Most of us, when asked “Do you want to run 50 Kilometers up and down grueling forest paths for what seems like 62 hours until your breaking point is reached and you’re ready to lie down in the fetal position, probably in forest dung, with your thumb in your mouth and a ‘just let me die here alone’ look on your face?”, would not answer “No.”
We would answer “HELL NO!”
And we would be right, in a sense. In First World countries of fluffy pillows and moon pies, it’s hard to see a world in which an ultra marathon would play any role, much less an integral one.
Like most people, ultra runners begin in the HELL NO, larval stage of this journey. Some may be brave enough to be curious, as in: “What if?”
“What if I did run that far?”
And they might even train a little, right up until the day when they reach their first ascent, after which they find themselves in a fetal position, yearning for a moon pie.
In this article I will offer the poorly tallied 8 1/2 awesome benefits of running an ultra marathon, which will make you want to finally get up off of your a..um..accubita and challenge yourself.
I recently took part in the Ultra Trail Angkor, a 128.8 Km event that takes runners through the immense and beautiful UNESCO temple ruins in Cambodia. One does not start off a running career with a race of this length, obviously, one starts off small and progresses to the longer distances. Which brings me to my first benefit:
1), In order to complete, or even attempt, an ultra marathon, you have to believe you can do it. The races are expensive (for poor slobs like me), and you wouldn’t want to invest a lot of money into running one if you didn’t think you could make it. Something has to happen with your mindset that allows you to attempt the feat.
A positive mindset is what we all need anytime we want to change for the better. It is a conviction that change is possible and that the goals are reachable. No improvements in your life are achievable without it.
On the morning of the race I got up at 1:27 because I had to tinkle and couldn’t sleep any more. [Bonus Benefit: you learn fast that if your heart is set on something your body falls into line, in this case by not needing a full night of sleep.]
My gear and supplies soon accounted for, I carefully loaded up for the walk to a different hotel, where the shuttle to the starting line, some 15K away would be loading. Stopping in our lobby to shoot an exciting pre-race video, I naturally unloaded my supplies to do the filming. By the time we got to the hotel ten minutes later I realized I had no headlamp.
It was about 2:50, the bus was leaving in ten minutes, and if I wanted to see the rocky, twisted jungle floor I was going to be running over, I would have to run back to the hotel and find my headlamp fast.
2.), Here is yet another illustration of what we’re up against in life: unscripted problems will arise, but if you want to make it anywhere you have to make the best of it. Whether running a race or in a job interview, panicking and getting frustrated only worsens the end result. Running ultras forces you to keep calm and positive longer.
It was weird on the bus to the temples. The world was completely asleep-we were the only fools awake at that hour-but everyone on the bus was excited. We heard Bjorn telling Gordon excitedly, for example, that it was his first Ultra, in a voice that might have woken the dead.
Congratulations to both of them-Bjorn for finishing and Gordon for finishing fourth!
At the start of the race my wife/coach and I met David from Taiwan-the”accidental sweeper”. A sweeper is the runner who does not compete but stays at the back of the pack to provide assistance to the runners who have been bitten by poisonous snakes or alligators, busied themselves too long with bubble wrap, ensnared themselves in a gympie-gympie stinging bush, been maimed by wolverines, shot by hunters or the Soviet commandoes in ‘Red Dawn’, or are just dehydrated and too weak to continue, with the latter being the most likely (barely).
David came in last in every event he ever entered-hence accidental sweeper-and there was good reason for that. His nutrition for the race was, um… unorthodox. David had started talking with us about beer before the start (4:00 AM).
“When the sun comes up I’ll get my first beer,” he said.
I thought that was great. These races are supposed to be fun, first and foremost, why not get stupid doing it?
Well, maybe because you won’t finish (David didn’t), but it’s worth a try. At least you have the right mindset. Why go out there trying to prove something that can’t really be proven?
Anyway, I left David to…other pursuits, and moved up the pack a little. After 15-20 Km or so, I began running with Mr. Oh (sp.?) from Korea.
“‘Oh’ as in ‘oh how beautiful!'” he told me, his arms spread wide and his smiling face turned to the sun. Mr. Oh had a positive, gushing personality that made me want to run with him everywhere, if only to see if he would gush the whole time.
Somewhere I saw a guy from Holland dumping inside a clump of not-high-enough bushes. Jus’ sayin’. No, seriously, it was at this time that I realized that my time had also come. The slow construction of a bowel colossus, sped up by my consumption of dates (maybe next time I’ll try beer) and loosened by all of the running, was nearing completion. A race helper pointed me to a clean, comfortable toilet behind a temple. I made sure to gloat when I came out of the toilet to find the Dutchman arriving there.
3.), When your heart is set on a goal, things will work out in your favor. As noted in #2, when you keep an even keel and be patient, problems will all but solve themselves. My example-going to the bathroom-obviously could be from any walk of life; under-standing the philosophy hidden therein is a useful tool that will carry one through many rough patches in life.
After my pit stop, I challenged myself to catch up to Mr. Oh. Running comfortably but consistently at the same pace, I met up with Bjorn! The kid from the bus from Chicago! When he told me he was from Chicago I said, “I know, you were loud on the bus.”
He laughed and told me how nervous he had been. I also learned he was 23 and running his first ultra. He was so cute! He had picked a good one. Yes, his first ultra was 64 Km long, which is long for a first attempt, and the temperatures would soar up to about 95 that day, but the race was about as flat as could be. The only hill:
This picture hints at Bonus Benefit #2, but only slightly, because I have, like, a UFon 2 1/2, and kindergarten children can draw better pictures than I can take. B.B.# 2: The landscapes of every ultra marathon I’ve ever seen are breathtaking. They ALL have to be seen, but not necessarily during a race, that’s why this benefit is only in the minor leagues.
It was good to run with Bjorn; I felt like a big brother or, more accurately (gulp), his father. I hope I provided him with some inspiration to keep pressing on when things got tight-like when he ran low on water and was miles and miles away from an aid station.
Then, what a surprise, we were joined by Mr. Oh! We all had a great time running through the villages where everyone between the ages of three and 80 were out cheering us on. One boy about four ran out and handed me a cold bottle of water.
4.), It’s all about the people. Whether you’re running in a race like this one or going through life, it is boring, sad, and unhealthy to try to go at it alone. In an ultra marathon running with someone, or being in contact with the locals, only helps you finish. Given a choice, would you rather have a nice car, spiffy clothes, a comfy accubita or a good friend? When times are rough, how is another moon pie going to help?
Running ultras gives you the chance, almost unavoidably, to meet people and forge lasting friendships with like-minded crazies like you.
About three and a half hours in, we arrived at the first and only hill. It was something like 250-300 meters high, but it would be harder than those of us who didn’t pay attention to the race briefing that morning expected. The hill would not be scaled by some tame forest trail that snaked its way around the hill to the top. There was a temple up there and what felt like a zillion steps that led straight up to it.
5.), There is almost nothing more fulfilling than completing an ultra marathon. The pride and satisfaction one feels after challenging yourself to take it to the limit and beyond, and to see the trials and hardships all the way through from square one to the finish line are truly priceless rewards one keeps for a lifetime. Running an ultra is tough, and it requires discipline and heart, and if you don’t grow them fast, you will not reach your goal.
Every step is a challenge, as was every step on our hill. There is nothing metaphorical about it, nothing that can be argued away or dismissed-it is that way. Therefore, completion equals something true and real, every time, whether you’re first or 441st, as I think I was once in Belgium. It was muddy.
It was exhausting, plodding away through the midday heat, but I was well prepared and made it through those stretches where the sun was particularly merciless and into another patch of Cambodian jungle.
We passed one aid station after another slowly, which brings me to my next great benefit.
6.) FREE STUFF! Every ten kilometers or so another aid station popped up trailside with awesome race helpers who offered us not only water and energy drinks, but also free food.
This race was pretty bare bones, selection-wise: bananas and apples, and a choice of several dried fruits- loaded, sadly, with sugar. I suppose a lot of runners might have been disappointed with the buffet, but it was perfect for me. I’ve seen aid stations that offered not only several kinds of fruit, but also (salted) tomatoes and cucumbers, carrot sticks, energy bars and drinks, chocolate bars and potato chips, mashed potatoes, noodle soup, wine and beer, steaks, sarsaparilla, ocelot spleens, narwhal horns-OK, those last three were a total and complete lie 🤥 but you get the point. Some of these aid stations are very well stocked, almost to a fault.
AND, additionally, each racer was offered the opportunity to get a FREE TAN! At least on the parts of their bodies that were exposed. But the best thing a runner can receive doing an ultra is the FREE BEER at the end of the race. Often the organizers wimp out and provide alcohol-free beverages. Once, however, I took part in the Olympic 50K, which did not have a physical finish line per se, but damn well had a barrel of delicious, chilled Washington State IPA right there instead-a trade I’d take any day.
Theoretically, the Olympic 50 K might be a good first ultra to run, you can read why it might not be HERE.
But I digress… the first half of this race was something I can truly be proud of. If I had run the 64K race, I would have finished 16th or so out of 75-unthinkable for me. The only way that could’ve happened was if I had been prepared for the race.
7.), An ultra forces you to become as healthy as humanly possible. You don’t “just run” one. You have to be disciplined and consistent with your training and nutrition. Because you are (hopefully) exercising more and eating healthier, you will feel better about yourself and the prospects of getting up in the morning. One must also train their mentals, though: as I’ve said in #1, something has to change in your mind just to attempt the race. This change should be reinforced, so that if you are still whining about the workouts or food in the latter stages of training, your chances of a DNF (Did Not Finish) rise.
This fitness level, physical and mental are exactly what goal-orientated people tend to have, whether they run or not. Training for ultras show you how its done.
Somewhere around the 60 K mark disaster struck, however. On Christmas Day last year my wife organized a surprise: Thai massages. For most people these would have been a real treat: Thai massages go into the deep tissue responsible for alignment and overall muscle health. But I had been training intensely; some of my runs had been almost eight hours long. This fact poses a problem. There are ways to grope intensely trained muscles and ways one shouldn’t. Our masseurs were talented enough, but they knew nothing about my training and massaged a time bomb into my leg.
After one training session following the massage my calf was hurt, and my wife said she didn’t like how it looks.
8.), It’s important to pay attention to everything, no matter how small or unrelated it may seem. Ultras teach us to attend to every detail, because everything you do matters. Every step you take, the way you land and spring forward, the way you breathe, the way you eat and train-it all makes a difference.
Life is a grind that wears you down with monotony and tedious tasks, like ironing. Most people start ‘blurring’ their lives-not paying attention to things they feel are unimportant: the ride to work or shopping, housework, for males: listening, etc. It’s a natural reaction when one is bored or unfulfilled. Ultras force you to take life as it was meant to be: meaningful.
Back to Km 60: I started to feel a nagging pain at the top of my calf. By the halfway point, my calf was all but shot. My wife did her best to massage some life into and drain some of the pain out of it but just standing up to begin the second half was torture. Even something as beneficial as a Thai massage can ruin an otherwise perfect day.
9.), There is perhaps nothing that is developed more effectively when training for ultra marathons than a Persistent Mindset. Life will provide you with limitless opportunities in life to be too tired or hurt, too hungry, too lazy, too dumb, too smarmy(!) -too ANYTHING to continue striving. Sooner or later, if you want to reach your goal, you’re going to have to dig down deep and continue fighting where there’s no fight to be found.
Which is why I slowly hobbled my way to the start of my ‘back nine’. I knew it was going to be rough from there on out (a ridiculous understatement), but was still optimistic. I hoped to walk it out for a bit and loosen the terrible tightness in my calf.
My wife watched me limp off and said to herself, “He’s not going to make it.”
The heat bore down in its afternoon fury.
I found a method or ‘gait’ that allowed me to continue to jog at a very slow pace over short stretches. After the next aid station at about Km 74, however, we entered what I will call the “Death Zone”-after areas on extremely high mountains where death is more certain with each passing second spent there.
My Death Zone was ’only’ 12 Km long, but almost perfectly straight and endless-it felt more like 52 Km. That fact, combined with the heat, was unbelievably draining. There would be no more running.
When my wife arrived at 96 Km, she did not like what she saw. My calf was swollen and very warm. The pain had spread into the back of my thigh, and even my Achilles tendon was affected. She did what she could, but it came down to a choice:
Did I want to be a hard-ass and risk possible permanent injury to prove something, or did I want to be sensible and accept it. Three weeks later, I still cannot walk without pain. I won’t be running anytime soon. I am certain I could have finished that race, but I know in my heart I made the right decision.
10.), Ultras teach you that there are times when it’s better to quit and it’s OK to do so-one dreaded DNF does not a failed life equate. There is a time and a place for everything, and though you may have lost the battle, in the grand scheme of things there’s always a chance to win the war.
Unless of course you willed yourself into a permanent injury.
11.), It’s also safe to say you’ll burn a few calories along the way:
Because this piece is already too long, I’ll just mention that the eleventh benefit of ultras is the most obvious: ultras improve your figure. Duh.
12.), And because ultras are run everywhere, they give you the chance to meet people from all over, from New York to New Zealand. You’ll gain a broad world view. And see scorpions, maybe. I did.
12 1/2.), The SWAG!! After completing the Ultra Marathon of your choice, you’ll be rewarded at the finish line with a prize selected especially for you. A..and everyone else who finishes. Since I did not finish my race, I’ve only counted this as half a benefit, so you may even have more rewards than I do!
Examples of Swag are medals, cool trucker hats (Squamish 50/50):
whatever this is:
…T-shirts, and one of the most coveted (and ugliest!) objects in all of ultra running: the Western States Belt Buckle.
Then there is the Pounamu Pendant one receives when finishing the Tarawera 100 Miler in New Zealand. Pounamu is a green jade that the Maoris considered so valuable they would never sell it, but instead give it to someone who had earned it. What better way to remind you of your ability to do the unthinkable with your life than wearing something priceless around your neck.
Finally, these are the shoes I was in the whole time:
(see benefit #9)
The holes were there pre-race. Make sure you have, like, shoes, for the race-why I didn’t is a story in itself, for another time. I’m hoping my DNF is more understandable now.
The bad news about running Ultra Marathons is that once you start, you’ll never want to stop. It’s hard to stop doing the amazing when life is trying to drown you with dull, boring conventionality.
Point me to the next one…