An elite ultramarathon runner can start a race like the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run when The Today Show begins Monday morning and finish it by the time it ends ... on Tuesday. They can run a marathon, and then another one, and another one, and another one without taking a break. And they can do this not on the mostly flat, forgiving streets of Boston or New York City, but on ragged terrain like trails in the Sierra Nevada mountains. They run when it's freezing cold and when it's steamy hot. They run -- a lot -- often for 100 miles at a time through thousands of feet of elevation.

This is why Pam Smith, 38, the 2013 Western States female champion, says the focus in ultramarathon running is on the accomplishment of completing the course, rather than watching the clock.

"When I ran marathons, I would be beating myself up to take two or three minutes off of my time," she says. "I think one reason that people move to ultras is to get away from the road. People can challenge themselves without the pressure of running a specific time."

With the clock out of the way, runners can focus on more pressing matters, like finishing the race in one piece.

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Ultramarathons are defined as any race longer than a marathon. They usually come in four different varieties: the 50k, the 50-miler, the 100k and the 100-miler.

"Most people start with a 50k," Smith says. "It's basically a marathon plus five miles. If you run marathons routinely, the extra five miles doesn't seem so bad. You can sort of just push through that. I try and convince all of my friends to do it. When you run a marathon, you're pushing the red line for the whole 26 miles. At 50 and above, you may have sections where you might be walking or stop at an aid station. It mitigates some of the pain."

The pain, for those who haven’t experienced it, can run from complete loss of energy, to agony and disorientation. Such is the natural result of entering a race that may take you 30 hours to finish.

"The fatigue can get overwhelming," Smith says. "It also becomes challenging and difficult to manage. You come up with mental strategies to overcome it. A good one for me is breaking the course down in sections. I'll think to myself that I have five more miles until an aid station, or three more miles until I reach the top of a hill. I like to run the race in little chunks, but you have to have that mindset that you're committed to finishing it. In every race, there's a period where you're hurting or you'd prefer to stop. The hardest part in the 100-mile race is in the 45-60 mile range. At that point you've gone quite a distance and you still have 40-45 miles left."

Josh Dickson, 29, a veteran marathon runner, competed in the 2013 Western 100 with Pam Smith and 383 other starters (only 277 finished). While Dickson has numerous marathons and ultras to his credit, the Western, which he describes as the ultimate ultramarathon, is a different animal.

"In a 100-miler, you hit that point where you want to quit a lot of times," he says. "People talk about getting a second wind, but you need a seventh and eighth wind to get through these. Most ultras are trails, and you're talking about rocky, root-filled trails which slow you down. The cumulative effect of that and the heat, it beats you down a bunch. At mile 30, you're feeling pretty good, looking over the mountainside, but by mile 38, you start to get a little groggy. It was over 100 degrees the day of the Western and the heat kicked in and it was tough to handle. I had a pretty tough bout between mile 40 and 50."

Smith knew the heat was going to be a problem and tried to game plan accordingly.

"I knew from the forecast that it was going to be a really hot year," she says. "I wore a cotton T-shirt because it holds moisture closer to your body. I also took all nine of my water bottles and froze them half with ice and filled the rest with water, so that the bottles themselves would keep me cool."

Staying hydrated and staying cool are the only ways to stave off the major issues brought on by the elements, namely cramps, overheating, dehydration and a general physical breakdown. Smith says that the wetter you can stay to beat the heat, the better.

"I put ice everywhere I could put it," Smith says. "I put it in my hat, my bra, my bandana. I splashed in every stream and river crossing. I made sure that I was soaking wet and got my body temperature down so that my running wasn't affected by the heat."

***

Races like the Western States typically start early in the morning, since many runners will be forcing one foot in front of the other for well over a day. This means that in addition to the physical pain of pounding the pavement, runners must also contend with the effects of sleep deprivation. Smith, who was the fastest woman in the Western, finished ninth overall with a time of 18:37.21. While the winner, Timothy Olsen, finished in just over 15 hours, only a third of the runners finished in under 24 hours. Dickson finished in about 25 hours, putting him in the middle of the pack.

To get ready for the 5 a.m. start time, Dickson woke up at 3 a.m. At the midway point of his run, about 6 p.m. that day, he'd already been awake for 15 hours.

"I was feeling good through about mile 70," he says. "Then the sleep deprivation starts kicking in. It felt like I was just wandering in the darkness. My little brother was with me, which was good because I was having mild hallucinations. Between mile 78 and 93, it was just absolute hell. "

So why do it?

Dickson paraphrases a quote from Ernest Hemingway:

"Everyone is broken by life, but some people are stronger in the broken places."

"I think ultras embody that whole mentality," he says. "It's just you against you. The course isn't going to move or change for you. You just have to keep going. It helps you prove yourself to yourself. If you can go through that type of physical and mental battle, I think it makes you a stronger person. It pushes you to a place that's hard to get to ... where you're that stripped bare and broken down in a moment."

Smith describes what she gets out of running by recalling the one DNF (did not finish) she has in an ultra.

"I didn't finish the Angeles Crest in 2010," she says. "It was a complete mental breakdown. I lined up and I just wasn't excited to run that weekend. I just felt like it was going to be terrible. I was a little fatigued and over trained. My knee started hurting and it wasn't something that should have been a race ending injury, but I just got into this negative mindset. I couldn't keep myself going to the finish line. I just decided to call it a day. In retrospect, my head was not in it from the get-go that day and I was relieved when they cut off my bracelet."

Preparing for a 100-mile marathon takes several months of training, often knocking out 100 miles of road work per week. For Smith, the decision to give up was almost as painful as the race itself, considering all the time and effort it took just to compete.

"When the day got hard, I called it quits," she says. "That prompted me to be more resilient. In the 2012 Western, I ran a terrible race. I had hypothermia, asthma, weight gain from fluid retention. The Western is usually very hot, but instead it was 40 miles of snow and sleet and rain. I just had gloves and arm sleeves. No jacket, nothing. The officials put me on a medical hold for two hours. When I was ready to leave, they made me sign a medical waiver before I left the tent, acknowledging that I could die on the trail and there might be no aid... But I finished."

Counter that with the 2013 race one year later, where Smith was victorious, and Hemingway's quote rings all the more true. Then again, in this case, a quote by Friedrich Nietzche may be more apt when talking about ultramarathons:

"That which does not kill us makes us stronger."

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Esquire launched its TV channel in the fall, and it might have the show that any new network needs for generating buzz and attracting eyeballs. If the trailer for Friday Night Tykes is an accurate representation of what the 10-part documentary series will tackle, it should provoke plenty of thought about how youth sports ought to be approached.

The series, which premieres Jan. 14, profiles five teams of 8- and 9-year-olds from San Antonio in the Texas Youth Football Association, and as you might suspect, the footage is heavy with adults screaming about what it takes to be a winner. Example:

"There should be no reason why y'all don't make other teams cry. I could care less if they cry!"

There is a fine line between building character and toughness by fighting through adversity and what is just plain old abuse, and hopefully the series can take a measured look at a complex topic:

"I don't care how much pain you're in -- you don't quit."

As usual, and as HBO also spotlighted in State Of Play, the role of adults and how they conduct themselves is a central theme. One coach tells a player to hit an opponent in the head, then adds:

"I don't care if he don't get up."

Additionally, with more and more parents thinking twice about allowing their kids to play football because of the growing evidence linking concussions with brain disease, it is worth noting that during the 90-second promotional clip, there are two helmet-to-helmet hits that would draw fines in the NFL.

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"The trailer is definitely troubling to watch," an NFL spokesman told the Los Angeles Times.

The spokesman also told the Times that the league featured in Tykes is not part of its Heads Up Football Program, a safety-inspired initiative for youths.

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There was a time when hotels would put a treadmill, a stationary bike and a water cooler in a room, and call it a gym. But more and more hotels have upgraded their fitness accommodations in the past decade to keep up with the demand of guests. This change is among the fitness movements with momentum heading into 2014. So is a clever twist on CrossFit that a group in Arizona has pioneered. It might be best described as Fight Club Meets Functional Fitness.

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Thanks to some bold imagination and precise execution, the man known as Eric The Aviator has become a sensation on YouTube. His action sports videos continue to push the limits with original adventures involving parachutes, jet packs and more.

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History was made this week in Major League Lacrosse.

The New York Lizards took goalie Devon Wills in the league's supplemental draft, making her the first woman selected by an MLL team. Wills, a former standout goalie at Dartmouth and a two-time Women's World Cup gold medalist, is currently an assistant coach at USC.

"It was an honor to be considered, and I have a lot of respect for all the guys in the supplemental draft," Wills said. "Now comes the time for me to compete and take my chance to fight for a spot on the first team."

Wills told Newsday that the idea of trying out for an MLL team hadn't occurred to her until Lizards coach Joe Spallina asked her if she would consider it.

Spallina, a former star midfielder at Adelphi, is also the coach of the Stony Brook women's lacrosse team.

"He actually asked me if I thought it was even possible and then he started pushing buttons," Wills told Newsday. "He'd say, 'I'd love to see you in a uniform or get you out to practice.' He'd make one-liner comments and when I said 'let's do it,' he was all aboard."

Wills will have a chance to make the roster at tryouts in April. If she was to make the team, she wouldn't be the first woman to play professional men's lacrosse (although she'd be the first to do so in the MLL). Ginny Capicchioni signed with the now-defunct New Jersey Storm of National League Lacrosse and played 11 minutes in the team's season finale in 2003. Jen Adams was selected by the Washington Power with the 114th overall pick of the 2011 NLL draft but never played for the team. The NLL, unlike MLL, is an indoor league.

Two decades ago another female goaltender played against men. Manon Rheaume, an Olympic silver medalist in hockey, signed with the Tampa Bay Lightning and played one period of an exhibition game. She was the first woman to play in any of the major North American sports leagues.

Wills took to Twitter to express her excitement for the opportunity.


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Few people in football do innovation better than Chip Kelly.

The man who helped revolutionize college football offenses and is currently leading the first-place Philadelphia Eagles is known for his off-the-wall but brilliant ideas.

Jill Cakert, a dental hygienist and lifelong Eagles fan who lives in Ventnor, N.J., was familiar with Kelly's reputation when he was hired in January 2013. So she figured it couldn't hurt to send Kelly a model of her invention, the Signalfan. Cakert, a volunteer softball coach, originally created the Signalfan to make it easier to communicate with her players on the field. The device consists of several colored blades that can be rearranged in different combinations.

Shortly after sending Kelly one of her models, she got a note back from the coach along with a personal check for $25 (the Signalfan sells for $24.99 on its website): "It's been a big help!!" the coach wrote. "Great idea!!"

The device has been spotted on the Eagles' sideline this year:

Cakert is thrilled to see her team using the device, although she admits she has no idea how the Eagles are using it.

"I have no clue what they're using it for," she told the Philadelphia Inquirer. "They have so much going on on the sidelines, you see Chip Kelly with his tongue out talking, somebody doing hand signals. They could be using it as a decoy for all I know."

Kelly wouldn't reveal much either when asked about the Signalfan recently.

"It's just another way to communicate what we're doing on game days," he said.

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Yoga has become such a common practice among elite athletes these days that it might be difficult for some younger fans to understand that it was once considered a novelty. Now we can see a star such as Texans running back Arian Foster posting a photo of himself exchanging bows with the NFL commissioner and writing a caption of #namaste Mr. Goodell, and not consider it to be radical.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, the NBA's all-time leading scorer, was among the first of big-time athletes to understand the benefits of yoga. It helped him last 20 seasons in the NBA, and his success with yoga influenced others to start practicing.

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Here are six ways that athletes can improve their performance:

-- Processing information faster.
-- Improving concentration.
-- Recovering quickly from mistakes.
-- Making immediate decisions.
-- Increasing attention span.
-- Managing stress better.

In other words, it's all about training the brain to get more out of the body.

That's where Sense Labs comes in. It is a brain-based biosensor and software innovations company that works with elite athletes such as Olympic volleyball star Kerri Walsh. Some of its clients, though, are reluctant to reveal success stories, because they fear their competitors will gain an edge.

But as technology continues to evolve, there figures to be more opportunities for athletes at all levels to unlock their physical potential by honing their brain power.

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The Strength Axle is a cutting-edge fitness device that focuses on functional core strength. But it also hits muscles throughout the body while also boosting your heart rate. Inventor Craig Thompson developed this idea, then built the original model by hacking up plumbing pipes that he bought at The Home Depot. Now CrossFit gyms and other workout facilities are adding the Strength Axle to their selections. Check out how it was designed and why it works:

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More Innovation: How Bruce Lee Changed Martial Arts Forever

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When it comes to playing quarterback in the NFL, apparently, size doesn't matter. At least as much as it used to.

In Monday night's matchup of the two best teams in the NFC, 5-foot-11 Russell Wilson led his Seahawks to a 34-7 victory over 6-foot Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints. Michael Salfino of the Wall Street Journal notes that Wilson and Brees were the smallest pair of starting quarterbacks to face each other since 2001. Their combined height (143 inches) was the shortest for two opposing signal callers since 1970.

The average height of NFL quarterbacks is 6-foot-3, but that hasn't stopped Brees or Wilson from succeeding in the league. Brees, a Super Bowl MVP, has shattered passing record after passing record the past few years. Meanwhile, Wilson nearly led his team to the NFC championship game as a rookie and has been a top-five quarterback this year.

Wilson, 25, says he idolized Brees and followed him since his collegiate days at Purdue.

"When I went to Wisconsin [senior year], I had tons and tons of film on [Brees]," Wilson told ESPN. "I just watched every throw, pretty much that he had thrown in the NFL. I studied his footwork, studied what he does, and obviously, everybody compares our height."

Brees and Wilson have excelled with similar playing styles. They both have rocket arms, excellent vision and, when a play breaks down, are adept scramblers. They remind many of another shorter NFL quarterback who proved he belonged.

At 5-foot-10 Doug Flutie is shorter than both Brees and Wilson, but in many ways he paved the way for them to stick around in the league. Flutie was repeatedly overlooked because of his size, but time and again he proved that he could hang in the NFL. He's said there's still a size bias among NFL talent evaluators, and that likely hampered Wilson and Brees' draft stocks. Despite stellar senior years, size likely played a part in bumping both Brees and Wilson out of the first round of the NFL draft.

For Brees, the NFL's shift towards passing-heavy offenses has allowed guys like Wilson and Brees to succeed.

"I think that when you can spread 'em out, it makes life a lot easier at the quarterback position," Flutie told NFL.com. "You've got five quick receivers, you've got guys out into the route, you're spreading the field, making them defend the whole field and then, hopefully, you're getting a rush that's a little more spread out and there's bigger lanes, so you can see the field better."

And lest anyone think Brees and Wilson are anomalies, doubters need to look no further than 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. The record-setting Texas A&M sophomore is optimistically listed at 6-foot-1.

While he hasn't declared his 2014 intentions, Manziel may choose to enter April's NFL draft. And if he does, talent evaluators should think twice before dismissing Manziel because of his size.

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