Special Forces and a special runner

It wasn't the heat, the 152-mile course or the difficulty of the terrain that stopped Mike Morton at the famed Greek Spartathlon ultra race in late September. Those factors never had a chance to take their toll, because it was man's best friend who got the best of Morton, something that has rarely happened in any race the past two years.

"There were dogs everywhere," Morton said. "I think it was just bad luck. [A dog] kind of jumped out in front of me. I just jumped over it and landed wrong."

That was at about the four-hour mark of the Athens-to-Sparta race that is considered one of the world's most demanding. Immediately, Morton knew he was hurt, but tried to keep going. Three hours later, he had to stop. He'd overcompensated for his back and aggravated his hip. He was done.

"Once I made the decision, I knew it was the right decision," he said. Still, it was frustrating. The Spartathlon was one of those events Morton had targeted for years, and he'd made it one of his big goals for 2013. And since jumping back into a full training and running schedule in late 2011, Morton, 42, had crossed off several goals from his to-do list and compiled an amazing string of races:

In September of 2011, he won his only ultra of the year, covering 163.9 miles in the Hinson Lake 24 Hour.

In 2012, Morton was perfect, reeling off consecutive wins at the Long Haul 100-miler, Umstead 100 (setting a record), Keys 100 (another record) and Badwater 135-miler. He then set an American record while winning the 24-Hour World Championship in Poland, running 172.457 miles to break Scott Jurek's previous mark of 165.705, set in 2010. Morton capped off his year with a win in the Bear Bait 50-miler. He was selected 2012 Ultra Runner of the Year by both U.S. Track and Field and Ultra Running magazine.

Morton began 2013 with victories just a week apart in the Rocky Raccoon 100 and Iron Horse 100, before coming in third overall in the Western States 100 in June -- his first time back at the event since winning and setting a course record in 1997. Still, he set a 40-plus age record (15:45:21) that nearly matched his mark as a 25-year-old (15:40:41). Then came the Spartathlon and his run-in with a runaway dog.

Yet Morton counts 2013 as a good year, not a bad one. Runners aren't robots. Things happen, and in 2013 they were mostly good, he says.

"Oh, yeah. You've got to temper everything with reality," he said, noting that running takes a toll on the body.

He's already looking forward to 2014 and another shot at both Western States and the Spartathlon. "I'm still chomping at the bit to do them again," he said.

Defying limits

If anybody has the ability to bounce back (in his 40s, no less), it's Morton, a master sergeant in the U.S. Army Special Forces and a 23-year military man who's now stationed in Tampa, Fla., at the U.S. Special Operations Command. In the ultra-running community -- where everyone overcomes physical and mental challenges -- Morton is revered.

"He does a really incredible job of defying limits, defying what one would think is humanly possible," said Harvey Lewis of Cincinnati, who was part of the U.S. 24-hour team in Poland.

Adds Eric Clifton, an ultra legend and good friend of Morton's who lives in Temecula, Calif.: "You tell Mike he can't do something, and it's on."

Mike Spinnler, a runner, ultra race director and assistant U.S. coach on the 24-hour team in 2012, says he'd never seen anyone with the drive Morton showed in that race. Even after his individual win and record were assured, Morton kept striving to help his team win a bronze medal.

"People say in distance running, 'Man, I really went deep into the well,'" said Spinnler, of Hagerstown, Md. "But I've been around the sport for 43 years and I don't know if I've ever seen anybody push themselves as hard as he pushed himself in that competition. He turned himself inside out."

Effort like that has been a Morton trait through two-part careers in both the military and ultra running.

He originally enlisted in the Navy and was a diver for 12 years. After 9/11, he switched to the Army in 2002 and became a Green Beret, with multiple overseas deployments.

He began running in high school in Northern Michigan to get in shape for football, but soon became "irrelevant" in that sport because of his size -- he's 5-foot-4 as an adult. Yet he loved running. In the Navy, Morton began running long-distance races while stationed on the tiny island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, then was introduced to ultra running by a friend when stationed in Virginia.

He did his first race, a 40-miler, in North Carolina in 1994, and over the next three years was exceptional, winning several 50- and 100-mile races along the East Coast. In 1997 he became the first non-California runner to win the mountainous Western States 100 while setting a record that stood for many years. But just when his ultra career was hitting full speed, it came to a stop.

First, a hip injury in 1998 sidelined him. Then came a transfer to Puerto Rico, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001 and his overseas duties as a Green Beret. Running took a backseat and Morton ran just a handful of ultras between 1998 and 2010. Still, he hoped to someday get back to it. When he and his wife and daughter moved to Tampa in late 2011 for his new assignment, he finally had a more stable schedule that allowed him to train.

That led to a sensational string of races he never anticipated. He had such success in 2012 that he kept waiting for the bubble to burst.

"I was scared going into the 24-hour thing," he recalled. "Like, statistically, something's got to give here. So to go 5-for-5, I was ecstatic."

"Beyond remarkable"

The fact Morton seems to be as good as or better than he was in the 1990s, after such a big gap, is "beyond remarkable," said Spinnler.

"If Hollywood would have scripted one of those cheesy movies and wrote down the true story, they would say, 'Oh yeah, really?'" he said. "A guy in his early 40s is going to come back two decades later and be better than he was in his 20s when he was really, really good? He was a Western States champion. It's just remarkable."

Lewis likens Morton to Rocky Balboa, coming out of nowhere to surprise everyone, but Morton looks nothing like Rocky. He's described as unassuming, quiet, humble and willing to listen. He doesn't look the part of a Green Beret or a world-class ultra runner with unreal stamina.

"If you met him on the street, you wouldn't think he is what he is, necessarily," Lewis said. "You look at his muscles, they aren't bulging out the yin-yang. He doesn't have the appearance of a kid that just came off the track team for Southern Cal or Stanford. He doesn't look like somebody who's got freakish abilities or powers like Usain Bolt. But he's got an inner drive that is like a force to reckon with."

Morton acknowledges the mental and physical challenges of ultras can be daunting, and he's certainly been tested himself.

"For most people one of the biggest hurdles is the mental aspect," Morton said. "The bottom line is our bodies physically were designed to move, so I think modern man's mind is the weak link there."

At his age, Morton's mind has been tested. He has plenty of experiences to draw from in times of stress. This September, in the midst of training for the Spartathlon and studying for his exam for promotion to sergeant major (which he passed), he wrote on his blog (runmortonrun.com) that it helped to remember a special forces mission in Afghanistan.

At the outset of the mission, everything seemed to go wrong. He and his team were inserted into a field that was being raked by Taliban machine guns. But after an initial "rush of being overwhelmed," they came up with a plan, achieved success and avoided casualties.

"By focusing on what we could control and utilizing our capabilities, we were able to overcome an overwhelming situation," he wrote. "It did help that we had a few 500-pound bombs on our side."

The lesson, he wrote, was that "I just had to calm down, use common sense and drop some metaphorical bombs."

So when it comes to running ultras, Morton can adapt. Yet he's always had a special resolve as a runner. Clifton, a Badwater champion and member of USA Track and Field's Hall of Fame, saw it at Morton's ultra debut in 1994 at the Uwharrie Mountain Run 40-miler in North Carolina. Clifton remembers going out hard and fast to try to open a gap with the rest of the field, but being unable to shake this young guy he'd never seen before. For the first half of the race, Clifton said Morton shadowed his every move, as if studying a mentor.

Morton stopped to rest and eat whenever Clifton did, then ran hard when Clifton ran hard. Finally, at about the 18-mile mark, Clifton pulled away and won. But Morton came in third, and other runners told Clifton they were all impressed with the newcomer.

"They said, 'Man, that little short guy, he was flying,'" Clifton said. "He told me years later that when he got done he thought, 'I'm not ever doing one of these things again.' And I walked up to him and I said, 'You don't need to be doing any more of these.' He went immediately from swearing he wasn't ever going to do one again to, 'Oh, yeah? You just wait and see.'"

Clifton laughs as he recalls the story, but he says it tells a lot about Morton. He believes Morton is capable of great things. "Frankly, anything Mike does that's exceptional, I would not be surprised at all," he said.

Eyes on Sparta

Since the Spartathlon, Morton has had to back off the training. He's giving his body time to heal. But in December, he hopes to resume running and jump into some races early in 2014. The Everglades 50 in February is one race he's targeted, but his schedule for the rest of the year is flexible as he works toward the Western States and a return to the Spartathlon.

Getting a taste of what the Greek race was all about this year makes him eager to run it again. For an American warrior and ultra runner, the scene at the finish line in Sparta -- near a statue of warrior King Leonidas -- would be something to savor.

"Watching the people finish, coming through Sparta, was very motivating," he said. "The whole town's there, cheering everybody on."

He'll just need to keep his eye out for dogs.