It is the number one answer to the number one question we get as ultrarunners… “Why do you do it?”
“For the challenge!”
The answer sounds so glib that it might come across as a throwaway line.
But the truth is, there are many nuances to the challenge of running ultras.
The first level of challenge is the obvious one. It is the challenge of endurance and perseverance. The first question every new ultrarunner must answer is: “can I make it?”
Distances like 50k, 50 miles, 100k and 100 miles seem wildly improbable until we actually achieve them. For virtually every runner, the first achievement of those distances is a lifechanging event. In taking on such a challenge, and persevering, we must tap resources within ourselves that we never knew existed.
Of course, we cannot capture lightning in a bottle. That magical moment when we first discover that we can exceed anything we had ever thought possible can never be reproduced. Or can it?
It can. Just as we explore new territory with each new and longer distance, as we become conditioned to running those distances, the next natural challenge is to discover how fast we can run them. This is the challenge of racing.
Racing a distance, running it for time, is an entirely new challenge, different in every way from that of covering the distance at all. We must improve our training and refine our racing technique, squeezing out minutes and miles wherever we can. For most of us it can take years to reach our potential at each distance.
But the challenges do not end there. In the multitude of varied opportunities available for ultrarunners, we can find the ultimate challenge in developing our skill sets. There are races at altitude and races below sea level. There are races that cross deserts, and others that pierce steaming jungles. We can race in sub-zero temperatures, or in sweltering heat. There are races that require navigation skills, and races that test our ability to run entirely self-supported. There are races that test our ability to run for days, or weeks, on end. There are even the unique challenges of individual journey runs, which are not races at all, but challenges and adventures of our own making.
For the ultrarunner who wants to seek them out, there are challenges enough to last a lifetime. And that is where the ultimate challenge of all can be found. As the years pass, we find ourselves substituting the knowledge of experience for the resilience of youth. The last challenge is the challenge of time. We can run ultras for a lifetime, only to find ourselves back at the original challenge, the challenge of endurance and perseverance. Except this time the obstacle is not the distance, but the passage of time. There comes a day when the personal bests are no more. The only records we set are cumulative: how many years we have run, how many miles we have covered, how many ultras we have completed. We find ourselves selecting races carefully, looking for time limits we can make, or courses that we can complete.
As long as we run, the challenges are always changing. What never changes is the excitement of preparing for the next challenge, the anticipation of attempting things where success is not certain and the thrill of achieving the things we could not be sure were possible.
But all this is more than people want to know when they ask us why we run ultras. The perfect answer is, “For the challenge.” It tells them as little as they want to know. But expresses so much more that we feel.