One of the most common questions new ultrarunners get is usually, “What is an ultramarathon?” Eventually, more questions come along such as, “How long does it take to run that far?” Fast forward 5, 10 or 20 years later, and those friends who haven’t jumped on your ultramarathon bandwagon begin to marvel at your ability to run such distances at such an old age. “Wait,” you’re thinking, “I’m not signing up for a lifetime of running for hours on end, I just want to run a 50k.” Good luck with that. This sport draws you in and doesn’t let you go. From my own observations, once runners have their first ultramarathon under their belt, they’re all in and making plans for their next great race.
What is the attraction? What is so great about grinding slowly up muddy hills or picking your way through trails so technical you can’t look up to enjoy the scenery? How is it that going to the bathroom in the woods has become so normal that we continue conversations with our friends while squatting behind a bush? For me, there is no singular answer. I love to be outside. I love to run trails and roads. But the most important piece for me are the people. When I was a newbie and began to make friends with fellow ultrarunners, I found the community to be very inclusive and encouraging, happy to commit to a day of training with me for the company and camaraderie so prevalent in our sport. When you spend that much time with friends out in nature, it gradually becomes a lifestyle.
I’ve been running for over 35 years, with 19 of them being an ultrarunner. I am no spring chicken, and I wasn’t exactly one when I started running ultras at the age of 42. Now, at that time, I was relatively young, as our sport wasn’t attracting a lot of 20-year-olds. That has changed in recent years, with more 20- and 30-year-olds becoming ultrarunners and elevating the exposure to our sport. So now, the questions I get become, “Are you still running ultras? That’s amazing! How do you stay healthy? Don’t you ever get injured?”
Yes, I have been injured multiple times. But by staying curious about my body and figuring out the “why” of each injury, I have become very aware of my body’s quirks, strengths, weaknesses and patterns, and I believe in the plasticity of the body and its uncanny ability to heal. Rarely have I had the same injury twice, and I’ve probably run out of body parts to injure at this point. I have developed very good relationships with my massage therapist and physical therapist, always soaking in what they tell me is going on with my “tight this” or “twisted that.” Even when I have an acute injury and it’s too painful to bear weight, I find a way to stay aerobically fit with water running, biking or swimming, knowing that I will eventually return to the sport I love the most.
As exciting as it is to finish your first 50k, resist the temptation to sign up for a 50-miler the next month. Give it a year. Ultrarunning is not easy on the body, but if you give it enough time to gradually adapt to the stresses, both the body and mind will deliver. Develop good body awareness and get adequate rest. Adopt a “do no harm” attitude instead of pushing yourself to discover, “How many miles per week can I get in?”
Inevitably, once you finish your first ultra and decide to keep at it, start to think about longevity. That can mean running fast for years, slow for years or taking time off for family, but coming back when time allows. Ultrarunning has a certain pull – we are a bunch of nature-loving athletes brought together by the commonality of putting one foot in front of the other.