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The Machine

He does sound impressed when he talks about Lynchberg's David Horton who can run the length of the Appalachian Trail in 52 days, about 42 miles a day.

If 10Ks and marathons are the mainstream, O'Connor and ultra-runners like him represent the extreme end; they're outsiders, in a way.

But it may be truer to say that O'Connor is an insider. He grew up in New York, the son of an Olympic middle-distance running coach whose team won two gold medals in the 1956 Olympics. Many years before the beards and the socks, he was growing up in the presence of elite runners. After his freshman year of college, he got in with the New York Athletic Club runners — "the true core of road running in New York," he says. From there it was on to longer races, which, he jokes, was kind of rebellious in the eyes of a father who trained middle-distance runners.

It explains why he seems unfazed by triple-digit distances, why his thoughts on running carry less of the mystical and more of the practical. After a lifetime of it, running is mechanical, instinctive. Ultra-long-distance runs are a natural progression. The average age of those tackling that part of the sport, he says, is 44.

O'Connor points out that average finishing times on marathons have gotten longer over the years, owing, he says, to people placing less emphasis on the stopwatch and more on the finish line. In a way, the new breed is similar to the ultra-runners.

"The focus of the ultra is different," he says. Run on trails rather than roads, they measure how far a person can go in a certain time, say 24 hours, rather than measuring how long it takes for a person to go a certain distance.

The aid stations along the way are epic: Potato chips, pretzels, cookies and soda, a whole station for ice cream, a margarita station at the Bull Run 50-miler: fuel for these old-school machines who, past their addictions to time and speed, seem content to relax a bit. To take their time, enjoy the scenery.

His next race is a 24-hour run for the American Cancer Society, where his goal is 58 miles, although he calls 80 to 85 miles "ideal."

Years from that New York running club, he's still an insider, still a part of a small group of runners within the larger, growing group. It's a position he seems comfortable with. "I've lived through the evolution to some extent," he says. He looks to the source of the growth, the little 5K. "The evolution came in thinking three-point-one miles is possible for anyone," he says.

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