Monday, August 2, 2010

Why does one run ultras?

Most ultrarunners often get the following question from bewildered, even horrified, folks who find out for the first time that, yes, it is possible for humans to run beyond 26.2 miles: "Why do you do it?" Sometimes they even ask, "What are you running from?"

Then the questions get really specific. "Do you stop to sleep?" (No.) "Do you eat...what do you eat?" (Yes, lots of different foods.) "How many people do this?" (Thousands every year.) Etc.

The question, "Why do you do it?" is hard to answer, and I've thought for a long time about why I choose to put myself through races of 100 miles and 24 hours. Why do I wake up before dawn every day to train, often wearing a headlamp so I can see? Why do I run on days when I feel like a trainwreck (among the more valuable training opportunities since running when you're trashed makes you tougher)? Why am I OK giving up many material things (TV, movies, etc.) that most people would never give up, so that I can train? Etc., etc. etc. Lots of possible answers have swirled around in my head like clothes tumbling in a dyer, but ultimately no neat and tidy response comes to mind. And so my answer now is quite simple:

Running super-long distances is in my DNA. It's what I'm supposed to do, and so it's what I do. One could argue it's what we're all meant to do. Running is a means to survive, hunt and gather, and get from point A to point B.

Running ultras is so hard and so demanding that only those with a genetic predisposition for mega-endurance are going to do it. And by genetics I'm not implying anything in the way of superiority. My genetic predisposition is probably quite similar to the guy or gal who finishes a 100 in 29 hours. I might just have a tad more speed in the legs, but ultimately all ultrarunners are united by a common bond. We "get" each other. We know what makes us tick. There's no need for explanations. We understand each other. I think our families also understand us--maybe not at first, but over time our loved ones come to grips with the fact that this is who we are, and without their support it's a lot harder pursuing a life of ultrarunning. Kind of selfish, yes. One of my struggles is running like I want, without ever taking my eye off what really matters--faith, marriage, and family. It doesn't get easier. I recently returned to church after several years away, and it's hard keeping the mileage up when Sunday has always been a huge running day for me. Somehow, I get it done.

I don't think there's an ultrarunning gene per se. I think there's a genetic component to longing for physically demanding adventure, for pushing one's limits beyond the brink. When I look back on my life, it's obvious I was born with the ultrarunning/endurance gene. I used to go on really long bike rides as a kid--the farther out, the better. On these rides, I loved stopping off at the candy stand to reload on energy. Little did I realize then that the candy stand served as an aid station! When we visited my gramma's house in the North Carolina mountains, I always felt pulled to run around the lake, and finally I did. It was like I had to do it--the lakeside road was calling my name. I wanted to run a marathon since I was 16 or 17--26.2 miles was calling my name. Even as a kid, I dreamed about the Rocky Mountains--the mystery of it all. I loved long-distance hikes deep into the woods. I would often disappear into wooded areas, hiking along streams and up and down big hills. If there was a trail, I was on it. I nagged my dad to take us camping because I loved the outdoors so much--and still do. I ran cross country, but it wasn't the greatest fit for me--probably because it was too structured and involved too little adventure. And, even when I was 220 lbs. and smoking 2-3 cigarattes a day, I was still popping off 4, 5 or 6 miles at a time, wearing cheap shoes bought at Famous Footwear and cotton shirts, shorts and socks. A fire for running burned in me even then. The marathon was always in the back of my mind.

It's this passion for adventure that has led me through nearly 30 marathons and ultras and ultimately to the Leadville Trail 100. After a very intense 15-week training cycle in which I racked up about 1,500 miles--all at elevations of 6,000-14,100 feet--the taper is now here. I just finished a 440-mile July. Leadville will be my biggest adventure to date. The Leadville course makes the hills at the Mohican 100 look like parking lot speed bumps. Throw in 10,000+ feet of elevation for the entire 100 miles and you have a monster.

I'm considering a lot of different strategies for Leadville. It seems to me that the 21-mile Hope Pass stretch, going from Twin Lakes to Winfield and back, is the critical portion of the race. If you have an ambitious goal for Leadville, you have to figure out a way to cover the Hope Pass double-crossing in a way that allows you to run the final 40 miles in decent shape--40 miles that bring some serious challenges in Sugarloaf Pass and Powerline. You can blow it all on Hope Pass. My hunch is that Leadville comes down to discipline and experience, but you certainly don't want to hold back too much.

Before signing off, I'd like to mention that on Sunday my pacer, Michele, and I ran in Boulder (corrected, per reader comment) Rocky Mountain National Park for 5 hours. We reached the summits of the iconic Green Mountain (8,100 feet) and Bear Peak (8,400 feet). This was my second time atop Bear Peak, though we summitted it from a different side, but it was my first time on top of Green. Boulder's Flatiron Mountains are remarkably beautiful and unique and I can now see why Anton Krupicka loves Green Mountain so much. I am envious that he gets to run Green everyday. Between Boulder and Manitou Springs, I can't decide where I'd rather live--probably Manitou since Pikes Peak is there.

How lucky we are that we live in an area of the country with so many opportunities for adventure. In a few years, when he's ready, Noah, Anne and I will have such a great time experiencing the outdoors through camping and hiking trips in some of the world's most spectacular mountains and high country. What fun we'll have. I'm sure I'll still be running then, too. It's in my genes. Maybe it's in yours, too.


  1. Welcome to the taper zone... :) Time to rest and prepare. Great write up. Not sure what causes us to want or even "believe" that we can go the ultra distances but I agree is something particular with ultra runners. Good Luck in Pb. 19 days...

  2. WHOA. Boulder "National" Park? Let's not give them a country status yet.

    Good stuff.

  3. GZ: Thanks for the catch! I just corrected my post.


  4. Very nice post, and grats on the training cycle. I'll be at Leadville, assuming I can get over this leg injury...
    How is that people always ask the same questions? so funny...