Most ultrarunners are fueled by a desire to push their limits and explore the boundaries of what is possible. They are drawn to training for and completing ultras because they want to challenge themselves and achieve big goals. The process of committing, training and executing on race day consumes, and ultimately defines, the ultrarunner’s life. The experience and satisfaction of knowing you put everything on the line in an epic test, is what endures.
This is how ultrarunning was for me in the first 10 years, or so.
But after wearing bib numbers at the same races year after year, the drive and satisfaction waned, even with the carrot of being a “10-timer” looming on the near-horizon at many of my favorite races. Maybe it was my ankle surgery, maybe it was getting older (and slower). Maybe it was wanting a big part of my time – and life – back for my family, friends and other interests? I mean, obsessions. Like baseball.
Last year after completing my favorite, life-transforming 100-mile race for the eighth (and most difficult) time, I needed a break. But being me, I still needed some big challenge. Something to hold my focus and be a vessel for my obsessive tendencies. Something fun, but really difficult. And scary.
About that time, my wife Erika suggested that we hike the Tahoe Rim Trail, self-supported. Compared to a 100-mile race, this 170-mile trail hardly even qualified as a “thru-hike.” But we had never camped – never even slept on the ground. We had never worn a 25-pound pack before – in fact no pack that ever exceeded the bare minimum requirements of UTMB (about 7 pounds and 2.23 ounces as I recall). Plus, I am afraid of the woods at night, and my worries about furry creatures with claws and sharp teeth are only exceeded by the paranoia I have about the most dangerous animal of all. Yeah, us humans. (OK, I’ve watched too many movies like The Blair Witch Project). We were total neophytes at this. It was uncharted territory, and it was scary. But exciting.
We dove into the planning and preparation like first-time ultrarunners. Just getting the right gear and learning how to use it was complicated, in a fun way. Our training “hikes” were arduous. And ominous. We pulled the plug on our only “training” camp out when it was time to pitch our tent at mile 20. It was 5 p.m. and we were 10 miles from our car. Instead of making camp and dining on freeze dried food, we decided to hike (which became a run) to our car and head straight to our favorite Mexican restaurant. I was sipping the salty rim of the tastiest margarita ever by 8 p.m.
A few weeks later we embarked on our TRT adventure and we spent the first five hours lost and trying to find the right trail. We got to our campsite at 9,200 feet at dusk and barely made it through that night. The next five days were some of the hardest, scariest and at times bleakest of my life. But once we decided after the second night that we would not bail at the major road crossing at mile 75, we faced the dragon and slayed it.
We embraced our challenge and every step brought us closer to success. And as we found a rhythm, we became one with the trail and the wonders of nature in which we were immersed. In the end, that journey was immensely satisfying and we will never, ever, forget it.
In this issue we celebrate the most noteworthy Fastest Known Times, or FKTs, of last year. In doing so we want to recognize and celebrate extraordinary feats of human endurance. But we also want to inspire others to take on similar challenges and seek adventure. FKTs have become the new frontier for many ultrarunners – but the fastest part is not really that important.
Like at an ultra-race, where the leaders finish hours before most of us – we can all still participate and have our own life-affirming adventures on the same routes. And even though your thru-hike may not be the Fastest, it will surely be a memorable and worthwhile adventure. And after all, that’s the essence of ultrarunning in the first place.
If you get out a map and start making your plans now, you will not regret it.
May your every run be a great one,