"There's only one hard and fast rule in running: sometimes you have to run one hard and fast."

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Are Ultrarunners Crazy?

I've seen a lot of posts lately about, "Why do I run these crazy distances?" Usually, they make the standard "love of the challenge" comment. There is a good chance of failure each time you start an ultra; not many people fail to finish a 5K. Most of the time, though, ultrarunners are sheepish about sharing their exploits outside the community of dirt-munching mileage monsters, as it does sound a little crazy to drive to another state to run all day on a trail 18 inches wide.

There are some characteristics common in successful ultrarunners that border on personality disorders. Stubbornness, for example. Pushing on to the next checkpoint - when you know the odds of making the cut-off are non-existent- is losing touch with reality, but I think we all admire the people who do it. There ARE some serious problems one should watch out for, though, and I've never seen anyone describe them.

"Uncorrected personality traits, which seem whimsical in a child, may prove to be ugly in a fully grown adult." ["Uncorrected Personality Traits" by Robyn Hitchcock. Yes, there really is such a song!]

1) The addicted runner.

There are a lot of addicts in recovery who run ultras. They switch from destructive addictions to substances to a "positive" addiction. Some, however, return to destructive ways in their running. They're the ones who keep challenging themselves to do more and more; after they've run a 100 miler, they either move up to multidays or see how many 100s they can do in a year. They can't tell you their best times, but they can tell you exactly how many finishes they have. They run twice a day, usually. They run as many miles a week as they can and, if they reach a limit, they add some other exercise.

When other aspects of their life start falling apart because they're always tired or out running somewhere, they choose running. Their jobs and their families suffer. Their health suffers.

2) The obsessive-compulsive runner.

These are the runners who haven't missed a day of running in a decade or two, even though they had good reason to skip a day. Ron Hill famously scheduled his appendectomy so he could run just after midnight before the surgery and just before midnight the next day. They run when they're injured. They run the same course, the same distance, the same speed, every day. When they run races, they do them at the same speed at which they train; going faster might mean risking missing a day. These are the ones who have to do exactly 400 sit-ups before going to bed, who buy 20 pairs of the same running shoes when they hear that they're being discontinued.

3) The autistic-type runner.

These are a little harder to define than the first two. They run alone, if they can, and don't talk about how they train or what their plans are. They usually have odd goals, such as running a race in each county in a state or running from the second-highest peak in each state to the highest. They tend to fixate on some small part of their training and then, without explanation, switch to fixating on some other small part. They overlook what others would consider basic; for example, proper clothing, drinking or pacing. They ignore pain and run with a sort of glazed look in their eyes.

4) The anti-social runner.

If the third type ignores other runners, this type thinks too much about other runners and they don't think good thoughts. They're overly competitive. They don't want to run as well as they can in a race, they want to beat people and they'll sacrifice their own performance to make sure no one else does well, either. Fortunately, these are rare.

You might see some of yourself in these types. That's normal. It's usually a matter of proportion. As long as running ultras is a positive thing, you're probably okay. We tend to see these flaws more clearly in others than in ourselves, so keep an eye on each other and we'll all meet somewhere at the finish line.


keith said...

The next post you could explore how balancing the amounts of those traits lead to success as a runner - or person.

Seems to me the most "successful" runners, businesspeople, etc., all have their levels out of whack somewhere.

Tempting the fates by exploring where one's limits in those traits are is yet another reason to run. It teaches me about balance as much as it sheds light on the darker sides of my personality...I can find as many reasons to run with joy as I can to run with obsession or resentments.

Good post, man.

brent said...

I like your comment about running shoes...sometimes I think about doing that...oh oh.