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

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Ask me anything (expect me to lie)

I'm still too sick to run. Or eat or sleep.

Greg Petitto ran his first 50K at Trail Mix and is thinking about doing a 50 miler, so he asked some basic questions: (1) What motivates you to run 50 miles and beyond? (2) How do you know when your ultrarunning pursuits are bordering on becoming dangerous and no longer fit into the realm of a healthy, sane lifestyle? (3) What have you learned from ultrarunning that is invaluable and could not have been garnered otherwise? (4) What the heck are you trying to prove, if anything, and does your ego need the validation?

The first question leads to a bunch of related questions.

Why do people run their first 50 miler? Some people find that, the longer the race, the closer to the leader they are and it's just a natural progression; these tend to be fast and young. Others, discovering that they are never going to improve on their marathon PR and are steadily slowing, turn to the longer distances as a new territory to conquer. There's a crowd now that, having just read "Ultramarathon Man" or "Born to Run," have decided that "it's the thing to do." Most, though, are in it for the challenge; they know they can finish a marathon on any given weekend, and they can either join the run-a-marathon-in-every-state crowd or they can test themselves with a race they're not sure they can do.

Why did you run your first 50 miler? My first attempt was at age 19, when I discovered the then world age class record for men under 20 for 100K was something ridiculously slow, like 11-12 hours and I thought I could do that by running a marathon and just walking the rest (I was wrong). My first 50 mile run was a fluke; I had just finished a 50K race that was run on loops with a 50 Mile and, after finishing, I tagged along with a friend for another loop - and another.

My first real 50 miler came 25 years later. I did it on a whim, to see what it was like.

Why do people run another 50, once they've finished one? If they did well, they continue because they've found something they're good at; if they did poorly, they think of how much better they could've done, "if only" things were different and they try to improve. Most people like me, who find they're infinitely better at 5 miles than 50, stop; I've continued because of the following reasons: 1) The people you meet doing these things are great. 2) The scenery is worth the trip. 3) I keep thinking I'm learning what I need to do, but keep getting surprised; surprises like that are rare. 4) In a group of mud-caked sweaty middle-aged guys, I look pretty good.

How do you keep your mind in the race for 50 miles? Most don't.

What motivates you to finish the 50 miler once you've started? Sometimes, it's remembering all the hard training that went into the race and not wanting to waste it. Sometimes, it's knowing that getting to the finish line is simply the fastest way to be done (hanging out at an aid station until closing is really slow). Sometimes, it's just sheer orneriness. With experience in ultras, you come to know the wanting-to-quit feeling quite well and you know that it passes, so you just try to get past it.

The other questions are easier.

How do you know when your running is no longer sane or healthy? First, there's nothing healthy about ultrarunning, though you have to be healthy to do it. Second, there's a sliding scale of craziness; a large number of ultrarunners are recovered addicts, who just traded addictions. Ultrarunners seem to have either the best or the worst marriages.

When you get into running ultras, you develop camaraderie with others doing the same or similar things to you. When you tell them what your plans are, they'll usually be interested and maybe even excited for you. When you're about to go overboard, these same people will question your plans. When you've gone off the deep end, they don't say anything to you at all for a long, long time. Essentially, when you're boring others with what you think are great adventures, it's time to cut back.

What has ultrarunning taught you? After 30 years of running, I had streamlined training for races into a few ideas that worked for me. They all break down when training to run 100 miles. So, I learned that I didn't know as much as I thought I did. I also learned the names of a dozen muscles and tendons that I hurt at various times, what they do, how you stretch and strengthen them, etc.

What the heck are you trying to prove? There is an ultramarathoner type, both physically and mentally, and I'm the opposite of it; I'm trying to prove, at least to myself, that I can overcome the obstacles.


shannon said...

I'm sending you positive healing vibes, Steve!!

I think we all want to test our mettle, whether it's intellectually or physically (or both). There is such an exquisite allure to attempting a feat where the outcome is not highly predictable. Prior to my first marathon, running 26.2 miles seemed daunting. I love the marathon distance, but when I toe the line I know, unless I become injured, that I will finish. Ultrarunning opens up a new set of challenges with endless possibilities.

I agree with you that the opportunity to meet great people and form lasting relationships simply can't be underestimated. I have been fortunate to meet some awesome people that I wouldn't have, hadn't it been for our mutual love of running.

I'm now sending "air hugs", they have been proven scientifically to have amazing salutary effects!! :)

Matthew Patten said...

For me the whole thing is about putting myself in a position where I know I will get to the edge. What I do when I am at the edge keeps me in check. Sometimes I get through it, sometimes I don't.

50 usually gets me to the edge, but I did get through one unscathed. Strangely enough it was my fastest one.

I do recall sitting on the porch after IA50 a few years back saying "why the hell do we do this?"

Greg said...

Great thoughts, Steve. Thanks for sharing.