Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Know When to Say When

Ultra runners by their nature are stubborn individuals who refuse to give up without a fight.  As a sport, ultra running requires this personality trait of its participants merely to finish some of the more demanding events.  This quality serves ultra runners well not only in their sport but I believe in many other endeavors that they under take in life.

Unfortunately, this quality can also be a perilous hazard.  I am still relatively young by ultra standards, only 42, which means that I should have some real quality races ahead of me.  However, I definitely do not feel as I did ten or even just five years ago.  Lingering injuries seem to wrack my body from the piriformis to the achilles.  I often tell myself to take some time off from racing ultras or running 100 mile weeks.   Then I wonder if I am just not being tough enough because none of these injuries are actually keeping me from running, they just make running more difficult, especially to run at a competitive level.

So recently I have tried to take an objective look at my ultra running.  The word ultra actually means extreme.  Is ultrarunning extreme?  As every mother has ever told her children, any thing in the extreme is not good and moderation is the key to life.  But extreme is a relative term.  When you hang around with people who run four one hundred mile races or more in a year and you only do one hundred miler and a dozen or so shorter ultras, than you no longer are the extreme but rather you are part of the new norm that is established by your peer group.  The norm amongst ultra runners is to do a 50K or trail marathon every month or so and sprinkle in a 50 miler and an occasional 100.

Only when we discuss our running outside of our ultra clique do we begin to appreciate why it is called ultra running and why indeed it is extreme.  Outsiders definitely think we are extreme and if we think back hard enough to when we first started running, the idea of doing a single marathon did seem a little on the crazy side but to do multiple ultras is insanity.

So what is to become of us ultra runners as we age?  If we want to be running when we are eighty, perhaps we will need to stick to the 5Ks and the 35 mile weeks.  But then you read about the eighty year old who finished a 100 miler and we begin to think that we too could be that person.  In the book Running Through the Wall:  Personal Encounters With the Ultramarathon, there is a story by the Cult guitarist Michael Dimkich.  Dimkich relates that when he was introduced to legend Alice Cooper and someone had told him that Dimkich had run a 100 miler, rather than be impressed, Cooper had told him that you need to be careful on how you treat your body.  Dimkich replied that he knew people in their sixties that are still running 100s to which Cooper replied that he knew people that were in their sixties that were still doing heroin.

I always loved that story because it has a very important lesson that perhaps ultra runners should heed.  Not everyone is the same.  Some people can get away with extreme activities for a longer period of time than others but that does not mean that you will.  Ultra runners even in their forties like me are somewhat like immortal adolescents who believe that ''it'' will never happen to them.  Eventually ''it'' will happen to the adolescents and eventually our running will catch up with us if we do not listen to our body and treat it with kindness and respect.

Of course, writing this down and knowing this is one thing, actually heeding my own advice is another.  So recently I have started to explore other non running activities like backpacking and tennis as I try to transition from full time competitive ultra runner to part time recreational ultra runner.  Whether I can successfully make that transition or whether I even want to is still a struggle I wrestle with.  I still long for Hardrock and Mont Blanc.  My internal struggle will go on.

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