Ultra marathon running has taken off in the last decade. With a 350% increase in participants, more people are pushing themselves to their human endurance limits.
Why? Are there that many masochists in the world? Is it about pushing yourself? Do they want bragging rights? Or is it something deeper?
The Mental Challenge
I can tell you from my experience, that running an ultra is intimidating. It isn’t until you do it that you realized how intimidating it is. When you’re at mile 25 of a 50 mile run and you realize that you still have 25 more miles to go, there is a part of your brain that starts to panic. You feel exhausted and beaten to the ground. “How am I going to go through this for another 25 miles? I’m 1/2 way there and I’m struggling now.”
It becomes an enigma for your ego. You begin to turn the tables. That part of your ego that wants you to quit and be lazy flips into your ego not wanting you to quit out of pride. You know you can do more than this.
The mental gymnastics your brain plays with you to make you drop out is something you will never experience outside of a grueling physical challenge. You will start to think of ways to quit without bruising your pride like faking an injury or saying you’re too dehydrated. The true self knows the truth and following that strengthens your inner compass.
The problem gets broken down to the smallest variables. Am I hydrated? Do I have enough nutrition? Can I run one more mile and see how I feel then?
Eventually, you run one more mile. Then another one and another. You start to count the miles you have left instead of the miles you ran. When you get to that last section of the race, you know you’re going to do it. Then you cross that finish line with a rush of emotions. You just accomplished something that I’m sure at one point in your life you thought you could never do.
I am training to run a 100 mile ultra. My previous longest distance is a 50 mile ultra. Why do I want to run a 100 mile ultra? It is something that I thought was impossible 10 years ago. I thought that people who ran 100 mile ultras had some crazy genetic mutation that allowed them to run longer distances than most mortals. I do not have a runner’s body type. I played football through high school and in college. I never further than 3 miles until I finished football. I remember when I was 20 and I decided I was going to train for the Chicago Marathon. I didn’t even think about the distance of a marathon. The only thing I thought about at that time was running 4 miles without stopping. Eventually, I did that. Then I pushed myself a little further. Eventually, I was able to go on a 20 mile run and my confidence grew that I would do it.
Training for that marathon taught me about the commitment it takes to accomplish big goals. You cannot accomplish anything worth doing overnight. You must work when you must work and you rest when you need to rest. I probably ran over 500 miles total in preparation for that marathon. You cannot get back lost time, so you have to utilize the time you have right now and make sure that you stay on the path to accomplish your goals. Your goals won’t wait for you forever.
After I did a GoRuck HTL and the 50 miler, I realized that I wasn’t even close to what my physical and mental limits are. What are my limits? How do I get there? What kind of person will I become running 40–50+ miles a week for a year? The answers to those questions cannot be theorized. They can only be answered when you confront them head-on.
Even though I like to run alone, I do find the ultra running community to be a lot of fun. Everyone is there to lift you and bring out the best of yourself. Almost no one there cares about your time, they just care about you finishing. There’s a lot more hiking and walking in ultra races so a larger opportunity to walk with other participants. There have been some races that I have been on where I will talk to a stranger for 15 minutes to an hour. I’ve met people from all different walks of life in races and sometimes they can be the most authentic conversations that I’ve ever had.
Ultra races tend to have far fewer participants than most races, so the atmosphere just feels more intimate.
Because ultra races are smaller, many of them take place in beautiful areas. You can find races from the dense woods of Oregon, to the mountains of Colorado or in the deserts of Utah.
There are races all around the world and it’s an opportunity to explore and see them.
You could just travel to those places to see them if you wanted but what’s the fun in that?