Why Run an Ultramarathon - Guest Post by 2012 100km Finisher Joseph Ryan When people learn that you run ultra marathons, they want to know what that means. When they learn that it refers to a race more than the 26.2 miles known as a traditional marathon, that they can go well past 100 miles, and folks like me prefer them to trace the spines of mountains, they want to know the why of ultra running. This is an explanation of that. But, like the object of description, this will go on for a while, maybe longer than you thought necessary to answer a seemingly simple question. In this essay I will elaborate on a two part answer to that question, the tangible, science based part, and the other part that is less quantifiable, but every bit as attractive to those who run.
It’s hot. My blue shirt feels like too much in the sun as I put on my pack and walk out of the airport, nodding hello to aggressive cab drivers offering to give me a ride, asking in broken English where I want to go, to my broken Spanish responses. I learn that the meeting place for the ride to the ferry is across the street, easy enough. No gracias. No cab. It’s Managua, the bustling sun drenched capital of Nicaragua, location where the Sandinistas reigned and fought and earned the cover pages of newspapers and television screens when I was first learning to run as a child of the eighties, my back yard a microcosm of the courses I now crave. Today Managua is a relatively safe Central American hub of activity. The roads around the airport buzz with cars, and motorcycles, and people crossing the streets as horns blare. Traffic laws seem like suggestions, not edicts here. Cab drivers laugh and dart around the massive busses with windshields covered in stickers, and seats filled with a mix of tourists and locals. In the lobby of a hotel, I meet several other runners waiting for me to arrive, we load into the cars and get to know each other. In my car is a runner from Texas, his name is John, and he’s done a lot of the big races in the U.S. He tells me he’s training for one called “The High” on the border of India and Pakistan. This one goes on past the 100 mile mark in the mountains. It’s a multi day race. He tells me the climbing involved, that he needs to condition his lungs to the lack of oxygen at altitude. Back in Texas, he and other runners get together for ultra races and training runs. The desert and mountains provide an ideal setting for such runs, and the close knit community there seems appealing.
As we get closer to the ferry stop, we see a huge mountain in the distance. We ask the cab driver, again in broken Spanish if that’s our volcano, he laughs and tells us no, and keeps driving. About an hour later, we drowsily scan the horizon. We’re there, at the edge of the largest lake in Central America, Lake Nicaragua. In it, we see the enormous volcanoes on Isla Ometepe that we will climb. On the ferry ride, I get to know another runner, Bookis, who works for a company called Luna Sandals. This is the part where the science of all this comes in. Luna sandals are modeled after those that have been worn by runners in Mexico for generations. These simple pieces of leather with thin straps that wrap around the ankle have been sufficient to cover the extreme distances in Copper Canyon, Mexico, and have been the obsession of American distance runners for years now. They have helped create an interest in primitive or minimalistic running gear and methods, and are accompanied by amazing anthropological research into what we do when we run ultra races today, and how we’ve evolved to be what we are specifically because we’ve run that way.
The story goes like this. For thousands of years we have lived alongside other mammals that have presented themselves as predators and prey. Some are faster, in fact lots of them are. Some are bigger, some scarier. But none have the unique assortment of adaptations that we humans have that are necessary to win the game of long distance tag. We sweat, and we cool off as a result. We don’t run faster, but we can run farther than essentially all the animals that we hunt. If we can pace ourselves and work in teams, we can prevent larger prey animals from seeking refuge in forests, or in the thick of a herd. Without the chance to rest, and cool off, these animals can be caught as they collapse from heat exhaustion. This type of hunting, researchers believe, is what provided the fuel for our ancestors. In the same way that a young bird instinctively knows how to fly, we humans tumble and fuss, we crawl and laugh and we run. Watching a toddler stomp around, we see the beginnings of what we were made to do, what we’ve done for thousands of years. We chat about this as we stare out of the windows on the ferry, the two volcanoes getting closer.
It’s after 3 AM race day. John didn’t have a room at his hotel when we got to the island so he roomed with me. We chatted about the course, and got our shoes, and race bibs and loaded our supplies for the day. With each race, and each runner I meet with more experience, come amazing lessons. This time it was the use of salt. So counter intuitive to take salt of all things when your mouth is dry and your legs are sore, but it coupled with electrolytes, water and the right food will save you. John insisted that I take salt pills at least every few hours and for that I am thankful. My last race, a fifty miler run without salt left me not only sore during the last twenty miles but depleted and miserably sore for days after. We walked to the race headquarters with the other runners, headlamps on, each one leaving a hotel like a lightning bug finding his own kind, flashing in the dark.
It’s 4 AM, we run out of town to the beach, and in the dark we scan for reflective blue streamers marking the course. Easy enough to stay on the route when it consists of roads, and even single track trails, but later in the race, the process of hunting those streamers takes on a new sense of urgency and survival.
I ask what our pace is, the runner with me is from St. Louis, he and his wife lived on the island a few years earlier, she was researching the howler monkeys that greet us with a roar more like a lion or a silver back gorilla, their sound deceptively frightening for their size. He tells me based on his watch that we’re somewhere between a seven and nine minute pace, way faster than I need to be going but I feel great. There are three races today, a 25k, 50k and 100k. The 25k runners start hours after us, but the 50k and 100k runners begin together and run the same course, those brave or dumb enough to continue bid farewell in the community where my new friend and his wife lived when on the island, and that’s where he’ll stop, thus his aggressive pace. As the sun rises, we trek through a banana plantation. The scattered rows of trees, broad leaves and branches make finding those blue streamers interesting.
The sun gets hot, and a road section links with a trail that will take us to the beginning of the ascent of Maderas, the first volcano of the race. Maderas is the shorter of the two, and is dormant. Its caldera is filled with a lake of water and volcanic ash. We don’t have to venture into it thankfully, but getting there provides more technical climbing than I had expected. Overall, about a quarter of the total mileage of the race is climbing and it began on Maderas with thickening jungle, those howler monkeys so fond of alerting the inhabitants of your presence, and as we climbed, dense clouds and mud. Lots of mud. Tangles of branches block the path and then the path disappears. Through clouds and green everywhere I look for blue chalk marks on trees and streamers. Losing the course here could not only prove costly in terms of time lost, but dangerous. The run takes us on volcanoes after all, which is another word for a mountain that spits lava. As I climb, not just in feet gained but in branches navigated, I find streamer after cleverly placed streamer. As tough as this race is proving to be, I think of the race directors Josue, Paula, and Robinson, and the volunteers that have been here before, literally to mark this course, and am thankful for their dedication to our safety.
We begin climbing back out of the jungle and make it into the caldera and to the lake. An aid station in one of the most surreal places ever provides enough fuel to keep going, and the volunteers there cheer us on. We trade the thick jungle foliage for dense ground cover for the climb back out of the caldera, but greet the return happily, the wind and clouds of the climb to the rim of the volcano are eery. Back in the jungle the trail disappears again, and blue streamers are accompanied by orange tape, marking off areas of particular danger. With wind and rain, legs covered in mud to shins, I spot a blue streamer in disbelief. Ahead of me is a lattice of thick roots, through them is a view of clouds and trees below. Far below. I grab onto a thick root to my left and carefully climb onto the huge tangle of more roots and scramble past. Not anything close to that nine minute mile pace here, I learn a quick lesson in the other why part of these races, the part of the that keeps us craving for this. Keeping an attachment to some pace based on things other than where I am right now would be like driving to California from the east coast with a map of Russia. There are plenty of data points that will make this race easier, but the ones that are worth the salt I keep eating are right here in this mud, and no where else.
Later, I check out the scene around me, its a sun soaked pasture, the vegetation is dry and the trail I’m on is dotted with large smooth rocks that make the kind of running I’m use to on roads tough. Each step requires a careful assessment of the ground, one misstep could break an ankle. We talked about the views we would see before the race, those of course other than our own feet. I stumble on a huge rock and brace myself in enough time not to greet one with my face, but land on my right thigh. The pain made my exhausted feet feel great in comparison, and I back off the pace until I get to the next aid station in Merida. Fifty k done, fifty to go. Stopping now to do more than refuel and change shoes and socks could make the pain in my leg worse so I keep going. The next section is a grueling one. eight miles of road running with limited shade. Next race I am bringing bigger bottles. Out of water and electrolytes, gauging how far I’ve traveled on this section, I scanned my memory of the day before on the back of a motorcycle wondering if I was on this road. Maybe, not sure. We did venture to the base of Madera, and absent signs telling us not to, we road the narrow single track trail up the path as far as the bike would go. After stopping at a passing too narrow for the two of us on the motorcycle, John and I laughed and hiked further. We came back to the bike and roared down the mountain. As we made our way past huge rocks, we collided with one smashing the gear shift. I held the bike in place idling with the break clamped, my back facing downhill as John bent the gear shift from first, second to third gear, then...snap. It broke off in his hand, and we realized that we couldn’t risk stopping, the bike may not start again, and the walk back to town would have been a rough way to spend the day before the race. We took the turn from the rocky dirt path back to the road wide, and headed back. As we passed other folks in cars and on scooters and motorcycles, we waved but didn’t stop. We slowed to navigate speed bumps and herds of cows and horses, and made it back to town sore, but with a great story.
After several aid stations and lots of miles, the next to last station Flor waited somewhere ahead. Again I gauged how far I had gone, and estimated my arrival time based on the distance between Gracia the last station I passed and the much needed food, and water and volunteers. I looked back to see if any other runners were approaching, I was in third and hadn’t seen anyone in hours. Then I heard a loud and familiar voice yelling my name. It was John, and another runner, Carlos. They had covered lots of the course together, and their pace was great even at that late section of the race. They offered water, and Carlos had some food to share as we jogged together. I told them that I had smashed my leg, but was doing great otherwise, and they cheered me on, and went ahead. At the Flor aid station they were refueling and we charged ahead together. One more station, after a climb of Concepcion, the huge active volcano that loomed over the lake dotted with clouds as we approached in the ferry a few days before. My leg was in rough shape, so John and Carlos passed me and began the climb. As the pizza, coca cola, and electrolytes we devoured at the Flor station began to burn, the pain lessened and I climbed as fast as I could knowing that the race was almost done. I caught the two of them on a steep section, each of us grabbing for roots and rocks hand over fist breathing heavy. They cheered for me as I caught them, and the energy that seemed so scarce when trekking alone gathered, we fed off of each other, playfully daring each other to keep going. At the top of the climb, we were greeted by two volunteers, and an amazing setting sun over the mountains with the lake broad and clear. We looked down the volcano at what we had climbed, took in the view as much as we could and gulped at the water and electrolytes before beginning the climb back to the road and the town to the finish line.
With legs aching, each step was braced with hands on branches and roots. We made it to the flatter volcanic rock covered trail, and the other racers beginning the climb in the dark. As we hustled into the lights and shouts of the crowd and the finish line together, the three of us cheersed huge beers and crossed as a team. The pain of covering 100 kilometers in hot sun, and mud soaked jungle washed away with the flash of cameras, and the joy of the volunteers greeting us.
Now as I type days later, I reflect on the question I sought to answer here, the why of ultra running. There’s the science, the anthropological record of how we’ve lived and how we’ve run that debunks the claims of what we do being unnatural or bad for us. There are the people like Pat, the second place finisher of The Fuego y Agua 100k who danced effortlessly passed me with kindness and energy. Energy I admire in a teenager, even though Pat is over fifty. But that’s only one part of it. He does it, because its in his and my genes, its in the bundle of genetic information of every human that we can and have run this way. But its not a deterministic explanation alone that makes us crave these runs. Its the awareness that when we run in the cold and in the heat, through miles of mud, and rocks, we find everything we need, and we let go of everything else, all the stuff we don’t. Because we have to to find the finish line.