Why run an ultra marathon?
There is more to ultra marathon races than just completing the distance. More than just the finish line. Ultra marathons take you on a journey of discovery. You can learn a lot about yourself. Both good and bad.
This post isn’t the usual short tips and tricks on how to race an ultra marathon. These races can break us down to our core. The extras get stripped away. You can find out if you have what it takes… whatever that really means.
I have taken 3 key lessons from my ultra marathons
- Pain is information
- You can do more than you realise
- The body does have limits
Pain Is Information
If anything is guaranteed, it is you will experience pain during an 100km ultra marathon.
Pain is powerful. It can wear us down or bring us to an abrupt stop. It can weaken our resolve, change our emotions or snatch away our goals. We don’t have to let pain have this influence on us. It may not be easy, but it is possible to change our response to pain.
I’ve learnt pain can be an amazing source of information. Assessing pain as it happens in an objective way, rather than responding in a subjective manner can make pain a useful tool.
Pain is a defence mechanism. It is designed to protect us from harm. The obvious example is if we place our hand on a hot stove top we will feel an intense burning pain. We’ll pull our hand away to protect ourselves from being burnt. When we push our limits in an ultra marathon it gets a little more complex.
If you listen properly pain can tell you a lot of things. We all know the burning pain from running fast, above our anaerobic threshold. If we experience this in the early stages of an 100km race it is telling us we are going too fast. Other times it’s not that simple.
Once past the 40km mark in my first 100km race (the Surf Coast Century) I developed a deep ache in my muscles. It was cross between the feeling of burning and bruising. This was the same pain I usually experienced in the late stages of a marathon. Just not quite as intense. What to do with this pain? I didn’t know. So I took note of it, tried to accept it and kept racing. Over the next 20km it didn’t change and didn’t seem to slow me down. When I had trouble later the pain changed. I discovered some pain may just be a reflection of effort and it is the trend or the way the pain changes that is more important.
Making the effort to understand the different pain experienced can be a useful tool. It can also be a way of handling the pain itself.
You Can Do More Than You Realise
Going into big races I have had some lofty goals. Do I truly believe I can hit those goals? To be honest I’ve always had significant doubts. It is easier to write something down on paper than to actually do it. The doubts are a blessing and a curse. The fear of failure can be a powerful force. We often don’t know what it really takes to reach these goals until we have achieved them. Ultra marathons are really good at feeding those doubts as they reveal what it takes during the race.
Ultra marathons tear away your perceptions of how good you are. Each race has revealed the reality of what is required to reach my goals. Almost always it is harder than I hope. Every big event requires digging deep into my abilities. It is different each time. What has worked in the past doesn’t seem to be enough next time. This creates massive doubts before and during races.
Once the crutches and comforts are stripped away, you are left with the reality and doubt. Responding to these moments is what defines your races. It is a large part of why I race. In these moments I have discovered I am capable of more than I knew I was.
At the 55km check point of the Great Ocean Walk 100km in 2016 I felt destroyed. A combination of the brutality of the course, less than adequate training and going out too hard early didn’t get me to this point in good shape. My support team asked “How are you feeling?”
“Worse than I ‘ve ever felt in a 100km race,” was my answer. I still had 45km to go. The next 25km were considered the toughest section. How was I going to get through that? It didn’t seem possible. Yet I did. Better than just surviving this section, it was the closest I got to any goal times all day. I was able to do more than I realised.
The Body Has Limits
Ultra marathons are meant to test us. Many times our minds keep us in check or stop us from achieving more. Sometimes we discover our body’s limits. To truly know your limit you have to exceed them.
After discovering I could do more than I thought in the third quarter of the Great Ocean Walk, I found some limits in the closing kilometres of the race. My mind was strong. The pain was intense, but I had come to terms with it. As the kilometres ticked over, my muscles began to progressively fail. No matter how much I wanted to keep running. No matter how hard I tried. I couldn’t make my body do what I wanted. It had reached the point it was physically failing me. Running became impossible. Walking no longer resembled what it should. This race brought me to and past my physical limits. I finished, but hours beyond my goal times.
The above is a safe example of finding those limits. A big part of racing successfully is we override our body’s defence mechanisms. Pain is now information. We find tricks and techniques to keep going. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it gets us in trouble. For this exact reason I have been taken off a course in ambulance. It is worth thinking about those limits. Having good support around you can keep you out of long term trouble if you exceed your body’s current capabilities.
Keep your running alive.