Why I run ultra

(this post is in response to a question asked by a fellow member of the Facebook forum, Trail and Ultra Running)

I love trail running, I always have. I love dancing over rocks and dips, scrambling over trees and fences, flying down hills or through tall grass, only to be stopped dead in my tracks by a fantastic view or by the momentary connection with a deer or fox in my path. To observe a funny squirrel (do you know how different they can be?) or a boar shuffling through the brush. To experience the grace and solemnity of a heron poised along the water’s edge. Gosh, running and experiencing those things brings such joy to my soul. Pounding pavement to me is just exercise. The breeze from a green forest against my skin gives me life.

Problem is, to really appreciate trails, one ought to be prepared to go long. Small, four- to five-mile jaunts are nice, but the more one runs, the more one finds these distances are not enough. A runner finds herself wanting to be able to endure and commune for as long as possible. I am made to endure. I have always wanted to. I have the body for it, the constitution, and the will. There was just this one issue that kept me from achieving that point: a genetic propensity to migraines.

Migraines are not just headaches. My episodes were frequent and excruciating, as in zap-me-with-a-tazer-and-knock-me-out-before-I-hurt-myself kind of pain. I tried medications, but every time, my body grew resistant to them, and the preventive medicines did nothing except depress me, limit my energy, and cause me to gain weight. I hated them. A once avid hiker, mountain-biker, and runner, in the span of a few years I became a suffering individual who could barely spend time in the sun without sparking a migraine. It was not a life.

A while ago, I decided it all had to stop. With my doctor for support, I threw away all medicine. I changed my diet, and slowly began to exercise. It was a long process. By 2006, I was running once again. First three or four miles, then six, then ten. In 2009, I ran my first half-marathon. I was walloped by a major attack afterward, but even so, I knew I wanted to do it again. By that time, I had come so far; I knew I would be able to find a way to go further.

I kept running, kept experimenting with ways to endure. Unfortunately, I was not listening enough to what my body and heart were saying and focusing too much on what road runners and racers say. “Push harder, pick up the pace, force your body forward.” I tried this over and over and wondered why it didn’t work. I’d bonk, trigger a migraine, and disappoint myself every time. It wasn’t the right way for me and I knew it. But what other way could there be?

Last year, after finishing a trail half-marathon, I had the opportunity to watch my first-ever ultra race. I was astounded not only by the distances these runners were covering, but by the runners themselves. So many different types of people – older, younger, heavier, slimmer. I loved the determination I saw on their faces. I loved the way they moved – it looked right. I was in awe of what they could do.

As I watched the runners and cheered them through the finish line, a new friend began to describe for me the difference in training for such distances. “Get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” he told me, and then he described how an ultra trail runner must learn to listen to his body and his brain, understand how to hydrate and eat while on the move, and run slow and with focus when necessary in order to endure. Listening to him while watching those runners made me think, “This could be what I was looking for.” What he described to me is what my own heart had been trying to tell me all along. This was the first time I had ever heard that maybe, just maybe, my heart was right.

That was in September of last year. For two months, I read, I listened, and I gathered as much information as I could. On November 1, I started to train for my first 50k ultra. I ran with a heart rate monitor, searching for that sweet spot of a range in which the alpha waves of my brain would kick in, the flow of blood and breath would be in sync, and the body would be in harmony with its environment. The moment I found it, I was transcendent. Really. At that point, one early morning at 4 am, on my way to a trail, I found it. In that state, I felt as if I could endure forever.

The bulk of my training focused on reaching that state. I ran further and further, only once or twice sparking a mild migraine. Graduate school and sleepless nights were the main instigators of pain now. Running in the forest became my medicine. I did find that heart rate exercise could even stop a headache from time to time. It was a revelation, to say the least. I had always heard exercise could help, but because I had always thought I was either supposed to push or do so little “mild” exercise, it never helped. Working out at the right zone for my body did.

It was a learning process for me, with injuries and life issues threatening to stop me from my training. I didn’t though. I learned a lot about myself. Winning a race was never a goal in my mind – in fact, the prospect of competition is a real turn off for me – but I was surprised by how much training became my goal, and the race merely a joyous culmination of the effort. That is the part I am reflecting on now, and I am in the process of setting a “goal” of a race so that I can once again begin to focus.

I ran my first 50k a few weeks ago. I did well. Of course I hated some parts of it, but for the overwhelming majority of the course, I was in heaven. Knowing that this time, the kind of pushing I was doing was right and steady and in harmony with who I was gave me the energy and determination to finish. I paused to thank the beautiful scenes around me; I paused to thank my fellow runners and volunteers who were there to encourage and assist. Toward the end, facing just one more hill of nasty muck and mud before hitting the lengthy stream crossing, I dipped my hand in the slosh, pulled some up with my fingertips, and smeared it across my face. It wasn’t a conquering gesture, it was a communal one. I could endure, and Nature gave me the chance to see it. She deserved to be there on my cheeks as I crossed that line.

Does all this explain to you why I run ultras? I am not sure it does. I will say, as I look back, I have had very few – perhaps one or two – migraines since January. If controlling migraines were the sole reason for running ultras, that would be enough. But that is nothing now – a mere sidebar and benefit to a practice that has become an essential part of my life. I run far – it’s what I do.

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