Modern-day ultramarathon runners are bent on self-improvement: constantly seeking the best training programs, nutrition plans, pre-race and race day supplements, gear, and head space to give us the edge: to run faster, farther, and longer.
Besides self-improvement, embedded in my philosophy as an ultrarunner, therapist and coach is sustainability: what can we do today that will ensure we can do what we love, tomorrow? And the next several thousand tomorrows?
When it comes to maximizing our abilities, and creating a sustainable running career, often times the answer is to run less. That’s a tough sell. Few runners are interested in buying nothing:
“What’s the key to success?
“Let’s see: slow down, run less. In fact, don’t run at all.”
But what if we could get more – speed, joy, and sustainable running experiences – simply by doing something besides running?
It’s February, and I’m on the Wildwood Trail: glorious singletrack that weaves around the lush, green timber of Forest Park, on the edge of Portland, Oregon. I fall in behind Willie McBride – a local ultrarunner, coach, personal trainer, and all-round tough-guy – as he guides me along the crown jewel the Portland trail running community.
We’re in the thick of winter, yet this day, with sun aglow in bluebird skies, teases of a spring still far off. The trail is teeming with hikers of all ages, excitable kids and dogs in tow. Hope and optimism is palpable.
As we begin to talk all things ultra, our conversation invariably turns to The Schedule: what races, runs or athletic feats of strength await us in the coming year. I swallow hard, and breath a little deeper as Willie describes his plan to run the Tahoe 200-mile, and several multi-day fast-pack adventures.
This year, more than ever, social media is awash with runner’s personal race schedules. And seemingly, the more elite the runner, the more elaborate and jam-packed the calendar. For many, it is not uncommon to see schedules listing over two dozen races.
Willie pays keen attention to this trend: he owns and operates Animal Athletics, a Portland-based coaching, fitness and outdoor adventure company. I met Willie through his business partner, Yassine Diboun, a prominent ultramarathon veteran and recent top-ten finisher at Western States.
The pair started Animal Athletics in 2011, with the mission of providing athletic and outdoor experiences to a wide variety of clients, ranging from serious trail runners to health-conscious corporations seeking to improve employee wellness. Besides creating challenging and sustainable experiences for each client, they are stewards: not only of the mountains, forests and trails, but of the people who entrust in them their physical health.
Barreling down a long descent, talk shifts to the issue over-racing: its impact on individual athletes, of shortening competitive careers and preventing many of today’s stars from becoming household names.
Our pace unconsciously slows, despite the ongoing downgrade.
Flying Toward The Sun: The Dangers Of Too Much Joy
We run for different reasons, but common motivators include the sense of accomplishment with a long, grueling run, the beauty of nature, and the excitement of competition – against others, the course, and ourselves. Equally motivating is the camaraderie of the community: on any given weekend, you’ll find a group of like-minded individuals taking part in something special.
Though overwhelmingly positive, the draw of ultramarathon events is not without peril: ultramarathon events, even a “mere” 50K or a “short” 20-miler, are physically demanding. Our bodies are highly adaptable and, within months, a novice ultrarunner can engage in such events weekly with relative ease: the relatively low intensity of ultras can make the true stress difficult to perceive. But what is the cost to this physical challenge when unrelenting?
What awaits runners who overindulge in the beauty, exhilaration and joy of the Ultrarunning Experience is a stark contrast: fatigue, injury, and missing out.
Examining many elite runner race calendars, it is difficult to overlook the physical toll that these events have on their bodies: if they’re not racing long, they’re training long. While this is an issue universal to all ultrarunners, for elite runners, there is the added pressure: team sponsors promoting their racing events and products; individual races, willing to pay travel and race entry to exotic locations. Sponsors, and individual races, are essentially paying them to go on vacation. All they have to do is “a long run,” right?
“A hundred miles is not that far”. But when you toe the line a dozen times a year or more, they add up. Suddenly, the compelling draw to the Ultramarathon Experience is the very thing that threatens one’s ability to participate in the future.
Icarus flies too close to the sun, and his wings melt away.
Community Involvement: Get More By Running Less
The trail spits us onto the pavement of Northwest Portland, and my conversation with Willie shifts from personal to professional: what Animal Athletics is doing to foster and support positive experiences in the community. It is there that the answer – the balance – lies: community involvement.
Implicit in the mission of Animal Athletics is that, by supporting others in their athletic endeavors and goals, runners are nurturing themselves in two important ways: first, a sense of achievement and purpose that comes from supporting others and the inspiration that comes from seeing others achieve. Sharing passions with others only stokes one’s internal flames.
But the second, more subtle nurturing was the balance it provides: supporting their community redirects time and efforts toward others. In doing so, runners – including McBride and Diboun – are involved and invested in the sport – but without the physical strain of training and racing.
McBride and Diboun foster this “give-to-get” philosophy amongst its community: Animal Athletics promotes community activism through a wide range of activities, including: working aid stations at local ultras, hosting “Community Adventures” – low-cost, not-for-profit outdoor experiences designed to get novice athletes out in nature, and even volunteering as transport couriers for visiting elite athletes training and racing in Oregon.
These activities become balanced, win-win trade-offs: giving back to the community allows them to feel inspired by other athletes and their achievements, with little to no physical strain. Our conversation returns to elite runners. It seems that relatively few are giving back in this way. Indeed, their obligations and enticements are many. However, as the conversation progresses, examples of elite, veteran runners who routinely give back abound.
Examples of elite-level runners who have balanced their racing careers through volunteerism and race directing include: Tim Twietmeyer, Bruce LaBelle, Craig Thornley, Meghan Arbogast, Krissy Moehl, Gary Robbins, and Hal Koerner — to name but a few. All of the aforementioned have displayed consistent high-level performances for nearly a decade (or more), while simultaneously giving back.
Clearly they’re onto something.
Willie and I chew on that idea as we churn through the finishing straightaway: that, indeed, we receive when we give. Giving back to the community allows every runner to be an active participant, while providing the physical and emotional balance that is so critical to longevity.
I liken running careers to flowing streams. Rest periods are like damming the flow: the water builds behind the wall, so when the dam is broken, a surge of powerful, momentous flow is released.
This happens physically after rest periods. But when a runner gives back to the sport – through trail work, race volunteering, or coaching, mentoring, or supporting other runners – not only does a damming occur, but “feeder streams” are borne, and motivation and inspiration builds up and grows stronger, so that when training resumes, a tremendous surge of joy, inspiration and strength awaits.
In a sport characterized by extremes, more often than not, less running is more. Thankfully, more community involvement nearly always delivers greater rewards – whether you’re wearing a number or not.