Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Mindset of the Ultra Runner

I don't consider myself a true ultra runner.

This is not faux modesty.  My bonafides compared to others who "run long" are thin.  I have never ran Leadville.  I paced for a guy at Badwater...but that is like kissing your sister.  The Barkley Marathons will not likely open up to admit a jamoke like me.

Sure, I have done some things that put me at the "edge" of being in the club.  Ironman Triathlons.  50 milers.  A few failed attempts at longer races.  A few long days strung together here and there.

In the end I have just run some miles.  Sometimes, a lot of miles.  But not "those kind of miles".  I am a hack when it comes to real endurance efforts.


I have been around enough real runner dudes and dude-ettes that I think that I can profile ultra runners for the FBI.

Here are my observations on the mindset of the ultra runner.

Why do they do it?  

They don't do it for the money.  There is virtually no money in ultra-running.  Most of the time all you "get" is a medal or a belt buckle and three days of dehydration.

The reason they do it is for the challenge.

"Duh!  Of course, it's the challenge you dumbass!"

I  submit that your understanding of the word challenge does not cover it.  I am talking "challenge to the extreme".  Some people climb big mountains to get "high".  Some people rob banks for the "thrill".  Evil Kneival jumped football fields with a motor cycle.

Ultra runners have this type of challenge DNA.

People run 24 hours to see if they can conquer the physical topology challenge and to conquer the challenge called themselves.   There is nothing more sensical at mile 30 than to listen to your brain telling you to stop.  Crushing that thought in your brain gives you a feeling like no other.

What are common personality traits of ultra runners?  

Of course there are people of every type running big.  However, most of the people I have met have some common personality traits.

First?  Quiet humble mental strength.  These men and women are some of the most humble unassuming people you will ever meet.  They shrug off the sheer awesomeness of what they attempt and generally call their accomplishments unimpressive.

Second?  They possess an overarching sense that very little that occurs on the race course or in life is a "big deal" that cannot be pushed/ran through or waited out.  Rest.  Plow through.  Keep moving.  Nothing can not be over come.  Quit whining.

Third?  I would say most of the endurance folks I know are introverted.  Sure, there are a few very public figures in the sport that "appear" to be pegging the extrovert meter...but most ultra athletes toil in the quiet and shun attention.  (I ran with Dean K. a two times over the last several years and though he appears to be a publicity hound to others, he came off as more thoughtful and low key in person.  My guess is he is more introverted than people think.) Introversion does not mean they are shrew like in one on one conversation.  What comes through is that they are low drama and low maintenance when it comes to needing the company of people and attention.

Four?  They are persistent to the core.  Again, you may be thinking "thanks for the obvious".  What ultra runners exhibit is not your normal "get up and do it again" run of the mill persistence.  Persistence takes on stronger meaning in the mindset of an ultra runner.  In the dead of the night or at mile 46, persistence goes turbo.  You don't know if you have gritty persistence until you are wet, cold, hurting and on the edge of bonking...yet you keep going.  You cannot understand that kind of persistence until you are faced with it.

Five?  They are helpful and sharing to other runners.  Every ultra runner, Ironman or adventure racer in my contact range exhibits amazing ability and interest in offering coaching, ears and assistance to others in the sport.  You may be thinking "but they are competing, why are they wired this way?  Helping others could help them lose.".  The dirty secret?  Ultra runners know that they are not usually competing with each other.  At big miles, the competition is almost always internal man vs. self.  Most ultra runners don't see others as the competition. (That is until you are 500 yards away from the line and the other guy is right beside you!)

Six?  They are always looking for the next big "hit".   Ultra runners start with marathons...then 50K's, then 50 milers, which lead to 100Ks, 100 miles and beyond.  Leadville to Badwater to the Barkley to the Sahara etc. etc. etc.   The next challenge or race is usually always in the back of the head.  The next fix needs to be bigger, badder and nastier than the last. A segue to....

Seven?  Many, but not all possess addictive type personalities.  There are studies out there that show the ranks of ultra runners are disproportionally populated with people who have beaten drug and alcohol problems.  On many of the big runner websites there are personal stories about beating alcohol, drugs or other addictions by getting the running bug.   Others may have been work-a- holics or a-holics of other types.   Even for people who are not recovering addicts of some sort, I bet you can identify some "extreme" behavior that indicates an addictive personality type.

I am sure there are exceptions to every one of these traits.  However, I think this would type cast 80% of the people I know who hit the miles large.  

Someday, I will join the club.