What's So Great About Ultra Running?
Though many frequenters of this rarely written blog may already be convinced that ultra running is a worthy and wonderful use of time, this entry isn't written for those already enamored souls. Rather, I'm writing to the confused and bewildered runner of reasonable distances, the non-runner, and the general social critic. If I expound on a particular aspect for too many lines, I can assure you (the non-ultra-enthralled readers) that I'm not trying to convert, brag, mentally subdue, or intensify your contempt for said activity, but rather give you a better perspective on why something so hard grabs more people each year and holds on to them for many long miles. So, without further adieu..
1) The Sport is More Competitive Than Ever
Yes, there still are numerous small ultras that have little competition, but there are more true "pinnacles of human achievement" in the big races. What I mean by this, is that in Western States, Hardrock, UTMB, North Face 50, and other top races; there are performances being run that won't be ridiculously trumped by new elite runners. The reason being is that these champions today are the perfect blend of good form, endurance, intelligence, talent, and courage. The saying at these races has gone from "they won because no one faster showed up" to "they won because they were the best".
These runners at the front of the biggest races have marathon PR's in the 2:15-2:40 range, which is plenty of speed for the task at hand. The reason why I make this claim, and the one above, is that ultra running's breath of challenges allows for more of these sub-professional marathon runners to excel in more ways than just sheer efficiency of stride.
The greatest ultra runner on the planet, Kilian Jornet isn't built for speed on the roads. His quads are massive, his stride is short, and he's most efficient in steep and technical terrain. Put him on the roads next to Ryan Hall, and he might actually take two steps for each one of Ryan Hall's giant 4:48/mi strides (I don't actually know that, I'm just speculating with a good amount of confidence). The point is, that the sport demands more than just a gifted stride. It demands long days training in the mountains, spot on nutrition, courage to weather storms of the physical and mental variety, technical footwork, big lungs, strong quads, copious amounts of endurance, route finding, a deep well of competitive aspiration, and patience to deal with all the pain, injuries, setbacks and moments of being utterly lost.
The competitive aspect also plays to the fact that there are way more 2nd tier marathon runners that are good candidates for the sport. If someone can run a 2:30 marathon, they can potentially win Western States but they can't even get in the elite wave at Chicago. If you're tuning in to watch Chicago, you're only going to see really 5 people with a shot of winning in a race of 40,000+ people, because those are the 5 people born with the right pedigree. There are hundreds of runners trying to work to a level of sub 2:10, doing the same 100+ mile weeks, mile repeats, etc. etc. but only a handful even have a chance. Meanwhile, those hundreds of runners can grab a water bottle, do the hard training, study a few ultra articles, show up at a 50 mile race, and pull off a win.
What this means is that winning an ultra isn't like getting a gold star in 2nd grade. It's like studying for years and publishing a PHD thesis on running. Think of it as a physical statement about everything you know about pushing your body for long periods in harsh conditions among competitive people, and this is essentially what a 100 mile race is. That competition makes the typical training and planning cycle for big races, so much more involved, challenging, and rewarding. It's a real community with meaningful races, and far more than just the town weirdos hiking around the woods (but sometimes it is that too).
2) Competition Isn't the Most Important Thing in the Sport
Somehow, the majority of ultra runners get up everyday and run for the sheer joy of being outside and getting their endorphin fix. Pam Smith won Western States in 2013 and noted that she never was motivated to win, just to run the race as hard as she possibly could. Most champions, mid packers, and back of the packers share this sentiment (without any type of conspiracy to deceive the general public). Beating someone isn't enough of a motivation to be out running for hours and hours, but trying to run a tough course as fast as you can is a sustainable motivation.
If winning was everything, the best runners in the sport would make the most money and be the most famous. However, winning is far from a simple barbaric "I conquered the course and everyone on it" idea, and it's not the most impressive story in a race. In other words, stories mean more than numbers to ultra runners. The best stories are the end result of a indulgence of the mind, body, and soul. The runners that find and share that indulgence most eloquently, directly, and effectively, invigorate a powerful emotion in anyone who's had a momentary taste of that special flow. Those runners are the most exciting and interesting regardless of whether they win the race or not.
Ultrarunning centers itself on the golden feeling of being intensely happy. If you're an elite runner hammering out the last miles of a race to hold onto a win, you feel the exact same feeling as the last runner in the race who is running as hard as possible to finish below the race cutoffs. Competition serves as a vehicle to get to the happy place, a reason to push yourself to a limit that means something, but not a definition of who you are.
These ideas are why the sport is so culturally rich. Hanging out at a race may entail some neurotic behavior from runners, but most of the time you'll hear the classic "I'm feeling good!" roll off runners tongues because that's what they're there for. So, though there's more competition than ever, the vast majority of runners haven't stopped running for the pure euphoria of indulgent flow.
3) The Sport's Top Runners are Constantly Humanized
It's tough to get any top runner to seriously say something cocky and confident. You might hear "yeah I want to win" but more of the conversation sounds like "I'm going to listen to my body" or "I just have to focus on my race" and hear more of a conservative tactical plan. Perhaps this lack of pure, brazen bravado doesn't sell very well to the masses, but it's indicativce of how hard it is to really develop an serious ego in the sport.
The fact is that comfort is denied for long periods of time which makes any sort of entitled ego very hard to maintain. Additionally, a winning streak in the top races is really, really hard to sustain. The feeling of soreness all over, a noticeable limp, and sheer exhaustion make even a post victory celebration a humbling experience if stairs or confined spaces are involved.
Thus, a winner or a last place finisher aren't so different when it all comes down to it. Both understand the limits of their body, and both have been humbled by the course. Any ego in between races is nervousness and insecurity about the upcoming challenge more than confidence about a runner's ability. Genuine ego about being "the greatest ever" or "unstoppable" just isn't real.
4) People Care About Each Other
Most races require 2-20 people supporting every runner in the actual race. At a smaller race, it might only take a couple people along the way to get a runner to the finish, but at bigger races, there's literally an army of volunteers, crews, and pacers, spread out with a common mission of getting everyone to the finish the race as best as they can. The volunteers usually aren't conscripts on the course for ulterior motives, but rather genuine race fans out to have a good time.
It's a special feeling to be apart of something so crazy and audacious when you stop and think about it. You're helping a person, with a thoroughly hard goal, sustain themselves all day and all night long. If you are at an aid station, you are apart of tons of inspiring stories of memorable days in strangers' and friends' lives.
On the course, runners appreciate the camaraderie of the experience, and form strong bonds during and after the race. For some runners, the race can sometimes be too difficult to spare any breath to talk, so the post race experience is effectively a roaring reunion. Runners may not see each other for months or years at a time, but once they get back together, it's tough to tell that they live in different states or countries because the common bond of the sport is so strong.
5) It's Fun
This is the toughest to explain, but probably the biggest attraction to the sport. Any other dignified and eloquent explanation of why we run besides "to have fun" is just an attempt to split hairs about different ways and means of fun. The truth is, running up a steep hill really produces a lot of endorphins, and seeing how fast you can do it is interesting and intriguing because no run is ever the same as another. The rush of a good downhill isn't always guaranteed, but it's often so memorable and enjoyable, that you're drawn back to the same trail hundreds of times to get back to that distinct experience.
I still remember racing as hard as I could with Ruperto at mile 71 in the 2013 Angeles Crest 100 mile. It isn't likely that the same moment will ever happen again, but it's something I look forward to in future races because it was such an amazing adrenaline rush. It's hard to explain why something so painful and nerve-racking is so fun, but I think it's something so unique, that you can't find it anywhere else in life.
6) The Trail is Addictive and the Appetite for Life Increases
If you go out of your way to get on the trail and cut your teeth in the steep terrain that burns calves and destroys quads, trip over thousands of rocks that buckle ankles, and weather all the storms and burning heat, then your motivation and ideals start to change permanently. Not everyone gets hooked, but a lot of runners that come in and feel that pure flow loose motivation for any other flow. If there was anything more alluring, then the sport would shrink, but for the time being, it's something special.
When something is really addictive, it's something that changes behavior drastically. If the motive is for flow in the sport, and the sport resembles life so much, then it also commonly translates to flow in life. Personally, as I've grown up in the sport I've changed and matured in response to the demands and rewards of the sport. I've become a better planer, a more attentive boyfriend, a detail oriented engineer, a harder worker, a more patient human, a more passionate runner, and a resident of the mountains.
Maybe this blog might sound like more of the same illogical, pointless ultra jargon (and it probably is), but it isn't any less truthful from the objective position that I attempt to stand in.