Saturday, June 19, 2010

Ultra Quest

I exchanged a few emails recently and one of them somehow triggered a small torrent of thoughts and feelings for me. It seemed like a good thing to stick most of it on my blog, since it was all kind of blog-like...

I'm not sure my ultra-experience is like everyone else's. I had Guillane-Barre 12 years ago. My hands and feet were 99% paralyzed. I could barely move them - they were completely useless. My immune system ate nearly all my nerve tissue away. They gave me immune-globulin to confuse and reset my immune system, then I re-grew about 15-20% of my nerve tissue. But that apparently varies wildly around my body. My broken arm barely hurts, and that's causing problems. In two weeks, it hasn't healed at all. I guess I've been moving around too much. Pain would help limit that. So I'm operating on a fraction of the average nerve-tissue. I quit running, most of my life. I ran some in high school and college, but not seriously. I never referred to my running as "training". I quit, and there were several feeble attempts to start back up again. So about 12 years ago, I had Guillane-Barre, a great son, and failed marriage. There was a mix of thoughts and emotions - mostly what a loser I was. I trained myself in technology, quizzed-out on exams, and changed careers from machinist to technology. But that wasn't enough. When I turned 45, I had a mid-life crisis. My dramatic self-taught career change taught me that just about anything is possible, but I still felt like a loser. Most people's physical performances start to subside in the 48-52yr-old zone. I figured I had 5 more years to see what I could do. I had only ever gone 10 miles once and 11 miles once. Those were my longest two runs in my life! So when I ran (okay, I walked most of it) the Goblin Valley 50K, it was an eerie experience. What if you were an interstellar astronaut, and you're used to traveling all over the galaxy, never more than several light-years away from the nearest star, planet, or chunk of something, and somehow you manage to go way beyond. Suddenly there's nothing familiar around, and you can turn around and look at your own (entire!) galaxy and now it seems so small. And everywhere you look, there are galaxies EVERYWHERE - like stars where in your old galaxy. Suddenly your mind and soul are seeing life on a totally new, exhilarating SCALE!!!! I suppose people who gradually migrated to ultras, and had more ordinary lives, haven't had such a powerful experience. However, there are LOTS of people like me who start running ultras. That's why the average age of an ultra-runner is in the 40's, not the 30's like it is for marathons, and 20's for short stuff. Often, hard life experiences migrate people's psyches towards ultras - cancer, alcoholism, drug addiction, obesity, MS, divorce, dealing with suicide from a loved-one, getting out of prison, and countless other hardships lead people to try something that is considered "impossible" by ordinary people. I don't want to talk down on "ordinary" people, because we're all ordinary. It's just that for some people who have lived ordinary lives, and gotten a glimpse of "the end", they tend to want to be "extra"-ordinary. Ultra runners often tell each other that we're all either running away from something or towards something - or both. But I think some people are doing neither. They're running "around"; around their normal life, looking for meaning that they've previously missed. Like gold miners sifting through old mine-tailings looking for missed granules of gold. Sometimes venturing beyond their ordinary life, but mostly staying within their old life, with the same relationships, but not accepting the old status-quo. Like the interstellar astronaut not just traveling for the sake of traveling, but looking for dark-matter, the center of the universe, primordial grains of sand - anything that helps explain where we came from, why we're here, and what holds it all together? The odd thing is, even people with religious backgrounds, who have been fed the answers to all these questions their whole lives, are not immune to traveling on this parallel journey. Maybe because their religion fills the void quite well for some parts of their mind and soul, but not all of it. And yet most of the people on these journeys practically never think "consciously" about these higher subjects. Some seem almost unaware that they're on this sort of journey. Training programs... I noticed that the most disciplined runners tend to be the ones who gradually migrated to ultra-running, through gradual progression. They're more likely to have finish-time goals, but also training goals, diet goals, weight goals, etc. They think with more structure. We all have the same emotions, and love running, but logic rules how they train and race. People like me, however, are far less likely to use structured regimens. We run/race almost entirely because we like it. We have more injuries, slower finish-times, more DNF's - and more fun in life. This isn't always absolutely true, but generally is. Statistics are often made-up, so that's what I'm going to do... For disciplined runners, the reason they run is maybe 40-60% because they love it. But for runners like me, it's probably closer to 80-95%. Disciplined runners often rebuke fun-runners for being crazy or stupid, and they warn fairly accurately that the fun-runner is about to get injured. Yet in spite of that, those who run just for fun have few regrets. We all run for (similar, but) different reasons. There are also those who run to prove something to someone, or show-off. (I'll bet 95% of those are younger males, but again, that's a made-up statistic.) This is an external reason. One of the reasons I have tried to finish the Leadville 100 is to teach my son through vicarious example that the concept of "impossible" is too often nothing more than a state of mind and emotion. If you want it, go for it. Don't make up self-defeating excuses - that will lead not only to failure, but sucks all the fun out of the endeavor. This is similar to "showing-off", but not quite the same. As long as my training/racing doesn't cause me to neglect time with my son, it is a positive thing for both him and myself. Training depends on your "base" and/or athletic history. It also depends on why you run (above paragraphs). If you get too structured or the training type is too intense, then you'll burn-out and either quit running, or quit ultra-running. So to avoid that, we need to constantly self-monitor, "am I having fun? is this doing it for me? can I sustain this?" One way to get the best of both worlds is to mix-it-up. Do unsustainable speed-work some weeks, then revert back to some more junk-like fun/adventurous running. "Junk" training or miles is defined as having no performance-enhancing value. The good thing about junk miles is it can give you "some" rest (if you don't do too many junk miles), yet keep you from losing what you gained during more intense, unsustainable training. The bad thing about junk miles is it can mentally train you to get used to running without speed, can overload your system with useless accumulated-stress, which then causes injuries, especially on your next speed work-out. Unlike marathons and shorter, where you can get all the necessary caloric needs from stored glycogen, body-fat, and sport-drink, the longer the ultra, the more the need you'll have to eat real food while you race. Most people have no idea how much energy digestion takes. It's a LOT! While digesting, you tend to feel less energetic. If you eat during training, it helps train your stomach to digest quicker and more efficiently. It also trains your mind to expect a little lethargy during digestion, so you eat smaller amounts, and don't get psyched-out by a little lethargy. You don't always have to inconvenience yourself by eating during training, but you can eat a small amount before your runs. During longer, self-supported runs, you'll need to get used to carrying your food. You need to figure out which foods are best for you when on-the-move. Some can only manage Gu, while others eat almond-past, some trail-bars, some mashed-up potato chips, etc. If you wait until a big race to discover this, it can lead to disaster (bonking, diarrhea, vomiting, etc). What joy, huh?


  1. Good stuff Jeff!

    Quick (selfish) question - how was the Goblin Valley 50K? It'll be my first race longer than a half marathon this October.

  2. Then you picked the right race!
    Goblin has good footing, with only one short technical spot.
    You'll run along a riverbed most of the way, so expect to get wet. Better to have shoes that dry quickly, because GoreTex shoes won't keep you dry. One warning about the end, just when you get to the finish, you aren't finished... you still have a mile of twisted course that is a bit challenging to figure out. It snakes all over the place.
    Very beautiful course. As far as 50Ks go, it's about as easy as it gets. All of it is very runnable. Well organized.
    Hope you have a good time!

  3. Well said, man, well sad. Thanks for writing it so...I am looking for words, but have a limited vocabulary at this time, like it struck me stopped. Anyhow, you keep having fun and living life, and so will I.

  4. You're an amazing person, Jeff. Thank you for sharing your story.


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