Alumni Profile • Mark Tamminga '81
Running to extremes

Mark TammingaIt’s hard to believe Mark Tamminga ’81 was not athletic growing up, that he was the kind of kid picked last for sports teams.

In July 2006 the Ancaster, Ont., mortgage lawyer won the Atacama Crossing, a 250-kilometer (155-mile) footrace across Chile’s Atacama Desert, the most arid place on earth. Last June he repeated that feat in northwest China’s Gobi, the world’s windiest desert. Then, in October, in the world’s hottest desert, the Sahara, he finished a close second to the 27-year-old winner.

His wife, Joany Verschuuren, ran all three desert races with him and finished not far behind. It was she, in fact, who introduced Tamminga to the sport and community of ultra runners when they met five years ago. He was doing weekend 10k races, training for a marathon. She told him she didn’t do “those little races.” He was hooked.

The races they do together now (the Sahara was their sixth) are of a genre called “stage races.” The standard format takes runners over 250 kilometers in seven days, a different distance and terrain every day. Typically there is one 80-kilometer day, as well as one 10-kilometer day. The first day of the Atacama course took runners over 56 river crossings. Their fifth day in the Gobi, runners climbed 7,500 feet in 20 kilometers in a snow squall, then ran down the other side of the mountain. In the Sahara they ran in 20 mile-per-hour headwinds, 110-degree temperatures and foot-thick sand.

Atacama Crossing raceThe worst of it isn’t the distance, the terrain or the weather, Tamminga said. It’s the 20-pound pack on his back in which he must carry his food for the week, a sleeping bag and mat, and any extra clothing. Race organizers supply water, tents and a marked course.

“We get asked all the time why we do this,” Tamminga said. “As a friend says, ‘It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.’”

In fact, he said, stage racing is imbued with an intensity he hasn’t experienced elsewhere. “You’re so interested in trying to dissociate yourself from the discomfort that you spend a lot of time looking at the incredible places you’re running through. It’s all absorbing. Everything has a crispness. I’ve traveled to other beautiful places, but the mind Polaroids I have from race trips are much more vivid and enduring—and very much earned.”

Tamminga added that the ability to take on the “voluntary suffering” of a stage race has given him an opportunity to explore his limits. “It’s amazed me, the capacity we humans have to take on things that are much bigger than we imagine.”

For all the suffering, though, Tamminga said he also experiences in every race “lyrical moments.” He described one in the Gobi race: “I felt a physical grace I’d never experienced before, a zone where bullets bounce off.”

To earn the lyrical moments Tamminga pays with hours of training, long runs he finds boring, when his mind, to stay busy, does arithmetic. He’s also paid with a patella pulverized during a race in Norway.

A successful surgery has allowed him to keep running. But the Sahara race may have been his last stage race. “Joany and I have been talking extensively about this experience,” Tamminga said. “We were witness to the rawest form of the strength that is in each of us, and we may now be closing this chapter in our life. But it may be like the name of a sailboat I saw once in the Toronto harbor: the ‘Never Again IV.’”