Friday, December 7, 2012

Syncro-Blog: Pandora's Race: Getting sucked into the Ultra Cult

I would guess that many of us entered the ultra world thinking, "I'll just sign up for 1 race."  I know that I did when I first signed up for Mountain Masochist 50+ back in 2006.  And I can very clearly remember the parking lot scene prior to a Signal Nob trail run--one of my first with my new-found group of crazy trail running friends--where Keith Knipling stated, "I'm not doing any more 100s--they're stupid."  That was shortly after he and his dad, Gary, had completed the Grand Slam, and I just assumed that Keith was serious (he went on to run at least 5 more 100s over the next 8 or 9 months including 3 in back-to-back weekends, and both versions of TWOT, which only true nutcases ever finish). And I can remember thinking at the time (fall 2006) that 50 miles was enough. I'd do it once, and then return to my normal life. I had no desire to try 100 miles; 50 seemed like punishment enough.  And I can distinctly remember finishing that first 50 and saying, "That was stupid. I will never do this again."  Yet, somehow I ended up in Wyoming 6 months later at the start line of the Bighorn 100. My first 100 was a disaster--I tried unsuccessfully to drop for 50 miles, and still wish I would have dropped rather than have finished, but that's another story.  But I'd definitely been bitten by both the ultra and 100 mile bugs. 100 miles is not my favorite distance (I prefer 50 miles, or my favorite distance, 100K), but somehow much of the past 6 years of my life has been consumed by training for and racing 100 milers.  My non-running friends have described the Ultra scene as a cult.  You get sucked in and never find your way back out.  So what's the danger of getting sucked in?  Obviously each individual is different, but getting sucked into the ultra cult has influenced my life in some significant ways.

In no particular order:

Ultra running can be an all-consuming hobby. I like to think that I used to be more well-rounded.  In my pre-ultra life, I could list off a multitude of interests and hobbies. I used to take language classes, salsa dance several times a week, cook, bake, knit, read, take stained glass classes, tango, yoga, biking etc.  I still claim to do many of those things, but I now bake bi-annually rather than weekly; I go salsa dancing once every 6 months; and I joined a book club to force me to finish a book once a month. And most of my non-book club reading has to do with running, in the form of blogs or running magazines. I've become a great conversationalist about running, but maybe not about much else, outside of my job.  Training to compete at the level I want to compete at takes up much of my time outside of work hours. If I'm going to show up at the start line of a 100 miler, I want to feel prepared, and like I can race it. For me, that usually means running around 70 miles a week, trying to hit 80 -  100 miles in my biggest weeks, with a somewhat constant guilt complex for not doing more and feeling undertrained. Add in a yoga class or two, and that means that most of my spare time is taken up by running.

It's affected my career decisions.  I work in the international development field, and before I got into trail running, I intended to go back overseas within a couple of years of arriving in DC (2004). My reason for not trying to get a field position is more complicated than just running, but a large part of it is because I wouldn't want to be somewhere where I couldn't run trails, or potentially run at all (an overseas posting with my current organization would not be taking me to Europe, or an international location with a similar ultra scene...think Juba or Kabul).  A career has never been that important to me, though, and it's become fairly apparent that I'm more passionate about running than I am about my day job, so I guess it's not surprising that my desire to keep training and competing at a high level has encouraged me to stay state-side in the forests of Oregon.

I've moved cross country partially because of trail running. That is not to say that the ultra scene isn't alive and well (better, even) on the east coast, but I'm a sucker for really tall trees, mountains, moss and ferns, and I feel at peace running on the wet trails of the PNW.  I moved cross country to live in a place of amazing natural beauty, primarily because the thought of calling those PNW trails home was too good to pass up.

It's affected relationships. My non-running friends have commented (jokingly, but it's partly true), that they lost me to ultrarunning. I had a core group of non-running friends before I started ultrarunning. But once I started spending most of my weekends running with new ultrarunning buddies, I wasn't definitely absent more than present with my old circle. And while dating/relationships have never been my forte, I've definitely had some relationships end (or never get off the ground) because of my running.  Although I guess if a partner can't support my passions, then maybe ultrarunning has been a good screening test for duds.

Getting sucked into the ultrarunning "cult" has obviously not been without effect.  And the question remains as to why I keep doing it when the goal of it is to run races that are potentially not going to be a lot of fun.  I hated my first 100 miler. I had a miserable time, and was not proud of my finish.  Maybe that's what motivated me to run my second 100--to prove to myself that I could figure out the distance. But in subsequent races, I think I've learned that you never really figure out the distance, and maybe that's part of the intrigue and is why, 6 years later, I'm still planning my life around 100 mile races. There is something about the unpredictability of the journey that is 100 miles, that has a real draw.  You know going in, that you're going to suffer, and that there will be highs and lows, and that you won't know what those will be until you face them; there's something about that uncertainty that is really quite appealing.  Or at least it must be, otherwise, why do we do it?

Some ultrarunning friends' thoughts on the topic:
Jen Benna
Dominic Grossman
Katie DeSplinter
Jimmy Dean Freeman

2 comments:

Olga King said...

You are SO sucked in, sister...abandon all hope. Although I am trying to claw my way out, biting nails to not get sucked back in, we also have Ronda who had expanded her horizon and is going strong, not to mention all those Craig's, Karl's, Ian's, Hal's and so on. I keep telling myself I am done - but then I said same thing last year, and the year prior...may be my "blessing in disguise" is the fact that I live in quite an uninspiring place (where long training runs are concerned), and I am having some physical issues lately that don't allow me to train hard - and like you, I wouldn't want to line up and "just finish the damn thing". Because while we will never figure out the distance of a 100 miler, we pretty much can make it through on any given day:) Good luck balancing life! I'd love to take all those lessons you (used to) take! :))O

Gretchen said...

Ultrarunning is the BEST screening for duds. No question.