As I moved up the distance brackets to 15km-20km+ per run, the general consensus was that this was quite difficult but well done for taking on the challenge. "Geez, 20km's, well done. You must be really fit!"
Then came my decision to train for and run ultra's............ Well, how did the opinions and questions change!!!!!!!!!!!!! "Are you nuts?" or the most common response I get is "WHY?"
Why do ultra runners run ultras? Personally, it's hard to define. To be honest, it's almost impossible to describe in a manner that would make sense to another. Some key points that spring to mind are; the challenge, the freedom of the trail, leaving issues on the trail beyond the 20km point, aid station food!!!!!!!, achieving more than I or others think possible, the runners high I get at the finish line of an event, the example of self discipline I set for my kids........................ There's so many more I could ramble on about here.
The point is, no matter how much I try to describe it to non ultra runners, the blank face continues to stare back at me...... "Yeah I get wanting to be fit, but that's just stupid!" Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. Maybe I don't care. I love it, so I'll do it.
I've had the chance to study the field of running and fitness in general through tertiary education as well as personal enquiry directly with the running crowd and have found it clear, distinct character trait consistent with ultra runners compared to non ultra runners. Those who compete in ultra's are VERY goal orientated. Some more than others, but in general, they are very clear about what they want to achieve. And I don't just mean with running, but life in general. I think this comes as a natural progression as since committing to running ultras myself, I know the type of commitment that it takes. Someone with limited direction or focus would struggle to adhere to the regime of what ultra marathon training puts you through.
The other point I've noticed, is that the majority of these don't neccessarilly see most of this training as "training", but as a "lifestyle". They run 150,200, some 300km+ per month, not because the programme says they have to, but because they love to........... Coming event or no coming event, you'll often see these people smashing a trail for 4-5 hours on a weekend because it's their form of joy.
And my favourite character trait I find most common amongst true ultra runners, is their ability to put competitiveness aside for companionship. Don't get me wrong, ultra runners love to win and punch out PB's just like anyone else; but I've never seen a field of sportsmen/women who are so open, helpful, and genuinely intersted in how you are going than that of the ultra running crowd. Only an ultra runner truely knows what it's like out there after 12+ hours on your feet and still have 20km's to go, or a tough mountain to climb while on an empty tank. I think this is what makes them so empathetic to each other. To have someone stop during an event just to talk to you, see how you are, or just share some time with you before heading off again is almost unheard of during an official race or event in other forms of competitive sport.
Ultra Runners are clearly a different breed.
A local ultra runner here in South Australia who I've been blessed to share some time on the trails with, Sputnik, is an avid videographer of his time on the trails and shares some his experiences here: http://www.youtube.com/user/swashbucklersclub It's worth a watch to get a glimpse of what distance trail running can be like out there and how he responds to the challenges along the way. Ultra running has seen Sputnik travel to many parts of the world. I'd highly recommend a few minutes flicking through his many journeys......... Thanks for sharing Sputnik.
As an example of the frame of mind I've been in during a recent ultra, I hit the 60km aid station/check point of a 105km ultra, and mentally my perception of breaking this day down was "ok, only a marathon to go" At the time, this helped me put aside the fact that this was a 105km run. Looking back on this now, how was I able to comfort myself by saying it was ONLY a marathon to go? A marathon is a long way by anyones standards and yet I somehow used this as a means of easing myself. Let's not forget the fact that this checkpoint also marked the furthest distance I'd ever run in a single session; so to have this frame of mind whilst going into unknown territory is kind of intriguing in hindsight.
Approaching the 60km aid station
There's something about the sheer size of an ultra marathon that takes the emotional preparation to another level. To a place that no 12km or half marathon has taken me before. With complete and utter exhaustion, nearing minight with over 100km's and 2950m of accent behind me I hobbled accross the finish line to meet my wife and kids who's volunteered their time on aid stations for the day. The magnitude of emotions in that moment will stick with me for life.
I guess the question is: Are Ultra Marathons good for you? There's plenty of opinions (especially by the negative 'drag-me-downs' out there) that long distance running is bad for you and ruins your body. There may be some validity in these views; and there may not be.......... There's no denying that the level of training that an ultra runner goes through, and the limits they take their body to during an event is quite excessive. However, I'd like to argue that this can not be far different to the negative impact of most other high levels of competition sports. AFL, Rugby, Tennis, Basketball, Soccer/Football, Grid Iron, Cricket, Hockey, you name it, the elite players are always training and competing at a level that takes their physical self to the limits. In fact, I'd like to make my own observation (non research supported) that from my own experiences, ultra runners are in better overall 'health' and injury free than the majority of these fields. How often are top perfromers of these sports out of action due to injury? On the flipside to this, it's funny how it's generally the 'couch potato' that voices this opinion to me. "You run too much. Running that far is bad for your body. You're going to do yourself damage" Any runners ever heard this or similar? I'd like to state that I'd rather be stressing the body's health with fitness functions and recovery than with high blood pressure and cholesterol watching the idiot box for 6 hours a day. I'd rather have a knee reconstruction in my 40's than a triple bypass............... Maybe it's just me!
I guess my point here is, yes it takes a lot out of the body to train for and compete in ultra distance running; but is it worth it? You bet it is!