Ultra-Speak 101

The Language of Ultra running

So you want to run more than 26.2 miles at a time. And you want to do this on trails, in remote locations, on crazy difficult terrain. Good for you! Getting started is easy. There’s lots of helpful advice for you on the Ultra List, Ultra running Magazine, and irunfar.com. about topics like shoes, gear, and nutrition. Measuring your progress is easy, too. You can use gadgets like a heart rate monitor, but the reaction of those around you is much more reliable. If most of your friends and family members are concerned about your sanity, it means your training is on the right track.

The real challenge is acclimatization — not only to unfamiliar altitude, but to the unfamiliar culture of ultra running. You will find that becoming an ultra runner involves more than logging miles. It means venturing outside the mainstream, where conversation topics include TV shows, celebrity pregnancies, and bargains at WalMart. Instead, you will find yourself among people whose customs, clothing, and dietary habits may seem very alien to you at first.

This is no reason to feel apprehensive. Ultrarunners are a friendly, welcoming tribe, and if the thought of running 50 or 100 miles without stopping appeals to you, chances are you will feel right at home among this group of introverts suffering from OCD. But because the scattered bands of the tribe live in obscure isolation for most of the year, often in mountainous places that are difficult to find on maps, its language has evolved into a dialect that can differ quite sharply from normal English. Misunderstandings are common, which can lead to mutual frustration. But this is unnecessary. Like any foreign language, speaking and understanding ultra takes practice. Spend as much time as possible in the company of your new friends. When you can’t, listen to podcasts like trail runner nation. In no time at all, you will communicate effectively. Here are some additional hints:

1. Etiquette and conversational practice

Ultra runners are introverts by nature. If you’ve been running with one of your new friends for a few hours already, and he or she has stopped responding (or is just using the above grunting sounds to communicate), it may be time to abandon all attempts at conversation for a while. Don’t take it personally. It just means that your conversation partner needs to recharge. He or she might be ready to talk again in a few more hours.

One more word of advice for those of you just getting started: the question “Why would anyone run 100 miles?” or observations like “I don’t even like to drive my car that far!” are considered rude. You may get a blank, uncomprehending stare for an answer, or you might hear a logical explanation, like:
“How else am I going to reach the finish line?”
If you’d rather not offend, the polite thing to do is to just accept running 100 miles as normal behavior.

2. Pronunciation

Ultra-lingo is an intricate, complex dialect on the phonetic level. It can be especially difficult for the novice to distinguish the many nuances of grunting. “Ugh” or “hmph” can mean many things, from “yes, I’m ok” to “You might want to step aside because I’m gonna puke.” or “I just tore my achilles tendon and it really hurts.”
Many neophytes do not realize how a difference in pitch, tone, or duration can transform a breathless articulation of bliss into an expression of real distress. Only practice will help you improve. Listen closely, take notes, and pay attention to subtle nonverbal clues, like dry heaves, bleeding knees, or body position, e.g. horizontal vs. upright.

3. Grammar:

Sentence structure disintegrates relative to the duration of an ultra. The longer the mileage, the shorter the sentence, until one-word utterances become the norm. The following exchange illustrates this inverse correlation:

Mile twenty, one runner gets ready to pass another:
“Hey, beautiful morning, isn’t it?”
“Yeah, gorgeous. How are you feeling?”
“Great so far, but it’s still early. Mind if I squeeze by on your right?”
“There you go.”
“Thank you! See you at the finish line!”

Compare this to a similar situation at mile ninety:

“(Grunt) . . . you okay?”
“(grunt) . . . ”
“(grunt) . . . See ya.”

There is lots of guess work involved in deciphering these cryptic lines. Again, nonverbal clues, like projectile vomiting, can be helpful.

4. Vocabulary

The ultra runner’s vocabulary sometimes diverges quite sharply from that of mainstream English speakers. This can lead to puzzling questions for the novice, who struggles to remember the exact meaning of the tribe’s dazzling array of acronyms like DNF and DFL. You may want to keep a cheat sheet. Be sure to use a sweat proof marker.
Also, the the meaning of certain basic English words has changed from their original semantic field among ultra runners. Do not be alarmed by exchanges like this one:

“My bladder has a layer of green gunk in it”
“Yeah, I scrub it with bleach when that happens”
“I’ve been keeping my bladder in the freezer. Best place for it!”
“My bladder is fine, but this isn’t a good nipple. Sucking on it takes too much energy.”

Soon, you will be a member of the tribe, and the challenge you face will be re-entry into everyday life. But that’s a separate topic.
Good luck!

4 thoughts on “Ultra-Speak 101

  1. Caleb lewis

    Great stuff. I am new to the ABQ, NM area and looking for other ultra runners (as you have so accurately described). Already signed up for the Deadman’s peak 50 in October; looking into the Mt. Taylor 50k for a good training run.

    Stoked to be back out in the high desert after hiatus in Florida and Kansas…

    I look very much forward to following your blog and second hand experiencing your running journey(s).

    Caleb Lewis

  2. Vlad Henzl

    “and the challenge you face will be re-entry into everyday life” … you nailed it here. I am currently at a six week course in UK surrounded by 70 of my professional peers. Only one of them ran beyond a marathon so far – a single 50K race. What’s wrong with those people ?

  3. Pingback: Ultra Talk 101: Quiz Time! | Woman on the Run

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