©istockphoto/millsrymer

There are run­ners in this world, and then there are ultra run­ners. They are not the same. At all. Ultra­run­ners take their cho­sen sport to a dif­fer­ent exis­tence altogether—a plane the grand major­i­ty of humans nev­er even con­sid­er. In this way, ultra run­ners are unique.

They are not bet­ter than any­one else. They are not crazy. But they are def­i­nite­ly different.

Per­haps what is most spe­cial about the world of ultra run­ners is that all are wel­come. If, at any point in your life, you get that curi­ous itch to try an ultra­ma­rathon and see what it’s all about, know that you can do it—but also know you’ll nev­er be the same, in the best of ways.

Con­fi­dence
You’ll notice a con­fi­dence boost before you even run the race—just sign­ing up for it required a sig­nif­i­cant amount of for­ti­tude. After you’ve com­plet­ed it, how­ev­er, you’ll notice increased con­fi­dence in many oth­er aspects of your life as well, as the thought process of, “Well, if I can run 31, 50, etc. miles, I can prob­a­bly do just about any­thing…” sets in. In that sense, it’s kind of like child­birth. Not many things can claim that.

Raised Bar
Your goals will nev­er be the same. Know­ing what you’re capa­ble of, you will nev­er again be sat­is­fied with min­i­mal efforts and mediocrity—from your­self or oth­ers. This may put some peo­ple off in your life, but don’t let that get you down; just remem­ber that most put-downs stem from jealousy.

Iden­ti­ty
Regard­less of the many oth­er ways you iden­ti­fy your­self, peo­ple who dis­cov­er you’ve run an ultra (whether it’s one or a hun­dred races) will for­ev­er see you as ‘that hard­core run­ner’. But hey, there are cer­tain­ly worse things you could be called, right?

Addic­tion
Few run­ners run just one ultra. The train­ing is gru­el­ing, the race is extreme in pret­ty much every way you can imag­ine, and finishing…well, that’s damn mag­i­cal. That feel­ing of finishing—a mix­ture of pride, jubi­lance, and relief—is intox­i­cat­ing. Most of us spend the rest of our lives chas­ing it, find­ing it once in a while at the end of a 31, 50, or 100-mile trek.

Respect
Life presents us with many oppor­tu­ni­ties to earn respect from oth­ers, but the oppor­tu­ni­ties to earn your own respect are the most notable—completing an ultra­ma­rathon is one of those oppor­tu­ni­ties. It’s impos­si­ble to cross that fin­ish line and not think of your body dif­fer­ent­ly. What it just accom­plished is awe­some, in the truest def­i­n­i­tion of the word. You will think twice before ever putting your­self down, pick­ing on your own flaws, or not tak­ing prop­er care of your­self again. Endur­ing an ultra­ma­rathon requires your mind and body to find one anoth­er, make­up from any past or present trans­gres­sions, and work togeth­er to a degree that dai­ly liv­ing (unfor­tu­nate­ly) does not require. Once you expe­ri­ence what this sym­bi­ot­ic rela­tion­ship can accom­plish, you’re high­ly unlike­ly to return to unhealthy habits that work against it.

Ultra­run­ning may sound like a hell­ish expe­ri­ence, or just a sim­ple exam­ple of crazi­ness, to those who have not expe­ri­enced it. Per­haps ultra run­ners allow these mis­con­cep­tions to con­tin­ue because we appre­ci­ate the pro­tec­tion and pri­va­cy it offers the sport. The only way to under­stand is to try, and whether you’re will­ing to do that is up to you. If you are con­sid­er­ing dab­bling your toe into the ultra run­ning community—you can’t say you weren’t warned—know that you will be wel­comed, chal­lenged, encour­aged, and for­ev­er changed. Are you ready?


 

Guts to Sign UpSign­ing up for your first long race is tough, whether it’s a 5k or an ultra marathon. I played the same game of hem­ming and haw­ing each time I stepped up my rac­ing dis­tance. Hell, I was still so scared after my first marathon that it took two years before I signed up and ran anoth­er one. After that sec­ond marathon, how­ev­er, I real­ized I was not only over my fear – I want­ed more.

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Iden­ti­fy­ing my hunger for a big­ger chal­lenge was easy enough, but I had no idea what exist­ed out there beyond a marathon. Then, a good friend rec­om­mend­ed the book Ultra­ma­rathon Man: Con­fes­sion of an All Night Run­ner, by Dean Kar­nazes. I devoured it in a day, then read it again two days lat­er. It wasn’t Kar­nazes him­self that I loved so much, it was the sub­ject he opened my eyes to – ultra­ma­rathon­ing. Tech­ni­cal­ly, an ultra­ma­rathon is any run­ning or walk­ing race longer than the tra­di­tion­al marathon of 26.2 miles. Most ultras round off to the near­est 50, so they tend to be 50k (31 miles), 100k (62 miles), 50 miles or 100 miles long.

The pain of a marathon is a lot like child­birth. Peo­ple always talk about the mem­o­ry of the pain fad­ing over time – but I don’t know what the hell those peo­ple expe­ri­enced, because I’ve been through both and I would soon­er for­get my first name than the agony I endured in either. It was the very real, very live, mem­o­ry of this pain that stopped me from sign­ing up for an ultra­ma­rathon imme­di­ate­ly in 2008.

I read book after book on the sub­ject, heav­i­ly favor­ing the short sto­ries of per­son­al expe­ri­ences from peo­ple of all ages and fit­ness lev­els who com­plet­ed ultras. The more I read about 60-year-old men and their wives run­ning these extreme races togeth­er and fin­ish­ing alive, the more I was able to con­vince myself I could do it too. I don’t know how many times I scoured the inter­net and found an ultra in my area, decid­ed to sign up for it, and went for a long run to cel­e­brate just pri­or to sign­ing on the dot­ted line. I’d come back from my 10-mil­er exhaust­ed and con­vinced I could nev­er run 20 more miles on top of what I just did. No way.

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I cycled through this thought process for two years, but no mat­ter how many times I talked myself out of it, I couldn’t get rid of the desire for more. I knew I’d even­tu­al­ly give in and just do it – I just didn’t know when.

It hap­pened in 2010. I had just com­plet­ed a dif­fi­cult year of train­ing for my first  — and soon after, sec­ond — half Iron­man triathlon and recov­ered from mul­ti­ple stress frac­tures in my hip. I was in the best shape of my life and more moti­vat­ed than ever before. Plus, I now had an amaz­ing hus­band who blind­ly said, “sure” when I asked if he’d sign up for a 50K with me. I’m not sure he even knew how far 50K was at that time.

A mere two months lat­er, we found our­selves freez­ing at the start line one blis­tery Novem­ber morn­ing. Eager to warm up and get things going, I took off at the begin­ning, tick­ing off 7:30 minute miles for the first 10 miles. It was fun and felt great, but it was a severe­ly stu­pid mis­take. I burned out and hit my wall at mile 19, leav­ing me limp­ing and near­ly cry­ing in pain through those final 11 miles. It was pure tor­ture, and only my stub­born­ness of not want­i­ng to admit I’d quit kept me mov­ing for­ward. I fin­ished sec­ond to last. I’m not sure who I actu­al­ly beat, but I’m pret­ty sure that guy must have died on the course because I nev­er saw any­one behind me.

lmAlthough the race could eas­i­ly have been viewed as a mis­er­able fail­ure, I was sur­prised at how sat­is­fied I felt. I didn’t care what my time was or how long it took before I was walk­ing nor­mal­ly again. I had fin­ished. I cov­ered 31 miles in a sin­gle morn­ing. I was an ultramarathoner.

Once I had mus­tered the guts to try an ultra dis­tance once, I saw that I could do it and didn’t even hes­i­tate the sec­ond time around.  Two years lat­er, I returned to that race and won the female divi­sion. My win­ning race wasn’t what took guts, how­ev­er, it was get­ting to that start line in 2010.

 

There are marathons and then there’s The West­ern States 100, one of the most bru­tal 100-mile (161km) trail races out there. Film­mak­er JB Ben­na fol­lows four out­stand­ing trail run­ners as they com­pete dur­ing the 2010 race in the film Unbreak­able: The West­ern States 100.  In order to win, one must defeat the oth­er three unde­feat­ed ultra marathon­ers and break a course record.

[via: WS 100 Film]