A Renewed Relationship with Ultrarunning

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Back in April, I participated in a virtual race that motivated me to run a marathon when our household was recovering from a case of COVID-19 that we caught in mid-March. The virus only gave me and my kids low fevers and coughs, but sent my husband to the hospital with life-threatening pneumonia and respiratory distress. It took him a full month of rest and supplemental oxygen to return to good health.

The pandemic turned our lives upside-down. The virus threatened our health, sunk our business and sent our college-age kids back home while jeopardizing their education, job prospects and social lives. For several weeks, we existed in survival mode tinged with depression, trying to get through each day and needing extra sleep. Lying around inside during the day, I would crave the energy to run well and feel strong and healthy again.

I signed up for Aravaipa Running’s virtual marathon, wanting to prove that I still have the strength and endurance to knock out 26.2 miles in spite of feeling stressed and undertrained. With bravado that belied inner doubt, I told myself, “It’s just a marathon, not an ultra.” Going public via social media with my intention to run it fueled my ego to slog through the distance when otherwise I likely would have stopped by 20.

Therefore, I get why many runners signed up for remote online “races” this spring as a substitute for the real thing, and why race directors leveraged them as a way to keep their businesses afloat.

But the novelty of virtual events began to wear off. In May, another race director’s promotional email landed in my inbox with a whiff of desperation: “We are looking for ways to remain connected to our running community, stay motivated and continue to push our limits. This virtual event … gives us a place to extend virtual high-fives!”

I realized that to train consistently and log long runs, I needed more than Zoom or Facebook Live events showing how my time in a solo run stacked up to others. Virtual high-fives weren’t going to cut it.

When the pandemic erased the motivator of ultras from our calendars, we had to reconnect with deeper reasons why we run long. Personally, I desperately needed to re-establish and fortify my bread-and-butter weekly running routine for reasons that have little to do with preparing for ultras.

After our household got through the illness, I felt a renewed commitment to run at least 40 to 50 miles a week—anchored by Tuesday speed work, Thursday hill work and lower-body conditioning, and a weekend long run—because I craved the structure, normalcy and calming effects that this routine gives my life. I needed to get out of the house, breathe hard and sweat, and regain optimism that our family and the whole world will get through this tough time. I needed to reaffirm my identity as a runner and rebuild my runner’s legs and lungs.

Several friends and clients also expressed ways in which the pandemic renewed or enhanced their relationship to running. I’ll share a few examples that inspired me and gave the feeling of long-distance camaraderie.

Lucia Robinson, who lives in Bend, Oregon, with her husband and two school-age girls, has been running more than ever this spring, even though she’s not training for any race. “Running feels like the simplest form of freedom,” she told me. “It’s a break from the news and the new realities of being homebound. It’s also a tie to normalcy. It’s something I enjoyed before the pandemic that I can still do—unlike hugging friends, going out to dinner, visiting family, so many things!”

Plus, she adds, she is spending so much time with her daughters through homeschooling that “for the first time ever, I have zero mom guilt about going for a run!”

Another friend, Jennifer O’Connor of Walnut Creek, California, grew closer to her 18-year-old daughter Julie this spring when her daughter expressed interest in running trails on the mountain near their home. Normally, the two wouldn’t be able to spend so much together, between Jennifer’s work and her daughter’s school and sports commitments.

“Doing long trail runs together and sharing all the highs and lows that go along with it, has brought us even closer together,” Jennifer said. “She now understands why ultrarunning means so much to me, and she sees herself running ultras too someday.”

My client Georgina Everett, who lives in London, adapted her training to help herself and her family cope with the UK’s strict lockdown. The pandemic canceled the 100k she was training for, closed schools and restricted residents to one outdoor activity a day. Running became an essential outlet for the mental and physical health of her and her kids.

Georgina began doing out-and-back runs from her front door, each lap swapping one child for another to accompany her, thereby giving her kids outdoor running or biking time and a break from their siblings. She did her more focused training indoors on the treadmill. “Having a coach, a program and accountability is really helping me at the moment,” she said.

We all miss the prospect of traveling to ultras in special destinations, but in the meantime, we are running for the sake of running—for the day-to-day rewards of the process, not the incentive of a race. And because of that, many of us are running better and longer.

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About Author

Sarah Lavender Smith is an ultrarunning coach, writer and mom of two who divides her time between the Bay Area and southwestern Colorado. She is the author of the book, The Trail Runner’s Companion: A Step-by-Step Guide to Trail Running and Racing, from 5Ks to Ultras. Follow her blog TheRunnersTrip.com.

2 Comments

  1. Daniel Weston on

    Great blog thanks. I live in the UK and was training for the Anglo Celtic Plate 100km that got cancelled. Just like you I did some Virtual Races and got bored with them.
    I’m just enjoying the training now.

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