Running definitely has all sorts of benefits. To your health, to your physique, to the way you feel. A lot of these benefits seem to be pretty common across the board with every distance, except for those things that really only seem to show up in ultras. It’s those benefits that especially seem to draw me in. One of them is the inevitable bonding between fellow ultra runners. Running for several hours at a time has an interesting effect on the brain. It seems as if you can go through the whole spectrum of emotional states over the course of one run! This can provide a pretty interesting platform for social interactions.
During long distance races, once everyone’s found their pace, it’s pretty common to end up running with someone you’ve never met before. It’s likely that after so many miles you’ve:a. heard this person’s entire life story(you have a lot of time to talk about this stuff!); b. discussed and observed all sorts of gross bodily functions of each other; and c. gone through several emotional highs and lows where you were likely laughing, crying, or both. Now this isn’t your typical first meeting experience. This is the type of experience that leaves you forever connected. Even if you never see this person again(although this is pretty unlikely in the sport of ultras), you’ve still made that bond.
Cody and I met before we started doing ultras, but the fact that we’re doing them together now makes us a lot stronger of a couple than we would’ve been without them. It’s not easy to run with someone you love. It seems a lot easier to pick up someone new and befriend them instead. For me, running with Cody can be both negative and positive. In our first ultra together, we had no idea what to expect. We hadn’t trained together at all and weren’t used to the way each other liked to go about a run. It was the Quicksilver 50 miler and about 25 miles into it I started having some major IT band issues. All the downhill on the course was starting to take its toll on my under-trained body. I slowed down and watched Cody pull ahead of me. I dragged along, in pain both physically and mentally and ended up breaking down. I sat alongside the trail, crying, for no reason that I could specifically pinpoint. That runner in the distance seemed to be my problem…I blamed Cody. He came back, with an intent to help, but in my emotionally sensitive state it wasn’t a pretty sight. I ended up getting over the crazy emotions, but eventually dropping out of the race because of the knee pain. I’m not so sure that Cody recovered in the same way.
Our next 50 was the White River race up in Washington. Me, having forgotten how brutal running together during Quicksilver was, was fully prepared to run this race with Cody. He had different plans. And when did I find this out? The morning of the race. Hmph… Cody, in what I saw as an egotistical rush, wanted to run the race for himself, and not get bogged down by my emotions or slower pace. Logically, I ran the first ten miles in a pretty sour mood, but the high of running eventually overcame it and I had a great time. I bonded with another runner and I enjoyed the absolutely amazing course. I ran into the finish line feeling pretty great. I had only cried once! And it was for a brief minute during the last, never-ending 5 miles. And I had a blast practically the entire way. I came to find out that Cody had only finished about 10 minutes ahead of me and I felt good, in a totally spiteful way that I now look back on with regret (but he did kind of deserve it.)
Okay, 3rd time’s a charm, right? Our 3rd attempt at 50 miles together was at the Helen Klein Classic. We were now older, more level headed, and ready to tackle the race. All we had on our shoulders was that we wanted to finish under 11hrs in order to qualify for Western States. And it was a success! Throughout the race we were able to support each other. I reined Cody in near the beginning to keep him from going out too fast and he kept me from spending too much time hanging out at the aid stations. We were seen by the other racers as a cute couple out to run 100miles, having fun together, and even holding hands as we crossed the finish in 10:07 (the way it should’ve been from the beginning!). This is what it’s supposed to be about! While our bonding definitely didn’t look anything like what goes on between two new people meeting at a race, it was there in full force. We had to do quite a bit of figuring ourselves and each other out before we could successfully run a race together.
Cody and I still have yet to do anything longer than 50miles together. In May we’ll be doing 62 at Miwok, but our hundreds in the summer are separate. We’ll be pacing each other during those races (and that will end up being an entirely new challenge!), but it won’t be the same as running a full 100 together. I’m sure a million different emotions and issues will uncover themselves when that race finally does happen, but I’m excited to face those challenges and see how much we can learn about ourselves and each other during them.
Yes, bonding in ultras is nothing short of incredible. It’s by far my favorite part. I’ve made friends with folks from 30 to 60 and even though I’ve never seen some of them since then (like Kristen said), we could sit down for coffee and rehash our adventure like it was yesterday. Even just the knowledge that someone is an ultrarunner is enough to strike a bond. I’ve been on runs where I passed someone headed the other direction, carrying hand bottles or a hydration pack, shuffling along in the backcountry of Tahoe or Yosemite. We stop for a minute. We talk about our runs, what races we have coming up, what races we’ve done, and where we might see each other next. Then we continue on our way. 5 minutes, maybe. But those 5 minutes builds a memory and a bond that is greater than most people think possible.
For the altogether different story of relationship bonding, I think back to Quicksilver and I’m reminded what a crazy day it was. It was something neither of us were sure we could do, since Kristen’s longest race beforehand was a half marathon, and the only thing I’d ever raced was a 5k. Not only that, but throughout our training we were buried in the struggles of a long distance relationship. The race was during spring quarter of my first year at Cal Poly. Kristen was finishing up high school back home (a 5 1/2 hour drive). To be honest, by the time the race came around I had come to hate running. On the other hand, the solo time I got from training alone in the hills behind campus gave me the reflection time I needed. I needed to work myself out on those cow trails so I could persevere through the longing I had for my girlfriend. Back to the point, I guess I sometimes see ultras in a very different light than Kristen does. Like she said, this makes it hard for us to run them together. I think mostly about the race, the miles, the time, the food. I know Kristen thinks about these things too but I know she’s also pondering Us. I think that taxes her a good bit, especially when I display such irreverence to the subject when we’re both at our physical limits. I’m learning though! We both are.
At Quicksilver I was just ignorant. In the fever of trying to keep a solid pace, I couldn’t grasp the idea that Kristen was injured. I tried to push and urge her forward. Unfortunately I hadn’t yet learned (and I’m still learning) that men and women are motivated in very different ways. I cannot just think of what would motivate me and use that on her. That’s a setup for disaster. At White River, I was nothing short of an asshole. I have no excuse for that. The race quickly turned to single track after the start and I was in a groove. I just couldn’t convince myself to pull out of the long line of runners to let a few go by so I could find my lady. But I’m glad that happened now. I was 20 and thought that having one 50 under my belt made me something of an expert. I paid for that mentality throughout the day. White River kicked my ass, it taught me respect. But Helen Klein was grand. For me, the defining factor of this race was that I just didn’t care. I was out there to enjoy the day, hopefully meet some new people, and hang out with my girlfriend. It’s this mentality that leads to success in ultras (i.e., enjoying them). I run because I love to be mobile in the outdoors. By keeping this in mind and not thinking about the clock or the finish line, we were able to run step-for-step the whole way, enjoy ourselves and set new PRs.
Looking beyond 50 miles, I have no worries for Miwok. We’re both treating that race as our long training run and our goal is to be fit enough to feel “good” at the end of the day. We also have some friends from various backgrounds running it, and the pro field should be spectacular to spectate on the out and backs! As for the 100’s, I wish Kristen would have gotten into Western States. But I’m very glad we’re not doing our first 100’s together. Kristen probably feels differently (going back to our dilemma), but I think we both need to head down that path individually before we try to tackle a full 100 miles together. No matter what though, it’ll be an adventure! And it’s guaranteed to continually make us stronger. That’s what it’s all about.