Welcome to the tenth installment ofThe Story Goes, a monthly column of stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running. You can find every installment of the columnhere.
To complete an ultramarathon is to cover any distance on foot beyond the traditional marathon distance of twenty-six-point-two miles. The standard ultra-marathon distances, though, are fifty kilometers (thirty-one miles), fifty miles, one hundred kilometers (sixty-two miles), one hundred miles, and beyond. Ultramarathons also include timed races in which you try to run as far as possible around a looped course, often a track or road, in a set amount of time. These races range from six hours to six days, and beyond. Ultramarathons can take place on the road or track, but they are more commonly run off road--on trails--over mountains and through forests, across creeks and around lakes.
These ultra-distance races have become exceedingly accessible in recent years, especially since more than twenty-one hundred races now dot North America from coast to coast, and because race organizations assemble aid stations along the course, allowing runners to refuel and rehydrate frequently throughout the event. Increased access to well organized races, coupled, perhaps, with an increased desire to get outdoors and away from a screen, have resulted in more people entering the sport in the last decade, which is evidenced by a slower average pace for ultramarathon finishers.
If you’ve never run an ultramarathon before, the above data should suggest something: You can become an ultramarathon finisher, too!
But there’s a lot to sort out before getting to your first ultramarathon start line. What race should you run? How should you train for the event? What gear do you need? How do you hydrate and fuel for such a long activity? Can you actually run beyond a marathon (you’ve never done that before!)? What should you expect from your first ultramarathon?
I, too, once asked these same questions. I wish I had known the right answers to these novice questions.
It was the spring of 2011 and I had just run my first trail race, a marathon in the sunny hills of California. I was living in Boulder, Colorado during the interim period between graduating from college and matriculating in graduate school. I had found a place to live in Madison, Wisconsin for the upcoming fall semester and I was scheduled to move there in July. Before I started graduate school, I wanted to run an ultramarathon.
If you’re inclined to run long distances, the first question from a non-runner is a simple one with a complicated answer: Why? Perhaps there are as many answers to this question as there are long-distance runners. The best way I’ve found to answer this question has to do with cause and effect, actions and consequences.
From a very young age, through a combination of my parents’ words and actions, the concept of working hard for a desired outcome was instilled in me. What I learned is that success lacks meaning, or a sense of fulfillment, if it’s not preceded by an arduous pursuit, or a laborious process that brings about a sought-after result. (Relatedly, I’ve also found that toiling without a purpose fails to bring about a meaningful level of gratification.) I was introduced to ultrarunning through a book, but it became a passion because of the clear connection between cause (training hard) and effect (performing well at a race) that can generate a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment that’s nearly impossible to find in life outside of sport.
When I was a kid, like most kids, I also enjoyed being outside—and the thrill of exploring. The kids in my neighborhood used to play some version of hide-and-seek on bikes and I would peddle out as far as I could, away from the houses to the undeveloped land. I’d ditch the bike and run through the fields of dirt and grass, not sure what was around the next corner. Years later, in high school, while camping high up in the Rocky Mountains, my cousin and I decided to try to get to the top of a nearby peak. There was no trail and we eventually turned around before the top as lightning threatened. In those small moments I would experience a feeling that I never felt anywhere else. When I took to long-distance running in remote landscapes, it was like recapturing those childhood feelings brought about by the unknown.
No matter what reasons you might have to run an ultramarathon, the experience of preparing for, and finishing, your first is hard to forget.
Geographic proximity and a specific time window are easy ways to narrow down possible races from more than two thousand to just a handful. Since I would be living in the upper Midwest by mid-summer, I looked for a race in that area in late July or August. Of the available races in that region and timeframe, one stuck out to me: The Voyageur 50 mile. This was a race of Scott Jurek fame, where he had begun his ultramarathon career years before winning the Western States Endurance Run a record-setting seven consecutive times.
When the gun went off, I didn’t realize that I was wholly unprepared, but I would find out soon enough. I had run a few road marathons, and in training for my first fifty-mile trail race, I had increased my mileage and even managed to complete thirty miles in training. But much of my running was on flat-to-rolling dirt roads—not the type of steep, technical single-track trail that’s packed into the out-and-back course at the Voyageur 50. I can’t specifically recall my fueling strategy for the race, but I think it was some combination of gels and water that I carried, and whatever I could grab from an aid station. (A tip: Fueling is very important and yours should be a tried-and-true strategy you’ve practiced many times in training. Also, if your mind starts to get fuzzy and reality and hallucinations become indistinguishable, you’re probably working too hard, or overheated or dehydrated, so stop running so hard and cool yourself and drink some fluids.)
If I did anything right that day, it was findingJohn Storkamp, an ultra-veteran and multi-time finisher of the Voyageur. I clung to his side during the entire first half of the race, a twenty-five-mile, point-to-point stretch to the halfway turnaround. It was at this point that I learned the importance of fueling or having your stomach familiar with the various calories and fluids it needs to digest while you’re running. I told John that I had to make a pit stop and he said he had to do the same. When I emerged from the woods, there was no one at the turnaround except for me and the aid station volunteers. John was minutes up the trail. It would be a lonely twenty-five miles back to the finish. Except for the enormous, flesh-eating flies. (I call them horse flies, but I don’t know their proper name.)
If you’ve never been to the upper Midwest in the summer, then you’ve never experienced the flies and mosquitoes and various other bugs packed into the dense, humid air. If you’re thirty-five miles into your first fifty-mile race, hiking (walking, really) agonizingly slowly up a steep pitch of trail beneath power lines in the middle of the summer in the upper Midwest, you’ve probably experienced a whizzing sound in your ear, and itching around your ankles, and the irritation that comes with moving at the speed of insects. When the flesh-eating flies start eating your flesh and you simply don’t have the ability to outrun them, and you’re staring down another fifteen miles to the finish, and you don’t know how you’ll possibly go another fifteen miles, especially with a boiling rage inside you thanks to the flies, you’ll do anything to get rid of the annoyance. (A tip: Apply insect repellent before and during the race.) First, I tried screaming at the flies. This didn’t work. (If you’ve ever run an ultramarathon, you’ve likely screamed at something—maybe yourself, or nothing in particular except your unforgiving circumstances—at some point.) Then I crossed a stream with mud-caked banks. I convinced myself that the bugs wouldn’t take notice of me if I was covered in mud. So, I covered myself in mud.
It might have been one of those things like taking vitamin C when you have a cold (did the vitamin C help you get better or was it simply that time had elapsed?), but the bugs did seem to vanish soon after the mud bath. The rest of the race, like so many ultras I’ve run since then, was a blur. I don’t much remember those miles, only that I was convinced I was off course several times because the trail looked completely unfamiliar even though I had run the same stretch earlier in the day. Fortunately, I was able to convince a college friend of mine, who was there as part of my support crew, to run the last six miles with me in his jean shorts. I don’t think we talked much but the very fact that he was there helped me keep moving forward. (A tip: Crews are great. Convince some people to help you at the race. Pacers, when allowable, are nice to have, too.) Eventually, I emerged from the woods, looking like a man who had just been in the woods for a long time, and back on pavement for the final quarter mile to the finish. When I finally crossed the finish line, I learned that I could run fifty miles.
But more than anything else, what I remember from my first ultramarathon was the sense of community that develops among a group of people who work together to overcome a seemingly insurmountable task. The runners congratulated one another, and the crews made friends with each other and no one much cared if you had finished first or last. My dad was there, and some friends were there, and everyone just seemed really, really happy. Happy, I think, because the runners and the crews and the volunteers and the spectators had, in different ways, helped each other toward a common goal. And the goal of finishing an ultramarathon isn’t one of money or fame. It’s simple and pure and unpretentious. It brings with it a deep satisfaction that can only be found by pushing yourself, mentally and physically, to your perceived limits and beyond. It’s a noble goal and there’s no ulterior motive and the community of people at a finish line can’t help but to be truly, genuinely happy, and inspired by the strength and determination of the human spirit.
So, if you’ve never run an ultramarathon before, perhaps you’ll be inclined to do so now. From the physical turmoil, the mud, the bugs, the pain and the unforgiving circumstances, you’ll emerge amidst a supportive, loving community. You’ll also revisit that sense of innocent joy that you once thought only a child could feel, and you’ll experience a feeling of fulfillment that only a long, taxing journey can produce.
I once experienced this all for the first time myself, and so can you.