‘Walking: A mode of travel rarely acknowledged but commonly used during ultra marathons. We’ve even named it “powerhiking” to save some face.’
…the famous ultra runner and author Dean Karnazes had once said, that people mistake comfort for happiness. ‘Happiness needs to be earned.’
In the midst of the race, and struggling to understand what she was doing there, Gudrun had asked rhetorically: ‘Why do we do this? We have such a nice home.’
Standing next to her, her husband, Hansmarting, chipped in, ‘Because we have a nice home.’
Spanish ultra athlete Azara Garcia has a tattoo on her leg that reads (in Spanish):
The Devil whispered in my ear: ‘You’re not strong enough to withstand the storm.’
I whispered back: ‘I am the storm.’
Is this the appeal of ultra running? To push ourselves to a place where we stand face to face with the Devil, the depths of the struggle, but then to rise up and overcome it?
The rationale behind the ‘Six-day races’, now in cycling:
… as a result he set in motion a craze for six-day races—the longest time you could walk and run without encroaching on the sanctity of the Sabbath.
‘Pretty quickly six-day bike races replaced six-day walking matches because they were much more exciting. The racing speed went from 4mph to 20mph overnight. And the crashes were more spectacular.’
I need to embrace the early mornings—I see from the increasing number of ultra runners I follow on social media that this is when they train in order to fit it in around the rest of their lives.
But it is easy to say.
In reality, in the middle of winter, when the alarm goes off at 6 a.m., and you can feel the icy chill outside the duvet, the tiredness rushing back in waves, flooding your whole body, sucking you back down into bed … then it’s easy to think: I’ll go later. That will be fine. I need to rest, sleep is important too. Sleep is nice.
But once the day is up and running, the time gets taken. My three children need driving to school, my office expects me to turn up for work, I need to eat, wash up, then I get tired again. I’ll go for twice as long next morning, I tell myself. I’ll get up early and go for a big run at 5 a.m. I can do three hours before anyone wakes up.
But I don’t. And it repeats.
One of the most common things I’ve heard in my nascent investigation into ultra running is that it is basically ‘an eating competition with some running thrown in.’
Not only is running and eating at the same time a test of dexterity, it can also upset your stomach. So, you need to practice, and find out which foods work for you.
…. in longer races, it can become difficult, after ten, twenty or thirty hours of running, to even move your jaw to chew, or to generate enough saliva to actually swallow food.
Dr. Dan Ariely says we will cheat if we can justify it to ourselves. In his book, The Truth About Dishonesty, he says humans are story telling creatures by nature, and that we will tell ourselves story after story until we come up with an explanation that sounds reasonable and believable.
Cheating, psychologists say, is especially easy to justify when you frame situations to cast yourself as a victim of some kind of unfairness. Then it becomes a matter of evening the score; you’re not cheating, you’re restoring fairness.
Elite track coach Steve Magness, on his blog ‘The Science of Running’, writes: ‘We all cheat. Boy only how much we can get away with while still telling ourselves we are good, decent people. There are very few people walking around thinking in their head that they are a horrible person.’
‘In general people don’t cheat for material gain,’ he said. ‘We cheat to think about ourselves differently, to feel more pride in ourselves … it’s about wanting to see reality in a certain way, seeing ourselves as more successful, faster, or whatever.’
It’s a damp squib of a morning as we arrive in the small town of Denton for the start of our run. A grey drizzle hangs in the air, draining all the colour from the world.
In elite ultra trail running there are, broadly speaking two main domains: Europe and the USA. In Europe, the trails are considered rough and technical, and are dominated by mountain men, Alpinists such as Kilian Jornet and François D’Haene. In the US, the trails tend to be smoother, more runnable, and the scene here is slowly being taken over by a bunch of young stars with a background in track or road running…
The burritos are ready. Zach eats them without a wrap, so I do the same—just a big plate full of beans, rice and vegetables—he sticks mayonnaise and mustard on his. It reminds me of the food of the Kenyan marathon runners, who eat a lot of beans and rice.
We wake up to a fresh four feet of snow. Zach is already bustling around screwing his trainers on to special running snowshoes. They’re like two mini skateboards without the wheels, and let him run on top of the snow, rather than sinking waist deep at every step.
He tells me about the time when the camp was so busy that he didn’t manage to get his run in, so he decided to run to the Pikes Peak summit at two o’clock in the morning. He says he enjoyed it so much, he went up again the next night. And the next.
‘I ended up doing it seven nights in a row,’ he said. ‘I don’t know why, I just felt like it.’
Zach is the emobodiment of the honest toil of ultra running. He lives in a hut in the woods and chops wood instead of going to the gym. He doesn’t use Strava or wear a fancy GPS watch, but runs with a five-dollar Casio watch he bought in a market in Portugal. Before that he used to run using the clock on the wall at Barr Camp. He would go out and run, and only look at the time when he got back. If the clock on the wall said only two hours had gone by, he would go back out and run some more.
When he races, he eschews tactics and strategy, pushing himself as hard as he can for as long as he can. It’s reckless and it can leave him broken, even when he wins. Bit it is inspiring. It is the heart triumphing over the mind.
I ask him (Dave Mackay) what drives him on to continue running, even now after his accident.
‘I love being outdoors, in the hills,’ he says. ‘It gives me a lot of energy and fulfillment. Adventure is a big part of it. Exploring, experiencing the everyday changes in the mountains. Being out with friends, too. I guess the rewards are still too great to stop.’
She (Catra Corbet) has extreme written all over her, in her style, in her stories, in the worldly look in her eyes. In fact, it is literally written on her in the skulls and butterfly wings on her thigh. It reads:
‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’
‘I know my body can do it,’ he says. ‘I just hope my head can.’
‘Run the kilometer you’re in. Don’t worry about how many you have left, just run this one.‘
The signs are still declaring 46km to go. I’m too tired, surely, to keep this up for that long. But for one km, I can do it. Hang in there.
Somewhere between the tornado, the endless smiling, the shuffling gait and the scientific approach to training lies a secret recipe for ultra-running success. Perhaps. ‘Maybe it’s just genetic,’ she (Camille Herron) says, ‘Like maybe I have super mitochondria or something. I’d love to donate myself to science one day to find out why I never get tired.’
In Comrades, again, Camille grabbed a beer from her husband with a few miles to go, much to the amazement of the millions in South Africa watching the race on TV.
‘My hamstrings had got tight,’ she says. ‘The beer took my mind off it. It chilled me out and I felt better.’
Saxby gas a series of basic tests he says you need to be able to pass before you should even start running. One is a comfortable deep squat.
’… of all the runners I’ve worked on, 98 percent of the cause is weak glutes. If you run without glutes—and I’m talking neurologically—the force gets translated down the chain into hamstrings, then the calves. As they tighten, the pull on the plantar fascia or put strain on the Achilles, and you get pain.‘
‘get your head right’
I found myself running next to a man who told me that to complete a race like this, you needed to get your head right. …I asked him what he meant by that.
‘You get to a point in an ultra when you want to stop. Your mind will try to convince you to stop, that you can’t carry on, so you have to know why you are out there, you need to be strong in your conviction that you need to keep going. If your head is right, you can do it.
It fits exactly with my experience in virtually every ultra marathon I’ve run Each time, my mind has shut me down early through a combination of clever arguments and the perception of pain. And unlike the top ultra runners, or those with trauma in their lives, who relish the pain, who wait for it and hit it head on, dig into it, I have give in meekly each time, letting myself be dragged into self-pity, my body weakening, my pace grinding almost to a halt. It was only when my mind decided I was close enough to the end, that we were safe, that it released me, and gave me access again to my reserves of strength.
The best way to stop my mind overwhelming me is to forget about how far I have left to run and to stay in the moment, as so many ultra runners have told me.
Once you descend into that dark place out on the trail, where everything is crashing down around you, you need to find something real to keep you moving. It could be love or pain, but it has to be real. It certainly won’t be Facebook likes.
The mythical UTMB start :)
Right on cue, a man steps onto a large platform above the start with an electric guitar and starts the first screeching, soaring notes of Vangelis’s ‘Conquest of Paradise’, the race anthem. The black clouds swirl about the mountains, as the song builds and guitar riffs meld with thumping classical strains. I feel the stirring, the adrenaline rushing through me, as I stand, alone, among the crowd, facing the mountains, the rain. I am the storm.
It’s not about the pain…
I remember Kieren Alger telling me that after he had dropped out of the Lavaredo ultra in Italy, he stood in his hotel brushing his teeth and thought then that he could have done it. If only he kept going. The memory of the pain dissolves so quickly.
Rachel says she is already looking for another 100-mile race, looking to gather the points for the UTMB next year. What about the pain? I ask her. Do you really what to go through that again?
‘I don;t see it as suffering,’ she says. ‘For me the experience of an ultra doesn’t even begin until about 80km. At the start I have too much energy, but when I get tired, everything melts away and it’s just me and the running. That;s what I love about ultras, the feeling of the breath, the movement, experiencing the world on your feet. It’s empowering.’
It reminds me of the marathon monks of Mount Hiei in Japan who run a thousand marathons in a thousand days.
‘The idea behind the constant movement,’ one of the monks explained to me, ‘is to exhaust the mind, the ego, the body, everything, until nothing is left. Then something, pop, something comes up to fill the space.’
This something, he says, ‘is the vast consciousness that lies below the surface of our lives, beyond the limits of our usual, everyday experience. A sense of oneness with the universe.’