The siren song of the ultra

The 26.2 mile marathon is a long race. They say glycogen stores in your body are depleted by somewhere around mile 22 and beyond that, your body is just being damaged. Millions of people each year are signing up to run in marathons. I’ve never done a marathon. I’ve done 20 miles in a single run, and that was hard. Thankfully, about 16 of them were done with other people. About a month ago, I ran 16 miles on a solo run in the heat of the morning, and aside from lack of proper nutrition on the run, my legs felt fine. The only thing frustrating about that run was not really knowing where I was at times. I took two days off for good measure and then went out for a 9 miler. Anything below 10 miles is no longer a “long” run.

I know I can do a marathon. In my current conditioning, I could probably go out tomorrow morning and run 26.2 miles, albeit very slowly. I’m also convinced that anyone can train for and complete a marathon. For most people, even runners, it’s a 3:45:00 to 4:30:00 ordeal that is undoubtedly very hard but ultimately well within reach. It is a worthy goal to finish a marathon; one cannot ever discount from meeting anyone else’s personal goals. It’s also a worthy goal to lower one’s time on the marathon course — to run the marathon for speed. This is a goal I’m not sure I’ll ever desire to train for. It requires speed work and probably true “training,” which is something I’m free to admit I don’t at all enjoy. My speed work is to run fast when I feel like I can run fast. My long runs end up on days when I feel like running slowly but feel like I can run forever. (I’ll run hills any time, though, because I love running hills.)

So what kinds of goals might I aspire to in my running? I enjoy conquering trails and hills. I like it when I’m faster today than I was last week. I want to keep running injury-free. But I also have that occasional obsessive pang to run something that pushes my limits. I have seen a lot of folks run marathons. I have seen far fewer folks run ultramarathons. I wonder, aloud, if anyone can run a 50 miler. Can anyone run a 100K or a 100 miler? For now my answer is, I don’t truly know. I don’t know what it takes, although I suspect that it’s a completely different kind of endurance event.

Ultrarunning seems to require a different kind of endurance. There is a physical limit, for sure, but there seems to be the allure of the sheer mental challenge. I think ultras have a very real ability to break people. It’s an exercise in humility to be broken. For those of us who are so fortunate to be active in the sport of running, there is something humbling about pursuing this state actively. I can’t help but feeling like this is a worthy pursuit.

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