Today’s guest post is by Jerry Armstrong, a vegan ultrarunner and triathlete. He has completed over 20 ultras of 30-100 miles, and 2 Ironman triathlons in the past 8 years. Jerry currently trains specifically in mountain ultramarathon for races out of Boulder, CO. He shares his endurance adventures at www.JerryArmstrong.Blogspot.com and www.twitter.com/endurancejer
Ultrarunning is a topic of fascination amongst runners today… Several movies and published books have shed light on this incredible underground endurance sport. So what makes ultra so special? For each of us, the “why” is much different. Some people are running away from something, others are filling an internal void. We have former drug or alcohol addicts, and others who possess boundless energy which must have an outlet to keep them sane. Most will say they do this for the adventure, but the adventure really begins once the passion takes hold of you…and helps you become a better person. For me, is the quality of the ultrarunners themselves that make this sport so special.
I hope to share some insight on the subculture of ultramarathon, so you may better understand where the emotion for this sport comes from amongst those of us who eat, sleep, and breathe this amazing thing they call, “Ultramarathon”.
My fascination for ultrarunning was born out of the personal quest for self-improvement. Since I was a child, I had a strong interest in developing myself to be better each and every day. This personal interest drove me into difficult sports like wrestling. Later, it lead me to choose the Marine Corps over other branches of the armed services. I then chose to become a police officer, and seek more challenge as a SWAT operator and team sniper. For my entire life, I challenged myself and sought to become a part of a group of elite people, but all of my involvement in these various teams and organizations, left me disappointed and underwhelmed.
It wasn’t until I found ultrarunning, that I felt I found my “family”. Ultrarunning exposed me to incredibly eccentric people with tremendous passion for life. The distances truly challenged my physical abilities and forced me to look introspectively for the first time. I was constantly challenged to reconsider what I considered “possible”. The layers of my being peeled away and I was humbled repeatedly. I developed a greater respect for others, and I found myself falling in love with Mother Earth.
In all my previous competition experience, through high school, road racing, triathlon, and the military, the overwhelming demeanor of my competitors was anger, fear, and disgust. They wanted to “win” and I wanted to “win”. I felt judged by my competitors, who looked me up and down, making categorical calls about my abilities based on things like the cost of my bike, my age, or the size of my body. Ultrarunning changed all that for me…
I came to realize that this sport was so incredibly demanding that teamwork and mutual respect was a requirement of success. On any given day, somebody might not be 100%. I had difficult races, and I had moments when I felt so bad I didn’t know who I was or what I was doing. My fellow athletes picked me up. When I became lost on a long training run, I crawled under the shade of a tree to keep from having a second heat stroke… It was my fellow ultrarunners who thought of me and spent the time to find me…bring me water and food, and help me to my feet. I had never been treated like this by my “competition”. And so, my understanding for this incredible sport began to change.
Ultrarunning is not a “me “ sport. This subculture is founded on unwritten rules of mutual respect. If you find yourself standing amongst a group of eccentric people, waiting for the start of a 100 mile race,you are standing amongst an incredible group of people. They each have overcome incredible obstacles that have not jaded their personal quest to arrive at the start line in a positive mindset of optimism. It is the “filter” that weeds out the masses from standing in that special group of people. And it is the fact that so very few will ever attempt such a feat…that makes ultrarunners special in my humble opinion.
I use the term “filter” to describe the way in which extreme amateur sports like ultrarunning weed out the population to a small few who actually run these events. In large part, this filter is what makes ultrarunning so special.
There are inherent requirements to run ultras successfully. Some of those requirements are:
Let’s face it. Most people don’t believe they can run 30, 50, 100 miles, or more. This is why they don’t train for such an event. The very fact that they don’t believe it is possible, is why they don’t try. Biologically, they are very capable, assuming they don’t have some medical reason that prevents them from doing the activity. But, the fact that they don’t believe…filters the remote possibility of ever succeeding. Ultrarunners take great pride in doing something that seems impossible. In fact, we love it.
Running ultras is not easy. At the very least, it takes a lot of time and patience to develop your body to run these distances. People that feel they are unable to dedicate the amount of time necessary, will not take on the training regimen because they realize they would not be successful in doing so. Unfortunately, this eliminates people from running these incredible races. Having said that, people more often use a lack of time as an excuse, when there are countless examples of dedicated athletes who work full time, have families, and still find this elusive “time”. Many times, it is simply a matter of prioritizing one’s life and schedule.
Self-discipline is one of the most important qualities of successful ultrarunners. Self-discipline gets you out of a warm bed and out in the cold wind. Self-discipline helps you make food choices, and guides you to choose sleep over night on the town with friends. Self-discipline guides you to look back at your past races and choose to work on things that will help you in the future. A lack of self-discipline is what keeps younger people from running these events. Most ultrarunners are well over 40 years old. When I started running ultras at 29, I was considered a baby. Self-discipline is also developed over years of one’s life, which is why many ultrarunners are well beyond their 20s when they start running these crazy races.
Ultrarunning can be expensive. If you travel to races out of the country, or in other states, you are looking at spending thousands of dollars every year on this sport. Relative to triathlon, however, I can tell you that ultrarunning is very affordable. I was basically “priced out” of triathlon several years ago…between $5,000 carbon fiber bikes, $600 entry fees, and various fees for the pool, etc…I just didn’t have the money to participate in triathlon any more. Ultra costs money, for shoes, endurance nutrition, race fees, and travel…and if someone is on a very tight budget, these things can keep them from participating in the sport at all. Additionally, our sport is not “professionalized”, so the cost of races is much less than triathlon, which has, for better or worse, become a business in the last 30 years.
To some degree, I considered not even listing physical ability as a limitation. But, there are people that have injuries, or conditions, that prevent them from doing the sport. My wife, for instance, has “compartment syndrome”. It’s a painful condition in her lower legs created by pressure in the muscle chambers. She can cycle all day, but long walks or running leaves her in agony. Having acknowledged “physical ability”, I will say that this is the least important of limiting filters for running ultras. There are ultrarunners who have significant physical limitations, but still participate in the sport at a high level. Those include athletes who are blind, have missing limbs, deaf, or even cannot physically “run”. Several ultrarunners are pure “walkers” and they can walk faster than many people run…completing 100 milers and longer without running a single step.
For whatever reason, you are reading this. It is not by accident. I wrote this not as an advertisement for ultramarathons. I have no vested interest in the sport’s growth. In fact, I would prefer it stay just as it is…or was. I believe that the people that belong in the sport of ultrarunning will find it on their own. It’s a calling….and you may think that you are deciding to research this sport…because you have a distance interest.
But, in actuality, your fascination is being repeatedly triggered by things you are reading and hearing around you. It is not by accident…so, as one who spends hours every day thinking about energy, efficiency, and drive…I ask you to take a look inside yourself. Ask yourself why you would or would not attempt to participate in a challenge that may test your very being. Never let the idea of failure stop you from taking that step because the journey will leave you with a new perspective on life. It may not be ultrarunning that draws you in…but whatever that dream is you keep quietly to yourself, bring it out and start working with it.
I often use this example to help people find success in endurance sports…
If you were to board a large sailboat and begin a great journey, you would first choose a destination. From there, you would then decide what route to take and how to prepare for that journey. If you planned, prepared, and made good decisions along your journey, you would eventually reach your destination.
I believe many people are boarding a sailboat and heading out to sea without any destination in mind… it is a simple as choosing where you want to go. Dream a goal…and dream big. Then you design a realistic plan to take you from where you are right now…to that magic place in the distant future. In that space of time, you wipe a single tear from your eye and can’t find the words to express what you feel…but you know you have done the “impossible”. Remember, it is not the medal they hand you at the finish line. It is the visceral and intangible feeling of colorful energy that swells up from deep inside when you realize you have truly reached your destination.