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Bit by the running bug

Sep 2, 2008
by Devon Jeffreys, '08

Sometimes the running bug just bites: a 5-kilometer race here, a marathon there. But for Phil Lechner, ’96, the itch to run has been ultra-hard to scratch, and has meant piling on the miles.

Lechner runs what are called ultra-marathons — distances of 50 kilometers, 50 miles and even 100 miles.

“I just caught the bug and I really, really enjoy it,” he said. “It’s a sport that is exploding now because, at one time, the marathon was a challenge. But when you have 30,000 or 40,000 people running New York and Boston, people want more than that.”

Before he started running “ultras,” Lechner ran cross country at Flagler and was part of the college’s only men’s cross country team to win a conference championship. After he graduated, Lechner served a year as women’s cross country coach and led the team to a conference championship of their own.

“I felt very honored with the fact that I got to run at nationals and I got to coach at nationals at Flagler,” Lechner said. “That’s something I’m still really proud of.”

Lechner still coaches cross country at Reading High School in Reading, Pa., and it was his own high school coach that got him into ultra-marathons.

“I went from running half marathons right up to doing a 50-miler, which I don’t recommend,” Lechner said.

Lechner’s first ultra-marathon was the 50-mile Bull Run in Virginia. Now, he’s completed Bull Run eight times.

According to Lechner, the training method for an ultra doesn’t entail any 30-mile training runs.

“I believe in the less-is-more approach,” he said. “Your longest run is two or three hours and if you’re in shape, you can do an ultra. You’re not going to go out and do seven-hour training runs because all that will do is beat you up.”

Overall, Lechner has run more than 30 ultras – some 50-kilometer and some 50-mile – but his biggest accomplishment was completing the 2007 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100 in 29 hours and 10 minutes. In his first attempt in 2006, he had to stop at mile 76.

“It was the first race I ever quit,” he said. “So last year I went back and finished it. It’s one of the hardest ones in the United States. It’s the hardest one east of the Mississippi. Everybody there is good, and they only have about 60 percent finish. I would say ultra running is about 80 percent mental. Your body can do it, but if you let yourself get depressed or let yourself get really hurt … you’re doomed.”

Lechner completed the Massanutten a second time on May 18 and thrives on the accomplishment.

“The thing about cross country in general, when I went to Flagler, and even now, is you have to do it for you first and foremost,” he said. “There’s the boring nine-to-five job, there’s a million 5K and 10K runs. I wanted to do something different. It doesn’t matter where you finish … with a 100-miler, no one cares if you came in first or last. You ran 100 miles.”

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