When a friend put me in touch with ultramarathon-runner Zandy Mangold, I thought we’d talk about life lessons, shin splints, and maybe some bloody toenails. I didn’t think we’d end up talking about hemorrhoids. But Zandy, a New York City-based photographer who moonlights as a serious runner with three ultras under his belt (and several marathons, or “sprints” as he calls them), wants more people to know about the painful condition that he says he could have avoided had he been told about the risks prior to his last, 150-mile race in Chile. But even more surprising than hearing about his hemorrhoids was hearing that, despite the crippling pain he’s endured, he has no plans to stop traveling the world for races most people consider crazy.
Last month, Zandy ran in the Atacama Crossing Ultramarathon: A 6-day, 150-mile race through the Chilean desert. Here’s why, despite some horrifically painful injuries, he’s ready to go back for more:
How did you get into long-distance running and ultras?
In 2009, I started photographing ultramarathons for an amazing company called Racing the Planet. That was my first exposure to ultramarathons, and then I actually attempted one of the races put on by the company in 2010 in Australia, and it was a disaster.
As far as running, I ran in high school in order to get in shape for basketball, and then in college I wanted to play varsity sports, I was cut from the basketball team, so I just gravitated towards running and ran cross country. After college I ran the New York Marathon a few times, and it was in 2010 that I got serious about running again and qualified for the Boston Marathon, and did this ultramarathon, and now I’m in it.
So I hear you got some serious injuries during your last ultra that you want people to know about. What happened?
I went to San Pedro (the town where the race starts) a week ahead of time to acclimatize because the race starts at 12,000 feet. I felt something weird, it wasn’t quite right down there before the race. I think it was a combination of long travel, changes in diet, and I was staying in a hostel and couldn’t just go to the bathroom whenever I wanted, which I learned is extremely unhealthy if you’re prone to hemorrhoids.
So I started the race with a very mild case of hemorrhoids, and progressively they got worse and it was just a total downhill slope during the race as far as the hemorrhoids were concerned, such that after the final stage I was incapacitated. I mean, I was doubled over in pain, I went back to the hotel, I couldn’t take part in the celebrations as much as I wanted to; it was an excruciating, like, giving-birth-out-of-your-butt kind of pain.
The next day, fortunately my dad had come down to be there at the finish line and he took me to the emergency room. I mean I was literally just, fetal position in a bed, totally incapacitated. It had reached that point.
But you finished the race?
I did! And in spite of the ‘roids, I came in fourth place.
So how many days were you running like this?
The race takes place over seven days, and there are six stages of the race. The first four days you run a marathon every day; on the fifth day you run a double marathon; then on the seventh day you run a 10k sprint to the finish line. So this was 150 miles of really demanding terrain with an increasingly serious condition in my butt.
Why do you want people to know about this?
Having had hemorrhoids and going through that experience, I feel very strongly that hemorrhoid awareness needs to happen. It’s funny, when I came back to America, some friends threw a little welcome home party, and at this party I announced to everyone—like: “Okay, moment of silence: I have hemorrhoids”—and it felt like I was coming out of the closet; it’s such a taboo subject. So I’d love to raise awareness because had I known more about this condition (or injury) going into the race, then I could have avoided it.
How does running cause hemorrhoids?
Running itself will not cause hemorrhoids but it sets you up for the conditions for hemorrhoids to flourish. For example when I was running there were times when I felt the urge to go, but I didn’t want to lose my place, so I waited until I finished the stage. And running in the desert you get really dehydrated, and as I learned it’s very important to stay hydrated to avoid hemorrhoids. And the diet during the race was definitely not hemorrhoid-friendly; it’s low in fiber, it’s a lot of like freeze-dried stuff that you heat up.
If marathons and ultras can cause this type of injury, why do them at all?
That’s what’s so funny, I mean of all the injuries to get on a marathon, the last thing I ever expected was hemmorhoids. I didn’t get any of the typical knee or ankle injuries—nothing, it was fantastic—and now that I know how to deal with hemorrhoids, I don’t feel that marathons and ultramarathons are that much of a health risk. On the contrary, you come out of an event like this and you’re so full of discoveries and newfound confidence and pride, it’s almost like you’re healthier. You know, it’s cliche but it’s true: The challenges in life that you think are challenges before a marathon, when you face them afterwards they don’t stress you out like they may.
I don’t feel like I’m posing a huge health risk for myself by running in these events, and in a way I feel better. I think there’s a lot to be said for bringing down your stress level, especially living in New York, running’s an amazing outlet.
But do you have to do an ultra for that?
I would say yes, because the thing about an ultramarathon that separates it from another kind of challenge is that you peel back so many layers, you have to go through so many levels of effort and pain that you normally wouldn’t put yourself through, and that’s how you grow. That’s how you discover.
You know, there’s so many points in a 50-mile, or 100-mile, or in this case a 150-mile race over a week when you’re like “there’s no way, how am I gonna continue?” And yet, you carry on and get through it, and if you don’t put yourself in the situation you wouldn’t. Like after the first stage in Chile, I woke up and I was like “How in the world am I gonna walk? How am I gonna get out of this sleeping bag and walk to get my breakfast?” And I was thinking, like, if I were in New York and I felt this way, I wouldn’t run for another week. So in a way, I would say yeah, you do have to really put yourself out there to learn that much and at that level.
Do you think everyone try a marathon or ultra?
No. If people are curious, then definitely. If you’re curious about trying to cover a great distance on foot, then I would say by all means you should try it. But in order to complete one of these events, you have to want to do it, you know. No, it would be crazy to say everyone should do this.
But what’s interesting is that you can’t just look at someone and say “they don’t look like they could do it, so shouldn’t try it” or “they look like they could do it, so they should try it.” Because a lot of the ultra running is mental, so I think that’s an interesting part of the dynamic. If one is curious about it, absolutely it is an amazing experience because you’ll learn things that you have no way to access until you put yourself out there.
What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned from running ultramarathons?
The first ultramarathon I ran, what stood out most was the realization that the mind and the will is actually stronger than the physical. What I mean by that is my body was sending all kinds of red alert messages that I needed to stop immediately. But the mind refused to listen. And it’s interesting because that can get you in trouble, and I realized that I could actually run myself to death. Like, literally. Not figuratively; literally. So at the end of the first stage of my first ultramarathon I came close to the edge, and I ended up on two IVs, I was literally carried to a medical tent and they threw two IVs in me and they were like, “your race is over.” (But I got up and ran the next morning.)
I thought that dynamic was so interesting, becase going into the race I thought my body would tell me when to stop, and I thought I’d listen to that and be sensible, but what I realized is that if you want something badly enough, your will can overpower the body. And it can be dangerous; so I learned that I have to stay present and conscious to monitor how far I’m pushing my body because it can be dangerous. That kind of thing you don’t learn until you’re in this situation. To me that is fascinating, that’s the number one lesson I learned.
Every day there are lessons and you just learn that you don’t really know what you’re capable of, we don’t know what our potential is, until you try it.
Zandy is racing his second Boston Marathon later this month, and hopes to qualify for The North Face Ultra-Trail de Mont-Blanc next. Check out his photography at zandymangoldnyc.com. Follow him at twitter @zandymangold for training tips and more.
Photos: Courtesy of Zandy Mangold