Something Makes Him Tick: Psychology of an Ultrarunner
Running distances further than a marathon — in some cases, running distances A LOT further than a marathon — takes a certain type of character.
I believe that character is deep inside all of us, there for the unlocking. I didn’t know I had one, and WOULD HAVE LAUGHED if you said I had one, just a couple years ago. But now I am certain we all have it.
It just takes something to trigger it.
Like rage. Fear. A broken heart.
For me, it was all three. At once.
I had just caught the running bug and my destination was: THE MARATHON. I thought there was no finer achievement. So I dug right in.
At the time, I was dating a girl who I really dug. She was perfect. Maybe I was falling in love.
She was a runner too. She’d drawn me in to the sport actually. She was training for her first marathon as well and her target was Chicago 2010. I loved being with her for the build up and the excitement. And I started thinking about what it would be like to run further than a marathon. Is it possible? Do people hurt themselves trying? I was really clueless that an entire world of ultrarunners even existed.
And then I found Dean Karnazes’ book, Ultramarathon Man. I was fascinated. And determined I would test the waters. Some day. Soon.
The girl thought that running more than a marathon was dangerous. And stupid.
I didn’t say much. I put it in my brain’s back pocket and forgot about it.
But then, exactly one week before she was to run the Chicago Marathon, on a cold October morning, she broke up with me.
I went for a run. And on that run, I decided I was not only going to beat her marathon time (by a lot), but I was also going to tackle the ultra distances. 50 miles. 100 miles. 24 hour races. I’m doing that shit.
That was how my switch was flipped.
And now I’m doing that. I’m really doing it.
So much hurt has brought so much joy to my life. I find it astoundingly ironic.
And just perfect.
From the Hilarious to the Ridiculous
Misconceptions of long-distance runners are numerous among the non-running crowd. Here is but a sample of some of the things I’ve heard:
Running like that is not good for your knees, typically said by the overweight frump eating McDonald’s and drinking a 72 ounce soda.
50 miles? No way! I don’t even like to drive 50 miles!
How long is this marathon?
The body is not meant to run for hours like that, typically said by the overweight frump still eating McDonald’s and drinking a 72 ounce soda.
You need to eat more. (PS: I AM ALWAYS EATING!!!)
How many times have you shit yourself? Why do people think we shit ourselves? Good grief. I don’t know anyone who has ever done this, so I am baffled by the infatuation with this fabrication.
Is Forrest Gump your favorite movie? typically asked by the overweight frump eating McDonald’s, drinking a 72 ounce soda, now hooked up to life support.
And after telling my grandma I’d just run a marathon, she asked, “Well, did you win?”
She sounded disappointed when I told her I had not.
People who have met me within the last couple of years have a hard time believing I used to be someone else. Not that I was literally someone else, but the lifestyle I led and the things that interested me used to be so far from what they are now that I might as well have been another person.
Every runner has a story. There’s the story about running into a coyote on the trail, the story of getting clipped by that car that one time, the story of blowing up during that race. But a runner’s creation story is what I always find to be the most fascinating: how did a runner become a runner.
Here’s my story:
Growing up I was an active kid. Sure we had Nintendo, but in order to play it we had to be outside most of the day, doing whatever it was we kids would do: baseball, soccer, basketball, tag, kick the can, chase the girl! I grew up with a full house of siblings so we lived for good weather, exploring the neighborhood and bottle rocket fights.
My dad was a runner. Marathons, trail runs, 5Ks. I always had fun going to races and cheering for him in different events. When I was about 12 years old I started running with him in local short races. I didn’t particularly enjoy the running (it was hard!) but I did like the atmosphere and the eclectic group of folks who would get together and run around together for a couple hours. They’re crazy! I used to think.
I ran track in junior high. I ran the mile because it was the furthest distance offered and my dad seemed to like the idea of me running the longer distances like he did, so I just went with it. I wasn’t very good and I whined about how hard it was. I think my fastest time was 6-something. I was getting smoked.
By the time I reached high school I’d had it with track and had moved on to different things — music and theatre mostly. Dad continued to run and whenever I was feeling particularly out of shape I’d hit the road for 5 miles or so. But I didn’t enjoy it. I was used to being comfortable, and back then, for me, running was the absolute opposite of comfort.
In 1997, as a new freshman in college, I went for a run and quickly encountered the hill monsters of Kalamazoo, Michigan. Well, I’m done with this running shit, I thought. And I was.
Which is probably a good thing for the 18-year old me, because I quickly found other passions, like booze and smoking and chasing tail. My outta-this-world metabolism kept me from becoming Jabba the Hutt, so I ate whatever I felt like eating. I also drank and smoked, drank and smoked, drank and smoked.
Fast forward to December 30, 2009. The only part of my college lifestyle that had changed was that I wasn’t in college, and my metabolism wasn’t quite as efficient. I was constantly feeling tired (despite never having done anything), I struggled with severe bouts of depression and I was all the time coughing/wheezing/gasping.
Meh. This is my place in the universe, I told myself. This is who I am. I smoke a pack and a half a day. That’s just the way it is.
I was late for work and had about 4 minutes to catch the bus. From my place to the bus stop is about a quarter of a mile. If I walked I’d be late, so I decided to run.
Couldn’t make it.
About halfway through I stopped, keeled over onto my knees, gasping for breath. WHEEEEEEZE HUHHHH WHEEEEEEEZE HUHHHH. People were staring at me, kids were pointing, an old lady asked “Are you okay?”
I’M DONE WITH THIS, I yelled at myself. JUST STOP IT! THIS IS INSANE!
I was so embarrassed, so full of shame of what I was right then and there at that moment that I decided to do something I’d seemingly forgotten how to do: I took control of my life.
I quit smoking. That day. I haven’t smoked a cigarette since.
I quit boozing. I quit depriving my body of sleep. I quit filling my body with synthetic food stuffs, learned about basic nutrition and revamped my entire diet.
But most of all, I decided I wanted to be a runner again.
The first “run” lasted about 3 minutes. I didn’t get very far. But I kept going. I’d walk a little, jog a little, walk a little, jog a little. I made it a whole mile in about 20 minutes.
The next day, instead of quitting, I put on my shoes and went out the door again. Every time I thought about quitting, I saw myself keeled over, embarrassed by my lack of fitness, my lack of identity.
I’M A RUNNER GODDAMMIT. I’M A RUNNER.
I told myself this. I made myself believe it. And over the next couple of months, one mile became two, then two became three. I was feeling good. And most of all, I was HAPPY. I finished every run with a great big smile on my face.
Then, in the summer of 2010, a colleague of mine told me he was running a 5K sponsored by one of the museums we work with in Chinatown. He asked if I wanted to run it. A 5K? Me? My first instinct was to decline, so instead, I said yes.
Immediately, I wrote an email to my father, telling him as much. He seemed incredulous. In fact, to him, this entire “lifestyle transformation” of mine seemed too abrupt to be real. And considering how little attention I paid to personal health and well-being prior, I don’t blame him for thinking that way.
But I emailed him a copy of my race registration confirmation.
And a little bit later he emailed me a copy of his.
My dad traveled all the way from Houston, Texas to Chicago, Illinois to run a goddamn 5K with me, to show his support for my new direction, to pat me on the back for having the courage to finally change.
I ran my heart out in that race. I made my dad proud. And I never looked back.
I was a runner.
I am a runner.
And in becoming one, I found out it makes me the happiest me I can be.
The Escalating Race Fee and How Some Experiences Just Can’t Be Understood by the Dollar
As race fees continue to go up, one needn’t search far to find someone with an opinion on the matter. From Runner’s World to the blogosphere to the regulars of my weekly group run, people are talkin’ about it and sometimes it gets FEISTY!
Earlier this month, I signed up for the now sold out 2012 Chicago Marathon. I was so paranoid of missing entry that I registered THE EXACT MINUTE registration opened. I whizzed through the many pages of sign-up and when it came to pay the $150 registration fee (up $5 from 2011), I didn’t even flinch.
I would’ve paid $300 to run the Chicago Marathon. Any more than that and I’d have to seriously check my budget, but to me, every single penny of that $150 is well beyond worth it.
I’m a dreamer. I love to picture myself doing extraordinary things. But reality is an asskicker.
I will never take a pitch in the Big Leagues. I will never drive the lane or shoot a game-tying three in the NBA. The NFL will never see my touchdown dance.
But on October 7, 2012, I will take to 26.2 miles of my home city like a rock star, running at top speed, supported by the voracious cheers of the million plus spectators lining the streets with their bodies and their roars. The entire city will stop for me. I will be on top of my universe.
I will never get that feeling at the St. Louis Marathon. Or the Houston Marathon. Or any marathon that isn’t a World Major, or at least treated as such. If one hasn’t had this experience, he or she will have a hard time understanding it, but trust me: it’s definitely worth $150.
Not everyone feels this way.
And that’s cool too. Some folks have a dollar per mile limit, like they won’t pay more than $3 a mile, so no more than $78 for a marathon. That’s totally cool. You can run the St. Louis Marathon for that.
But it’s lonely. You won’t feel like a rock star (unless you win it maybe). And you’re in… St. Louis. I would pay $78 for that kind of experience too.
But Chicago… there’s just something about Chicago…
One of my sick fantasies is to run a 24-hour timed race… on a 400 meter track.
When I met Scott Jurek this past October, I was in complete awe of his description of the latter hours of a short looped 24-hour ultra, of how the mind is forced to go to unexplored places, and how self-discovery can be dug up from the deepest and darkest of holes.
The short looped course offers a different dimension of running than most conventional courses at long distance events. It’s not the scenic kind of race. It’s not the one you go out and enjoy with a buddy either. Instead, it’s the put-your-head-down-and-zen-out-til-you-know-what-it-means-to-BE-ALIVE kind of event. And I want as many of those as I can get.
Sometimes, to add variety to my training, I will do short loop long distance training runs to find that zone where my body and my mind become one powerfully synced moving machine. A 20-miler on a half mile loop around my house. 3 hours on the 400 meter dirt track at Palmisano Park. The same 3 mile out-and-back until I hit whatever number I want on that day.
The trick, for me, is to do these spontaneously, with gentle, easy effort. The idea is to just float along on the same invisible line, hitting every step exactly the same each time. When I’m really feeling it, I am able to hit near exact splits on every single loop, without even thinking about it.
That is some powerful mind-body connection right there. And I love experiencing it. But if I do it too much then it loses its allure, so I like to think of them as prized, perfect storm opportunities.
I always seem to know when it’s time for one of these. It’s like my body craves it. Like a drug.
Being Superman: Long Distance Running as a Supreme Source of Confidence
One of the myriad benefits of long distance running is being treated to the wondrous and often times flabbergasted expressions of friends and family.
You did what this morning?
I ran 30 miles.
Because it’s fun.
You’re insane. Crazy. You ran 30 miles!?! Without being forced to? That’ s some real Superman shit right there.
Maybe it is!
Running any distance mark can be impressive. I’ve enjoyed the evolution of reactions I’ve received as I’ve transitioned from half marathons to marathons to ultramarathons. People really do think I have superhuman abilities, that what I do is simply not normal and shouldn’t be possible. But the truth is: anyone can run a marathon. Anyone can run an ultramarathon. It will take some time to lead up to such an achievement, but it’s certainly not as “insane” as folks make it out to be.
Desire. Discipline. A strong will.
And the courage to get out the door to say I’M DOING THIS.
That’s all that’s required.
Everyone has Superman power. It’ s just that most people aren’t willing to work to find it. Too lazy. Too comfortable. Too risk averse.
Living life like that, to me, is boring. Luckily, I found running before complete apathy found me; and the rewards from that discovery have been so rich and so fulfilling that I can’t ever imagine living without them again.
Confidence. Purpose. Strength.
I walk with my chest out, yes. But not in a douchey way. I just know that I’m capable of doing whatever I set my mind to, and that, in my opinion, is the only way to live.