I've been wanting to write this for a while now as there are moments in races where I have to wonder myself... Why on earth would someone want to run an ultra? Even better, why would you want to run 100 miles or more? Who came up with this silly idea anyway?
Looking back at these events (check out my reports here), I notice I forget the moments of physical pain and sheer exhaustion. So maybe I should get this out of the way... It's hard work to get there. But the feeling of accomplishment keeps growing after each new distance, making you want to push further and see what's on the other side of that mountain. Reaching your limits, while going slow and being outdoors, turned out to be very rewarding. You get all the way to the bottom, only to dig yourself a way up again and continue to that finish line, where beer, pizza and friends await. I haven't done any ultra's that didn't change my life for the better.
Being very much a rookie, I haven't done much races to look back on, but I did start recognising just what it is that attracts me to these events.
It's not about running
The Great Escape was my first 100-miler, and needless to say I was pretty nervous before the start. Once we got under way, I felt at ease pretty fast. I knew a big part of the route from previous visits and I knew there was some gorgeous scenery to look forward to. I also met a lot of other participants and volunteers during past events, so I knew I was not alone out there and I would get all the support I needed to get to the finish line.
Legends Trail I found really interesting. My training was far from flawless and I wasn't mentally preparing myself for this race as I should have, but I did feel my past experiences with trekking and hiking were very helpful. With 250k, loads of ice, a layer of fresh snow and a cut-off of around 60 hours, this was more a ridiculously long hike than a ultra-"run". A bit unsuspected to me, the event went superb, being able to keep going and, strange as this might sound, enjoying the race. It took me the first 100k to start feeling in place between the other runners who I look up to, but once I got into my zone I felt I could just keep going. The further I got into this race, the better I felt.
Looking back, I really enjoyed the whole organisation and the way the checkpoints were set-up. Instead of coke and crisps every 10k, there were proper life bases every 50k with little in between. Hot food and drinks, a sleeping place, your drop bag, a blowdryer for your feet, etc. The distance between the checkpoints broke the race up in large but manageable sections, but also made that you could go really deep in that meditative state that is sometimes reached when going a long distance, sinking deeper and deeper into the rythm of the trail, watching the sun rise after running through the night, watching it set and rise again. It felt as if the boundaries and limits we set ourselves all too often in daily life are lifted, and we are rewarded with a deep awareness of our freedom. Freedom in the sense we are able to achieve so much more than we ever thought we could, by helping each other and respecting our environment and ourselves. I guess that's why a lot of us cross the finish line with tears in our eyes. Not so much because of relief we can finally stop running, but out of gratitude. Ultra recalibrates our compasses and points us in the direction to what actually matters in life.
In a way, ultra is a really selfish "hobby". In order to finish these races, they have to be at the center of our lives. Anything less than being obsessed with the upcoming event simply won't do. But in another way, I believe it makes me a better person. I hope my surroundings get some benefit from me spending time out there.
Considering the depth of the experience of an ultra, I sometimes think it doesn't really matter where the event takes place. It's not that much about the external world, but more an existential travel into the depths of your own being. Unless... unless the event is Ultra Trail Snowdonia. Joining with Pip and Bobby, two experienced runners, played a big role in completing this race successfully. Another major factor was the organisation and the community surrounding it. And then there was the landscape. The paths are rough, but Snowdonia is just so incredible the beauty of the hills pulls you up to the next summit.
100k vs 100M
There is a rather controversial statement that defines ultra as 100 miles and more. I'm not saying everything between 43k and 99 miles "doesn't count" or is better or worse, but there is a big difference between these shorter distances and 100 miles in my experience. Whereas 100k can still be a competition, a 100 mile event seems more of a collaboration between the participants and the volunteers. It is so much more like an adventure, where sleep deprivation, keeping your body fuelled and warm and logistics make a big part of successfully finishing. You have to listen to your body closely, while at the same time ignoring the unwanted and unnecessary signals. And even if you know the route like the back of your hand, you will go places you've never been before. So in the odd chance you are reading this and are thinking "Should I?", the answer is "Yes!".