Monday, March 24, 2008

"Why do you do it? What drives you?"

“Why do you do it? What drives you?”

Even as I'm still a relative ultra newbie and hardly as tried-and-true as some veteran ultrarunners I know, I am still often peppered by those two questions when people find out (not through me) that I do races beyond marathon distance. Most people know someone who’s run 26.2 miles--a great achievement in and of itself. But many of these people haven’t a clue that there are actually events out there that go 50, 100 and 100+ miles. Which is why they’re often shocked to learn I’ve done a 100-mile race and plan to do another one this June and then another one and another one…..

Then they're even more shocked when I tell them I have friends who run 2, 3 or more 100-mile races a year.

Although I am still relatively new to the ultrarunning scene and have much to learn about it (and look forward to the learning process!), there is one basic tenet of the sport that I’ve quickly understood. A true ultrarunner doesn’t seek attention. A true ultrarunner, in fact, finds attention uncomfortable because ultrarunning isn’t for attention-seekers, victims of a midlife crisis, those who wish to impress others, exercise freaks and the like.

As Yiannis Kouros has said, ultrarunning is for “unique souls”—people who wish to explore the basic elements of their being and the outer limits of their mental, physical and emotional endurance. The ultramarathon is, as Kouros says, a purely metaphysical experience of which the physical suffering is but one part. It is truly a mind-body experience beyond even that of the marathon (which has kicked my butt on a few occasions, e.g., 2006 and 2007 Boston Marathons). The ultra is not for everyone—not even accomplished marathoners.

Which is why the Karnazes influence irks so many ultrarunners, including me. Look, I don’t claim to be some veteran ultrarunner who knows the sport inside and out. I’ve run several 50Ks (which aren’t true ultras), a 50-miler and a 100-miler and, in the process of training for and completing the 100-miler, was overwhelmed by the experience (in a good way). It was the metaphysical nature of it that left me wanting more—the physical pain of training, the emotional exhaustion of the 100-mile weeks, the exhilaration of completing a hard week of training, the humility of staring down 100 miles, the camaraderie of the race, the inner struggle I felt, the fleeting temptation to quit, the sudden strength to keep going, the beauty of nature, the strength I drew from my pacers, the shadows of the night….

Ultrarunners aren’t glory hounds. They don’t run ultras to impress others or to make money, and even now I’m a bit uncomfortable writing on this particular subject. What ultrarunners do—run super-long distances—is amazing, but they don’t do it to amaze others. They do it because it’s who they are. It’s what they were meant to do. They have no choice. Ultrarunning is simply in one's DNA.

This brings me to the above-mentioned questions I’m often asked when people learn I’ve run a 100-mile race—“Why do you do it? What drives you?”

The answers are simple. I do it because I have to--because it's who I am--and what drives me is the love of it all—the experience, the people, the inner struggle, every damn thing about it.


  1. very well said Wyatt. You guys sure are rare! I am not sure I consider myself a true ultra runner, I am much more fond of the 50ks than the 50 miler still :) But sure do enjoy spending the day out on the trails, so who knows.

  2. It is so difficult for non-runners to understand even a marathon. I don't know if I would even try to answer when they ask 'Why run an ultra?' Maybe the only accurate answer to that question is, 'You need to run one to understand why.'