Each year, more than 50 million Americans make running and jogging a part of their lives, but only a small percentage of that community competes in ultra-marathons. America250’s Chief Technology Officer, Alex Guglielmetti, recently joined that exclusive club of extreme long distance runners.

Guglielmetti first learned about ultra-races—a category of nonstop runs with various pre-set cutoff times that prevent competitors from walking the course that officially begins at a 31-mile distance and continues on into the hundreds of miles—two decades ago. 

On April 9, 2022, Guglielmetti finally competed in his first ultra-race, running 100 miles through Zion National Park. Below, he shares a reflection on the 35-hour-long experience.

While I have long enjoyed distance running, I have always been baffled by what ultra-runners could accomplish. The distances traveled, the mental stress endured and the level of physical exertion, among others. How was it even possible? At 52 years old, I decided to find my own answer to that question by enlisting in the famous Zion 100 miler ultra-run.

Alex Guglielmetti running on a path in Zion National Park using a flashlight as the sun sets.
Alex Guglielmetti in Zion National Park. (Photo courtesy of Alex Guglielmetti)

In this particular race, runners are rewarded with spectacular views from the massive sandstone sentinels of Zion National Park while traversing a panorama of colorful desert mesas and water-carved canyons in a maze of interconnected terrain. It involves steep climbs and technical descents, mostly on narrow trails, fire roads and wildlife paths. The course’s combined elevation gain/loss is 11,000 feet—more than ten-times that of the Boston Marathon, where the elevation gain is only 815 feet.

My recollections from the 35-hour experience are now a blur. I ran the equivalent distance of four marathons back-to-back; temperatures were freezing at night. I had to deal with severe dehydration while running in the 90-degree desert during the day. I hit several physical and emotional peaks and valleys as I went into the unknown, where failure was the most likely outcome. Out of 220 runners, only 138 managed to cross the finish line before the race’s 36-hour cutoff time. I was third-to-last to hit the finisher’s gong.

My lowest moment happened 10 hours into the race midway through the equivalent of the second marathon. After many miles of gently rolling, rocky hills the course morphed into a steep eight-mile climb in a section named Smith Mesa. The sun was beating down and my stomach was showing signs of partial paralysis, in which the body stops the normal digestive process and refuses to send nutrients to extremities to focus on only the most critical functions. It required superhuman effort just to keep my legs moving. By midafternoon, the lack of salt stimulated massive muscle cramping that went on for close to eight hours. There was a moment when even my jaw muscles seized.

I officially entered what extreme runners know as “the pain cave.” Embracing pain is almost a religious aspect of this sport. Staying positive in the moment and knowing that there was light at the end of the tunnel kept me going. Trusting my training, I slowed down to walk it off, and by 1 a.m., I was rewarded with a noticeable decrease in cramping.

On the other hand, my happiest moment was during the final fifteen miles when the loop was returning to the start/finish line. I met up with my crew at the last aid station on the top of Gooseberry Mesa. With the end almost in sight, I began to rejoice that I was going to be able to finish what I started. Unfortunately, my pacer James brought to my attention that I had lost a lot of time during the pain cave and was dangerously close to being disqualified from finishing if I didn’t pick up the pace in this final section.

Alex Guglielmetti sitting on top of a cliff in Zion National Park at sunset.
Alex Guglielmetti in Zion National Park. (Photo courtesy of Alex Guglielmetti)

My mind and soul were in a good place, but my legs were burned by lactic acid build-up. It was exceedingly difficult to climb the rock steps along the route. Even on simple stair-high climbs, I needed to use my hands to help me out, which was slowing me down considerably. James literally gave me the helping hand I needed. At each little boulder, he would climb first then reach back for me. With his aid, I quickly conquered each one.

My other crew member, Chris, greeted us with an American flag attached to a hiking pole in the final two miles. He gave me the flag and I raised it high for the final push. With an exhilarating rush of accomplishment, I finished my first 100-mile ultra-run in 35 hours and 24 minutes.

While enjoying a burger and well-deserved beer, I realized that despite all my training, planning and resilience, if it was not for the help and dedication of Chris and James, there is no way I would have finished the run. They led the charge, helped guide me along the route, picked me up during my lows and celebrated my highs. It was an incredible real-life demonstration of the importance of knowing when to lead, when to follow, and that nobody’s accomplishments are truly individual.