There are many reasons why athletes take on ultras, whether it’s looking for a new challenge, different terrain or reading an inspirational book. One of the key components underlying all those reasons is the need for adventure, especially in a world of sedentary office jobs. Normal life can seem dull in comparison to traveling to an exotic location, making new friends and doing something genuinely hard. Yet, this year, monotony and frustration with lock-downs has been especially difficult to cope with for our mental and physical well-being.
This has led to much soul-searching from ultrarunners, including myself and the runners I coach. What are the key reasons to keep ultrarunning, or even to run at all? What do we get out of it and what do we miss when races are canceled? Do we have new perspectives on what types of races to take on when they come back as normal? Everyone’s answers are different and understanding them helps us get the most from running.
Uncertainty and doubt are also very healthy for understanding why ultras are such a fundamental part of our personalities. We aren’t simply runners – we’re ultrarunners. That means we don’t just chase PRs in mass participation road races, but we search for new ways to test ourselves. Our sport includes more variety than maybe any sport in the world – from sand to jungle, road to mountain, extreme temperatures and high altitudes. Never mind how these variables can change throughout a single event (one ultra I raced started in the Andes, ran into the Amazon and involved sleeping in hammocks next to a family of jaguars).
New experiences and personalities we come across help us know ourselves better. Heading into the unknown puts us out of our comfort zone and teaches us to be more adaptable in every aspect of life, whether that’s running a new race or making a big life change.
However, even with fewer or zero ultras to race, we’re still ultrarunners. Not just in our core, but in practical terms. This has been the year of the FKT (Fastest Known Time) with many headline records broken all over the globe, sometimes multiple times in succession. Personal FKTs have become important, given not everyone can break the fastest ever time on a route, but they can improve their own best effort. It takes more planning and discipline to take on non-race adventures, but what group of people better epitomizes this type of challenge than ultrarunners?
Running something over 26.2 miles on local trails, roads or a treadmill without being in a race environment has much of the same satisfaction as a formal event. I followed the example of many of my runners this summer by getting to know some bigger loops around my local mountains (Oregon Cascades) which wouldn’t normally fit in during race training. Exploration and enjoyment of the outdoors are fundamentally satisfying, plus it takes the commitment of ultra training to be capable of taking on epic challenges such as these.
The social aspect of training groups and races is often cited as an even bigger reason why we love ultras. The openness and friendliness of the community is well known to us all, allowing us to meet new people no matter where we race. I can’t count the number of times I made a new friend from a different country in the middle of an ultra, never mind the time surrounding the race, and it adds excitement to anticipate these new connections.
Adventure means taking on risk and uncertainty, doing something on a grand scale and discovering new experiences. The relationship between hard work and huge reward is clear in our sport and it’s why we keep coming back, making it a lifestyle. Ultras give us so much and fellow runners inspire us daily, which makes life more fun. It’s why we’re proud to call ourselves ultrarunners.