The Paradoxes of Ultramarathons
I did it! I completed the Midwest Grand Slam of Ultrarunning by running four 100-mile trail ultramarathons in one summer (14 weeks). If you're interested in the details, I've already written race reports for each of the four races: Kettle 100, Mohican 100, Burning River 100, and Hallucination 100.
I keep saying that I learned a lot this summer and I had a great time running the Grand Slam, so I thought I should write about my observations so I don't forget them and so you can learn from my experiences.
Hubris and Humility
It takes hubris to sign up, but humility to finish.
It takes a lot of hubris to sign up for a 100-mile trail ultramarathon, much less four in one summer! I mean, do I really think I can run four 100 mile races in one summer? That's crazy, right? It's not nearly as crazy as most people think, but it takes a lot of bravado to sign up and devise a training plan.
But it takes humility to finish. You need to listen to your body when you're training, tired, and sore. You need to know when it's "just not your day" and you cut that long training run short by 20 miles. It also takes humility to go out slow, accept your mistakes, and push through the suffering to the finish line. Running 100 miles is a very hard goal, and honing the right combination of hubris and humility is an important key to success.
Solitude and Community
Ultrarunning is a very lonely sport. It's really hard to find people who want to run 26.2 miles on a treadmill with you in January. Anybody up for a 35 mile long run this weekend? I run thousands of miles every year alone. Even during a 100-mile race it's not uncommon for me to run for 5-6 hours at a time and not see any other runners. For a stark raving extrovert like me it almost enough to induce paranoia.
But at the same time, ultrarunning has a unique sense of community that I haven't seen in any other sport. In one race this summer I invited a lampless runner to run a few miles with me until the sun rose enough to see the trail better. This summer I've seen runners help each other out in the middle of a race by digging lost shoes out of the mud, navigating confusing trails at night, and encouraging other runners toward the finish line. Maybe it's because misery loves company, but ultrarunners have a well-earned reputation for taking care of their own and it's something that I appreciate about this sport.
Individual and Team
Ultrarunning is an individual sport. Most of the races I run only have a few hundred runners and there's no points or team scoring. It's just you, the other runners, and the clock. Let's be honest, if I tell you my finish time on a particular 100-miles course most people don't know 1: that 100-mile races exist 2: if I even run the whole time 3: if the time I told them is any good. In the end, it's me against the the clock, cutoff times, my fears, and my insecurities. It's me against me, and that's what I love about it!
One person runs the race, but there's usually a team of people behind the curtain. In my case it's a supportive wife who misses me during my long runs but knows I come home more alive than when I left. It's supportive family such as my sister who has crewed and paced every one of my 100-milers with me. An ultrarunner herself, she's seriously the best crew chief you could imagine. There are also dear friends from near (Wheaton, Lombard, Chicago) and far (Cleveland, Toronto, Washington DC) who have sacrificed their time, money, sleep, and quads to pace me through my various races. I don't know how to thank these folks other than to promise to return the favor when they are faced with the same temptation.
I'm the one who crosses the finish line four times this summer, but there's a team of people making it possible.
Pride and Gratitude
I'm so proud to have accomplished my goal of four 100-milers in one summer. There are a few different grand slam series each summer, but only a few dozen people in the world accomplish this sort of thing in any given year. By comparison, there are hundreds of people who summit Everest every year. I don't consider myself an elite athlete, but I run among some very unique and determined runners and I'm honored to be among their ranks. I'm thrilled to have done something that just a few years ago was inconceivable to me, if not impossible.
But I have to recall how grateful I am to God for keeping me healthy, healing my injuries, and helping me run strong all summer. Twenty-two years ago, in the heyday of high school, I was in a hospital room recovering from leg surgeries, not once, but twice on each leg. I was in bed for a summer. I was on crutches for months. I was in physical therapy for longer than I can remember. I had to learn how to walk again. To this day I have extensive nerve damage in my left leg and foot as a result of those surgeries, and it's the thorn in my flesh that reminds me to be grateful for how God has healed me and what He has brought me through.
In high school I was a runner, so when I faced injury, surgery and recovery my world was shattered. Today I'm a child of God that loves to run.This identity that comes from my faith is something that cannot be taken away by an injury, a DNF, or even death. I love running, but it's just running. Jesus is the real source of abundant life.
Bigger and Smaller World
Running such long distances has allowed me to see the world in new ways. When I run by something on foot I see things you can't observe from a car, I talk to people I'd never meet, and my fears shed away as my world gets bigger. Whether it's running through rough neighborhoods on a 35-mile run to Chicago or tearing up the trails at 2am on a night run, I feel more in touch with the world around me than I ever will sitting in my office or driving my car. This summer, my world got a lot bigger.
But now when I see a sign on the highway that indicates the next town is 45 miles away I can give you an accurate estimate of how long it would take me to run there. I can run places I used to drive. I can go all week without even driving my car because I know I can go places on foot that other people won't even try. This summer, my world got a lot smaller.
I Want More and Need Less
This summer of new challenges and adventures has made me hungry for more. I want to run more, take new risks, and see new places with old friends. I want to spend more time in the woods than with my laptop, more time with my family and less time in the office. I don't want to get stuck in the ruts of life and look back with regrets. I want more out of life than ever before!
But I also realize how much less I need. Instead of circling for a "good spot" I can park at the far end of the parking lot and walk to the store. I can miss a meal and not be grumpy. I can get up in the middle of the night with a sick kid with no bitterness. I run faster but drive slower.
I have bigger dreams, but lower expectations.
Suffering and Joy
Running a 100 miles is really hard and only possible because of thousands of small decisions. I decide to do a 25 mile training run on Saturday morning even though I'd rather sleep in. I decide to do the same thing on Sunday morning before church. I decide to go to bed at 8pm and wake up at 3am. I decide to keep running when it hurts, when I can't feel my legs, and when I can feel them too much. I decide to keep going when I've run for 22 hours straight, it's the middle of the night, and my body is begging to go to sleep. I live in a culture that seeks to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, but that's not how I want to live. There's nothing romantic about masochism, but through suffering I am humbled, shaped, and molded into a better runner and a better man.
But there's also great joy in trying to beat the sunrise, accomplishing a goal and savoring the victory of the finish line. When I reached mile 97 of my fourth race and my sister reminded me that I had actually run 397 miles of my 400-mile goal I was impelled to the finish line. With light feet and a joyful heart I devoured those last three miles and sprinted through the finish chute. You don't always have to go fast, but you have to keep moving forward.
The Finish Line
So how do I end this cathartic writing experience, especially when I'm not sure anybody has bothered to read this far? I guess with a reminder to myself and a challenge to you:
- Make the most important things the most important things. For me, that's faith, family, then everything else.
- Try new things. Don't let your world get small.
- Don't be afraid.