I'm going to close out the week by sharing an article I recently wrote for MDRA.
On the beaten path by Chad Austin
For as long as I can remember I’ve been a road runner. Sure, I do a fair amount of my training on trails and I’ll jump in a trail race or two during the year. But for the most part I stick to the roads and races ranging from 5K to marathons. Like most roadies, thoughts of running an ultra marathon have been the furthest thing from my mind. I’ve been too consumed with finding flat, fast courses in order to lower my times as far as possible. However, somewhere along the line the order of importance for me has shifted from setting PRs to experiencing new things. I’m guessing this is a natural progression that occurs as we age and PRs become fewer and farther between. One thing I haven’t experienced is running more than 26.2 miles. So now that I’ve set the last of my road PRs, I find thoughts of trying an ultra marathon creeping into my head.
Over the last couple of years I’ve had the pleasure of running once a week with some of the best local ultra marathoners. Earlier this spring I was fortunate enough to travel with many of these guys to Arizona where we ran the Grand Canyon. While this wasn’t a race, the experience gave me an inside look into the ultra world. During this trip I couldn’t help by think about the difference between roadies and trail runners. For example, road racers put a lot of emphasis on their pace per mile. In fact, as little as 5-10 seconds per mile, faster or slower, is often the difference between a great race and a terrible race. Given the variability of trails, little to no importance is placed on mile splits. Instead, these runners focus more on being in-tune with their body and how it’s responding to the stresses placed upon it. Another example, marathoners try to avoid bonking at all costs. We know once a bonk arrives, it can be a miserable shuffle the rest of the way. The only thing we can do is watch our mile splits get slower and slower. The ultra marathoners I ran with know a bonk, or two, is coming and they almost look forward to them. They place bets on who will reach Bonk City first and joke about 3 bonks and you’re out. Their lighthearted approach is due to the fact that they know they have time to refuel on the run and can pull themselves out of a bonk. Finally, I even think the camaraderie between the two groups is different. Post-road race conversations are typically about finish time and place. Roadies will go into minute detail about ever mile split along the course and tell you who they beat and didn’t beat. On the other hand, the trail runners seem more genuinely concerned with everyone’s experience; how they felt, what they thought of the course, how was their nutrition, etc. It’s hard to explain, but it reminds me of my time in boot camp where everyone looks out for everyone else.
I’m not sure what each group thinks of the other, but I get the sense that roadies think they are better runners. The sheer number of roadies almost guarantees that they’re faster, however, the trails have their fair share of fast runners too. For example, three-time XTERRA Trail Champion, Max King has run 14:23 for 5K. And earlier this spring California resident Ian Sharman ran 100 miles in 12 hours and 44 minutes, that’s 7:51 pace. Another way to look at it, he ran 24:20 for 5K 32 times in a row.
Of course, the two groups aren’t mutually exclusive, former Team USA Minnesota runner, Chris Lundstrom who boasts a 2:17 marathon, is also one of the most successful trail runners around. As for Lundstrom’s love of the trails, he says, “Trail races, particularly ultras, are less about competing with other runners and more about testing yourself and your own fortitude. There are a lot more variables than in road racing. You may encounter a wide variety of conditions and challenges, such as poor footing, down trees, heat and humidity or snow and cold, dehydration and energy depletion...the list goes on and on. Ultimately these events are about continuing to move forward to the best of your ability, despite the challenges. They're also about appreciating some of the beautiful natural areas that we have around us. A great trail race is one where you aren't thinking about racing, but rather are simply cruising along, enjoying the trail and the natural surroundings.” For more reasons to hit the trails, see the sidebar.
If your interest in trail and/or ultra running is piqued, you can learn more on the Upper Midwest Trail Runners website. There you’ll find at least a dozen ultras between Minnesota and Wisconsin. They also have a variety of different series events that you can enter. Two consist entirely of all ultras, another ranges from 10K to the marathon, and they even have a 5K trail series for those looking to get away from the roads and on the beaten path.
My buddy Joe Uhan is fairly new to ultras. He recently posted the top 10 reasons he loves ultra marathons on his blog.
10. Best of All Worlds - It combines my three favorite things: running, being surrounded by nature, and eating!
9. Nutrition, Hydration, Electrolytes - It's more than just running. You ultimately have to manage these things well in order to do your best.
8. Youth - In a sport where the average competitor is 40+, it's fun to be "the young guy" again.
7. Resiliency & Forgiveness - The ability to run a hard 50-mile race, then be able to come back the next day and run an "easy 14" without consequence.
6. Race Reports - In what other sport does the individual competitor provide their blow-by-blow account? Reading their blogs is a fascinating perspective into their race.
5. Sustainability of pace, of training, of body - Success, both short and long-term, in ultra running depends on sustainability, of the stride, of fueling, of training. To learn sustainability is to learn to love the feel of effortless running.
4. Race Dynamics - The marathon comes close, but only in ultra running can you be at death's door and be resurrected. The ability of both body and spirit to "turn the tide" makes the battle, of the competition and of self, so rewarding.
3. It's a "Pure Sport" - Challenging oneself, and challenging your competitors by giving them your best. Your best is achieved only through your competitor giving their best.
2. Mentorship & Stewardship - The sport has plenty of guys who are not only mentors to us "young road guys", but models for stewardship of the competition, the arena, and the competitive spirit.
1. Camaraderie & Community - Pre-race, post-race and in-between. Top guys will hang around at the finish to ask us middle-of-the-pack runners how it went. The true spirit of running, as a sport, is through community, including communal sacrifice, support, and celebration.