Some time ago, a post on a Facebook group for ultra runners asked to share our guilty pleasures in running music. The list of responses was long and hilarious. People confessed to everything, from Disney movie theme songs to the Bee Gees. I, of course, had to mention a silly tune about the most disgusting substance on the planet – Copenhagen, by Chris LeDoux. I listen to a lot of his songs while I run, and other than the Copenhagen one, they’re not guilty pleasures at all. They’re my go-to music, especially when the going gets tough in 100-mile races, when the climbs are steep, when my feet are hurting, when motivation runs low.
My running friends commented on my guilty pleasure with lots of smiley faces, plus the abhorrent suggestion of offering chewing tobacco at aid stations. I also learned that my favorite running music is a little unusual, to say the least. What, you listen to country? No, I don’t. Most of it, including most of the alt-country I listen to when I’m not running, just doesn’t have enough of a beat, not even for the shuffling jog I settle into during a 100-miler. Chris LeDoux, on the other hand, sings about bucking horses, with all their speed and power. Country music makes me yawn. These songs keep me moving.
What’s more, country music – no, most other music, period – does not have lyrics that relate to ultra running, at least not as literally as these songs do. As far as I know, Chris LeDoux was not a trail runner, but he did ride broncs and bulls, which pushes the limits of the human body and spirit in ways that sound similar to 100-mile races. Both rodeo and ultras are considered fringe sports by the general population, and both involve earning belt buckles the hard way.
Still not convinced? I’m about to run the Bighorn 100 in Wyoming, which is where Chris lived and died. I know what will be on my playlist while I’m out in those mountains, when I feel like quitting, when everything hurts, when the mud sucks my shoes off. Here are, in no particular order, 11 songs guaranteed to put a smile back on my face when I’m cold and tired and miserable, but still have 50-plus miles to go. Give them a listen – you might decide they work for you, too:
Sometimes You’ve Just Gotta Ride
According to my super-rational husband, this song’s logic is seriously flawed. Why do something risky and almost certainly painful, like ride a dangerous horse or run the Leadville 100, when you could just walk away? I love my husband, but think he’s wrong about this. To me, these lyrics makes perfect sense. I bet most ultra runners would agree.
A song about rookies who underestimate tough horses, or tough courses. I think of it as a song about my first Western States 100 in 2013, when I toed the line with just one 100-miler under my belt and just one ticket in the lottery. At the starting line I thought, “It’s all downhill – how hard can it be?” By the time I made it to Auburn, over 25 hours later, Western States had chewed me up and spit me back out, my quads destroyed, my knees bloody, my feet covered in blisters. I felt much more humble, though. My Western States re-run two years later worked out better.
Zen cowboy Chuck Pyle wrote this one. I love his music, but Chris Ledoux’ high-energy cover of Cadillac Cowboy beats the original, hands down. It’s kept me awake and putting one foot in front of the other while climbing up steep mountain passes. Who isn’t a lover of the other side of the hill during those times?
Life is a Highway
What I like to play after the sun has set, right when it’s time to turn on my head lamp. Though life is not exactly a highway at that point, more like ten feet of single track disappearing into the shadows, this song gets me excited about running through the night.
Riding for a Fall
A song for the dark hours before dawn, when I’m stumbling over roots, wondering whether I’m lost, imagining bears lurking in the forest, borderline hypothermic and wishing I had never heard of this silly sport. It’s slow, which matches my pace, and introspective, which matches my mood. But it’s not depressing, just real. “On a cold, lonesome evening, what the hell good’s your freedom? ” This is a valid question I’ve pondered for miles.
Get Back on that Pony and Ride
Two songs for when you’re face down in the dirt, with both knees impaled on pointy rocks and cactus spines digging into your palms. Two songs for the times when blood runs down your shins and tears roll down your eyes, when you seriously consider limping to the next aid station and calling it quits, right before you remember that pain is just weakness leaving the body. And right before you remember just how badly you want that shiny new buckle.
Going and Blowing
A song for the effortless miles that can fall into your lap after the halfway point of a 100-mile race, sometimes long after you thought there was no way you could finish. A song for the times when I turn off my lights, look up at the stars, take a deep breath, and feel intensely grateful for being out there in the middle of nowhere, chasing a silver buckle and pushing my body to the edge of what it can do. No, really – I wouldn’t want it any other way.
A perfect tale of giving a race everything you’ve got, only to find it wasn’t enough because of circumstances you can’t control, plus a few lapses of judgment that will inevitably come back to bite you. Also a good reminder of my number one race goal: to know I’ve left every bit of energy and try I had in me out on the course. This song made me smile again at mile 92 of last year’s Western States, when I limped toward Auburn at sunrise, after muscle cramps, nausea, and several hard falls got in the way of a sub-24 finish. Yes, I should have managed my nutrition and electrolytes a little better, but mainly, if I could do it again, I wouldn’t have run so slow:
Cowboy Life (it’s by Ned LeDoux, but that’s almost the same thing)
I downloaded Ned’s first album last summer, right before the Leadville 100, but had not listened to it yet. I heard this one for the first time while dragging myself up the Powerlines at mile 80, in a freezing,foggy drizzle around 2 am, when my spirits needed a lift. The timing could not have been more perfect. Ned probably does not know it, but this song is about Leadville, about 100-mile runs, about ultra life, which has a lot in common with cowboy life. I finished happy, in spite of the lousy weather and in spite of the pain I was in:
Maybe it’s because I’m lucky enough to ride horses for a living, maybe it’s because the lyrics resonate with both my passions, i.e. horses and running, maybe it’s just that good. This is one of my my all-time favorite running songs, right up there with Springsteen’s Born to Run. Horsepower got stuck in my head for about 70 miles of the Vermont 100 last July. In spite of that, I still love it, which says a lot.
What is your go-to music when the going gets tough, and why? I’d love to know.
Just Ledoux it,
with or without a soundtrack that keeps you smiling,