Neal Jamison's collection of essays by ultrarunners --- Running Through the Wall: Personal Encounters with the Ultramarathon --- is delightful in its diversity. There are racers who tell of their speed, and adventurers who describe their wilderness survival experiences. There are winners. There are amazing triumphs over incredible adversities.
But most fascinating to me are the honest remarks by people who fell short, who "failed", and who in the process succeeded in learning something important about themselves. Some brief, happy, memorable, metaphorical excerpts follow.
Ultrarunning is different from shorter-distance running in several ways. Perhaps the biggest difference between an ultra and a shorter distance race is the mind-set you must adopt. The mental attitude I try to take to every race is one where the goal is going the distance and finishing. That often means working with other runners instead of competing against them. In ultras I am competing against the distance and myself rather than against my fellow runners. One of the things I like about ultrarunning is how many people finish together. You don't see that in marathons or shorter distances. Another big difference is the mental toughness required. There are mental aspects that make an ultrarunner different than a shorter-distance runner. You must be able to realize that no matter how bad you feel, it is probably not going to get worse, and in most cases it will get better if you can mentally regroup and just keep going.
This might seem really silly, but I look at Western States as life in a day. The start is like being born. Then in the first mile I'm one year old and so on. The first 16 miles I run like a child, becoming a teenager. I'm having fun and I think I am going to run a great race. I have this adolescent confidence that I can do anything. I am totally hyper until about mile 20, where, approaching adulthood, I start to worry about what I'm going to do with my life. Then I hit the canyons, and it's like having a midlife crisis. That's where things can start to go wrong. Then I'm 50 years old, cruising along, looking forward to retirement, which is eventually marked by a great downhill section at mile 60. Retirement is followed by a horrid section around mile 78, and I'm forced to remind myself, Well, Ann, you know you're 78 years old, so you're a little tired now. And at the end, when I'm 99 and 100 years old, I look really bad. I always look bad when I'm running. Every year brings its own unique ups and downs, but that little mind game helps me get through it year after year.
Clark T. W. Zealand:
One important lesson ultrarunning has taught me is to have a good attitude, no matter what happens in a race. After all, it is the hard times and challenges in life that truly test your character. To be an ultrarunner means week after week, I push myself to the utmost limits of what I can do. With each test, I learn how to push those limits farther. Then, the next time I'll be able to push even harder.
In races like the Arkansas 100, the real competition is between me and my own body and mind, not with other runners. Fast times come from within me. It does not matter who is around. All that matters is how much I am willing to endure. My first goal is to always enjoy it. I like the competition and I like the challenge, but what I like the most is the freedom of putting my shoes on and covering so much ground in so little time. I hope to never get caught up in racing so much that I forget what it is all about. I always want to allow myself to cut a run short, or to take the trail with the better view, even if it does not fit into my weekly mileage. I always want to smell the pine trees. I always want, in every race, to take the time to look up at the sky at night, because remembering how lucky I am matters more than winning.
In the process of completely exhausting myself, I connect with an inner part of me ordinarily veiled by the everyday distractions of life. During that short time spent on a trail in the mountains, my life is reduced to its simplest terms. Most ultrarunners are people who find goodness and joy in difficult times, who see beyond the misery to the beauty of nature, and who truly realize the elemental and important aspects of life. Going for a run always clears my head, but running 100 miles distills my soul.
(see also UltraMan (8 May 2002), HAT Run 2004 (2 Apr 2004), DeadBrainCellTheory (6 Apr 2004), Eric Clifton (1 Oct 2004), Tussey Mountainback 2004 (8 Oct 2004), AndThenTheVultureEatsYou (9 Dec 2004), ...)