Last summer, I completed the grand slam of ultra running, aka four tough 100 mile races in 75 days. I won four shiny belt buckles and an eagle trophy, which made me proud. At the same time, I felt burned out after crossing the last finish line in the Wasatch mountains. I was tired of training, tired of tapering, tired of planning race weekends, tired of studying course maps and elevation profiles, tired of spending so much money on entry fees and hotel rooms, tired of alarms ringing at 3 am, tired of driving for endless hours, racing for a day, then driving home so sore and banged up that I fantasized about getting a temporary handicapped sticker for my car. After an epic summer of racing, I was tired of racing.
Besides, I am 48 years old. Birthday # 50 is looming large in the not-so-distant future. My hard-fought trophies for wins and placings are collecting dust. Now, my formerly decent pace is becoming snail-like. I have nothing to look forward to but a steady decline, an inevitable spiral down into an yawning abyss of ever-slowing personal worsts. My racing future looks bleak. Why not walk away from it all with some semblance of dignity while I still can? Why keep torturing myself for no good reason? Why not just run when I feel like it, without the added pressure and expense of racing?
These dark thoughts swirled around my head after Wasatch, in mid-September, when, after a summer of joy and magic, real life came rushing back with a vengeance. I took a break from running, the longest one since I started my ultra journey ten years ago. I didn’t run a step for three weeks, then shuffled along for a few miles at a time for another month or so. But by December, my mileage started inching back up, little by little. Now it’s the end of January. I am excited to race again this spring and summer, in spite of everything. Why?
For one, because it’s good to have a goal. “Just running” is not the same as training. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy running for its own sake, but joy is sometimes not enough to get me going, especially not after riding horses all day. The physical nature of my job means the reasons most people run matter less to met than to many others. I get to play in the great outdoors regardless of whether I run or not. Working with horses means I get plenty of exercise, even without running a single mile. I run because running makes me happy, above all else, but it’s sometimes hard to remember this best and simplest of reasons until I’ve been out there for a couple of miles. Seeing a race in my not too distant future adds the extra incentive I often need to nudge me out the door and over that first-mile hump.
On closer examination, not racing anymore because I’m too old to compete with the thirty-somethings also seems like a silly reason to quit. My PR days may be behind me, but my dreams are not. The goals I set now may be different from what they were a few years ago, but I still have some. Age groups are a wonderful invention. Competing against 40-year old whippersnappers at 49 this year will be tough, but starting over on the young end among the 50 to 59 year olds in 2020 is something I Iook forward to. So is the ten-year buckle at Leadville. So is a 200-mile race, maybe. So is another Boston-qualifying road marathon, for which I’m allowed to take an extra five minutes next year. Being a runner really sweetens the aging process.
Even if I didn’t have those goals, I’d still want to be a part of the ultra crowd. A weekend at a race is a celebration, a time spent doing something I love with people I care about. As a horse crazy hardcore introvert, I’ve spent most of my life not fitting in – in school, in grad school, in the horse show world, in the couple of “real” jobs I tried to hold down without much success. All of this changed when I discovered ultra running. I found not only a sport, but a tribe. I found a place to call home. I found acceptance and support. Suddenly, without trying to be someone I was not, I had friends who found nothing strange about spending most of one’s spare time alone in the middle of nowhere, in hot pursuit of a silver belt buckle. Not everyone who runs ultras operates on a similar wave length, but enough of us do to create a real sense of community. I look forward to being a part of this culture and give back to it in any way I can until I die.
Ultra races are also a healthy way to indulge my competitive side. There’s an aura of authenticity that makes racing fun. Unlike in judged equestrian sports like dressage, where lots of money can buy you shortcuts to the podium in the form of talented, well-trained horses, it’s impossible to pretend you’re better than you really are in ultra running. It’s a pretty level playing field. You can buy the best shoes, the fanciest GPS watch, and the most high-tech hydration pack. You can hire the best coach, but she can’t run the race for you. At the end to the day, you still have to gut it out until you reach the finish line on your own two feet, hurting or not, blisters or not. It’s a competitive sport, but it’s a clean, fair, friendly kind of competition – something I look forward to, not the snarky, petty kind of competitive environment so common in the horse world.
At the end of the day, racing helps me discover my limits. When I just run, I’m never pushing very hard. I’m always leaving some energy and strength for the next day. Races are different. They make me leave it all out there. As I get older, this is my main goal: to leave it all out there, to give the course all I had in me on that particular day. Where I place is unimportant in comparison. This is why getting older and slower does not scare me. I still feel amazed at what my body can do. I’m in awe at the beautiful places we get to explore, the camaraderie, the kindness of volunteers, the deep conversations with strangers who become friends over the course of a day out on the trail. This is why I won’t quit racing.
Do you race? If you do, why? If you choose not to, why not? I’d love to know.
Run happy, whether you’re racing or not,