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Ultrarunning: Ultimate Expression of Human Capacity, or Just a High Tolerance for Boredom?

Posted by on Jul 4, 2013 | 7 Comments

Ultrarunning involves running for a really long time. It’s tough. Not everyone has the fortitude to do it. But is it really the grand experience some make it out to be?

Back when I first became interested in ultras, the sheer magnitude of running those incredible distances seemed super-human. Indeed, the first few years were tough. With each new distance, I was faced with extremely difficult hurdles. I eventually overcame those hurdles. It felt good. I’m proud of my accomplishments. Hell, even have an ultra-related tattoo. But was it really worthy of the pomp and circumstance? Was it really THAT special? I’m quite certain anyone reading this could do anything and everything I’ve done.

A year or two ago, a nonrunning blogger vented about being annoyed by marathoners endlessly talking about overcoming adversity to run a marathon. She said something to the effect of “marathoners aren’t curing cancer.”

I have mixed feelings about that sentiment. On one hand, running really long distances is tough. It takes at least some degree of either training or pan tolerance.

On the other hand, pretty much anyone willing to put in the time will eventually reach their goal of finishing. It’s not nearly as heroic as some make it out to be.

I tried to capture this sentiment in Squirrel Wipe; I wanted anyone to understand that running long distances isn’t something limited to the physically gifted or those possessing the equivalent of “iron will.” It’s a sport accessible to everyone.

When I see people continually talking about their running exploits, I cringe a little. I’ve come to realize that behavior implicitly creates an “I can do things you can’t” illusion. Yes, I did it, too. Yes, I regret making it seem like I was doing something special. There are a lot more people out there that face greater obstacles and adversity than ultrarunners, including:

  • People that actually have cancer (or any serious illness)
  • People serving in the military and seeing actual combat
  • Wilderness wildfire fighters
  • Police officers that face the potential of armed perps
  • Nurses.
  • Porn fluffers
  • The people that pick the produce you eat

This list really could go on and on. The point- running really isn’t a big deal. It’s a hobby. Fitness. A good excuse to get out of the house. Manufactured adversity.

Our tendency to make it seem like a great hero’s journey really doesn’t do much good. If running is the lone way we identify ourselves, we’re probably doing more damage than good. First, it seems sort of a douchey thing to do relative to the real life and death struggles the vast majority of the world’s population faces daily. Second, it’s probably turning more people off from running than inspiring.

Of course, not all ultrarunners do this. Some are incredibly humble. Some never mention their exploits. Hell, some don’t even mention they’re runners. They’re okay with seeing the sport for what it is- recreation.

I’ll be completely honest- I’ve been celebrating Independence Day for many hours before writing this post. Some of the ramblings are fueled by hops and fermented grape juice. But I’m curious.

How should we feel about our ultrarunner accomplishments? How should we celebrate the events? How do other runners feel about this. How do non-runners feel about this? Share your comments!

[Edit- I wrote a follow-up post that gives this post a little more context- check it out here: Black Belts and Silver Buckles: Neither Will Make Your Problems Disappear]



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  1. Sally Hulbert
    July 9, 2013

    I don’t care what other people think! I AM proud of myself and I know it does help encourage others. Plus I just don’t care what other people think!I don’t want to read about their crap either.If they really hate it-they can delete me!I think it is the same as post re/ kids .I have raised mine and I really don’t give a crap about how cute other people’s kids are (except my grandchildren of course) but I put up with a LOT of posts/pics of other people’s kids. Just an example-but yes-you do have a point-but really it is the same with any hobby or interest someone posts about. I agree with Chadisbarefoot above-ultra runners def have self discipline and other motivational traits for allof us to learn from!!…..Plus I REALLY don’t care what other people think!! Guess I’ a douche then!!

  2. Chadisbarefoot
    July 5, 2013

    A couple items in defense of ultra running folks who are proud of their accomplishments:

    1) Self discipline is an incredibly admirable trait and one sorely lacking in society today. Ultra runners are exceptional peoples in this respect.

    2) Running long is the perfect analogy for life itself. In that respect, ultra runners are artists. /deepthoughts

  3. Barefoot Running University » Black Belts and Silver Buckles: Neither Will Make Your Problems Disappear
    July 5, 2013

    […] drunken, rambling post could use a little explanation. It was written after a confluence of events, which […]

  4. Dave
    July 5, 2013

    Telling everyone about your ultra-running exploits isn’t all bad. It can even be educational for your readers. Just today, I was introduced to the words “shitpocalypse” and “assmountain” in this lovely and touching race report:

    I resolve to introduce both of these words into my daily lexicon.

  5. Bare Lee
    July 5, 2013

    Being a jerk presupposes that you don’t realize you’re a jerk.

  6. Roger
    July 5, 2013

    One thing that I observed during my rock climbing days, but that I have seen in other sports and activities afterwards, is that usually the braggers are the slightly-above-average ones, while most of the real Masters are usually humble and discreet.

  7. Chris Hurst
    July 5, 2013

    Hey Jason,

    I struggle with this in the way of finding myself bragging/talking about what I’ve done (Tough Mudder, Run to the Shrine, yaddayadda) or what I’m going to do (run a half this year, full next year, and ultras beyond!). After reading your post I feel like a bit of a dick and wonder if I don’t seem that way to others when I talk about that stuff.

    Why do we feel the need to talk about ourselves or our exploits? More importantly, how to we spot it, nix it, and focus more on listening to others versus hearing ourselves talk about ourselves.

    Ah, what am I saying… Bottom line, thanks for posting your thoughts. As always, they make me think.