A friend asked me, “Why would you enter a 100-mile ultramarathon? It just seems so outlandish for an otherwise rational thinking person to wish to endure such torture.” My answer was long and he seemed to understand when I was finished. It is my soul that I am searching for out there in the midst of what you called torture.
Participation in mountain, ultra and trail (MUT) races continues to grow by leaps and bounds each year. However, many people in the sport have little understanding of the role that USA Track & Field (USATF) plays in the MUT world. As a MUT representative with USATF and a member of multiple US Teams for World Championships, my goal with this article is to shed some light on that relationship and its history, as well as the history and structure of various World Championships in MUT.
Do I trust myself to do the training, to put in the hours required? To show up for myself, even if that means pulling the plug when my ego really doesn’t want to? Do I trust myself to not listen to the brain when it says “Stop!” when it is only pain, and not actually debilitating? Do I trust myself to know the difference?
Rules; who likes ’em? Nobody.
Who needs ’em? Everybody.
Running ultras is supposed to be fun. The last thing we want to deal with is having a bunch of rules to worry about. Unfortunately, ultrarunning is practiced by humans. And, without rules, some of those humans are bound to take liberties with what might seem innately obvious.
Without trails our sport would not exist. Sure there are road ultras and many “trail” ultras entail portions along fireroads, tow paths, running tracks and, gasp, even pavement. But if you look at the most popular and iconic ultras, they all include some epic trails. So yes, we need them.
Whether you’re an ultrarunner, a musician, or in my case, both – you’re never ready for The Call when you get The Call.
There are many things about ultrarunning that are hard to describe, and even harder to understand. The Spartathlon, a 153-mile race from Athens to Sparta, is one of them.
This is the story of how our running club developed a comprehensive trail work program that we call TrailFit. Each year we clear brush on 25 miles of trail, remove over 150 downed trees, and contribute more than 1,500 volunteer hours on trails in the San Diego mountains while overseeing maintenance on 150+ miles of trails.
You’re not supposed to look good after you run a hundred miles. Didn’t matter. It was still the worst race finish photo I had ever taken, yet it was the most important one. It was the singular moment when all the training, the doubts, the worries, the planning, was about to give way to relief, triumph and pure joy.
Many comparisons have been made to modern-day ultrarunners and the Pioneers who crossed the continent in covered wagons back in the 1840s and 1850s. The Pioneers risked everything and took on a massively arduous 2,000-mile trek, often for a dream or nebulous “better life” out west. As with ultrarunners, a common question from onlookers was: “why?”
Let’s face it, ultrarunning is a really difficult activity. It requires a huge time and lifestyle commitment. But many people are attracted, like moths to flame, to the opportunity to do something epic. And often once they do a few ultras they realize there is a steep learning curve and they achieve faster, and faster, times. Soon, they are pulled into the drive to reach their highest potential by racing ultras – they are all-in.
It all started when I was a teenager. I would see people out “going for a jog” and it looked so carefree and enjoyable. I wanted to be able to do it.
Get out the door and smile at the thought of the foolish mistakes that are waiting for you.
When I first started running ultras, I was looking to extend the joy I received from running the roads, but without the crush of the urban environment. I saw a photo on the office wall of the director of a sports care center that I had office space in. He was standing in running shorts and a singlet on top of a snow-covered mountain peak. I asked where that was.
“I think I might throw up,” I heard Shacky mutter during the steep climb. My friends Vanessa and Shacky and I managed to make it to the top of Gooseberry Mesa without anyone throwing up (or dying). The climb to the top of the mesa ascended more than 1,500 feet in less than a mile, early in the Zion 100.
We hadn’t attended the Western States lottery in a few years and I was not expecting the spectacle that was ahead of us that morning in the packed auditorium at Placer High School in Auburn, California. I knew it would be flawlessly conducted, high energy and even entertaining.
But to be honest, I had forgotten how life-changing ultramarathons can be in people’s lives, and the visceral emotions that are unleashed when someone’s name is chosen.
The calendar was my first running “tool.” When I began seriously training, a simple wall calendar provided a handy place to record what I had done. These days, the old running calendar has become a part of social media. I think the value still distills down to the same essential ingredients: the numbers and the compulsion to improve them.
We’ve all been heartbroken in love and on the trails. In order to protect ourselves from more heartbreak, we play it safe. We don’t embrace the sweet complexity of the other person; we don’t dance down the technical trails. But what if we did? What if we went for it? It could be a disaster, right? Or it could be a sweet success.