Drew Bennett cannot definitively trace when his love for running started.
His late mother would say it was the chocolate cake race when he was in fifth grade.
Growing up in rural Comstock Township in western Michigan, Bennett and other neighborhood children returned home from school to find running cones set up in a playground. They were told to run between the cones for as long as they could, and whoever was the last one running would win a chocolate sheet cake.
“After about a half hour it was down to me and another kid, and that kid got smart and stopped, and I kept going,” said Bennett, associate director of software licensing at the Office of Technology Transfer. “After two hours, they basically said, ‘The sun’s going down, you have to stop.’ I don’t know how far I ran, but it was probably 10 to 12 miles.”
That was something back then for a 10-year-old who hadn’t really run much, but it’s peanuts now for the 56-year-old who, since 2013, has competed in several ultra-marathons. An ultra-marathon is any event that is longer than a 26.2-mile marathon, although most are either 50k, 50 miles, 100k, 100 miles or 200 miles.
“Within the ultra community, it’s sometimes referred to as an eating and drinking contest with a little exercise and scenery thrown in,” Bennett said.
Bennett stuck with running on his middle and high school cross country and track teams. He went to Western Michigan University for a printing and imaging technology degree, and obtained his MBA at the University of Detroit, running recreationally all the while.
He spent the next 25 years working in the product side of software industry before joining the Tech Transfer team eight years ago. He ran many marathons over those years but as with all runners, as the years went on, the times slowed. He sought a different challenge.
“I was aware of ultras for a long, long time, and I, like other people who hear about them, thought, ‘That’s crazy, nobody can do that,’” he said. “One thing led to another. I’m going to give this a try. And my wife would tell you the minute I said I was going to do the first one, she said, ‘You’re off to the races, you’re going to do them all.’”
His first one was the Run Woodstock in 2013 in Pinckney. The Woodstock is a festival of races of varying lengths. Bennett entered the 50-mile race with little idea what to expect.
“You know what’s going to happen (in a marathon), you know when you’re going to feel a little tired, there’s no mystery whether you’re going to finish or not,” he said. “You’re going to finish, but the question is am I going to finish a little faster or a little slower. The key difference in an ultra, that’s a long time to be out there so any number of things can happen and usually do, and that’s kind of the intrigue to some degree.
“I was interested to see how I would respond.”
He responded well enough to raise the stakes to 100-milers and, as his wife predicted, he wants to do them all. He has competed in all five of the Midwest’s big ultra-marathons. That includes the Indiana Trail 100 in Chain O Lakes State Park in northeast Indiana where in 2017 he got caught in a massive thunderstorm nearly 70 miles and 17 hours into the race, and about 7 miles from the nearest main aid station.
“The wind was going like crazy, stuff is flying out of the trees, lightning all over the place,” he said. “I told my wife I felt like I was running for my life to get to the next aid station because there was no place to go. You had to keep going, stopping wasn’t really an option.”
And neither was calling it quits after that harrowing experience. Outside of the personal challenge of completing an ultra-marathon, Bennett said he runs for the physical benefits. He lost his father at a young age to a heart attack, and heart disease runs in the family.
He also embraces the discomfort, challenges and questions that come with running 100 miles.
“You do learn a lot about yourself when things are just difficult,” Bennett said. “You’re not getting from the start to the finish without going through some stuff that’s really going to be uncomfortable. And we’re way more capable of stuff than we ever imagined. You can do more than you think. There’s a certain amount of satisfaction in learning that.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, his first ultra-marathon in more than a year was the Mohican Trail Run north of Columbus, Ohio, over Halloween weekend. With clear skies, cool temperatures and a full moon on Halloween, Bennett finished in 29 hours, 5 minutes — roughly 1 1/2 to 2 hours slower than his previous races, thanks largely to 11,000 feet of vertical climb.
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“I actually felt better physically and more prepared than at any time in the past. … This race took longer than previous races, but I don’t really have a fair comparison, this was without a doubt the toughest I have ever done,” he said. “With three really big climbs in the last 10 miles, some as long as a mile and grades from 9 to 14 percent, you just change your expectations.
“If anyone tells you Ohio is flat, they’re wrong.”
Bennett is looking forward to his 2021 race schedule, which includes the coveted Western States 100 in California. The “Boston Marathon” of ultra-racing, the event dates back to 1974, entries are capped at 369 and the field is settled by a lottery.
Bennett beat his 1-in-7,000 odds and was selected to run it in June before the pandemic forced its cancellation. His entry is being carried over to next June, and he’ll soon begin preparing for the 19,000 feet of vertical that will await him.
His advice for anyone considering an ultra-marathon? “Find something that’s a reasonable step forward, whether it’s a 50k or if you’re really up for it, a 50-miler.”
“There’s a high value on trouble-shooting. You’re eating and drinking the entire way, you don’t feel well, your feet are killing you, you’re just flat-out tired. Patience is rewarded,” he said. “If you keep moving, the finish line will come to you.”