Anyone who has ever witnessed a public running event will tell you how inspiring it can be. You watch people struggle through miles and miles of pain and agony only to finish with tears of joy in their eyes. People who have never had an interest in running suddenly begin to think it might be a good idea to go for a jog. Everyone has their own reason for running stupidly long distances. Some for the peace of mind it brings. Some to raise awareness to a certain charity or cause. Some out of sheer curiosity.
I’ve fallen victim to the spectator astonishment hundreds of times. Every race I watch causes me to well up with tears. How accomplished they all must feel! It’s easy to fall into that slippery slope from being an admiring spectator to running your first half marathon, then a full marathon, and then before you know it signing up for an ultra race.
It’s easy to admire from the sidelines but when you start dabbling in the sport of endurance racing, you have to learn a few things on your own.
1. You’re going to eat. A LOT.
Not surprisingly, running for 8+ hours at a time requires a lot of fuel. You’re going to experience hunger like never before, not only during training but constantly. You’ll never not be hungry and you’ll be the first to put your hand up for finishing everyone’s leftovers. Salty foods, sweet treats, massive meals, no food is untouchable. While running, you’ll burn about 100 calories for each mile so a 10-mile run will cost you about 1,000 calories. Add that on top of the calories you need on a daily basis to maintain basic, everyday bodily functions and suddenly that giant burger and milkshake aren’t looking so damaging.
During the race, you’ll find yourself craving some very strange food. Ultramarathons will have the runner on their feet for anywhere from 6-24+ hours. I tend to crave the most caloric, unhealthy foods in the middle of an ultra. Dorritos, pizza, Snickers, french fries. You’ll be surprised how quickly you go from touting health-conscious race foods to the worst, most caloric snacks. Don’t fight the pizza rolls, it’ll do you good.
2. You’re going to get to know your digestive system very well.
Speaking of pizza rolls, the old saying still stands. Nothing new on race day. Of course, you know you should train with the food plan you’ll be using on race day. You’ll find some things you eat don’t sit quite as well as other things. Some foods will cause your digestive system to rebel in full force and you’re going to lose all shame in hiding it.
Before you know it, you’ll be discussing your bowel movements with runners and non-runners alike, which is most get you mixed responses from intrigue to complete repulsion. You’ll find out soon enough who else has been in your shoes because they too will have no shame in describing in great detail the terrible effect a stick of beef jerky had their stomach.
3. Your body is going to rebel.
Your stomach isn’t the only thing that might put up a fight. Your entire body is going to be under extreme amounts of stress. Muscles get fatigued which fails to provide the skeletal structure with enough support to cushion the blows of each step, often causing stress fractures. Your body is working so hard to get oxygenated blood to your muscles and essential organs that it puts everything else on the back burner. Like your eyes. Vision might become blurred and in some extreme cases (like mine) you might lose all vision completely until well after you stop running. You’re going to get to know your body very well, what it can handle and what is too much. Learn to listen to it and identify warning signs early.
If you can fuel efficiently and keep your body problems at bay, you’ll have a battle with your mind at some stage. Your brain will tell you you’re done and you’ll somehow have to overcome that thought to keep going. Mental toughness kicks in and you’ll be playing a game of stubbornness with your own self.
Through the long quiet miles alone, you’ll find one million reasons to justify giving up. If you can figure out how to convince yourself to keep going, congratulations. You’ve mastered the very complicated skill or perseverance.
4. Someday, you’ll find a run that will break you.
Someday you’ll run a race that will completely destroy you. Maybe not your first. Perhaps not your second. Maybe not even until your 10th but at some point, if you keep running, you’ll find a race the destroys your will to survive so comprehensively. You won’t be able to find any good reasons for continuing. You’ll question the meaning of everything. You’ll struggle to find any positives and you’ll finish the race (or not) feeling cheated and angry.
I thought when I started running I’d have hard battles with my mental toughness but I never thought I’d find a race that would make me hate running. But at some point, you will. And that’s ok. It’s okay to be angry with the sport. It’s okay to feel like you’ve been tricked into this stupid race. You don’t have to pretend like everything is rosy and happy. You can think of the generous volunteers, the beautiful scenery, the outstanding support but sometimes it’s not enough. It’s okay, throw yourself that pity party.
Let yourself hate it. Maybe it’ll take a few weeks to get over. Maybe it’ll take months, years even. Give yourself space and come back to it. Maybe you’ll never come back to it, and that’s okay too. You’ll be discouraged but the key to not being completely and utterly defeated is to be grateful for the experience at some point down the line. Relish in the fact that you don’t have to do it ever again if you don’t want to and let yourself come back to it gently, in a way that helps you see once again the joy you used to feel from it.
5. Your ideas of fitness and strength will be challenged.
In my hardest race ever, I stumbled across the finish line totally defeated. I had been in a deep dark hole for a long time and when I crossed the finish line, I felt relief and overwhelming gratitude that it was finally well and truly over. I told myself humans were meant to do this. Bodies weren’t capable of the stress we put them under. I had only been sitting for 10 minutes, justifying the sense of defeat I felt when a 70-year-old woman came hustling down the last 10 meters, skipping and jumping across the finish line. Grey hair, wrinkly skin, strong as an ox. She was wearing a grin as wide as Texas and merely walked off with ease.
The defeat I felt was instantly magnified ten-fold but I was also unbelievably impressed. Just when you think you can pin down the personality and body types of runners you’re smacked upside the head and your stereotypes are buried in the ground.
The human body is truly incredible. Old, young, big, small, male, female. Ultrarunning is a sport for everyone and is one of the only sports that truly evens the playing field. It’s a strength of physical endurance, sure, but if you don’ have the mental toughness to compliment it, you’ll find yourself being passed up by a laughing 70-year-old woman doing cartwheels across the finish line.
What have you learned from your ultra races? Have you had a race that completely broke you? Let me know in the comments below!