Why. It's a question people keep asking me about my ultrarunning, usually accompanied by lots of head shaking, sympathetic looks, proclamations of impending knee disintegration and confident predictions that all runners will sooner or later drop dead on the spot. Most of my road friends think anything longer than a marathon is crazy and my parents keep warning me that one day my legs "will fall off". Needless to say, I try to avoid the subject as much as possible. Fortunately the one person who really "gets me" and understands why I do it (other than other ultra runners) is my wife.
But the question "why" is one I rarely ask myself (unless I'm having a low point during a race, then I will ask it over and over). It's true that ultrarunners have a very short-term (or selective) memory, but why do we keep coming back for more?
The first answer that comes to mind is the social interaction, but let's debunk that right now. You can still enjoy the social side of trail running without subjecting yourself to the rigors of running ultras. A nice 6 mile fun run followed by breakfast somewhere would take care of that.
Ok, so what about the thrill. True, you do get an adrenaline surge at times during a race, but nothing that compares to team sports. In my rugby days, putting a big hit on an opponent, gliding through a gap in the defense or timing the perfect line-breaking pass (something that didn't happen too often) was much more of a rush.
The swag? Well, I do love my sweatshirts from Bandera and Rocky Raccoon, my Trilogy awards, belt buckles, shirts and all the rest of it, but I'm pretty sure there are simpler ways of getting swag than running silly distances so that can't be it either.
So here's the real reason (or at least my reason). There are some people who are natural born runners - they can turn up without any training and run fast 5k or 10k races with little bother. I am not one of them. I have to work at my running and it doesn't always come easy. There are days when I struggle through 5 miles and others when I sail through 50. But I am world class at being bull headed and determined, and I will force myself to keep going. I thrive on challenges, enjoy the mental battle with myself and above all keep a smile on my face. That is why the ultra distances suit me so well. There is something very pure about finishing an ultra event - you can't buy it, you have to earn it. It's not always easy, but nothing worth having ever is.
And like so many other trail runners I like to march to the beat of my own drum. I've never ever felt the need to follow the crowd or to "fit in", so the marginal nature of the sport appeals to me. Sure, I run marathons too but give me a small town race or a secluded trail run over a big city marathon any day. The sheer feeling of freedom that comes from running through the woods at night with only a full moon for company can be uplifting. I still remember how good I felt during the last miles of Bandera and Rocky Raccoon and I want to recapture that feeling.
One of my favorite ultra quotes is from Keith Knipling: "going for a run always clears my head, but running 100 miles distills my soul".
I know where that guy is coming from.