“Why an Ultra?” or “Are you Crazy?”

Since my running has dropped off precipitously over the last week since staying home with the kids, it seems like an odd time to be writing about why I want to run an ultra-marathon.  I’ve dropped from a high of 38 miles a week to just over twenty last week, and don’t think it will be going up much more for the next two months, so the topic of a 50K or 50 mile race seems a bit removed from my life right now.  However, I’ve been thinking about running just as much, and don’t think these few months of reduced running will change the timing of my goal, which is to do my first ultra next spring.  I’m trying to think of these few months of lower mileage as giving my legs a bit of a rest (and also escaping the dreaded heat and humidity combo of a NYC summer).

I’m still doing a long run of 12 – 18 miles each Saturday with Nat in the jogging stroller, and figure I can get in a 6-8 miles run most Sundays, so I can keep a base of at least 20 miles for now, and maybe, eventually, I’ll be able to force myself out the door after both kids are asleep to get in a few extra miles (but I wouldn’t place any bets).  Then in the fall, I’m starting work at a new school out here in Brooklyn, that is only 3.8 miles away.  My plan is to bike to work Mondays and Fridays, so I can get a week worth of material and changes of professional clothes to and from school, then do a running commute Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.  That will give me 24 miles during the week, so hitting a 40 – 50 mile week during ultra-training shouldn’t be a problem at all.  In the mean time, I’m doing some barefoot drills in the house to work on ankle and leg strength, plus some body-weight exercises and core work to stay in shape and support the longer miles I hope to do in the fall (and ward off the Stay at Home Dad Weight Gain I experienced when I was home with Nat).

Also, with Western States this Saturday, I’ve been reading and thinking almost nothing but utras all week, so its on my mind. Not that I’ll likely every be in a place where I’ll have the time to devote to training for a race like this, but watching this promo gives me goose-bumps:

Which brings us back to the question posed by this entry: why an ultra?  I’ve been asked this a number of times, and asked it of myself frequently as well.  While many people question running at all, most get it to some extent, even if they themselves don’t run (though I have to admit I find my always just-about-to-start-a-work-out-regime co-workers tedious.  Co-worker waiting to take the elevator up two floors: “Chris, you’re so fit.  Maybe I should start running.” My Reply: Smile, nod.  My in-my-head reply: “Then do it.  Or a least start taking the stairs.”)  Answering “why run?” is easy.

Then there is the next level: why run a marathon?  Again, this is something people get, at least theoretically, even if far fewer people actually participate in it.  In most people’s minds, marathons straddle the border between human and super-human, the impossible feat that the every-man, with enough gumption, can accomplish.  Co-workers and friends are impressed, but not confused, by this goal.  When you mention 20 mile training runs, their jaws drop and they shake their heads as to how one can find that enjoyable, but it makes some amount of sense: a long run is merely difficult hurdle towards a Big Goal (getting them to understand that long runs are, in fact, the highlight of my week, is a little harder).

But why an ultra?  That question is asked more often (nearly every time the fact I hope to run an ultra ever comes up in conversation) simply because ultras are outside of most people’s experience; most people I talk to scarcely even know they exist.  A marathon is the longest distance endurance almost everyone thinks of “normal” people competing in.  Tell most people that 50 mile races aren’t uncommon, and they are surprised; tell them that 100 mile races exist, and they look skeptical; tell them you are planning on taking part in one, and they look at you like you’re crazy.

Why an ultra?  The answer to the question, like the distance of the race itself, begins at the end of my last marathon.  My first marathon shattered my beliefs in what I was capable of: in the space of 3 years, I had progressed from an out-of-shape smoker to stumbling through my first 5K to finishing a marathon in just over 4 hours.  I had pushed against boundaries of possibility and found them to be elastic.  After a year off from running (thanks to the appearance of my son, Nat), I started running just in time to complete the 2010 New York City Marathon.  This time I couldn’t make all my runs, and gave up any sort of time goal: instead, I just ran for the experience, for the joy of the race.  I finished 20 minutes slower than 2008, but I ended strong, with a grin on my face, and felt like the entire run was (not to sound overly arrogant) easy.

Why  not just another marathon?  I do want to run more marathons, but I also want to continue doing what I did in my first marathon: pushing the boundaries of myself, exploring who I am and what I am capable of.  My first marathon was a question and an answer, and I feel all future marathons would just be repeating the same answer again.  Not to say each wouldn’t be its own challenge or wouldn’t be difficult (I’m not that arrogant), but I’m confident I would finish them.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I could finish a marathon tomorrow, without training, even if my time would be crap and the recovery unpleasant.  I want to pose the question again – “what can I do?” — and find out.

So why not set a new goal for a marathon?  I finished my first in 4:00:18, which while pretty good for a first-time marathon, isn’t anywhere near remarkable.  I could train for four hours, then three and a half; I could push for that pinnacle of amateur marathon racing, a Boston Qualifying time, which right now is 3:10 for my age and gender.  But as I’ve said before, speed doesn’t really interest me.  That isn’t entirely true, since I have times for a few distances that I’d like to break: 21 minutes for a 5K, 50 minutes for a 10K, 1:45 for a half-marathon, 4 hours for a full.  Honestly, however, if I never hit any of those bench-marks, I won’t be that disappointed.  Obviously training for a 3:30 marathon would let me discover something about myself, as that goal also poses a question about my limits and capabilities, but for some reason that question doesn’t intrigue me.  Not to demean racing for speed, but something about it seems more clinical, almost actuarial: it’s about lap-splits, repeats, VO2-Max training.  It’s precise and technical, which is definitely its own challenge, but not what I’m interested in.

An ultra seems like a winnowing experience, something that strips away all the layers of ego and pretension and leaves you with nothing but yourself and 50 miles of trail.  One of the reasons I like running without music is that I so seldom spend hours without media stimulation, without other people’s ideas and company: music, pod-casts, news programs, blogs, books, newspapers, conversation, Sesame Street, my kids, writing for this site.  Running alone is cleansing, and an ultra seems purifying in its length and physiological length.

There is something almost religiously devout in the intensity and solitude of an ultra-marathon.  Back in college, when I was a dedicated Catholic attending daily mass, I seriously considered joining the Trappist order after I graduated.  For the non-Catholics, the Trappists are a cloistered order that also lives under a vow of silence, and I actually spent Spring break of my senior year living in a Trappist monastery just outside of Rochester, meditating and meeting with a novice master about my interest in their order.  After I slipped away from Catholicism I became Buddhist, and one of the most intensely beautiful experiences was taking part in the twenty-four hour Tara practice a few times.  The practice involves an hour long chanted ceremony that is recited ever four hours for twenty-four hours.  By the end of the ritual you are nearly delirious and only half-awake, but everything is more intense and present.  Both the Trappist life of silence and a day spent chanting are extreme examples of religious piety, and both ask similar questions as an ultra-marathon: who are you when you don’t have all the layers of personality and distracting glamour that we spend most of our lives building up?  Who are you when the temporary veneers of ego and illusion are no longer there?

An ultra-marathon is “real” – there is no faking your way through it, no quick short-cuts to success.  Finishing won’t be dependent on your shoes or clothing or brand of hydration pack, because nothing can get you through 50 miles if you aren’t up to it.  And you might not finish.  Shel, over at “Terrible Twos and Running Shoes” wrote a great post to this end earlier this week: anytime you start an ultra-marathon, you don’t know whether or not you will finish.  No one can.   Almost everyone who starts a 5K will finish it.  95% of runners who start a marathon complete it, even if it takes 6 hours.  But a large percentage of starters who start an ultra DNF – do not finish.  The very thing that might discourage one from an ultra is what draws me to the distance.  That is a question worth asking of oneself, because the answer is truly in question.  Its not a matter of how fast or how well I will finish, or what I need to do to guarantee I finish, but whether I will finish.  Maybe it is crazy, but Buddhism and Hinduism both have the concept of Avadhuta: “crazy wisdom.”  On the other side of an ultra-marathon is an understanding of yourself that nothing else can provide, and I’d like to find out who that person is.  The idea of standing at the starting line of 50 mile race scares me . . . and excites me beyond measure, because the runner who finishes won’t be exactly the same as the one who started.


About Chris Van Dyke

I am a 33 year-old high school English teacher and long-distance runner. I live in Brooklyn with my partner, our 3 year-old son and 1 year-old daughter and a growing collection of muppets and trains. Besides running and teaching I like to draw, read, write, cook, and play the harmonica. While I didn't get to run my first ultra-marathon on my birthday, I've got a few more I've set my sights on. You can follow my (seldom updated) twitter feed @aboutrunning. I also blog as part of the Run Smiley Collective.
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