What if you had a superpower? The ability to fly or to be invisible at will? How about the ability to run an almost unimaginably long way without slowing down or stopping? Ruthann Sheahan, of Leap, Co Cork, has quietly been applying her recently discovered superpower to blaze a trail onto the Irish and world ultra-running scene. She holds two Irish records for 24-hour running on track and road, and placed seventh in 2012's 24-hour running world championships in Katowice, Poland.
Ultra-running (running any distance beyond a marathon, or 26 miles), is a small but rapidly developing niche within the Irish running scene. Distances vary from 50km (32 miles) to hundreds of miles. Events tend to be based on a track or small loop where the goal is to cover as much distance as possible over the given time.
Elite runners in such an event will run a lot more than 100 miles, stopping only for brief bathroom and food breaks.
Amazingly, Ruthann only took up running in 2009 and ran her first marathon in Connemara in April 2010. "The 2008 Olympics captivated me, that really influenced my desire to start running. I also wanted a personal challenge so that I had a new goal to focus on outside work."
Her talent wasn't totally undiscovered, as she ran track and cross-country events as a teenager with Glandore and Skibbereen Athletics Club.
Within a few months of her first marathon she rapidly progressed onto longer-distance events, entering and winning her first ultra-distance event, the Dingle 50 mile road race, in September 2010. "I quickly realised that my interest lay in long-distance events. There is a challenge in going further than you have ever before; the sense of pushing your own boundaries with each new distance covered."
As an engineering technician, Ruthann is a quietly unassuming individual, who doesn't hint at the kind of escapades that fill her weekends. In October, she won back-to-back marathons on a Saturday (Wexford Surf and Turf) and Sunday (the Kilcock Marathon) -- all in a weekend's training for her next 24-hour running race in February 2014.
While ultra-running can be self-selecting as many people simply do not have the musculoskeletal make-up to run very long distances without getting injured, as distances become longer, physical ability becomes densely intertwined with mental toughness: the ability to handle pain, boredom, exhaustion, nausea and sleep deprivation.
While Ruthann has the typical elite ultra-runner's physique -- whip-lean yet muscular from hours of gym work, the mental strength which sets her apart from the competition shows in her race history. In 2012 she completed the gruelling six-day, 251km Marathon des Sables in the Sahara desert in southern Morocco, which is billed as the "toughest foot race on earth".
Training for the event with a hip injury which limited her running miles, she admits preparing for the race was a daunting task. "I would spend two to three hours at a time on the cross trainer, pretending I was Indiana Jones crossing the desert.
"The Marathon des Sables seemed to me like the ultimate adventure. There are no luxuries, no distractions like television and you are dealing every day with extreme temperatures, dehydration, illness, lack of sleep and true exhaustion. You really go into survival mode; it was extremely tough."
Despite some world-class race results in the past few years, Ruthann's motivations for running are not all about competition: "Running really changed the landscape of my social scene. I found that among other runners and marathoners, the normal barriers drop; there is an instant bond and you find yourself having deep and meaningful conversations as you run. There is a lust for life; an infectious enthusiasm for adventure among runners.
"Running has given me a strong sense of self and purpose. It's been a life-changing journey. You need some physical hardship to put real life in perspective -- I don't get daunted by the small stuff any more."
The 24-hour running event is where Ruthann's talents really started to shine. She completed her first attempt at this event in 2011, less than a year after her first marathon, finishing with a highly credible 188km over 24 hours at the ESPOO indoor race in Finland.
In 2012 she was chosen for the Irish team in Katowice. The run course was an outdoor one-mile loop through a park. "I was excited and astonished by the opportunity to represent Ireland. I was hugely motivated to train for the event, which helped shut off the internal whingeing when I had to get up early for big training runs before work."
The peak training week involved 150 miles of running, which put a heavy load on her body. "I had the strangest food cravings. The best meal I had was boiled eggs smothered in jam, with a side of bananas and tomatoes. I would often wake up in the middle of the night starving and go downstairs to eat tuna."
Initially, with a goal of surpassing 200km in 24 hours, she easily exceeded her target, running a staggering 229.3km, finishing only 0.3km behind the top Irish man on the day, John O'Regan, placing her seventh in the world and fifth in Europe with a new Irish women's record. This distance equates to running a 10-minute mile (or 4.20 marathon) pace for 24 hours.
Last June, her performance at the Energia 24-hour track race in Belfast sealed her position as one of Ireland's top ultra-runners. Battling through a heatwave with the support of her race manager and husband George Livianos, she covered 225km (140 miles), setting a new Irish track record over 24 hours, finishing second overall (including men) behind men's record breaker Eoin Keith.
"Track running is very mentally challenging. You really need to focus on the demons over the last few hours. As you get tired, the mind tells you that you're bored and that it's time to stop. Once the mind gets weak, the body grinds to a halt. I have to say that my husband showed me some tough love to keep me motivated."
Next year Ruthann will be focusing her energy on another attempt at the ESPOO indoor 24-hour race in Finland in February, and is also hoping to retain her position on the Irish team for 2014's 24-hour world championships.
"The main goal is to train for and complete both events injury-free. I'm hoping to improve on my personal best and run over 230km. The most important thing is to leave it all out there on the race course, and to know that I fulfilled my own potential. There is nothing worse than having regrets."
Indiana Jones couldn't put it better himself.