I write this with a very strong — some will say overinflated — sense of pride in being called an ultra runner. And while the past five years or so have seen such a boom in trail and long-distance running that most folks these days at least know the term, understanding has not spontaneously followed.
I can tell you that quite often the words “utlra” and “ultra runner,” especially when paired with a description of the distances we cover, still cause a lot of raised eyebrows, pointed questions and even name-calling — running freak, ultra nut, extremist, egomaniac, or just plain old crazy.
Like most of us who log “insane” miles, I’ve gotten past the point of taking these remarks to heart. I mostly chalk them up to a lack of understanding of what calls people to run long distances in the first place. And without understanding, acceptance is much more difficult.
But then there are those I know who are also runners; sometimes their jibes and questions can be the most pointed of all. This brings me to my central question: Are we truly accepted within the running community, or are we destined to be always on the fringe?
1. not part of the mainstream; marginal wing of a group or sphere of activity
2. unconventional, peripheral, or extreme.
Hear me out on this before you take a stab at me. The general population views a marathoner as an ascetic, a person who pushes him or herself in an attempt to reach running perfection. It’s a lifestyle many “ooh” and “ahh” at. But the reaction isn’t as friendly when you tell folks you’re training to run 100 miles. Rather, it’s one of shock, disbelief, and dismay that usually ends in the question-slash-accusation, “Why?!”
We all have our personal reasons of “why.” For me, it’s that one-of-a-kind, exquisite feeling of pushing myself not just beyond the comfort zone but to the very edge of my endurance, only to discover that the edge can be pushed even further. This belief that there’s a superior version of me is what propels me forward in races. It has sustained me during the long months of training and, in the end, reinstates my passion for running.
There’s a pleasure to be found in the overindulgence that is distance running, the peace and conformity in nature that comes from it. Quite simply, it’s my happy place, my free-your-mind destination that can only be reached beyond 26.2. In the end, it’s what I learn about myself during my long runs that makes me a better person when I return home. Does that sound so different than the “traditional” runner?
Of course, all of the above comes with a price. It’s not that we deprive ourselves of life’s pleasures, but sacrifices must be made — especially for those who must train extra long to run extra distances. If that means forgoing opportunities to mingle and make new friends because we need to be in bed at 8:30 p.m. for that 3:30 a.m. wake-up run, then so be it. It's not that we don't like to have fun or that we’re not social people; it's just that our priorities shift. Between balancing a life of work, home, kids, and everything else, we barely have time to run as it is.
No, we ultra runners aren’t crazy, selfish, or conceited. We simply have our own goals, goals that require that we’re forever looking at the big picture. It’s the journey beyond what most folks perceive as “the end” that matters to us. It’s the pursuit of adventure and self discovery that comes from pushing our limits to the extreme, and then even further.
Quite simply, to quote William James, “the strenuous life tastes better.”
So, if that makes me “fringe,” that’s OK. I think most people who know me understand that I prefer it this way. Out here on the fringe, you see all kinds of things that you can’t see anywhere else.
Author: Shalini Kovach is a trail junkie and ultra distance runner living in Ballwin, Mo., who is in the midst of training for her first 100-mile race.