Three Lessons from Running Ultras

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One of the many reasons I love the sport of ultrarunning is that it provides never-ending opportunities for learning—not just training strategies or what diet works best, but also about what drives us to run ridiculously long distances and put the hard work in to make it possible. Below are just a few of the things that I’ve learned recently on my own ultrarunning journey.

1) Don’t Fear Failure

Fear the distance. Fear the terrain. Fear the chafing. This is normal. But don’t fear the challenge of achieving something you never dreamed possible.

DNF doesn’t stand for “Do Not Fail,” but that’s what many people think about when they are contemplating signing up for a race that’s outside of their comfort zone. They want to click the “register” button, but they never do because they are afraid they might fail.

It sucks to DNF, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. It happened to me last year at the Bear after months of solid training. BOOM…just like that, after countless hours of hill repeats and long runs and driving around the Pacific Northwest in search of trails not engulfed in forest fires, my race was over.

It was a tough gel to swallow. But after all that Utah dust settled (and there is a lot of it at the Bear), I asked myself, would I have still signed up knowing that I wasn’t going to finish?

My answer—absolutely!

I am proud of my training and the fitness gains, and the way I ran the first 60 miles of the race before I got injured. I still had a great time with my crew and took home many amazing memories, none of which I would have experienced sitting on my couch wondering what might have been.

The key lesson—it’s better to try and fail, than never try at all. Don’t let the fear of failure keep you from signing up for a race you really want to do.

2) Compare yourself to no one, not even your former self

I nailed my half marathon training race recently, missing the Olympic qualifying standard by 19 minutes. 19 minutes! That’s an eternity over 13.1 miles. But it doesn’t matter. I ran hard and I’m proud of the effort.

Nothing good would have come from comparing my race time to world-class Olympic runners. It would have only served to make my post-race beer(s) taste skunky and bitter.

Most of us, no matter how hard we train, are never going to be elite athletes. But that shouldn’t deter us from pushing our own limits. Running is about being our best selves, whether that means finishing on the podium or just crossing the finish line.

It’s also important not to compare ourselves to our younger and faster selves. As we get older, we naturally slow down. But that shouldn’t take away our joy for the sport. I know runners who avoid races because they can no longer compete at the highest level. That’s a shame. They may not run in the lead pack anymore, but that doesn’t mean they have to miss out on all the race-day comradery that makes ultrarunning so great.

3) The race is only a small part of a much larger picture

People outside the sport often stereotype ultrarunners as dirt bags living out of their cars with nothing to do but run in the mountains all day. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Almost every runner I know is successful in their various careers, many of whom also have families.

They understand that it takes sacrifice and commitment to prepare properly for a race. Those sacrifices don’t mean missing your child’s ballgame or neglecting responsibilities at work. But they often mean early morning runs in the cold or late nights on the treadmill after the kids have gone to bed.

When you choose a race, remember that you’re signing up for everything that comes before (and after) it, not just during. The actual race may last 20-30 hours (which seems like a long time), but that’s nothing compared to the hundreds of hours of training that will precede it.

People often get excited to sign up for big races only to get overwhelmed when the real training starts. Before you click the register button, think about the hours of hard work you’ll need to put forth in order to give yourself the best chance to succeed. There’s no shame in taking a break from running or signing up for a shorter race distance if you have a lot on your plate right now.

In addition, don’t forget to embrace the entire training process. Your race may not go the way you intended but you will have created months of memories to look back on and be proud of. Cherish the time with friends and the beautiful trails and how satisfied you feel after knocking out that tough workout you were dreading. It’s all part of the reward. Celebrate it.

With spring just around the corner, many of us are starting to ramp up our mileage for big races. Try to remember to keep an open mind during training. Regardless of your age or how many buckles you have, there is always something new to be learned from this sport—and those lessons often go far beyond running.

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About Author

Drew Dinan traded the tropics of the Florida Keys for the trails of Bend, OR. Once living the Jimmy Buffett lifestyle, working on fishing boats and owning only a single pair of flip flops, he now has way too many running shoes in his closet and never hears the end of it from his loving wife. He is on a constant quest to find the best happy hours, likes to complain when it’s cold outside, and one day hopes to travel the country writing reviews on chicken wings.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks Drew! These are 3 great lessons I’ll remember when running my first 50k in May.

  2. Great tips and reminders. Had my first two DNFs last year but I wouldn’t trade them for not trying and experiencing all I did at those events. Glad you’re now in my neck of the trail running world. Best of luck with the chicken wing tour!