By Carrie Adams
When Ryan Dexter, also known as Dexter the Punisher, crossed the McNaughton 200 finish line at 51 hours, 50 minutes in the small town of Pittsfield, VT, on May 8th, 2011, he completed what he called “an epic adventure”: two hundred miles of hard trail running in the Green Mountains with extreme weather, rugged terrain, steep elevation, and the will to continue despite fatigue, hunger, and physical pain. It also marked one thousand McNaughton racing miles raced by the experienced ultra marathoner and a course record on the longest trail ultra in North America.
The ultramarathon (also called ultra distance) is gaining in popularity with endurance runners and includes any running event longer than the traditional 26.2 marathon distance. Ultramarathon events can cover specific distances or time constraints with the winner accumulating the most mileage in that time frame. Common ultramarathon distances are 50K, 100K, 50 miles, and 100 miles. The McNaughton has several events: 500 miles, 200 miles, 150 miles, 100 miles, and 30 miles. Most ultras in the U.S. are trail and mountain runs, and environmental factors often play a critical part in the race outcomes.
When I caught up with Dexter, he had just finished mowing his lawn, a typical evening task in middle America, but doing it four days after running 200 miles makes it seem far more impressive. Dexter, a professional engineer, didn’t set out to run and win 200-mile races when he began running in his twenties. As a college student in Pennsylvania, he just wanted to run the three and a half mile stretch around the lake near his house. Maybe loop it twice by the end of the summer. He couldn’t imagine anything beyond seven miles. When he got to seven miles within a couple weeks he set his sights a bit higher – a marathon. So, in 1997 he did just that and after, he says, he was “wrecked…I had to roll out of bed and do a push-up just to get off the floor the next morning!”
A couple of marathons a year kept him busy, but his times didn’t get much faster than 3:30. He thought if he didn’t get faster, he might as well go farther. That’s when he learned that people ran in races beyond the 26.2 marathon distance. “I thought, 100 miles? Horses run 100 miles,” says Dexter. It was around this time in 2004 that he met Dema, an endurance athlete from Ghana and from Dexter’s church who would become a vital part of Dexter’s crew. With a qualification for the Western States 100-miler and his budding friendship with Dema, Dexter’s ultra career was born.
Dexter got through Western States and returned home, and his wife Christina delivered their second son, Cruz son a few days later. “Don’t ask me why my wife puts up with me doing this,” he laughs, “I don’t know who was in worse shape that day!” He took all of 2005 off from racing but felt its absence strongly. He has an amazing and supportive family with his wife and sons, Chase, Cruz, & Dash Dexter. “It wasn’t that my family, my life wasn’t enough, but something was missing. I made a deal with my wife. I told her I needed to go under 24 hours in a 100 mile race. I’ll go run McNaughton in Illinois in 2006, and I did it 22 hours. It felt awesome. To set a goal and accomplish it.”
His confidence grew and to get to 150 and 200 mile races he had to put in the training and he had have a positive mindset. “When I toe that line I have to believe that I’m the best trained here.” And he puts in the mileage to be just that. He’s logged every mile since he began training in 2006 and has over 12,000. “My body is used to running and if I am anything I am a sufferer, I’ve suffered.”
And suffering is the name of the game in ultra distance running. “You hear about a marathon run and “the wall” and they say ‘run through a wall the pain will go away’ but you go far enough and you can’t run through the wall,” he explains. “When you’re broken, you’re broken.” Dema put it in perspective for him during his first 200 mile McNaughton when Dexter’s quads were shredded, he said, “Ryan, this is your new reality. It’s going to hurt every step you take. You can accept it or you can quit.” And he did quit temporarily during the 2010 race.
He reached a new breaking point, and he made a decision in his delirious state at mile 180. “I came down the hill in tears and told my crew and my father, ‘I just don’t want it.’ I told them how sorry I was. I called my wife she said, “you have 20 miles left, you’ve gone 180 miles. Just walk.”’ He says it was guts out the last 20 miles, but he finished. This video shot by his crew follows his heroic 2010 journey. He also maintains a blog where he writes about his races: www.dexterthepunisher.blogspot.com.
Dexter finished his 2011 McNaughton 200 nearly ten hours faster than his 2010 victory. HIs local paper covered his back to back victory with a story. In his small town, he’s a hero. This one was special because it’s his last McNaughton and he wanted to go out and leave no regrets to how he finished the race. “It’s going to be a tough course record to beat,” Dexter muses. He’s successful because of his mental strength and his physical training. “Things aren’t going to get better when the pain hits. But in a 200 mile race, it will be over in 200 miles and things will get better. You have to decide am I going to continue or do I choose to stop. And whatever limits you set on yourself is your limit,” he says.
He doesn’t just run for himself anymore, because he says that felt “selfish.” After being introduced to the Free Wheelchair Mission, a charity that gets wheelchairs to people who are immobile, he decided he wanted to help. In 2010, he raised over $12,000 and brought much-needed aid to people whose alternatives were being homebound or dragging their bodies around. “You take for granted the ability to move. To be mobile. That had significance for me as a runner.”
His support team is undeniable and he credits his crew and his family with his success, often saying “We finished” or “We accomplished” when talking about his events. And his core crew, which still includes Dema, has been with him for so many races, but he always asks if they are up for the next challenge and they’ve never said no. His crew and his family bought him a copy of the children’s story, “The Tortoise and the Hare” and signed it, his oldest son echoing his father’s advice to “Do your best.” It was a meaningful gift. As for his legacy, he hopes that he can show people that “Anything is possible. It’s limitless what you can do. If you set a goal you have to put the time in, and you have to want it, but you can do it. It’s limitless.”
What’s next for this limitless ultra runner? He’s not sure. He’s accomplished his current mission. He muses about running a 24 hour track course, “I think I’d like to go run another 24 hour race and maybe someday to run 150 miles in 24 hours on a flat course. Run for the U.S. in something.” No doubt he won’t be satisfied without a goal for long. “It feels good. I accomplished the goal in hand. I’m just taking it easy,” he says.
It’s not clear what an ultra endurance athlete like Dexter classifies as “easy” but before I hang up the phone he mentions, “I am pacing the Madison Marathon over Memorial Day in a couple weeks. I’ve never done that before. It’s the 3:20 time. My fastest marathon is 3:08.” He laughs, “ I have to be ready.”