In the long (18-day) run, Wong tests his limits

JOHN EISENBERG

November 08, 1990|By JOHN EISENBERG

So much about Ronnie Wong is as normal as three meals a day. He has a wife and a young daughter, a six-days-a-week job, a house in the suburbs. Inside those conventional trappings, however, is a driven 44-year-old who, he admits, is "not normal," the words delivered with the wry smile you allow when you understand that the rest of the world thinks you're crazy.

Wong is a distance runner, but a profound departure from the conventional definition. He runs distances that boggle the mind, competing in races that would reduce even the stoutest marathoner to a slack-jawed quitter. "There are only a few of us who can do this," he said yesterday at his house in Catonsville. "We're different from the rest of the world."

Indeed. Four years ago, Wong competed in an event in which he ran for five days without stopping for more than a few hours. He completed 331 miles, or 66 a day. The next year, he ran in a one-day, 100-mile race through the mountains around Lake Tahoe. Last year, he ran in a seven-day race, completing 442 miles.

As absurdly taxing as all that sounds, it all pales compared with the 18-day race he ran last month. That's right, 18 days. Straight. Running around and around a one-mile track in a park near LaGuardia Airport in New York. Day after day. Night after night. Stopping only to sleep a few hours a day in a tent by the track. Eating while he ran.

It is the world's longest organized race, essentially a continuous marathon. Wong used vacation days and unpaid leave to compete, and ran so far for so long that his feet blistered horribly and his toenails fell off, his knees ached and his gums hurt so badly that a dentist gave him a shot to dull the throbbing. His mind asked again and again: Why?

Only seven runners entered; the one who ran the farthest would win. Wong, who works as a chef at Chopsticks, in Harborplace, ran 104 miles the first day. He wound up completing 1,177, or 65 miles a day. He frequently ran all night, preferring the cool and quiet. Those few hours he slept, he dreamed he was on the track. On the next to last day, after 16 days of torture, he ran 79 miles. He won the race. "I surprised myself," he said.

Not only that, his time for 1,000 miles -- 14 days, 23 hours, 32 minutes, 31 seconds -- was the fourth fastest ever by an American, the 16th fastest in history.

If you're normal, you're sitting there saying that you didn't know 1,000-mile times were kept, or that anyone even tried to run 50 miles, much less 1,000, without stopping. "My friends tell me I'm ZTC insane," Wong said. "I see why they say it. Whenever I run in one of these ultras [long races], we all tell ourselves it's going to be the last one. But we keep coming back."

Why? Explaining such compulsions is never easy. For Wong, it started with a name in the record book: Don Choi, a California postman who established the American 1,000-mile record in 1985. "He inspired me," Wong said. But clearly there is more to it than that.

"The challenge of doing something few people in the world can do," Wong said. "You must concentrate for so long, keep yourself motivated, clear your mind of distractions. Challenging your body like that is enjoyable. When I finished [the 18-day race], I was very satisfied. I wanted to see how my body responded, and it responded very well. That's fun."

What makes it all that much more remarkable is that he didn't begin running until he was 34, after he had moved from his native Singapore to Bermuda, where he was working as a chef and "staying in the discos every night until 4 a.m." A friend bet him six shots of whiskey that he couldn't finish a 10-kilometer race. He finished, drank the shots and got hooked on running.

He ran his first marathon nine months later, moved to Baltimore in 1982, ran 21 marathons in 1986 and 1987 -- almost one a month, truly a masochist's pace -- and even ran a marathon the day after his wedding in 1988. ("I knew what I was getting into," said his wife, Barbara. "I scream and complain. But I know it won't do any good.") Gradually, he found the long distances more compelling.

"I see myself improving with experience," he said. "I ran 442 miles in seven days last year. This year, it was 511. I can concentrate for much longer now. In the beginning, I thought the 100-mile races were a great challenge. Now, it is no problem for me to run a hundred miles in a day. Although there is this 135-mile race through the Death Valley desert [in California]. I'd like to try that one."

He understands that, as spectacular as his goals and achievements are, the rest of the world can only smile at a man who talks about improving his 500-mile splits. "It is crazy," he said. "Every time I see a new face at these races I say, 'Why do you want to do this? Hurt yourself like this?' I always ask myself that. But I know I'm different. I don't need much sleep. I have more stamina than most. I can do it."

He trains 60 miles a week on the streets of Baltimore, in all temperatures and weather, a lone, slim figure running in a rainproof suit, often at night. He is the real running man, a living legend in Baltimore's running fraternity. Just three weeks after averaging 65 miles a day for 18 days, he ran in the New York Marathon last weekend. "A nice training run," he called it. The next day, he worked a 12-hour shift. On his feet from start to finish.

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