Digging Into "The Why" of Ultrarunning
Seeking meaning, purpose, and more through running & racing
Running down Camp Bird Road on hard-packed snow last Saturday, my friend Christina and I talked about training strategies and the shorter races we would run in the coming months to lead up to our goal 100-milers.
Our run stirred excitement in me for the summer ultra season. This road—an old mining road flanked by 12,000-foot mountains that runs southward from Ouray’s box canyon waterfall toward Telluride, roughly paralleling the highway that leads to Silverton—is an artery through the beating heart of trail-running and off-roading routes in the San Juan Mountains. Both the Hardrock 100 and Ouray 100 run along Camp Bird Road. The Imogene Pass Run starts here and charges over the 13,000-foot pass to reach Telluride.
Whenever I’m here, I flash back on race experiences along this road, but I also picture my grandpa riding a skittish horse through snow along the way. As a young man, he left Stanford Law School to land a scarce job here during the Depression. He rented a horse from Ouray’s livery to ride up to Camp Bird Mine in the winter of 1932, where he worked underground operating a hoist and busting up rock, as detailed in his memoir One Man’s West. (Then he let the horse loose; horses served as “self-returning taxis” for miners and knew to run back down this road to the town stable.)
I also picture my dad, who would drive us down this road in the mid-1970s in his truck—my siblings and me bouncing in the back—on the tail end of a day trip on a mountain pass to get to the Ouray Hot Springs.
As always, picturing them, I think about the passage of time and mortality.
Ouray has an enduring spirit of hard work mixed with adventure and risk-taking. It felt good to be back here (an hour’s drive from my home). It felt good to feel good running, period. I don’t take this feel-good runner’s “high”—a calm contentment for me these days—for granted. Feeling stiff and drained during and after a run has become more the norm.
“I’m kind of wondering what I’ve gotten myself into,” I told Christina after describing the litany of ultras on this year’s calendar. My race lineup looks as bold as any past year’s:
Ventura Marathon, February 27
Behind the Rocks 50K (Moab), March 26
Desert Rats 50K (Fruita), April 16
Miwok 100K (Marin Headlands), May 7
Durango Skyline 50K, June 4
San Juan Solstice 50 (Lake City), June 25
High Lonesome 100 (Buena Vista), July 22
Telluride Mountain Run 40M, Aug. 27
Hanging Flume 50K (near Nucla), Oct. 1
I’ve been puzzling over the psychological and practical reasons for committing to these events.
It’s not like I need to prove anything or take on these challenges to test my limits; I’ve run these and other races like them in the past. They are not bucket-list goals.
I’m also not a significant competitor, as I once aspired to be. The last time I gave a race my all and won it—the self-supported weeklong 2019 Grand to Grand Ultra, at age 50—it felt incredibly gratifying, like a lifetime achievement award, because I knew my place at races going forward would be in the midpack, and I needed to make peace with that. Now, I compete mainly with myself rather than against others to perform my best under the circumstances.
I also don’t need to run ultra distances for physical health. Running just a fraction of the mileage that I do would keep me plenty healthy.
My conscience is bugging me, therefore, because it seems at times quite frivolous, escapist, and privileged to run for hours and hours during tough times (or in any times?), making me feel as if I should do extra meaningful and productive work outside of running to justify it.
Maybe I’m overthinking this entirely? Perhaps, but let me drill down a bit, because I know other ultrarunners grapple with their commitment and purpose too.
Each individual race I’m entering this year has a reasonable “why” in my mind. The marathon last month gave me an opportunity to visit my old hometown and kickstarted fitness for this year. The two 50Ks coming up soon are training runs for the following 100K. The Miwok 100K in May, which I ran a decade ago, is special, classic race that provides a chance to revisit some favorite Northern California trails and reconnect with runner friends there.
Then, the Durango 50K is an opportunity to experience a new route and accomplish a supported long run in preparation for the tough 50-miler in late June. That San Juan Solstice 50M is a chance to redeem myself after a poor performance there in 2018 and spend time around the picturesque little town of Lake City.
All those races work together as training for my big goal of the High Lonesome 100, which I want to run again—and perform better—after an unforgettable time there last year. The final two events of the season are “just for fun,” driven by the desire to run those routes and connect with others there.
It makes sense, sort of. I’m blessed to have the health and opportunities to do this. But why embark on another year devoted to so much running? Is this the best use of time and energy? These are the questions that gnaw at me.
I engaged in ultrarunning navel-gazing while working through Mental Training for Ultrarunning, a sports psychology workbook by top runner Addie Bracy that has a chapter devoted to analyzing and fine-tuning one’s “why” for long-distance running and racing.
Doing that workbook’s exercises helped me understand that my two-decade-long involvement in the sport has been driven mostly by healthy and positive reasons. But, a few less-healthy reasons grounded in fear or insecurity also push me.
One overriding goal I have now is to recognize and nurture the positive reasons for running and racing ultras, and try to work through and let go of the negative ones.
I’ll share some of the self-help self-analysis below—the notes I jotted down in list format—even though I’m a bit embarrassed because these lists come across as overly self-absorbed and trite. I’m curious if any readers relate, or how you’d construct a similar list.
Some of the positive reasons I train for and race ultras:
Because training for and competing in races provides goals, structure, and a sense of accomplishment, all of which are hard to come by when working independently from home.
Because running provides a sense of calm and control during uncertain and anxiety-producing times that I can’t control.
Because I belong to a community through ultrarunning that shares my interest and generates friendships.
Because preparing for races adds purpose and challenge to long training runs like the 20-miler last weekend in Ouray. If I didn’t have that 50K on the calendar in two weeks, I likely would have run only half that far and missed out on the experience of pushing through fatigue and feeling stronger and more satisfied afterward because of that.
Because my imagination wanders when I’m running unplugged; I do my best thinking while on a run, and the run also gives me time to listen to enlightening audiobooks and podcasts.
Because it keeps me in great shape—strong muscles and bones, healthy weight, healthy vital stats.
Because races in far-off destinations prompt travel and exploration.
Because races build confidence. I manage to get through uncomfortable and difficult circumstances without quitting, thinking afterward, “I can’t believe I did that”—but I did do it, which helps me feel I can handle almost anything that comes my way.
Because, quite simply, it’s beautiful and refreshing to run through nature. The sport of mountain running inspires me to get outside and cover more adventurous territory than I would otherwise.
This season, I’ll work on running more for those reasons, and in doing so, hope to appreciate it more.
Some less positive reasons I train for and race ultras, based on fear or insecurity:
Because it makes me feel and act younger, and I’m fighting aging because I’m scared of losing youth and vitality. I don’t want to look old, slow down, or grow frail. I want to look and feel like I’m 40 again.
Because my identity is grounded in being a runner and coach, and if I gave it up, I’m afraid I’d lack purpose or relevance and would struggle to answer the question, “What do you do?”
Because I’m sometimes lonely, and through running I seek connection with others and belonging.
Because I’m procrastinating on daunting projects or avoiding problems; going for a run is escapist.
Because I need the ego gratification and pride that come from excelling at races that most others would find too challenging and unpleasant, because I’m lacking that gratification and pride elsewhere in life.
Looking over the second list, it’s clear I need to meet the challenge of developing myself outside of running, to find more satisfaction, connection, and purpose beyond the sport. “Better late than never”—I’m not ready to retire, and I want to be much more than a runner. To this end, I’m starting to pursue some different work options and projects, which will diminish my coaching business, but I’m ready for that change.
I also need to celebrate, not lament, whatever age I’m at. I need to remind myself: hey, you’re only turning 53, not 83! I have at least three good decades still ahead! My hangup about aging stems in part from having always identified as the youngest—the youngest of five siblings, the youngest of my friends since I skipped a grade in school—so it’s difficult to accept that I’m not the young one anymore; I’m approaching senior status and getting more wrinkled, slow, and gray.
At times like this when I’m bellyaching about growing old, I take comfort and inspiration from several older female ultrarunners I know who keep on trail running in their late 50s through 70s like tough old mountain goats. I want to be like them and be a role model for the next generation coming up in the sport. We’ll show that “over the hill” means running up and down mountains.
Recommended reading, viewing & listening:
Several films, books, posts, and podcasts dovetail with what I wrote. These are a few of my favorites:
The Why: a half-hour film by Billy Yang—like all his docs, moving and inspiring—that explores his reasons for running the Leadville 100.
The Pleasure and the Pain: a five-minute documentary about my friend Errol “The Rocket” Jones, which explores aging, suffering, and perseverance. I appear briefly in this film and had a hand in getting it produced. Sometime I’ll share the funny story behind the story. I used to run with Rocket weekly in Oakland and miss him.
The Morning Shakeout Podcast interview with Phil Shin: This is a terrific, touching episode by coach Mario Fraioli that shares the story of a late-blooming runner’s motivators, and how cancer affected and strengthened his relationship to running and changed his approach to competition.
Meeting Myself Where I Am: Bryon Powell of iRunFar wrote a post last week about working on self-acceptance and adjusting goals, and it resonated.
A Runner’s High: My Life in Motion: I recently finished Dean Karnazes’s latest book, which is a sequel of sorts to his bestselling 2005 Ultramarathon Man. I’ve known and followed Dean for quite some time, and in 2012 wrote an in-depth profile of him for Trail Runner, when he was facing 50. Now he’s almost 60. His new book is mostly easy and breezy, but at certain points he tackles aging, and reflects on his evolving place in the sport and his identity, in ways that touched me and to which I could relate.
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