If you ask ultrarunners why they got into the sport in the first place, you will hear a range of answers—for health, for a love for the outdoors, for a personal challenge, for an escape from the stresses of work. But I can’t imagine that many ultrarunners would say that they got into running because they wanted to be fast and competitive. Those goals might apply to kids getting into basketball, hockey or football, who see their sporting idols on TV and are motivated to excel at their chosen sport because it will mean that they might become a famous pro who earns big bucks. That’s not exactly the world of ultrarunning. Not yet, anyway.
Newcomers tend to enter the sport of ultrarunning for more “pure” reasons—a simple love of the trails, the feeling of wellbeing they get from running or the fun aspect of spending long days with friends exploring beautiful environments. It’s interesting, therefore, that whilst something central to our sport—racing—can be about exploration, fun and nature, it is also fundamentally about target-based performances: finishing times are meticulously recorded, rankings are published on websites and ultimately, race results show who the fastest (and therefore, in theory, the “best”) runners are on the day.
For a significant portion of more experienced ultrarunners, their motivations to practice the sport have shifted and become more race-performance driven, whether their desire is to place overall in a race, or in an age group, or simply to improve on a race time from a previous year. Whilst I am not saying that having performance goals and having fun are mutually exclusive, I’ve talked to many experienced ultrarunners who just don’t seem to be having fun anymore, because their focus has shifted, in my opinion, too far from having fun towards being fast. Being fast certainly can be fun, but it isn’t always. Ultimately I believe that having fun should be the number one priority of any ultrarunner. Here are some tips on how to continue having fun whilst working on being fast:
The vast majority of your running is training, not racing, so choose races that you will enjoy training for. Even if f lat 50ks are your forte, if you are excited to try some longer mountain runs, then choose a rugged 50-mile race—you might not place as well, but you will look forward to the training more.
Once a week or once every two weeks, go for a run just for fun. Ignore your training plan, don’t look at your GPS watch and instead just go run your favorite route and/or go with a running buddy you’ve not run with for a while. Yes, the run might not be specific training for your race, but you’ll come back home rejuvenated and motivated to run more.
Find friends or a local run club to do speed sessions with. High intensity training will undoubtedly make you a faster racer, but often these sort of training sessions are the ones that ultrarunners dread the most. But hanging out with friends is always fun, even if you are pushing each other to the limits of your running ability, so before you know it your workout is done.
Reassess your race goals regularly. If you have committed to a certain race but get partway through training for it and find yourself dreading most of your training runs, then it’s much smarter to admit this to yourself and find a new race goal that you are excited to train for.
If you find that every time you sign up for a race becoming fast takes away from having fun, then you could instead consider targeting a FKT (which lacks the same head-to-head competition aspect of a race) or simply train hard for fun and then sign up for races last minute (or not at all).
There are but a small handful of ultrarunners who are going to make a living from the sport, and no ultrarunner is going to the Olympics anytime soon (and even professionals and Olympians should ideally be having fun). So whilst placing well in your local ultra or besting your finish time from a previous year are very admirable goals that show a dedication to self-improvement and to physical health, always try to remember why you got into ultrarunning in the beginning.
Your original goals were likely more about scenic mountain summits shared with friends or weekend camping trips to explore new trails than they were about the finishers’ medals or Ultrasignup rankings. Keep true to your original running motivations, even if it means sometimes throwing away the training plan, ripping up the race calendar and just having fun!