Rock/Creek Race Team member and Breathe-Right afficionado John Brower is hosting his own “Urban Ultra” race in the Fondren neighborhood of Jackson, Missisippi. Read more about the Fondren Urban Ultra here. He sent a note to the runner of that race, and I thought it was poignant enough to share with our audience as well… read on!
Running ultra-distance events, whether 50k, 50-mile, 100k, 100-mile, or 12- or 24-hour events can be a grueling challenge that oftentimes morphs over the course of a day into a journey of self-exploration, even more so than an athletic event.
The questions of “How much farther can I go?” and “How much longer can I run for?” often turn to “How much more will I go?” and “How much more can I take?”
The answer to the first two questions often pertains to the condition of your body. With the proper fueling strategy, timed breaks for rest, and injury prevention, it can be argued that the human body can make forward progress indefinitely. The last two questions are a bit more difficult to answer, as they hinge on the condition of the mind, and the willingness to suffer. Let’s take a look at each of these questions, in order.
“How much farther can I go?”
This comes down to fuel. My advice is to go ahead and begin to focus on the consumption of high-calorie, high-fat foods, from now until Friday morning. Your body will thank you for the extra reservoir of sustainable energy to fall back on as you go deeper into the miles. With the arrival of Friday, go back to a normal eating pattern, with the only focus being on easily-digestible foods, so as not to create an undue emergency for yourself on race day. No need to carbo-load, as your sustainable energy stores should be at maximum capacity.
Everyone has a race day meal they enjoy, so go ahead and dive in. Mine is a pack of Pop-Tarts. My wife’s is a cinnamon crunch bagel. Keep in your routine…now is not the time to experiment!
During the race, some ultra-mottos that are easily adopted are “Eat early, and eat often!” and “Eat before you’re hungry!” In other words, start taking in calories after the first loop. A steady diet of caloric intake will help ward off the bonk, no matter the form! So indulge in M&M’s, Gu’s, cookies, chips, Bonk Breakers (my favorite), Little Debbie snacks (my wife’s favorite)…whatever it takes! Now having said this, you certainly want to avoid over-eating, as this will lead to stomach issues…a simple snack each loop should suffice.
As the day wears on, take advantage of the solid foods that are around you…pizza, pbj’s, peanut butter crackers, etc. Bring a cooler with something that sounds appetizing, whatever it may be. Your body will thank you for the extra fat and protein calories that come with these types of “real food” items.
Another piece of this puzzle is hydration, and the same mottos apply. “Drink early, and drink often!” and “Drink before you’re thirsty!” This one is easier, as you should be carrying a hydration bottle or a pack. BE SURE you are drinking something besides just water! Consume something with electrolytes to help avoid cramping. If you are a sweater (you know who you are), bring a bottle of S-Caps, Metasalt, or some type of electrolyte supplement. Personally, I drink Gatorade the whole time. It gives me both electrolytes and calories, both of which are much needed to go the distance.
“How much longer can I run for?”
This one is easy…you get to run ‘til 7pm!
“How much more will I go?”
Now to the meat. The key word in this question is will. As I stated earlier, with the right strategies to take care of the physical self, it can be argued that the body can go forever. So what stops the runner from going? Yourself. This is a sport of endurance, and the will to continue. Self-doubt is inevitable. The answers that you come up with to the creeping, nagging questions pertaining to “why am I doing this?” will decide how far you will go.
Begin to work on a motto, slogan, or some sort of anecdotal wisdom-slogan to distract yourself with. Focus on the present steps that you are taking, as opposed to the amount of time that you have been running, or how much more you have to go. Listen to the pattern of your breathing. Listen to your footsteps. If you are a music-wearer, load up a good playlist and jam out. Basically, devise a plan to stay out of your head, and work hard to stay in the present.
This strategy of being mindful and present-oriented will allow you to avoid the mind traps that come with ultrarunning, and foster a sense of purpose for each step that you take. This will allow you to go for more than you ever thought you could, and the time will become a non-issue. “How much more will I go?” You will go farther.
“How much more can I take?”
This is a very subjective question, with each person to find out. Here is the answer to this question for me. The more I run, the more I realize that I can take so much more than I ever thought. My search for an answer to this question started with a marathon, then a 50k, then a 50-miler, then a 100-miler, then a 100-miler in the mountains, then a 24-hour race…and so my search continues to this day. Suffering in the sport of ultrarunning is inevitable. How you suffer…therein lies the key to success! For some, they may begin to be uncomfortable, with mild dehydration, stomach cramps, leg cramps, or sore tendons, and will bail out, citing various reasons…some legit, others not so much. Others will continue to into the deep waters, deep into the pain cave, and press on. What is the difference? I think it begins with an understanding of suffering.
In the course of a race, one passes through many different emotional states, from the euphoria of completion to the deep depression of the night; however, one thing that does not waiver is the pain. The pain and suffering of ultrarunning is inescapable. Muscles, tendons, and ligaments are all subject to strain. The grind of an ultra can take you through waves of radiating pain and agony, with your body on the edge of a total breakdown. The pursuit of this sport is inevitably tied to a voluntary, or neurotic, pursuit of pain and suffering.
There are so many times in the course of my runs that I realize that all I have to do to make the pain go away is to stop, and it is in this realization that it can most clearly be seen that the pain is voluntary, that I am willing to subject myself to this. The biggest question that I get from people is “Why?” “Why would you want to do that to yourself?” A look at this from an existential angle gives a clear answer: growth. I get to take myself to the edge, to places that very few choose to go. We get to push ourselves to a limit that few dare even entertain in their minds. I take myself to the very brink of existence, to the edge of the envelope, and see how far past it I can get and still return in one piece.
The pursuit of this neurotic pain and suffering has given me life-experiences and life-lessons on perseverance, discipline, and endurance that I would have been hard-pressed to learn elsewhere. I have been able to learn about myself, about who I am, about who I was created to be. My pursuit of the edge of existence has allowed me to understand that I make choices, and that my choices have consequences. I choose to run, therefore I choose to suffer. In the suffering, I grow. Therefore, I choose to grow. Each race I do, each long training run I endure, I grow, and I learn more about myself that I would if I didn’t subject myself to the pain.
It has been said that humans pursue the most amount of pleasure with the least amount of pain. I would challenge such thinking. Pain and suffering are conditions of being human. Without them, we would not be able to reach our full potential. If we consistently sought out the “easy way” to do things, we would never evolve into the men and women that God has designed us to be. Human growth would be so limited, and human potential would never be reached. If we were to not embrace our trials and tribulations, and instead chose to cower under the weight of them, we would be forever stuck in mediocrity, content to live as the animals.
God has given us challenges to overcome in our lives, and presents us also with challenges to pursue, both of which it is His desire that we grow to become all He has created us to be. The deterministic mind thinks that the Creator says to us: “When you are suffering, know that I have betrayed you!” (Neitzsche?) But we know better. When we are suffering, we are growing! Embrace the pain, whether normal or neurotic, and become the person that God truly desires you to be!
Now, the idle time has passed us by, and yet we welcome the coming dawn…what will the sunrise bring us, and what will the sun set upon?
Only you will determine the answer, runner…and I can’t wait to see!!!!
“Come what may, I want to run!” – II SAM. 18:23