[This article is part of a series: The What, How and Why of Ultra Running. Click here to go to the first article.]
A little while ago, I finished my fourth ultramarathon this year (conveniently defined as any race longer than 42.195 km). It wasn’t a particularly important race to me — shorter and less demanding than the last one, and therefore not necessarily posing a new challenge. Neither was it intended to be a preparatory run for some other race (the running season is slowly, but surely coming to an end). I imagine that to an outsider observer, this must be hard to come to terms with: You’ll get no discernible benefits, but all the mental and physical suffering that’s part and parcel of ultra running. Am I a crazy masochist, then?
Oddly enough, an honest answer to this question would be “to some extend, yes”. I can’t deny that a common thread in the long-distance business is the ability — or shall I say desire? — to embrace suffering. You don’t have to go full Nietzschean to appreciate that growth typically happens outside the comfort zone. Every time you push yourself a little harder, you become somewhat more resilient, and not just as an athlete. What’s more, the challenges are unique to every race: The fact that you already did something similar in the past doesn’t mean your next race is going to be easy. Maybe you’re having a bad day, maybe weather conditions turn a pleasant jog into a nightmare. Maybe you’ll have a minor accident on the road, maybe your body rejects the food you’re trying to eat, or any combination of the above. Does that mean that a desire to exercise your “willpower muscles” is what makes people run — again and again?
It’d be strange if that was all there is to it. Heck, to train your willpower, you could just spend a little time each day next to a delicious meal while you’re hungry, or focus on your posture. If mental strength is your only concern, this looks like a much less time-consuming approach.
Is it for health reasons? I get asked this question a lot, and every time I wonder if people are being serious. Sure it’s a good thing to work out regularly, and running has a lot of advantages — it’s cheap, you can do it anywhere, and you can begin at almost any age, with almost any level of fitness — over other sports that makes it a good ingredient for your longevity strategy. But by the time you’re competing in ultras, you’re way past the beneficial dose of running. As the quip goes, “Runners run to stay healthy, ultra runners stay health to run”.
What is it, then? It goes without saying that motivations will vary from runner to runner, and my own experience is unlikely to capture the essence of somebody else’s ambitions. For example, I can’t speak with authority about how ultra running can help you to break out of the vicious circle of drug addiction, jail and depression. And I won’t list all possible types of motives that may exists for indulging in long-distance running, although I recommend having a look at this excellent article. No, instead of second-guessing other people’s thoughts, I’ll present a very personal, introspective account of why I run — again and again.
First steps. No story of ultra running would be complete without an explanation how things got off the ground initially. Like many others, I needed a nudge to get started. In my case, the nudge came from two colleagues at work, who suggested participating in a race around Lake Annecy, roughly a double marathon. I thought they needed professional help.
In fairness, I already scrapped “Run a marathon” and “Finish a triathlon” off my bucket list when this idea came up. So even though I hadn’t thought of ultramarathons as something I wanted to do before I die, you could say I was predisposed to the idea. And sure enough, as the days went by, I moved from what a ridiculous suggestion to I might as well give it a shot. In other words, the ultimate reason why you start with ultras is typically some crazy friend.
The needle lies. Running’s addictive, but not for the reasons you think. It’s not an insatiable quest for the next runner’s high. It’s a kind of addiction I imagine to be very different from what a drug that has seized your control structures causes. In running, I do get a little nervous every time I watch trailers for races, and I totally want to be a part of it, come what may. Then again, I sometimes think it’s more the anticipation of a race than the actual event that gives me a kick . For instance, the night before an event, I sleep like a kid on Christmas Eve (that is, not much at all), no matter how many races I already participated in. It’s easy — too easy? — to forget about the frustration, the suffering, the negative side effects of running. By contrast, I don’t ever seem to tire of the sight of dawn unfolding on a mountaintop, and you could probably sell me just about anything if you found a way to exploit this inclination.
Structure. You don’t just finish an ultra by showing up on race day, equipped with little else but your best intentions. Depending on the difficulty of the race and your current physical condition, preparing for such an event easily takes half a year of concentrated effort, with clear intermediate and final goals and a continuous training routine. Trust me, ultra runners aren’t an entirely different species with superhuman amounts of willpower, and I certainly wouldn’t get off the couch on a windy, rainy day to train if it wasn’t for a race I wanted to do. You’re just much more likely to stick to a training schedule if you know what you’re in for. To some extent, it can even help to bring more structure in your life in general, for two reasons: Number one, you’ll appreciate the power of positive habits that underlies most every achievement. Number two, training eats up a hell lot of time, and you might become more mindful about how to make best use of the remaining hours.
Identity and confidence. Successfully battling your inner demons, the grand narrative behind every runner’s story ever, helps to overcome insecurity and social anxiety. It may even lead to redefining who you are, as ultra running will usually be more than just a hobby — it will become part of your identity. There is, no doubt, a danger in relying on sports as your source of self-esteem, as an unfortunate accident might swiftly put an end to your career as an athlete. The good news is that, unlike many other sports, ultra running can be pursued into old age, even competitively.
Meditation. Running is simple enough (granted, maybe not the technical downhills, but you get the point) to let your mind wander off while you exercice. For the time I’m on the trails, there are no emails to check, no errands to run, no notifications to reply to — just me and my thoughts. Sometimes I try to use this time to think about a complicated problem I’m facing, but more often, I just let the thoughts flow without any conscious guidance. In either case, however upsetting or challenging my day has been so far, when I come back from a run, I feel more in harmony with myself and the world around me. It can even be a strategy to interrupt a series of anger triggers and prevent you from from bursting out into regretful rage.
[This is not psychological advice.]
Do you need to run five, ten, twenty hours to reap these benefits? Probably not, and I notice the positive effects even if I have only half an hour to squeeze in a quick jog. But it’s still not the same: Run for an hour, and you might already start to frame what’s going to happen afterwards the very moment you hit the road. In ultra running, the end is too far away to indulge in this kind of short-term planning, allowing you to disconnect from your everyday life in a much more immersive way. If life’s a journey, not a destination, so is ultra running.
Free like a bird. Because, of course, running = freedom. Away from the poisonous influence of civilization, immersed in fresh air, getting lost in the wild — isn’t trail running the ultimate romantic manifesto? This point has been so overstated that I hesitate to bring it up at all, but like all cliches, it’s got something to it. I don’t share the Rousseauian sentiment that humankind’s downfall began when our species began deviate from the original State of Nature, and there’s not much ‘wilderness’ in running on (typically) well-maintained trails, wearing the latest gear from some multinational sports company, without ever having to worry about where to sleep and what to eat. But of course, civilization comes with its very own obligations, and running is a way to momentarily leave all of them behind: paying the bills, satisfying employers or consumers, buying groceries, and all the other treadmill stuff that people claim to loathe. At least here, no one tells you to run faster, to turn left instead of right, to rest to enjoy the view or just carry on and ignore the scenery. It might be no more than a temporary relief, an illusion maybe, but a very powerful one at that.
Flow. This isn’t unique to running, of course. Some might call it ‘stillness in motion’ analogous to Newton’s First Law, and it’s not quite the same thing as the famous ‘runner’s high’. It involves high bodily awareness, timelessness, effortless efficiency, and a number of related things. The connection with meditation is obvious enough.
Exploring the unknown. This is a very poor answer to the tourist’s dilemma: There are many more interesting places in the world than you could possibly hope to see in your lifetime; hence you should travel…faster?
[Browsing the internet on this topic taught me that there exists a scientific journal, The Annals of Tourism Research, where people devise complicated models to reach such startling conclusions as “people find it easier to chose from a lot of options if they possess high self-confidence” or “you’re less likely to regret visiting a specific place if you don’t know what the other options would have been like”. I’m not kidding.]
Running is an almost optimal way to discover an area you haven’t been to before because
- the pace allows you to really experience your surroundings, rather than just watching them pass by
- you can access many places that aren’t reachable by car, public transport, bike,…
- you’re independent of anyone else’s schedule, allowing you to see popular destinations before (or after) the crowds arrive
- it doesn’t require a lot of preparation
- there’s an element of surprise thrown in: Things that you see on the way that aren’t part of some ‘Top 10 places to visit in …’ list.
So part of my motivation for running ultras is that wherever I go, no matter how much (or how little) time I have, my physical condition allows me to see something interesting in the area. And it’s not even hard to plan, as many running apps offer heat maps that give you an idea which paths local runners typically use.
The rat race. Apart from the professional athletes, ultra runners will typically tell you that their goal is never to win a race, but just the much more modest achievement of finishing it. Whether that’s a way to show to outsider what a tough tribe we are (you wouldn’t talk like this about your local 10k race, would you?) or just a result of self-delusion I don’t know, but I have yet to meet an ultra runner who didn’t care about his timing and placement at all. Yes, some races are notorious for their high drop-out rates (DNF, in ultra jargon), but a common reason for this is that runners try to hard to be faster than average, instead of just arriving before the cutoff times. It’s not that finishing isn’t a challenge in and by itself, but it’s hardly the only metric, and I’m not sure I would prefer finishing last to not finishing at all. The competition is a big reason why races are fun (and yes, the atmosphere, the community, the volunteers, sometimes even the food).
A journey into consciousness. A final point, and maybe the most important one: Running, and ultra running in particular, allows you to see the world in a way you’ve never seen it before. Says Dean Karnazes, famed ultra runner who once ran 350 miles without sleeping in just about 80 hours:
“Most people never get there. They’re afraid or unwilling to demand enough of themselves and take the easy road, the path of least resistance. But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living. If you’re not pushing yourself beyond the comfort zone, if you’re not constantly demanding more from yourself — expanding and learning as you go — your choosing a numb existence. Your denying yourself an extraordinary trip.”
Ignore the pompous rhetoric and you’ll discover a fundamental truth in his words: Suffering is an integral part of experiencing true beauty. To the reader, the snapshot on the left is probably little more than a nice picture. But living through the very moment when you finally cross the pass behind which this lake is hidden, having gotten up at 6 am (I’m not reallt much of a morning person) and climbed some 1,000 vertical meters, struggling to catch your breath while the sun gently begins to warm up your cold limbs is an altogether different reality. The physical characteristics might be the same, but the subjective experience couldn’t be more different, as anyone who ever had the chance to compare hiking a summit vs. taking the cable car can testify.
I was once where you are now. I fully understand that ultra running looks crazy, extreme, unreasonable, a waste of time and much more; that’s how I viewed it, too, for most of my life. If you conclude that I wrote the article just to show off and make readers feel guilty, I sympathize with you; for I would have judged it the same way. But there’s a point above and beyond all that which I’d like to make, and it’s this: Ultra running offers you a change to taste living life to the fullest that doesn’t require becoming a completely different person, getting fantastically lucky or possessing unlimited monetary resources. And if someone, somewhere is at least contemplating this option after reading the article, the point has been well made.
Call for comments: Did you ever run an ultramarathon?Was it a once-in-a-lifetime thing, or did you continue with it? If so, what kept you going?