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Valparaiso Latin teacher finds niche with ultramarathons
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Valparaiso Latin teacher finds niche with ultramarathons

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Ben Kerezman

A Latin teacher and assistant cross country coach at Valparaiso High, Ben Kerezman estimated he ran 3,700 miles this past year.

Ben Kerezman receives an award after winning the Potawatomi Trail Runs 100-mile race on April 8-9 in Pekin, Illinois.

As the region sleeps, Ben Kerezman rises from his bed in the Valparaiso home he shares with wife, Marcela, and their three daughters.

It’s 4 a.m., time for his daily first run, not to be confused with the evening run that follows work.

A Latin teacher and assistant cross country coach at Valparaiso High School , Kerezman, 34, estimated he ran 3,700 miles this past year. Do the math. That’s more than 10 miles per day. Every day. He said he hasn’t missed a day in three years.

One small reward for that disciplined dedication to his hobby came in the form of the plaque he received for winning the Potawatomi Trail Runs 100-mile race on April 8-9 in Pekin, Illinois.

But to believe that he goes through all the training and nutrition steps to get his mind and body in shape with the attention to detail worthy of a team prepping for the Indy 500 to win hardware would be to miss the point entirely.

“I do ultra marathons because it sucks,” Kerezman said. “I wake up at 4 every single day and I get a run in, knowing that it’s uncomfortable. It’s not fun. I don’t like doing it.”

Before using those words as a springboard to conclude that the man unlocking the mystery that is English grammar and laying the foundation for a richer vocabulary, and making Romance languages easier to learn by teaching Latin to your children is a masochist, continue reading.

“If you think about the society we live in, it’s very comfortable, very mediocre, very much a participation-trophy society, for sure,” Kerezman said. “That’s not good enough. That’s not making me a better person.”

For Kerezman, race day in Pekin started at 6 a.m. and concluded at 4:40 the next morning, good for a roughly three-hour victory over the silver medalist. The non-stop rain made him hate it even more, which in turn added to the belief that he is making himself a better person.

“It rained the whole day,” Kerezman said. “The course was a mudslide, an absolute mudslide. Many were describing the trails as un-runnable, but I was running. You can run through mud. It just makes it harder.”

It did make one aspect of the 100-mile trail race that features steep inclines and descents easier: Making his bladder gladder didn’t require as many steps.

“Normally, I’ll step off the trail and go,” Kerezman said. “it was raining the whole day, so it was a waste of time to step off the trail. There was so much rain it was just going to wash you clean every 10, 15 minutes anyway, so I just let it go, knowing it was going to wash off me anyway.”

Solid waste was not an issue.

“I don’t eat breakfast on the morning of (the race) for that reason,” he said.” I don’t want to have to stop. If I have to do that in a race, I know something went wrong because everything I’m taking in is being used. Nothing’s going to waste. There is no waste.”

An 800 meters man in high school clocked in under 2 minutes, Kerezman said his speed was better than his endurance then, so later in life he set about turning a weakness into his greatest strength. Progressing from 5K to 10K to half marathons to his first marathon in Chicago in 2017 (“I thought I was going to die,” he said), to double-marathons to his first attempt at a 100-mile race in Pekin in 2019.

“I failed at Mile 70,” Kerezman said. “That was the first time I ever experienced true failure in running. I never had an F in my life to that point. That was a big moment. Having that moment, it changed who I was as a runner. It taught me that point where everything is going wrong, every cell in my body was telling me to quit, you can still keep going, you can get really really tired and feel absolutely horrible and you can push through that.”

He verified that belief by completing the race two years later in worse conditions.

Reflecting on why he “failed,” Kerezman decided all the problems he encountered were fixable.

“I adjusted my nutrition,” he said. “That’s what really did me in in that race. I was falling behind on calories, and if you fall behind, you can’t catch up. I usually do 220 calories in an hour, 110 per half hour, every 30 minutes. When I failed in 2019, I knew I wasn’t getting enough. I wasn’t being that smart and it caught up to me, and it was the lowest of lows I ever felt in running.”

Every body is different, so every runner’s optimal nutrition varies.

“Essentially to make it simple, anything that would be carbohydrates and sugar,” is a good place to start, he said. “I do Cliff bars. I had some gummy bears, energy gels (one of those per hour). I do some Slim Jims for some protein and fat, natural fruit, bananas. I love bananas. They tend to stick pretty well. Salt tablets, that’s one thing people don’t think about. Every 10 miles I do a salt tablet. They help keep you from cramping and they also help you keep some of the water in your body.”

Knowing when to run and when to walk, he said, is another key. Steep inclines and descents burn too much energy running, so he walks them. As darkness falls, the headlamp that rests on the front of the forehead helps, but it’s not foolproof.

“The light source is above your eyes and it’s going straight out, so you’re not going to see shadows,” he said. “Everything becomes one-dimensional, so all those tree roots start to look flat.”

Looks can painfully deceive.

“It doesn’t happen too much anymore, but in a race with 100 miles of running it’s inevitable that you’re probably going to hit a root and go down,” he said. “There are a lot of muscles in your system that you use without even realizing it.”

Such as?

“Your arms,” he said. “How you swing your arms back and forth. Most people are doing that for maybe an hour. Imagine doing it all day.”

And?

“Your abs,” he said. “When you hit a root and stumble forward 50, 60, 70 miles into the race, you feel like you’re getting stabbed in the abdomen. Your core is what’s keeping you up and it’s a very sharp, strange pain.”

He grimaces, picks himself up and keeps going. And going. And going, inspiring more than just Valpo cross country runners along the way.

Using the rate of 1,700 running steps per mile and 3,700 miles, Kerezman buries comfort and mediocrity, one step at a time, 6.29 million times a year.

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