Faculty Spotlight: UVA Doctor Conquers Disease by Day, Runs 100 Miles by Night

February 2, 2023 By Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu Andrew Ramspacher, fpa5up@virginia.edu

Above the row of 10 thick, hardcover books on infectious disease inside Dr. Costi Sifri’s office at the University of Virginia Medical Center is a shelf adorned with six coffee mugs, two belt buckles and half the top of a whiskey barrel.

Displaying tokens at work from your favorite hobby isn’t unusual. Sifri, an infectious disease specialist, is like the weekend golfer who shows off a hole-in-one ball on the desk or the amateur artist who pins an acrylic painting to the side of a cubicle.

Here’s a potential difference, though, between Sifri’s hobby and yours: Of those six mugs, four are for participating in 50-kilometer (31 miles) foot races. The belt buckles were rewards for finishing the Arkansas Traveler and Rim Runner 100-mile trail races. The whiskey barrel was a reward for finishing last in the Rim Runner.

“Do people think I’m crazy?” Sifri asked, repeating a reporter’s question. “Among most people who are non-runners, yeah. Even bona fide marathon runners will say, ‘100 miles, that’s crazy!’”

Sifri is UVA Health’s director of hospital epidemiology as well as the medical director of the immunocompromised infectious disease program at UVA and a professor in the School of Medicine. He’s helped lead institutional responses to high-consequence emerging microbial pathogens such as Ebola virus and COVID-19.

Related Story

Costi Sifri on a morning run around Charlottesville
Sifri is a staple of the local running community. In August 2020, he finished his quest to run every street in Charlottesville. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

A regular guest on local news outlets, Sifri’s expertise and guidance throughout the pandemic has been of tremendous value, especially on Grounds.

“We relied on them daily and weekly throughout the last 15 months,” UVA President Jim Ryan said of Sifri and Dr. Mitch Rosner during a reception in June 2021. “Any time we had to make a decision about what public health guidelines we were going to put in place, whether we were going to change restrictions or not, we relied on Mitch and Costi.”

And Sifri, to combat the stress that comes with being under such a microscope, relied on his Hoka sneakers, a headlamp and a unique willingness to persevere.

Portrait of Costi Sifri in his office

When he’s not on the trails, Sifri is juggling many important roles with UVA Health, including director of hospital epidemiology. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

Sifri, 56, has gone for a run of at least one mile for more than 1,600 consecutive days.

“It’s been a fantastic reprieve,” Sifri said. “It’s my go-to activity, along with just being with my family. Finding time and space to decompress, to reset, to find that sense of calmness. It’s an opportunity where you can think about problems, mull over them, come up with solutions that maybe weren’t evident when you started your run. It’s a way to process things in a unique way.

“It’s interesting how the brain is able to do that. That’s been fantastic. I don’t think that’s driven the running, but I’ve seen that as a huge benefit.”

Sifri, by his own admission, is not a gifted athlete. The Oregon native played high school soccer and then picked the sport back up as adult, participating in a Charlottesville recreational league. It’s here where he, then in his early 40s, began to notice teammates suffering serious injuries or experiencing cardiac issues as the result of poor fitness.

It was Sifri’s sign to tweak his own exercise regime.

“I was up 15 pounds and I wasn’t feeling particularly healthy on the field or in general,” Sifri said. “I had been an intermittent runner throughout my whole life, but I decided to become more dedicated.”

Soon, daily runs turned into half-marathons (13.1 miles) and full marathons (26.2). Later, he developed a passion for trail running, which led to ultramarathons (anything over 26.2 miles, but typically a 50k or farther).

Since 2013, Sifri has completed four marathons and 22 official ultramarathons.

“Even though Costi was coming home from work at 10 at night, he would dress up like a Christmas tree, put his lamp on, and go out,” said Debbie Henderson, Sifri’s wife and main running partner. “I still remember the first time he just went out and did a couple miles. He came back and he was just miserable. But he kept going.”

Henderson – who recently ended her own run streak at 1,642 straight days – is a board member of the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners, a club co-founded by UVA commerce professor David Smith that, among other functions, trains together on some of the most extreme terrain in the region.

Costi Sifri and Debbie Henderson running at Holiday Lake
Debbie Henderson, Sifri’s wife, is Sifri’s main running partner. Here they are during the Holiday Lake 50k (31 miles) in February 2022 in Appomattox. (Contributed photo)

On weekdays, Sifri might keep things as simple as a one-mile loop around his neighborhood. On weekends, however, Sifri might be with up in the Shenandoah Mountains with the Charlottesville Area Trail Runners logging more than 20 miles.

Sifri, whose favorite local trail is the Rivanna Trail, said he ran 2,250 miles – that’s approximately the distance, as the crow flies, from Charlottesville to Los Angeles – and climbed 223,000 feet in elevation (42.2 miles or the equivalent of more than seven Mount Everests) in 2022.

“Costi has such dedication and a commitment to a goal,” Smith said. “And he’s not the fastest runner, either, he’ll tell you that. So he’s not going to win these races, but he has this inner drive to complete these personal challenges. He’s just incredibly committed, disciplined and patient to see the payoffs.”

Smith was on site in Sewanee, Tennessee, last April when Sifri, after 31 hours, 23 minutes and 32 seconds of climbing 11,400 feet, finished the Rim Runner. After two previous unsuccessful attempts, Sifri finally completed a 100-mile race.

Costi Sifri running on the Rivanna Trail
Sifri navigates the Rivanna Trail, his favorite running path. (Photo by Erin Edgerton, University Communications)

“It was enormously rewarding for him,” Smith said. “With all the kudos he was getting for work and the important stuff he was doing for COVID, this was something that was satisfying and a huge achievement that was completely separate from that.

“It was emotional.”

Attached to the whiskey barrel for the Rim Runner accomplishment is a plaque that reads “DFL” for placing “dead freaking last.” The acronym is no dig against Sifri, though, as about half the Rim Runner participants dropped out of the race and failed to finish at all.

“I think if you talk to most ultra-runners, they’re not doing it for this stuff,” Sifri said as he glanced at the racing mementos in his office. “This doesn’t matter. I would not be motivated to finish 100-milers, as painful and difficult and all-encompassing they are – plus the training you have to do to be able to get to that point – just for a buckle. That’s immaterial.

“It’s really about what drives you internally. There’s all kinds of deep-seated emotional things, the sense of oneness, the sense of joy, of belonging, of connection, that really comes with long-distance running. It’s difficult to describe; it’s difficult to put into words, but that’s it. And to me, that only gets bigger with more significant challenges.”

Media Contact

Andrew Ramspacher

University News Associate University Communications