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Why Ultrarunners Run Such Grueling Distances

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A Badass Who Is Just Plain Crazy

Social anthropologist Peter N. Jones describes ultrarunners as "a semi-obscure and incomprehensible group of athletes... who run upwards of 100 miles merely for a belt buckle ...along a semi-marked course through rain, snow, sleet, hail, wind and sunshine over hills, rivers, valleys and mountains and various other sundry terrain in an attempt to complete the "course" within the allotted time ...."

Some view ultrarunning as extreme and a kind of addiction. Words to describe ultrarunners include masochistic, sadistic, obsessive compulsive, freak, and superhuman. I describe myself as an ordinary ultrarunner. My family and friends see me as an awesome badass who is just plain crazy. Their words, not mine. They are perplexed by my desire to voluntarily subject my mind and body to the physical and mental challenges of 50-mile, 100-mile, 100k, and 24-hour ultra events.

Escape From the World

Most people scratch their heads in disbelief. Why run such grueling distances? Recent academic research, and books and memoirs penned by ordinary and elite ultrarunners suggest that the ultrarunners run for different reasons. They have a passion for running and love of nature. For others, ultrarunning is a personal challenge and a life changing experience. Some turn to ultrarunning after experiencing personal trauma or the loss of a loved one. Others trade in drugs, alcohol and cigarettes for the discipline of ultrarunning. Some turn to ultrarunning to fill the emptiness in their life, to seek spirituality, to find solitude, and to escape from the world. In his memoir, long time ultrarunner Ed Ayres writes, "As the world gets more complicated, people become more appreciative of the things that remain simple... Running is...the simplest of all sports... to run...open the door...Just put one foot in front of the other! It's that simple."

Seeking Spirituality

The open door takes ultrarunners to beautiful and challenging terrain, one foot in front of the other. Research shows that running ultra distances in isolated environments, such as trails, mountains, and deserts, affords ultrarunners the opportunity to reflect and to be spiritual. Some seek the spirituality and wisdom of the monks of Mt. Hiei, and Buddhist and Zen philosophy. Others turn to God and their faith. An ultrarunner in a phenomenological study states, "...running allows us...to be as spiritual as we can because we are out there and we're suffering and maybe that's what it is to be closer to God." In another study, an ultrarunner expresses, "What a fantastic thing that God has given me the privilege of doing for many, many miles. It's just God, and the mountains, and me." Another states, "Instead of a mantra, I say the rosary; it's easy to do with a catholic background. It always gets me through." I also pray the rosary.

During my ultras, I think of Christ's suffering on the cross. I think of the suffering my cousin Aurea endured. Ovarian cancer took her life. I think of my good friend Denny. Leukemia took his robust life. Both in their 40s - the average age of ultrarunners. I also think of the suffering that I endured as a result of a major surgical error that compromised four organs. The first ultra I ran after surviving my medical nightmare was part of my healing journey.

Although ultrarunning is a solitary sport, ultrarunners are not alone. I feel God's presence. I converse silently with God. Aurea, Denny, and God give me the strength to keep going. I am strengthened by the encouragement and unconditional support that come from my crew and pacers. All help me to endure suffering in the form of blood blisters, muscle fatigue, sleep deprivation, mental exhaustion, and my beaten body.

A World of Suffering

Ultrarunners voluntarily go into the unknown - into a world of suffering and obstacles along the way. They endure pain and body injuries, from common injuries such as blisters, to more serious life-threatening conditions including, but not limited to, dehydration, heat stroke, gastrointestinal problems, altitude sickness, and tripping and falling. In 100-mile, 24-hour and multi-day events, ultrarunners deal with sleep deprivation, hallucinations, and diminished cognitive functioning.

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After taking a tumble at mile 21 during the 2015 Montour 24-hour trail ultra
©Miriam Diaz-Gilbert

I willingly discipline my body and mind to endure training miles and to run arduous and punishing distances. I have tripped, fallen, hit, and bruised and bloodied my head and shoulders, and skinned and bloodied my knees. I have run in the dark of night, sleep deprived. I can't tell time. I have dry-heaved and vomited. Extremely painful plantar fasciitis reduced me from running to walking the last 23 miles of a 62-mile distance at the 2015 Montour 24-hour trail ultra.

Life Meaning

A 2015 study shows that ultrarunners are more concerned with life meaning and personal achievement than with recognition or competition. Ultrarunners range in age from the 20s to 80s. They are motivated to run beyond the 26.2-mile marathon. They are driven to push the limit. The discipline of training propels them. Ultrarunners run, not to impress others but, to test their limits and mental toughness. They embrace the discomfort and the rigors of physical and mental suffering. Ultrarunners also know the importance of endurance, humility, and patience, especially during the endless last mile to the finish.

Respite From Our Chaotic World

Many are bewildered by the rigors, punishing discomfort, pain and suffering ultrarunners subject their body and mind. At age 69 and after 24 years of running ultras, in a collection of ultrarunner essays, Ed Demoney writes, "...[ultrarunning] ...has given me the opportunity to enjoy God's creation...and to cope with life's stressful moments, maintaining my sanity." In the small but badass world of ultrarunning, this "incomprehensible group of athletes" finds escape, spiritual solace, and respite from our chaotic world, if only for the duration of the grueling distance.

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After mile 30 at the 2006 Vermont 50 ©Miriam Diaz-Gilbert

"There is more to life than logic and common sense. The ultrarunner knows this instinctively... the doors to the spirit will swing open with physical effort...." ~
David Blaikie