I often find myself wondering why I continue running ultras. Why would I willingly participate in an activity that beats my body to the point that walking to the bathroom becomes nearly impossible? Why is it worth doing when it makes me shed toenails more often than a snake sheds it skin? I have had blisters the size or dollar bills, gashed knees, and even temporarily lost feeling in the tips of my toes. I have puked on the trail and crapped in places and wiped with available materials that would classify me as barbaric at best. Staying awake for 48 or more hours at a time during an ultra (and dragging serious ass at work for days afterward) would most likely not be considered “a reward” by most people. Ultras (and the required training) monopolize a ton of my time, costs me a small fortune in gear and race entries, take me away from my family on the weekends, and have put me outdoors in some seriously shitty weather for hours and hours at a time. So…. Why? Why do I continue to train and run ultras? For the fun?
It is not for the race photos, which I always manage to ruin. It is not for the finger lickin’ aid station food. It is not for sweet tech race shirt number 437. It is not for the finisher’s medal. It is not for the vanity car sticker that I don’t have any place for. It is not even for the shiny belt buckle. My introspections have led me to narrow down my list of why I continue to train and run ultras to two main reasons, one of which is the focus of this article. The addictive quality in an ultra is the challenge. In an ultra I can test myself in ways that I cannot in any other aspect of my life. As life gets easier and more comfortable, physical challenge decreases. We no longer have to run down antelope on foot, run for our lives from lions, chop down trees by hand, or carry buckets of water miles just to survive. Ultras are never predictable and you are required to solve problems and adjust if you want to get yourself to the finish. I could go on and on… but I will save that for another article. The challenge is what gets you hooked early on. The next reason is what keeps you coming back.
The Community. The ultrarunning community is like none I have ever been around. The cross section of people you find at ultras is extremely diverse. Women and men from all walks of life, race, nationality, religious background, and socioeconomic classes can be found at ultras. The shared hardships become the common denominator that binds a very eclectic group. Strong and lasting bonds (a marriage in my case) are created in even very short times of shared suffering. This fact means that as you participate in ultras – as runner or volunteer – the more and stronger bonds you create! Humans are social creatures and bonds with others is what enriches our lives more than any personal accomplishment ever could. Around these bonds, a culture of community is formed. Runners support each other; I have witnessed runners sacrificing their own races or their personal comfort to help someone in greater need – giving away valuable food, water, even their own gear! I have seen volunteers go above and beyond every expectation while caring for those challenging themselves on the course. From massaging nasty, blistered feet to lubing sweaty armpits, the commitment shown by aid workers is unbelievable! Watching the winner of the race stick around for many hours cheer in the final finisher is something I have never seen outside of an ultramarathon. This is a strong community. Once built, an ultrarunning community will begin to function as a family would – members relying and supporting each other, sharing triumph and sorrow, laughter and tears -a situation evolves where the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts. Ultimately, the ultrarunning community becomes more about spending time with friends rather than just getting to a finish line. Evenings before races spent nervously discussing strategy and nights telling stories of pain and fatigue after a long hard day on the trail with close friends is what makes all of the sacrifices worthwhile. And beer.