Incredulity. That’s the word that sums it up. The palabra which nails it. It’s the term that totally and utterly describes the look on some folks’ faces when you tell them you do ultras. Then, the more you surround yourself with ultrarunners in your sporting life, the more flippant you become in conversation with “normal” folks when discussing running.
You find yourself talking about 50 kilometre races like they are everyday events, like a parkrun or something. It’s not ‘cause you are being a hipster wanker. It’s as a result of redefining what is “long distance.”
Inevitably this leads to a question delivered with a furrowed brow, the kind of look reserved for people who fart in confined space or those who eat the last Rolo and don’t even think about what they should have done with it. I have been on the receiving end of that glare. I know.
That question, not only behind said furrowed brow, drips with disbelief; “Why do you do that?”
Once you explain exactly what an ultra is, be it a 50k, a 100 miler or a 24 hour race, it only adds to the confusion. And more so when you then mention that even though the distance is extreme enough the races are usually run on the kind of terrain that mountain goats refuse to cross, or in mud so deep they look like a football pitch from 1970s Match of the Day.
Typically, that is when they say, “Why the f*** do you do that?”
Have you ever taken a moment to think about it? It can’t be to get rich. Judging by the dropbags I see at races I reckon the average cost of food and drink at an ultra would be enough to rebalance the economies of most African countries. Also, in one of those paradoxes that would have Camus scratching his head, the smaller, lighter and less material an object is or has for use in ultras the more it costs. Money ain’t a motivator for sure.
It can’t be for glory. The only chance of getting featured in national press is if you get airlifted to safety off of a mountain. The Daily Mail would probably have a headline like “Skinny Immigrant Sullies Di’s Memory By Winning Race on Her Majesty Highway On the 40th Anniversary of Her Most Significant Bowel Movement” or something in that vein, such would be their inability to compute the event without rage. The Daily Express would warm us about the worst winter in living memory coming. Even in June. The Guardian would have a Hipster’s Guide to Ultrarunning special.
Oh, and we know it is not for peer group approval as they all think we are missing a few slates from our already shoddy roofs. Nah, it’s none of that.
In my experience most of the folks who do this sport do it because THEY WANT TO!
There is no demand from friends to go out and run ridiculous distances. The reason an individual wants to is generally down to their own personal story. It may be the love of a trail, the outdoors or perhaps that they enjoy being midge-fodder. It could be that they are running in memory of a loved one, or to inspire their kids, and maybe even to make someone proud. Nonetheless, when a runner toes a line at an ultra it’s usually unique to them. They are stood there in their lycra, tech tee and expensive shoes because a series of events and decisions has driven them to this point.
It is why I find the camaraderie at the start of the races so inviting. There are smiles and tomfoolery all around. There is little elitism, just guys and gals who happen to be sharing a journey with times that can be as much as 20 hours apart for the same distance. Unlike the election lie about us all being in it together, ultrarunning does kinda have that society. It’s nice.
People tend be more relaxed in these races as they are not thinking about 1k splits. They are thinking about the event as just that, an event. A day and effort which will imprint a long-lasting memory tattoo on their brain. I absolutely believe that attitude means runners are relaxed and like Caine from Kung-Fu, the next step is the one we focus on.
When it comes down to it, people are less compelled to run ultras but are more inspired. Tales of human endeavour, or the battle to master the terrain are the sugar that entices. No one whoever done a 5k race can talk about the hallucinations they got at mile 80. How many 10k runners pack toilet roll in case they need a shite? It is the charm of such things that turns mere mortals into mile monsters. For some too far is not far enough.
I have a personal, healthy respect for ultra-runners regardless of ability. I recognise their inner drive and willingness to hurt for a long time, yet still come out of the experience with the kind of memories only a few manage to attain. The better the runner the less likely they are to talk about times and miles. When times are measured in hours and not seconds I guess the obsession can cede a touch.
It got me thinking about my approach to racing or training. If I feel like dropping, or cutting a session short, I always remind myself that I am here because I have chosen to be. Some folk think you are mad, others think you will kneeless in 3 years and the rest just back away – slowly and softly, like Shaggy and Scooby sneaking away from a ghost. But none of that changes the why we run stupid distances, on stupid terrain for stupid lengths time. It’s not because we are stupid, it’s because we want to. And we are smart enough to love it.