When Ben Light takes off with one foot in the Mediterranean Sea for an eight day, 497-mile attempt at two world records, it will be with seven bags stashed along the trail, eight pairs of shoes and a crew of three Utah Valley University researchers studying the impacts of extreme exercise on his body.
“It blew my mind that there is this college that isn’t BYU or U of U, that they are really pushing the edge of understanding the body and the mind, and what makes endurance athletes able to do what they do,” Light said.
Light, an ultrarunner, will start running at midnight Sunday across the Pyrenees Mountain Range on the borders of France, Spain and Andorra on the Haute Randonnée Pyrénéenne route. He’s attempting to have the fastest self-supported crossing of the route and be the fastest human who has crossed the Pyrenees Mountains.
To do so, he’ll need to average about 60 miles a day through more than 42,000 feet of rugged elevation gain. He plans to complete the route in less than eight days and seven hours.
Along the way will be Andy Creer, an associate professor of exercise science at UVU, Taran Bailey, a UVU senior studying exercise science, and Brigham Dunford, a UVU junior studying digital media production.
Dunford will film the experience while Creer and Bailey meet Light at his drop bag locations to study the impact of the extreme distance on his body. They’ll study his bloodwork, monitoring his weight, put him through a series of math tests and brain games to look at his cognitive function, ask him to rate his perceived exertion and ultrasound his muscle to see how it adapts over the eight days.
Light will run between 18 to 20 hours a day, only receiving a handful of hours of sleep every night.
“He’s mentioned he’s had issues with lack of sleep before,” Creer said. “This way we’ll be able to get a measure of that, as well, because sleep deprivation, especially for prolonged periods, does have an impact on both problem-solving as well as his reaction to things.”
Light is interested to see how his body adapts over the eight days. He said the first day of an ultramarathon is always his hardest. After that, he goes into what he calls “ultra mode.”
“If you are going to get sick, you are going to get sick on the first day,” Light said. “But on the second, third, fourth day, you can eat anything.”
That “anything” is going to contribute to the 8,000 calories a day he plans on consuming.
Light is also interested to see what happens with his lactic acid throughout the journey and to see if his body adapts and becomes more efficient.
“I am excited to see what they come up with, and what my body is doing over the eight days, and the amount of stress I am going to put my body through,” Light said.
Because Light is aiming for a self-supported record, it means that while the UVU team can prick his finger for a blood test, they won’t be able to offer him a bandage, or offer assistance of any kind.
The students were onboard as soon as they learned about the opportunity.
“It’s not every day you get the opportunity to go and film something like a world-record-breaking event,” Dunford said. “Whether he makes it or not — which I definitely think he will — it will be exciting to go and have that opportunity to film.”
He said some of his professors have questioned why he’ll be missing a few weeks of class at the beginning of the new semester, but have understood the opportunity.
“It is much more valuable to future employers and future projects to see what you have done outside of the classroom rather than what you have studied,” Dunford said.
Bailey has conducted research with Creer before on an ultrarunner who raced in Oregon.
He said one professor has offered to remotely proctor an exam so he can study Light.
“All my professors know it is going to be a great opportunity,” he said.
Bailey said he’s grateful for the chance to conduct and present research at this stage in his education.
“It is cool they can present undergraduates the opportunity to do stuff, where I am sure that at any other university this would be Ph.D students going,” he said.
Creer has put together online content for his own students for when he’s gone. The team’s hotels will have access to the internet, and Creer will be available to answer questions from his classes.
“That is going to be one of the more stressful things for me, making sure I can take care of things here while I am taking care of stuff over there,” Creer said. “It definitely isn’t the most convenient time. That is something you have to deal with. When you get an opportunity like this, you make it work.”
He plans to continue studying ultramarathoners, although he said Light’s planned sleep deprivation is unique. Creer said it’s an issue he’s talked to college athletes about before.
“Maybe this can help to drive that point home,” he said.
Light is running the route with the goal of raising $75,000 for Neuroworx, a Sandy-based nonprofit which helps with the rehabilitation of those with neurological conditions, regardless of their ability to pay.