Why do you run Ultra-marathons?” I asked Bobby, a 62 year old veteran Ultra runner whose goal is to run one hundred - 100 mile marathons. He answers,
“Well, I know that I won’t sleep tonight and tomorrow, I will step on to the trail and get hit by a Mac truck.”
“That’s a lot to entice one into doing it,” I reply sardonically.
|Tomorrow I will get hit by a Mac truck.|
But the question is in my mind as I get ready for the Lean Horse Ultra-marathon in Hot Springs, South Dakota. I had run it before and remember the hell that it was. My goal this time is to stay strong on the hardest part of the course, Argyle Road – a twisting steep, gravel road that goes on for 12 miles. The problem is where they place those miles – at the end of marathon from mile 84 to 96. The previous year, I had to walk them and it took hours and hours (in fact, combined with the last four miles of the course in Hot Springs itself, it took 6 and half hours to do 16 miles!). I promised myself that I would never again allow that to happen.
The additional problem of this relatively easy Ultra (considered easy because it is run on what was once a railway bed, the Mickelson Trail that winds itself for over 100 miles through the Black Hills of South Dakota; making the elevation climb never more than 3% at a time) is that it is hot but the night can be very cold. It got hot quickly this year with temperatures peaking at 36 degree Celsius (96.8 Fahrenheit). Unfortunately the night, although cooler, never really got comfortable for running.
As the heat came on, one develops strategies to run 100 miles. The point at which to start is to visit with the other runners as you begin (after all you’ll be with some of them for at least 24 hours … course officials give you a 30 hour cut off time). Ultra runners form a unique subculture in the world of running for they aren’t as competitive with one another as shorter distances promote (certainly there is competition, but that isn’t the first goal). Ultra runners really do care that the other person makes the distance and, perhaps, that they will endure together such an arduous task - creates a bond. It seems that Ultra runners really do have personal goals that keep them motivated.
Unlike marathons where there are spectators to encourage one onward, the world of the Ultra runner is sparsely populated with volunteers and a few friends or family to do the encouragement. The goal for the Ultra runner seems to be endurance. These runners chat endlessly as they run along and listening to their stories can take one’s mind off of the trail and off of the heat.
A second strategy, like life itself, seems to be to break up the course into manageable units. One can’t imagine running 100 miles, but one can set as a goal to get to the next aid station 6 or 7 miles away. Lean Horse has a number of aids stations that are extremely well maintained making this course easier to run. In some Ultra’s, one must almost be self-sustaining. Not so with the Lean Horse Ultra - for volunteers so graciously get you anything you need. As the day proceeded, I noticed that I not only broke up the distance but also the hours of the day.
There was the morning of first light, the noon of heat, the afternoon of descending into Hill City, the evening of diminishing light and the mental preparation to pick up and change into what I’d need for the night run (clean shirt, put away sun glasses etc.; should I change my shoes …), and then the dark and headlamps, the moonlight that casts itself on the trail making it possible to run without headlamps for extended periods, and finally the emerging light of morning. Each of these periods made the trail shift and turn with new interest.
After having visited, grazed at aid stations (peanuts, grilled cheese sandwiches, fluids – Pepsi, this year because they are the sponsor, not Coke), being surprised by the appearance of my running partner (we had agreed to run at. our own pace … little realizing we run at almost the same pace, except not always at the same time) and then running with her for over ten miles until she felt sick and told me to go a try to get under 24 hours, I eventually reached the reason I was in Lean Horse Ultra – Argyle Road. It was dark as I went into the Argyle Loop aid station determined to only get some fluids and head out. I inquired how it was possible, “to have such a hospital aid station at the beginning of such an inhospitable territory?” I asked them to wish me well; they did and directed me to the beginning of Argyle Road.
If I had any doubts as to why people run Ultras, they were soon resolved as I began. First I counted how many hills there were but since they were so long, I started to lose count. It was my goal to run strong and that’s exactly what I was doing. In the moonlight casting itself across the road, I could see my shadow racing down the hills. There is a significant decrease of over 1000 feet in elevation. Previously, that elevation had always made the problem of running worse. One tends to resist moving quickly when pain shoots through blisters, cramps, spent quads, or aching feet. The body tightens and that makes the muscles ache even more. More time is spent on the large stones that make up the gravel for feet don’t lift quickly and the discomfort becomes excruciating. I had been forced to walk before. This time, I had no sense of that. Realizing that I could possibly complete the run in under 24 hours; but more realizing that it was fun to run down the hills as quickly as I could (like a little boy set free) – I found a strength in myself that I never knew I had. Not feeling tired, but excited – running was fun.
I ran Argyle stronger than I’ve ever run it before. I got into the Campground just off of the Argyle and had only the run through town to complete. I still had an hour and half … I knew I’d make it under 24 hours (there is a special buckle for that honour … there were 17 of us to do it). I ran strong on Argyle and achieved my goal … that I could get the elusive 24 hour prize was a bonus. I got lost coming into town having never paid attention to where to go for there was always someone else to follow. I came in just over 23 hours (23:09) and didn’t feel like dying (at least not right away). Then the real pleasure happened, when I saw my running partner come in some 20 minutes later. It had been a good day for her as well. She won the first woman to complete the distance (seems she got over her feeling sick and got her second wind … or possibly third). It was a personal best for her and me.
I think I get why people run the Ultra … I think I even understand what Bobby meant by the Mac truck. There are so few opportunities for us, as humans, to prove to ourselves that we can endure. Ultra Running is one way we leave the comfort of our lives, figuratively stepping into the path of the Mac truck so to speak, to discover that we have strength we never knew we had. Frankly, I don’t need a belt buckle but the reward for having set a goal and the achievement of finding strength in myself is something of which to be proud. I’d wear that.
|It's a good day to be alive.|
By David Fielder