My first year, what have I learned from ultra running?
I started ultrarunning at the start of 2019 as I prepared for a run around the Isle of Wight in May. My decision to take up ultra-distance came before.
In July 2018 whilst waiting for a mate, Chris, to finish Race to the Stones, I had a strong urge to give it a go. The vibe at the finish line was exciting and infectious. I loved the unconditional support for each runner as he or she finished. At the same time, I was wondering how it would be possible to run all day over that distance; 100k.
Soon enough, Race to the Stones was in my diary for 2019. How do I prepare, I wondered? That was when I came up with the idea of the Isle of Wight 106km challenge in two halves. This was to be my first experience of running an ultramarathon, trotting round the island. It was awesome and I was hooked.
In fact, I was so hooked that I quickly booked another race. This time it was a full-on 100k in one day from London to Brighton. And on it went.
At some point I decided that it should be monthly. Partly because I had a cause, #upandrun, and partly because the way to get over the last run is to organise another.
For some time I resisted calling myself a runner. I think that I now qualify. Plus Adharanand Finn told me so.
This is on the basis that I am out at least 5 days a week, covering 70-100k, and our habits form our self-identity. I also have a good collection of running books, often watch running films on YouTube, have a box of running shoes, a selection of hydration vests and running belts, headphones, and a pile of running clothes.
Also, I often find myself talking about running. Typically to myself or on #ukrunchat.
First up, a sense that I can and will complete the task at hand. I start here and end there. By whatever human means, I will make it to the other side. That is not to say that a DNF (did not finish) is not possible, as part of the adventure is the stretch, the push and the risk. Anything is possible en route.
The unknown beckons. Uncertainty is fuel as each moment unfolds, step by step along the changing terrain: trails, roads, fields and more. Each footfall is new and feels different.
Ending up somewhere that started as a mere pin drop on a map beholds a deep sense of connection with one’s own resources. These are available to us each day of course, no matter what we are doing.
Running an ultra is decidedly uncomfortable, which is putting it mildly.
The perceived bodily pain in the form of muscle and joint noise, stomach pains, the blisters, the chaffing, the rubbing from the straps and more.
You plan what you will do in the tough moments. Visualisations, mantras, music and plain old ignoring, all have their time. What can I focus upon? Some prefer a more mindful approach.
To be mindful is to be completely aware and present. There is no judgement: good or bad? Who knows? This is the practice. Noticing all sensations, thoughts and feelings as they arise and pass on. Nothing is permanent.
What do I learn from this deep discomfort? I understand my mind under pressure: what do I think? What are my leanings? How much am I prepared to endure to reach the other end? In essence, I learn what is under the hood. We all have much more than we might think.
Day to day, it means we can deal with the inevitable ups and downs of life with a clearer perspective. This allows us to make better choices.
Out in nature for hour upon hour, you cannot help but connect. Or reconnect. You see the planet as you pass through: the changing shades, shapes, sounds and smells.
Nature bathing or forest bathing enriches our wellness. At least two hours a week is beneficial. As a trail runner, you may be out for five to ten hours or more a week, sucking it all in.
Touching nature lets you into its secret world. Paradoxically, it is protective and nourishing, yet also a source of extreme danger if you stop paying attention. Rocks, cliffs, rivers, tree roots all create a wonderful landscape. But, lose touch with your body for too long and you may come a cropper.
Wrapped up with the immersion in nature, you realise the interconnectedness of things. As well as creating the perception of nature, ‘I’ am also within and part of that very nature.
During a race I am interconnected with other runners. It is a wonderful state of interbeing. We are all in this together, sharing the experience through our own unique lenses.
Both this and a sense of loyalty towards nature means that the world takes on a new importance as our collective home. Artificial boundaries dissolve.
One of the experiences I love most is reaching the top of a hill or mountain and absorbing the view. The feeling of awe is potent.
Our significance pales. Self-importance fades if it was there in the first place. How small I really am in this world.
It would not be a blog from me without mentioning the P word. This is not the same as discomfort. I somewhat blended these above.
Western culture promotes the idea that we should be comfortable; perhaps even deserving it because …… . This is on the basis that more comfort results in more happiness. It’s an idea. It’s wrong. There has not been an increase in happiness (a fleeting emotion like all the rest) by having more comfort.
It is through discomfort and challenge that we have the opportunity to grow and learn.
Pain is different. Pain is complex. Pain is human. And, pain is far too fascinating to nail in a few words here. That is for another time.
On perceiving pain, we try to elucidate the meaning. What is my need? It can often run deep. Pain is poorly related to tissue state or injury; although slightly better perhaps in an acute scenario. Pain is about the person, their life, the context, their past experiences, their expectations, their outlook and more.
Pain is poorly understood. This is the reason why persistent pain continues to be one of the largest global health burdens.
And what of ultrarunning and pain? Yes, they come together. We have to expect it, and welcome it rather than resist. The latter only causes more suffering.
On the run, there are a number of ways to deal with pain. Again a big topic. Suffice for now and this blog to acknowledge the normalcy of pain, an experience that many of the well-known runners describe.
I have been making study of pain for some years now, both the science and the experience. Ultrarunning gives me insights that I did not have before. All of this will be explored at a later date.
There are of course plenty of other lessons learned. You will have your own to ponder upon and share.
On we go. Step by step: the run I am on, and in life.