Lessons I learned in ultra running

  1. If not now, when?

Some say racing should be a progression. In fact, there are ultras that require you to finish certain distances before you can join them. 42K before 50K. 50K before 50 miles. 50 miles before 100K. In my opinion, ultra running is not about timing or muscle maturity. It’s about heart and commitment. In the last few kilometers of the race, you won’t be thinking about cadence or heart rate or footwork. All you’ll think about is finishing the goddamn race! So why wait for someone to tell you that you are finally ready or qualified to run that ultra? Besides, last time I checked, craziness and suffering is still something personal. There is no perfect time and conditions, only a moment of unbridled enthusiasm.

  1. Take it by feel.

When I downloaded Sage Canaday’s 50K training program, I took comfort in the fact that despite the prescribed miles and workout, I can always go “by feel.” I think essentially running is supposed to be that way in order to be enjoyable. I think what attracted most of us to this sport is the freedom that it offers. We do not have to wait for teammates (or have them wait for us). We do not have to wear a uniform. We do not have to maintain any equipment or reserve a venue/court/field. We do not need an opponent. We run because we just feel like running. So, it is really important to listen to your body and to pursue running only when it is still pleasurable. My favorite ultra runner, François D’haene, said it best: “Motivation and performance, for me, is linked with pleasure so I don’t abstain from things that I enjoy. Let’s take pleasure in our activity, our life and our few guilty pleasures, too.”

  1. Simulate.

It’s not enough that you log in the hours that you are on your feet or increase the distance that you cover. Preparation for a race, especially an ultra, is all about race-specific training. You must simulate race day – course, food, hydration, even the outfit and gears. If it is a mountain race, find a mountain with a similar altitude and trail. If it is a road ultra, run the highway stretch with the same undulation. If it is a night race, run at night. If you expect scorching hot temperatures on race day, run at high noon during training. Aside from increasing your confidence, simulation will make certain skills instinctive and certain instincts controllable.

  1. Slow and steady finishes the race.

Arguably, no one wins a race by being slow, but definitely, one can only finish an ultra by being persistent. The basic element of running is movement. No matter how excruciating or gradual, you must move. Put that foot in front of the other, because every step counts. At 50K, you will thank your 30K self for being deliberate and motivated. This also goes for all other aspects of ultra. You must steadily nourish and hydrate yourself. You cannot wait for a stimulus. Be consistent. Be relentless.

  1. Runners are kindred spirits.

Runners toe the ultra line for the same reason: they trained and believed that they deserve to know if every minute of their preparation is worth it. There is collective respect and empathy among ultra runners. If misery loves company, suffering breeds cooperation. In my first ultra, I was handed a banana and offered a bowl of porridge (by another runner’s crew) without my solicitation. I, in the same vein, gave my last energy gel to a fellow runner who I thought needed it more than I did. It is this sense of community that makes runners return year after year to races which they have already finished or won.

  1. Appreciate the lowest low and highest high.

They say ultra goes beyond the capabilities of the flesh. It is in the realm of the mind that one’s endurance is determined. If marathons give runners the “wall,” ultras will give runners “delusions.” Initially, the delusion that you will be able to finish the race as strong and good as you started it. Then, the delusion that you can still make up for the time you spent at the aid stations or over-thinking the race. Eventually, the delusion (or truth) that you have not prepared hard enough for the race. The pits of sadness and self-doubt are so strong that others may not be able to recover from them. But there is also the promise of the “second wind,” that moment of complete commitment. Ultra runner extraordinaire, Jared Campbell, perfectly described it in this wise: “Once this state is reached, one can focus on moving through the motions and not get stressed by the minutia, knowing that stress won’t render anything constructive. Find the silver lining and press onward.” It is this feeling of extreme depression and elation that makes ultra so alluring, empowering, and addicting.

  1. You could get hurt, so what?

Sure, you will be sleep-deprived, develop wrinkles, get dead toes, experience chafing, sunburn, muscle pain, blisters, bonking, hypo- whatever, etc. The suffering is infinite and diverse. But those are certain and foreseeable in what you have signed up for. If you have anticipated and prepared for them well enough, you may be able to avoid them, but the likelihood of that is nil. I suggest that you don’t fret about it and just suck it up. Besides, all wounds heal and leave a scar. It’s up to you if you make it a badge of honor or a sorry remembrance of your craziness.

  1. You don’t need a race.

Ultra running is basically running more than 42K. That’s it, pure and simple. Whether you achieve that during a weekend fat ass run or in a lottery-based, elite field race, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be “officially” an ultra runner to run ultras. Ultra is just a distance, not a status to be conferred or a position in the hierarchy of runners. You run ultras because you want to and you can.

NOTE: As I run more and longer ultras, I know I will learn more lessons and will probably change my views here. For now, let’s pretend that I know what I’m saying. LOL

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