarathon in Turkey, only four weeks after completing the La Ultra 555km. There seems to be no stopping the distance and terrain in which Jason can endure. When asked if he would be competing in the 555km again, Jason said his focus for 2020 is to put together a support crew to ensure the participants for future races are supported and well equipped: ‘Since the three of us racers completed the 555km, it seems there is a lot of interest in running the event again. I won’t be racing next year as I have set my sights on another race across Europe, but I want to make sure the support is there for the racers who want to do it,’ says Jason.
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