Blog Subtitle

Reverse-engineering the Ultramarathon

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Dear Runnerfolk, Is Survival Enough?

Before I get to the meat of what will likely be viewed as a post full of unacceptable negativity, let me tell you a little story of how I used to be the person I'll be talking to.

I ran my first ultra, the Oil Creek 50K, in October of 2011. Previous to that I had run a grand total of four(4) organized running races of any distance in all my half-century of life to that point: three appearances at the local Corporate Challenge 3.5-mile road race (two of which were simply because my company was looking for full participation) and one 20-mile trail race (in which I finished second from last). I really knew little at all about running, and most of the information about how to do it and how to train was indecipherable to me because I didn't even understand the terms.

Still, somehow I 'knew' ultras were what I wanted to do. I'd caught the bug in 2009, with the publication of "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall. I had no idea what I was really biting off, but the idea of running forty miles through the wilderness like it was no thing at all sounded amazing and I wanted it.

Jumping into 'training' for one with no real running endurance base to start from led to predictable results: I got injured. A lot. Name a tendon in the lower leg and I've probably had one bothering me and hampering my running for about eighteen months at some point along the way (I believe the cure for most types of tendinitis in the legs is eighteen months of running). This quickly convinced me that running forty miles through the wilderness was, in fact, a thing. It was a very hard thing.

A smart person would have simply decided at that point that Christopher McDougall was a jerk and moved on to something more sensible. I am not that smart.

Now though, I was sure I 'knew' what ultras mostly involved: mental fortitude. An ultra would take you so far beyond your physical ability, so far into a place of pain and exhaustion, that the only way to finish one was to be extraordinarily tough mentally! It was inevitable that distances of such magnitude would take you to the point where every bone, muscle and fiber of your physical frame would be screaming at you at the same time, "Quit!" - and if you were truly to be an ultrarunner, when that time came you would not quit. I fantasized about reaching that point. I romanticized it.

Guess what? That's just how the Oil Creek 50K was! I spent the last six miles physically wiped out. I could barely walk to the top of even gentle uphill grades, but I kept going. I almost passed out within a mile of the finish, but I kept going. I met my goal of finishing in under eight hours, but I was a wreck afterward. Once I stopped I could barely move. Back at the hotel, over an hour after I finished, I was still panting for breath.

I was an ultrarunner though.

The Fork in the Road

That statement marks a fork in the road. You see, I could get (and did get) any amount of positive reinforcement from others that it was a fact.

"Yes, you're an ultrarunner now!"
"It only takes one."

Those things are even true and I myself have said them to others from time to time. I'm not opposed to encouragement. Why didn't I feel it though? Why did I hesitate to claim that title in my heart of hearts? Why did I hesitate to refer to myself as an ultrarunner?

Because even though I'd finished (and in the front half of the pack no less) I'd been beaten. None of the platitudes, however truthful, could fool me into believing otherwise. I knew that any generally healthy person who was just a stubborn idiot could have done what I did. I wasn't an ultrarunner. I was just a reasonably fit guy who had managed to cover thirty-one miles on a trail one day - in great pain, and at great cost in terms of recovery time.

These are the directions you can choose at this fork in the road:

  • Left: You can believe the platitudes. You can think you now know what ultrarunning is like, and you can continue to bumble around in ultras like this until you either hurt yourself or lose the mental fortitude that putting yourself through such torture requires.
  • Right: You can realize that what that first, grueling ultra experience showed you is that you are nowhere near fit to run ultramarathons and you can decide that you will get that way.

I know people who have taken each fork.

I am not here to criticize the ones who took the left fork (not much, anyway). They are all great people, and they're all having great fun doing what they're doing. Many of them have very busy lives and simply do not have time to put in the hours of training necessary down the right fork of the road. I am not here to criticize that, but I am here to ask one thing of these people:

Please stop telling everyone 'what ultras are like,' because you don't know!

It's like someone played tennis for the first time one afternoon and then went around telling everyone, "Tennis? Oh yeah, I know what tennis is like. You try to hit the ball and half the time you whiff. It's almost impossible to get it over the net and into the box on the other side where it's supposed to go when you serve it, and if the other player hits it to the side you're not holding the racket on, forget about it! There's no way to hit it on that side - not that it matters, because even when you hit it, it's just luck if it goes where you want it to anyway. That's what tennis is like."

That's sort of how I hear it whenever some left-fork ultrarunner says 'ultras are all mental' or that there's no way to get through one without 'wanting to die' at some point. These things are simply not true.

I didn't finally consider myself an ultrarunner until the first time I ran a race in a respectable time completely on my own terms - until I knew in my heart of hearts that my performance had been competent, and that I had beaten the course instead of the course beating me. That wasn't until my sixth ultra, and I had run many, many miles in training to get there after that first 50K.

For me, survival is not enough. Oh there will be times when I push myself beyond my physical competence. There is a mental fortitude aspect to ultrarunning and there are times to test that and to build it. It's nice to be able to choose those times though rather than having that be your only choice all of the time. It's nice to be able to just carry that fortitude as something to fall back on when a race unexpectedly goes off the rails. Those abilities lie down the right fork in the road.

I won't lie about this. A good bit of the romance of ultrarunning is gone now that I've traveled some way down that fork. It's harder to have that 'epic' experience when you're working inside of the envelope. I have to reach much farther to find myself in that place anymore - but then that is also the reward. I can reach much farther!

There is so much more to ultrarunning down the right fork in the road.

Now I have to admit that I did lie to you back where I said I was going to ask the left-forkers just one thing. I'm really here to ask them two things, and the second one is this:

Is survival enough for you?


  1. This is so true, and something that I'm struggling with at the moment. Thanks for putting it into words.

  2. Hey, Tiff, I wondered how this piece would hit you - and worried. Let me say this: what you did this year was admirable and inspiring, and I'm proud of you! Hundreds are a different animal than what I was talking about. It was just this week I was talking with with another friend who's done quite a few of them and knows them far better than I do, and he said, "What gets you from 50 to 100 is between your ears."

    I'm not sure there's a way to get to 100M purely on physical preparedness, but if there is it's at a level of preparedness beyond some really good, really well-trained, seriously experienced ultrarunners I know.

    Have you been undertrained for a lot of what you've taken on? I think you know you have been. You've done very well though, gotten a lot of satisfaction from it, and successfully balanced it with the rest of your life. That doesn't look like so bad a compromise from out here, and you've done it with your eyes open.

    Where to next though, right? - especially now that you've finished the trifecta at OC. That fork is always there.