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Adventures in running

Kaiser Permanente engineer Ray Sanchez has completed more than 260 ultramarathons. Pictured: Raymond Sanchez at the Cool Moon 100-mile endurance run in Cool, California. 

Ray Sanchez will leave any of your athletic accomplishments in the dust of his well-used running shoes.

Sanchez, 55, runs more than 1,200 miles annually in ultramarathons, which are footraces longer than the traditional marathon length of 26.2 miles.

These races have taken him to New Zealand, Europe, Mexico, and India, where he ran the 2 highest mountain passes and came in second place.

He is also 1 of only 2 people in the world to have run the 135-mile Badwater ultramarathon 14 consecutive times. Billed as “The World’s Toughest Foot Race,” it starts at the Badwater Basin in Death Valley, which marks the lowest elevation in North America, and ends at the trailhead of the Mt. Whitney summit, which is the highest point in the contiguous United States.

Oh, and it takes place in July.

“My goal is to run it 20 times and then stop,” Sanchez said of the grueling course.

When it comes time to enter any ultramarathon, Sanchez said he is always “all in.”

Saying yes; getting lost

Perhaps an ultramarathon runner is not born but rather grown.

Sanchez, an engineer at the Kaiser Permanente South Sacramento Medical Center for 23 years, ran cross country in high school, which made him seem like the perfect running buddy for his colleague Tom Zinkle, MD, a now retired physician who for 2 years asked him to partner on runs.

“I finally said yes in 2006,” Sanchez said. “At first, I was huffing and puffing, and then I kept going. I thank him whenever I see him at races now.”

Sanchez terms running “an addiction and a mindset” that quickly led him to the California International Marathon, a qualifier for his next stop: the Boston Marathon. That put Sanchez on the trail of the elite ultramarathons that he said “seemed more fun.”

Soon Sanchez was running and racing every weekend, from the rigorous 100-mile Tahoe Rim Trail Endurance Run to the Brazil 135, which climbs 35,000 feet.

It was during his first time he tried this competition that Sanchez had one of his greatest misadventures by becoming lost on the course for 14 hours. When he finally made it to the third aid station, traditionally the last in such races, Sanchez assumed he was done. After a meal and a shower, Sanchez was relaxing when the frantic race director told him he still had a marathon left to do.

Sanchez got up and completed the course, with 2 hours left to spare of the allotted 58.

Hallucinations, cookies, a sled

By now Sanchez has run more than 100 100-mile races.

He typically prefers to run through the competitions, meaning that he does not stop to eat or sleep. (Sometimes competing at night, Sanchez said he hallucinates. “Bushes can look like Mickey Mouse.”)

If that makes him seem somewhat superhuman, Sanchez did recently take 2 weeks off from running to rest one of his knees. And he admits to a weakness for cookies and M&M’s. And for his 4 kids.

While he takes pride in his athletic accomplishments, Sanchez said, “The best reward is that I didn’t realize how many people I could inspire. Many of my co-workers have gotten into running or walking.”

One of his co-workers even helped him manage to become a repeat runner of the Arrowhead 135, recognized as one of the 50 toughest races in the world. The competition takes place in the dead of winter in Minnesota. Temperatures drop to below 40 degrees; typically, only half of the entrants finish the course.

“It makes the Iditarod look easy,” Sanchez said. But it wouldn’t be possible every year without the sled made for him by fellow engineer Mark Ruppert, “a great welder.”

Sanchez said the secret to his running success is simple: listening to his body and having fun.

“I believe in the saying, Run your own race, not someone else’s.”


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