The Mind of an Ultra Runner
Ultra marathons, these mythical beasts of endurance, are spoken of in hushed tones between crazy friends or coworkers, people who find peace in pain and loneliness.
The mind of an ultra runner…
I was stopped recently by a coworker, someone with whom I regularly shared small talk.
This conversation, however, took on a deeper tone.
While his question may have been rhetorical and my answers too deep for a lunch-time chat, Why do you run one hundred miles? didn’t catch me off guard. I’d heard it before.
Why run an ultra marathon?
Multiple people had already asked and I usually offered the typical laugh and shrug and “Why not?” (fully meaning Why do you not want to?). Conversations normally moved on quickly and I was brushed off as crazy or super cool.
I’ll take super cool…
But this time I was ready, even though he may not have been. As the emotions of the race flooded my mind, I began:
“An ultra marathon, whether its 50 or 100 miles or more, is just like life. In fact, an ultra marathon is the ULTIMATE parallel of life; there are supreme highs, dreadful lows, tears and smiles, blood and sweat, cries and laughs. The suffering is considerable. The beauty of the silent forest and mountain trails is breathtaking. The adversity is relentless and unopposable. There is a way through it. This is an ultra marathon; this is life.”
“These long runs, ultra marathons, are surface-level. Beneath this action, these long runs, lie moments of familiar sensation: pain and pleasure.
Pain takes many forms throughout one’s life: it looks like tears, sweat, blood, frowns, arguments, anger, regret. Pleasure is also expressed in variety: it looks like laughs, joy, beauty, stories, excitement, gratitude, love.
A long run, an ultra marathon, carries these same sensations. And they are indistinguishable from the toils of life.
The physical pain and mental torment experienced when one runs fifty miles or one hundred miles is, while most do not realize it, familiar to many people (even those who don’t run!) because life prescribes these things on its own. They are a part of life! Tears, sweat, blood, frowns, arguments, anger, regret, laughs, joy, beauty, stories, excitement, gratitude, and love; this is life.
The pleasure in life and the pain in life are compacted into one event. One long run.
The difference between life and an ultra marathon? Running an ultra marathon beats life to the punch. Life didn’t prescribe the pain, THE RUNNER did. And life didn’t deliver the pleasure; THE RUNNER went and found it!
The runner prescribed the pain. Why?
When one lives with an understanding of life’s mischief –the rollercoaster of its pains and joys– he or she becomes mentally prepared for the lows; the pain, tears, blood, sweat, and falls are expected. They are even a part of the strategy. To understand the mischief of life, one must experience it with an open mind.
Many people are rightfully taught to anticipate adversity and treat it as equal to victory; a failure to do so results in low depression during the worst of times and peaks of joy, ready to crash down, during the best of times. Emotional stability is a byproduct of understanding life’s mischief. Life’s mischief can only be understood by those who experience it.”
Are you an ‘emotionally stable’ person? Are your experiences and circumstances strongly linked to your mental state? Emotional stability is essential to moving through life efficiently and effectively. Examining our emotional responses to experiences and circumstances is a good way to look at our own development of ‘mental toughness.’
Beat life to the punch. Do not be a victim to life. Do not wait to be pulled off the precarious cliff. Jump off. Do not fear the dark forest. Run into it. Do not sit idly as life robs you of comfort. Reject comfort.
When you run an ultra marathon, you feel the nature of life in all its mischief, packed into a trail. This experience, the physical exhaustion and mental torment alongside the elation and laughs, gives one a clear understanding of life’s mischief. It necessitates one strategizing around broken blisters, twisted ankles, sickness, severe weather, loneliness. The bad carries you forward to the good, and the good gets you back on the trail.
Life is an ultra marathon.
Most are not willing to embrace the fear and adversity; most are not willing to self-prescribe life’s mischief.
Break free from the expectations of others, of culture. Eat this. Drink that. Wear those. Dress like me. Listen to us. Align.
Run the ultra marathon.
An ultra marathon crushes expectation. No one expects another to be great, to excel, to truly live and to experience the beautiful nature of life along a trail. He expects you to relate. He expects you to dress like him. Listen to them. Align, he says. Relate.
Relate to his comfort, his mediocrity, his boredom with routine. When everyone stays off the trail, this man is justified in his comfort, mediocrity, and his boredom with routine.
This man, aligned with others and them with him, is familiar with pain and pleasure. He seeks the latter and is a victim to the former. When life delivers pleasure, as it will, he laughs, expresses joy, acknowledges beauty, tells stories, radiates excitement, and shows gratitude and love. Should one not, when pleasure is delivered?
However, when this man comes under pain, he is different. Not different from others, though. They all cry out, as victims, wondering how such misfortune could have happened to such aligned and related people. “We did it all right! We ate this, drank that, wore those, dressed like the others, listened to the others, aligned!”
Life does not listen. It cannot hear them. Victims have no say.
Do not align. Do not cling to pleasure and be a victim to pain. Find purpose in each and beat life to the punch.
During an ultra marathon pleasure and pain each have a cyclical purpose. Pleasure found in aid stations filled with food, streams breaking the silence of the forest, and anticipation of family waiting at the finish line all refresh and revitalize an exhausted runner. These things allow the runner to carry on. Why must one carry on?
Pain, the investment of pain.
The pain and discomfort felt during an ultra marathon have a purpose, they are an investment. The fatigue and pain experienced in this event creates crisis in one’s mind. STOP. REST. GO EASY. These are normal and expected. What is not normal and what the mind does not expect is for a person to push harder when these thoughts arise. The mind doesn’t expect you to Go Farther.
The mind, so focused on ending the pain, is sent reeling when the discomfort endures. It must adapt. The pain has gotten worse. WORSE. But you push on. And on. The pleasure of an aid station or a cool stream or your family waiting carries your feet forward. You are now dragging your mind, kicking and screaming, as you run on. Your mind adapts to this constant discomfort.
Pleasure is again reached: the aid station, the cool stream, or the family waiting. The runner, refreshed and revitalized, gets back on the trail. There are more miles to run. Then, once again, the pain begins…
Habitually exposing the mind to discomfort, continuing to run when your body begs you to stop, will build a strong mind, one that has been dragged through discomfort into pain and more pain. It is familiar with these.
Life cannot surprise you. You’ve experienced pain and pleasure; you are no longer a victim to pain. You understand its purpose, the investment. You’ve dragged your mind, kicking and screaming, through adversity and fear and discomfort; your emotional connection to experience and circumstance has been negated. You beat life to the punch. You are not a victim.