Marine veteran brings record-setting ultra-marathon attempt into Illinois
By DAVE REYNOLDS | Journal Star, Peoria, Ill. | Published: July 6, 2019
PEORIA, Ill. (Tribune News Service) — Billy Richards has gotten to know himself pretty well in recent years. Especially this year.
The 37-year-old physical trainer and Marine veteran from Islip, N.Y., is one of 30 competitors entered in the 100-mile Cry Me A River Trail Run this weekend between Camp Wokanda and Detweiller Park.
The course consists of one 2-mile loop in Camp Wokanda in rural Chillicothe and then five loops to Detweiller Park in Peoria and back.
"It's a tough course," said race co-director Jenna Bahaj. "There are a lot of hills, which draws runners from all over the country."
Richards will likely be the most noticeable. He'll be carrying a standard-sized 3 foot-by-5 foot American flag on a retractable pole for the entire 100 miles.
Just as notably, this is his 20th such race in 2019, which is just under one each week. Richards is aiming to break the ultra marathon record by completing 42 100-mile races under each race's cutoff time.
This one is 34 hours, meaning the runners will start at 5 a.m. Saturday and have until 3 p.m. Sunday to officially complete the race.
"I run with the American flag to honor those who protect us – the military, first responders and police officers," he said. "Having served four years in the Marine Corps, I like to keep that tradition going."
Richards rolls up the flag while running through woods to avoid it getting caught and torn on trees and vegetation. But in the open areas, he will wave Old Glory proudly.
"If it's a windy day, it feels like you have a parachute attached to you and slows you down," he said. "If it's too windy where it could snap the pole in half, I'll still carry it, but just roll it up.
"Everybody is really inspired by the flag. Some runners have told me they thought about quitting, but said seeing me carrying the flag keeps 'em going."
Richards began running during his stint in the military, which included two deployments overseas. He began competing in road races in 2010. But it took a serious injury to launch him into ultra marathons.
"I was a heavy weightlifter, but sustained a ruptured tricep tendon and couldn't lift for 3-4 months," he said. "I needed something to keep me going. A friend got me in a 70K, which is 43.5 miles. I ran that and finished it. The challenge of it lured me in."
His first 100-mile trek came in 2015. It was very nearly his last.
"I finished the race, but messed myself up pretty badly and ended up in the hospital for three days," he said. "I had a very mild case of rhabdomyolysis. It's basically death by overexertion. Your muscle cells start dying and their internal components leak into your bloodstream, so it's a very serious condition. My muscles basically liquefied themselves."
When Richards was able, though, he began competing again.
"What that race told me was how far the body can be pushed," he said. "The 100-mile race really tells you about yourself – what your capabilities are and what you can handle."
With the world record in his sights, it's not like he can drop out of races if the going gets tough. There are only so many of these competitions.
"Last week (at Stratford, Conn.), I started puking and got sick about mile 40," he said. "But I was able to pull myself together and finish the last 60 miles. The whole idea is getting used to the pain."
Richards has won three men's races this year and finished second once. His best time was 22 hours, 53 minutes. But winning – or even achieving a certain time – is secondary to completing the race within the allotted time.
"This race is all strategy and a lot of it you have to improvise on the fly," he said. "A race like this, I may split into five (20-mile) races and maybe take a half-hour (break) between each one. I like to move quickly at the beginning to eat up some miles. And then you feel better knowing you've got 30 hours to go 80-85 miles."
It all sounds pretty brutal, which Richards readily admits.
"I don't even really enjoy the 100-mile races," he said. "It's the challenge of being at war with yourself. I don't really train much in between the races because I use the week to recover."
Of course, running for 30 hours begs the question of when a competitor eats and sleeps. The answer? On the run.
Every few miles an aid station provides the runners high-calorie foods. Richards said he'll slow to a trot while eating to allow his food to digest.
"The hardest part for me is getting through the night," he said. "Between 2 and 5 a.m., your body tries to shut itself off and go to sleep. You start staggering around like an alcoholic.
"I try to keep a couple of five-hour energy drinks with me to stay awake. And sometimes that doesn't work. One race, I had flight delays (getting to the race site) and only got an hour's nap before it started. It was rough, but I got through it."
Richards is confident he'll get through his 42-race mission.
"I feel pretty good physically," he said. "The only thing that will stop me is finances. I have a few local sponsors and some clients who contribute (to entry fees and travel expenses)."
"And then there's getting acclimated to the heat. It was a pretty cool (spring and) summer and then it got hot."
Considering all Richards been through so far this year, it's a pretty good bet he'll respond when the heat is on.
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