Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Sunday, February 8, 2015

What I Do

"I wish I could do what you do."
"I'd love to be able to do what you do."

There are other variations, but this is a sentiment that I hear from time to time in one form or another. Generally I don't take it as more than what I think is intended. For most, it's more a manner of delivering a compliment than it is a genuine wish (or at least very serious one). I understand then the extent to which I may be going off into left field a bit in the rest of this post by making something more of it than it really is. Bear with me though. I have a point, and it's a point for anyone who means it literally when they say these things.

It's usually while discussing a race that people say, "I wish I could do what you do" - and when it comes to, say, traveling 50 miles on foot in less than half a day they're probably right to think that they can't do it. It's incredible what the human body is capable of under duress, and the truth is that almost anyone really forced to could probably cover 50 miles in a day. In fact, a generally healthy person, if survival depended on it, might even be able to do it in less than half a day.

What they can't do is they can't do it for fun, because they lack the physical conditioning to allow it to be even a little bit enjoyable. Without a life-or-death motivator they probably couldn't maintain the mental resolve to persevere to the end through the pain.

Looked at that way then, I would agree that they can't do what I do. If I leave it at that though, to my mind there has been a big, glaring miscommunication and it is this: the races are not what I do.

(Photo credit - Natalie Werner)

Oh, I run the races. I run them and I enjoy them in spite of all of the pain and all of the emotional valleys you inevitably must run through to cover that much ground. I run ultramarathons, so yes, there is some sense in which running ultramarathons is 'what I do.' That's not how I think about it though. Since I started running ultras in 2011 I've finished only thirteen of them. That's a little more than three per year - generally one or two in the spring and another one or two in the fall.

That's it.

Now when I think of the phrase 'what you do,' I'm usually imagining something that happens far more frequently than two to four times per year. Your favorite holidays, or your annual vacation in the mountains may be what you live for, but are they 'what you do?' No. What you do is you work every day in order to be able to enjoy those things the way you want to. That's 'what you do.'

It's exactly the same with my races. The races are not what I do. They are the reward for what I do. They're the once-in-a-while chance to get together with like-minded people and celebrate what it is that we do.

“What was the secret, they wanted to know; in a thousand different ways they wanted to know The Secret. And not one of them was prepared, truly prepared to believe that it had not so much to do with chemicals and zippy mental tricks as with that most unprofound and sometimes heart-rending process of removing, molecule by molecule, the very tough rubber that comprised the bottoms of his training shoes. The Trial of Miles; Miles of Trials.” ― John L. Parker Jr.Once a Runner

What I do is this: most days (at least four or five of them a week, but often more) at some point during the day I put on appropriate running clothes for the weather outside, I lace up a pair of my current running shoes, and I go out my front door and I run. Most often I run only a few miles, and most often I run them pretty slowly (generally only one workout a week involves any labored breathing).

In the early days most of the runs were no more than four miles and they took less than an hour to do (in the very earliest of early days they were on a treadmill and barely lasted ten minutes - and I really thought that I might die). Even now most of my runs take only a little more than an hour.

I run most of my miles as laps around my neighborhood. There's a loop I can run that's almost exactly one mile each time I pass my driveway. I've run as many as twenty-one of them in a single session. Sometimes I go run somewhere else for a change of scenery, but I'd say sixty percent or more of my running happens on that loop. My neighbors by now are all used to seeing that crazy running guy out there going round and round and round.

That's it; that's "The Secret." That is what I do.

I would say that I do it instead of watching TV or reading books, but do you know what? There is still time to watch TV or read a book after you've run for an hour (at least there is for me). The more of this that I do the easier it gets to do the races, and the bigger and more impressive the races I can do.

Knowing this, each time someone says to me, "I wish I could do what you do," while I simply smile and accept the compliment for what it is, I also can't help but think...

"You can."

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