Despite extreme physical and psychological demands, ultrarunning’s popularity is on the rise. Any run longer than a conventional 26.2 mile marathon can be considered an ultramarathon, but events are diverse, ranging from road and mountain races to multiple days of running through deserts.
To many, these kinds of races seem insane and even impossible. But to others, the grueling sport invites them into a world of adventure and self-reflection. As we look forward to Javelina Jundred at the end of October, three of our RADrabbits consider the why behind ultra running.
Ultrarunning isn’t for everyone. I’ll be honest. When I started running, I absolutely hated it. I was slow and it didn’t feel great. It certainly wasn’t FUN. After escaping required gym classes in school, I basically vowed to never run again.
It’s funny how time and circumstances change over time. By the time I was in my 20’s I was overweight, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, a functioning alcoholic and had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I vowed to change my lifestyle. I quit smoking and became a gym rat - always envious of the svelte people on the treadmill who ran with ease. As I got closer to my goal weight, I decided to try running.
I wouldn’t say I liked it at first, but I became obsessed with bettering myself every time I ran. Could I run a minute longer? Could I run .1 faster per mile on the treadmill?
My ultimate WHY would come shortly after I got to my goal weight when I became pregnant with my daughter. I wasn’t able to run during pregnancy, but started again shortly after she was born. It was hard. I had to get a sitter if I wanted to run outside. I spent many miles alone on the treadmill.
For the longest time, running was still just a means to maintain my weight and keep me out of trouble. I was talked into my first race when my daughter was 2. I couldn’t figure out why ANYONE would pay to run. Why? Turns out, that 10k would change my life.
I ran a race or two a year, until I was convinced to try a half marathon. I traveled to Utah to run the Canyonlands half marathon - which back then was a lottery! I didn’t have an exceptional time, but WOW did I love the experience. I couldn’t get enough of it.
By the time I was headed home, I vowed to run a half marathon in every state. I wanted to run a marathon. Then a 50k, 50 miles, and of course the progression to 100 miles and longer.
Throughout all these personal running aspirations, I had a small child that was watching my every move. I would get home from the gym and she would ask to go for a run. By the time she was 4, we were running together for short distances. She ran her first 5k when she was 5 at Disney World. We worked as a team to train for our mutual (yet obviously different) running goals. We volunteered at races, began doing trail maintenance and both became members of a local running team. We traveled across the country and even internationally to run races.
My favorite running memory has to be when my husband and I ran Moab 240 in 2020. We had a stellar team of pacers and crew – including our daughter, who paced us the last 18 miles to a finish at 14 years old. I’ve never felt such pride crossing a finish line.
My daughter is now in high school and is focused on cross country and track – but I’d like to think she got her love of running and the running community from me.
As for WHY I run ultramarathons – it’s pretty simple. I can do hard things. Not finishing a race does not mean failure. It means learning from what went wrong and trying again. It’s about meeting new people, visiting beautiful places and proving that you can find joy in working hard.
Incredulous continues to be an adjective I would use to express how fulfilling ultra-running is for me. I clearly recall my visceral reaction when I learned that it was a “thing” and how the thought of this challenge wouldn’t leave my mind. I wanted to be in “that” club!
I am often asked, “why”? I admired these runners - seemingly everyday people yet with an apparent superpower to be able to run vast distances - and it instilled a desire in me to push beyond my self-imposed limits.
For as long as I can remember, I have been a person who lacked a good dose of confidence, to the point that it held me back. I didn’t know how to be “okay” with failing and disappointing those around me. I’ve always found joy in running and completed my fair share of 5ks to marathons, but I wanted something more. Ultra-running has taught me so much about myself, both physically and mentally. The top of that list is that I can do hard things. It has also taught me that it is ok to fail! To achieve goals, discipline is paramount, and I am grateful that I have learned so much more about that. During COVID, for example, this gift of running kept me mentally grounded and able to stay positive and find joy in simple things.
A unique and genuine community of people from all backgrounds put themselves at the start line of a race, sharing a great sense of camaraderie and the knowledge that we’re all there to support each other’s goals.
We have perks too! My number one is being out in nature on the trails! There is something exhilarating and crazy about running a trail in the middle of the night with hardly anyone around. I never imagined I would be confident enough to do that! Then, there are the Aid Stations with the most awesome volunteers and such a smorgasbord of food; bacon, waffles, pickles, soup, and ginger ale (my fav), to mention a few. You will also likely receive some of the quirkiest and most creative medals for your efforts!
I am not saying it is not hard… it is. But, a 100-miler will strip down the layers of your emotions and rebuild you. Crossing that finish line is life-changing every single time. Like anything worth the effort, the payoff for me, is joy, accomplishment, and knowing that I put forth my best physical and mental effort. I love to share the words, “Find your Passion, Fall in Love,” as that’s how I feel about this sport.
So, here I am at 60 years old, training for my fifth 100-miler coming up in November, and as I reflect on the last 8 or so years, I am still incredulous AND thankful that ultra-running is such a joyful part of my life!
At the start of Billy Yang’s movie “Life in a Day”, it opens with a quote from 14-time Western States winner and legend, Ann Trason. “I’ve always just thought of 100 miles as life in a day. You have all the trials and tribulations of a life in one day.” And that’s what my first 100 mile race, the Oregon Cascades 100, felt like.
On Saturday, August 27th at 6am, I crossed the starting line, excited for the journey ahead. I was a little nervous because the furthest I had run was 58 miles at the Wy’east Howl 100k. But I trusted my training and the 8+ months of work I had put in to get to this point. I had put in the hours of grinding out climbs, crushing descents, and tinkering with nutrition in order to have the best day ever.
It felt like a fun day out on the trails with my people, including one of my Trail Sisters. But when we got into the night section, that’s when it got real. I learned a lot about myself running through the night and into the next morning. Despite GI issues, staving off hypothermia, fighting sleep deprivation and hallucinations, I never wanted to drop. All I could focus on was putting one foot in front of the other.
My RADrabbit teammate Billy, who ran with me through the night, gave me a shock of reality around the 24 hours mark when he told me that at the rate that I was slogging along, I would be very close to the 32 hours cutoff. If I could go ANY faster than I was going, I would be able to bank time. That quickly lit a fire and I grinded out as best I could. Emotions ran high for me as the sun rose on a new day. The sun blinding me along with the brutal rocks made it hard for me to find a rhythm and I cried. Not only out of pain and sleep deprivation, but frustration at being so close, but so far from the finish line.
But I pushed.
Around 1:01pm on Sunday, August 28th, I crossed the finish line and got my beloved belt buckle. It’s hard to fully discern 30+ hours of running, hiking, stumbling, and eating all the things, but here are a few things that I learned from my first 100 mile race:
(1) “Nothing new on race day” doesn’t apply to 100 milers. I was talking on the phone with my coach, Lindsey Herman, the day before I left for Bend. She told me that whatever I felt like eating, just eat it. I ended up chowing down on quesadillas, ramen, and broth during the race. I didn’t have any of those things while in training, but my body was craving salt.
(2) Set guidelines for your crew. Billy had advised me to put in DNF criteria so that as the crew, they don’t have to make the tough call.
(3) Micronaps are important. Once I started having auditory hallucinations, I knew that I needed to shut my eyes. 10 minutes was all it took to help me feel refreshed.
(4) Pick your crew wisely. My husband, my best friend from middle school, my running buddy, and Billy were my people. They worked as a team to help get me to the finish line.
(5) Your life will change forever when you get that buckle. You’ll see yourself in a brand new light after you’ve pushed your body to the edge and come out stronger on the other side.
Image 1: Howie Stern
Image 2: Dark & Dirty Robbers Cave
Image 3: James Holk