Brian’s Blog

Inside the Secret World of UltraRunning

To most people, the longest distance they ever consider people to run is the marathon.  It is 26.2 miles or 42.2 kilometers as the ultimate test of human endurance.  It is true that marathons are the most popular and widely known long distance running events, but there is the secret world of ultra running, which I, myself, have only recently discovered. 

Ultra running is considered to be anything longer than a traditional marathon, but most people will say it has got to be at least 50km to be considered a true ultra-marathon.  Ultra distances range from the 50km all the way up to over 200km in races such as Badwater, which takes place in Death Valley, CA; quite possibly the most unforgiving climate in all of North America. 

I came upon the ultra scene after having completed several marathons and started to look towards goals of running further instead of faster.  I completed my first 50k road race in Canberra, Australia, in April of 2009, which was a very humbling experience.  I felt fine through the marathon distance until I got to the last 5km where I completely fell apart, or “hit the wall” as most people have come to know it.  It seemed like a life or death situation taking place in my head and I was loosing the battle.  Somehow, I managed to overcome the struggle of my legs not responding to the instructions my brain was giving them and miraculously made may way across the finish line. 

I have since run several 50k races, both on trail and roads and become much more comfortable with the distance.  My biggest problem in the first race was my pacing and my mindset.  I was running as if I was doing a marathon, and ultras require a bit more patience and planning, not to mention mental toughness. 

This past weekend, I set out to accomplish one of my latest goals: of finishing a 50mile (80km) trail race in under 9 hours.  I was really nervous, since this was much longer than I have ever run before, but I was also confident in my body, my mind, and my training.  Part of setting goals is setting them high enough so that it extends your comfort zone and forces you to go beyond your previous limits, just like you do in physical training, but goals are for your mind.  That is exactly what I did, learning many different things along the way. 

As you could imagine, after running for several hours in the heat, your mind becomes a bit scattered so I present my new found secrets/insights of the world of ultra running in the form of some tidy bullets.

  1. Don’t waste energy running up hills, you will make up your time going down them and your legs will thank you later on.
  2. Running for many hours will give you loads of time to create new friendships and become inspired by other runners’ stories.  I ran side by side with runners who have completed Badwater, the Western States 100 and beat Scott Jurek in the National Championships.   It’s comparable to cycling with Lance Armstrong, or shooting hoops with Michael Jordan. 
  3. After a few hours, it becomes an eating event.  Your body will only keep going as long as you feed it the right things.  At an Ultra race, the aid stations are stocked with cookies, chips, pop, gummies, gels, fruit, sandwiches, potatoes and much, much more.  If you like to eat, run ultras!!!!!
  4. You can start to enter a meditative state after a few hours where you start to realize that your limits are mostly based in your thinking, not your physical body.  This realization brings you peace, and allows you keep on running. 
  5. After 5 or 6 hours, you can become very emotional, starting to think about those closest to you and how grateful you are for everything you have.  It is like if you knew you were going to die, all the things that don’t matter disappear and you focus on what’s most important, your family and friends and all their support.  It pushes you to keep going.
  6. After 7 hours, you think Steve Jobs is the greatest man alive for inventing the iPod.  As the runners are more spread out and you are running mostly by yourself, a little music does amazing things to your motivation and drive.  Songs like Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin never sounded so amazing next shuffled in with P Diddy and Led Zeppelin. 
  7. After 8 hours, the finish is drawing near and you feel a second wind coming on.  There are always going to be ups and downs in an ultra race so you just need to be strong through the downs until you come back around.  If you keep stepping one foot in front of the other, you WILL reach the finish line.

I completed my first 50 miler in 8 hours and 55 minutes, at the Sulphur Springs Trail run, just outside of Hamilton, ON.  The sense of accomplishment was indescribable.  I was even able to pass 5 of the 16 people that were still ahead of me during the last 20 kilometers of the race. 

I guess now I just have to up the bar one more time and start preparing for my first 100miler (aiming to finish under 24 hours) in September.  I’m putting this out there to the world so that I am held accountable and follow through.  This one really does scare me, but I know I can do it if I try.  That is the power of goal setting. 

        Share you goals with others and if it doesn’t scare you just a little bit, then try making some bigger goals.  If you share your goals with others, it’s amazing how much you can do with their support. 

© Brian Groot 2020