The world of ultra running is full of extremes, where people like Stikis push their bodies and minds to unheard of limits.
But wait. It's even more extreme: He's 70.
In August, Stikis, an Englewood, N.J., resident, placed first in his age group in the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run. That honor earned him a nomination for "GeezerJock of the Year" from GeezerJock magazine.
Stikis, a study in modest understatement, brushes the honor off as almost inconsequential.
"Big deal," he says. "I beat out two other 70-year-olds. I think I won by five minutes."
Ultramarathons -- races much longer than the traditional 26.2-mile marathon -- have always attracted older athletes, Stikis says.
"Their speed days tend to be over," he says. "Whatever glory they can get now in their age group is outlasting someone else."
Ultra running requires endurance: in your heart, lungs, knees and feet. The chief opponent is pain. Hours and hours of pain, and psychological swings that can mirror the rocky hills and muddy valleys of the trail.
"As you're running, you swear you'll never do this again," Stikis says. "You always feel that. Once you stop running, and you walk away from the race, you start forgetting. I think humans don't have a good memory of pain," he adds.
If they did, they probably wouldn't continue in a sport that causes vomiting in many regular participants, that requires you to urinate in the woods and forgo sleep and carry water and protein bars on your back so your body doesn't fall apart completely.
Not to mention the danger of bears, snakes, ticks and falls. When you're so tired that you forget to lift your feet, you trip over tree roots or rocks, Stikis says. Judgment becomes clouded. In every race, you fall. Stikis has been lucky to escape with cuts and bruises; other ultra runners break bones.
So why do it?
"There's no simple answer," he says. "I guess I'm a person who likes to keep challenging myself and keep raising the bar. It's just scary and there's some attraction in that."
Stikis didn't start running until he was 51 and his blood pressure and weight increased. He began at the gym, but soon started pounding the streets of Manhattan, where he worked as a computer guru for financial companies. At age 55, he finished the New York City marathon.
Once in the marathon world (he's run about 30), he started hearing about ultramarathons, and couldn't resist the challenge. "You can't quite believe it goes on," he says.
So he tried one, and lived. And actually had fun and made friends. "You're thrown together with people and they enjoy the same pain and joy you do," he says. Once, in a Vermont race, he ran through the night with a dentist from Alabama, the two chatting and running the whole way.
Stikis has a lot of stories to share. He was born in Latvia, but the turmoil of World War II swept his family from their home, and they ended up living in displaced persons camps in Germany for years.
When he was 10, the family immigrated to Australia. Stikis played sports and became an avid musician, playing baritone sax and flute. At 26, he moved to the U.S. to follow his jazz heroes and work as a musician. Instead, he learned how to program computers for Citicorp back when computers were a novelty. He spent 25 years running his own computer consulting business for financial corporations.
Now, his life consists of a little day trading in stocks, and running. That includes training for races, traveling to races, buying clothes and shoes, and recovering after races.
Stikis typically runs five to 10 miles every day, and "once in a while" will increase the length to 15 or 20 miles, often along the rocky and steep trails of Palisades Interstate Park.
When a marathon isn't enough ...
Marathons no longer bring the same thrill of accomplishment. "I use marathons as a fun run, a training run if you like," he said. "Marathons are becoming -- let's face it -- pretty commonplace."
Commonplace for ultra runners, maybe. The most competitive among them continue to look for even harder and longer races than 100-milers.
There's the non-stop 135-mile Kiehl's Badwater Ultramarathon, which starts in the desert of Death Valley and climbs 4,700 feet to Mount Whitney in California. Or they can try the 124-mile Jungle Marathon, which takes place over five days in Brazil. Runners are told to climb trees to escape from dangerous wild boars and to shake branches to drive off hungry jaguars.
Stikis says he's never run more than 100 miles, but confesses that he's intrigued by a multi-day 3,100-mile race.
"It's nibbling at me, it's daring me," he says.
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