"You actually have to submit a resume, and they won't even look at it unless you've done at least three 100-mile runs. I was well within the limit," Blessing said. "I've done 10."
For Blessing, a music major at Northwest Nazarene University, his introduction to the sport of ultramarathons--any marathon longer than the standard 26 miles--came by way of a tragedy. He was in the Marines and he and a buddy were training for a Marine Corps marathon. They were in Pennsylvania when his friend slipped from a waterfall and died.
"That was a big bummer," Blessing said, his clipped speech wavering slightly. "After that, my conductor got me a book about a guy who runs [ultramarathons]. I thought, 'I want to run one of these for my buddy.'"
So he did. Blessing ran his first ultramarathon--40 miles--in late 2007. It didn't go so well.
"I was trained, and I was ready to go ... but I'd only run a half marathon before that, so I was really scared," Blessing said. His parents, who were acting as his de facto pit crew, forgot to put salt in his water bottles--an important element in keeping a runner hydrated.
"I got terrible cramps and almost had to go to the hospital," Blessing said. But he finished. "I was so proud and thought, 'I have to do a longer one.'"
In the nearly three and a half years since that first race, Blessing has run more than three dozen ultramarathons including his second 150-mile run in December 2010--all in order to build his resume for the Badwater Ultramarathon.
Chris Koster is the founder and "Chief Adventure Officer" of AdventureCORPS Inc., an organization that produces extreme sports events including the Badwater Ultramarathon. Since founding AdventureCORPS in 1984, Koster, a runner himself, has seen hundreds just like Blessing take on the Badwater, which his company began producing in 2000. And just this year, the race became even more challenging. Runners used to have 60 hours to finish the race. This is the first year they have only 48. The change, Koster said, has been made because everybody wants to win the prize. And, no, it's not cash. It's a belt buckle.
"It used to be 60 [hours], but you had to finish in 48 to get the belt buckle. And everybody wants the belt buckle," Koster said, laughing. "So the last three or four years, only a few people were requiring more than 48 hours. The field just kept getting faster, not necessarily just the front couple of people but the whole field. And it's an invitational ... people know they may not get a chance again so they put their best effort forward."
The 2011 Badwater--which in past years has seen a 19-year-old, a 75-year-old and two blind finishers--will include participants from more than 19 countries including the 2010 men's champion and a 16-time finisher. The invitees include 70 men and 30 women, and the record time held by a man is just less than 23 hours, for a woman is a little more than 26 hours. The average finish time is around 40 hours--that's nearly two days of brutal exposure to the elements.
Blessing joined a support crew (a group allowed to follow the runner) in the 2010 Badwater to prepare for this year. From that and, of course, running several ultramarathons prior to this one, he has learned a couple of things that will aid in his success.
"Experience is making the right decisions after making the wrong ones," Blessing said. "In 2008 I experimented using running gel and energy chews. What I didn't realize was that overloading your body with sugar causes you to have terrible diarrhea. I had that for the last 20 miles of a run."
In that same race, Blessing missed a few spots with sunscreen and ended up with second-degree burns. A 60-mile-plus race in 2009 also taught him to always wear his glasses or protective goggles. Some dirt up under his contacts scratched his corneas so badly one of his eyes was actually gouged.
But Blessing has discovered that overcoming the physical aspects of the race is only part of the battle.
"Mental fortitude is the name of the game," Blessing said. "If you don't mind, it doesn't matter."