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Why Ultrarunners are Badasses

Posted by on Aug 9, 2013 | 4 Comments

The term “gameness” is used to describe hunting and fighting dogs. Wikipedia defines gameness as:

“…eagerness despite the threat of substantive injury. Dogs displaying this trait can also be described as persevering, ready and willing, full of fight, spirited, or plucky.” 

It’s a desirable trait selectively bred in some breeds, especially terriers. As hunting dogs, this trait drives the dog to hunt no matter how much suffering it experiences… to the point of death. This isn’t a trained behavior, it’s innate. The dog is driven to finish the job and derives great joy from the process… just like your goofy lab loves chasing that tennis ball at the beach.

The same trait holds true in fighting dogs, as described in Sam Sheridan’s excellent book “A Fighter’s Heart.” Contrary to popular belief, dog fighting isn’t a “fight to the death” contest. It’s a contest to see which dog gives up first. Which dog has more gameness.

So what does this have to do with ultrarunners?

Ultrarunners have gameness.

And that makes them badasses.

It’s not the miles, the mountains, or the extreme conditions ultrarunners experience. It’s not the chafing, the hypo and hyperthermia, or the carb depletion. It’s not blisters, blackened toenails, or stress fractures.

It’s the fact that ultrarunners continue despite these issues.

It’s gameness.

Before I go further, I have to add a disclaimer. I have a hard time writing something like this because it seems a little too much like an “ultrarunners are great, everyone else sucks” declaration. HOWEVER, I’m more or less out of the ultrarunning game even though I recently released the Squirrel Wipe ultra book. . I haven’t done a long run in about ten months and have no plans to begin ultra training. I may get back into it, but that will come n the future. I’m happily focusing on my new training routine involving Brazilian jiu jitsu, boxing, and kickboxing. This distance has allowed me to interact with a lot of people that aren’t ultrarunners, which has helped gain perspective on the characteristics ultrarunners possess.

Including gameness.

In my non-ultra life, I routinely come across people that are highly motivated to do something. It may be career-oriented, education-oriented, fitness-oriented, or fighting-oriented. They go balls-to-the-wall and talk about their goals and desires to “be the best.”

It’s great! They make incredible progress and totally kick ass!

Until the face adversity.

And they quit.

Usually a lengthy excuse follows. I was too busy. My kids contracted mumps. I’m getting over syphilis. The sun was in my eyes. Whatever.

The same can be seen in fighting documentaries. You see dudes training their asses off, living in their cars, peacocking around in “Tapout” shirts and hats with flat bills, getting tats of grim reapers, dragons, and inspiring war quotes written in poorly-translated kanji,  sacrificing all semblances of a real life… all to be a champion. Then they fight. And lose. Invariably, we see them groveling about not knowing what they’re going to do next because they had everything riding on that one fight. They obviously have the talent, but that’s not enough.

In short, they don’t have gameness.

If they had gameness, there would be no indecision. There would be no confusion. There would be no regret having wasted your life. They would simply get back on the horse and do it again because they have an inexplicable drive to do it.

I’m currently reading Jay Danek’s book “Got to Live” (review coming soon!) Like so many other ultrarunners, Jay went from being an inactive couch potato to an ultrarunner. With this idea of gameness on my mind, Jay’s determination to keep fighting no matter what is readily apparent.

Jay’s disposition is far from unique… I have met literally thousands of people with that exact same trait. And almost all are either current or aspiring ultrarunners.

Of course, there are different levels of gameness. Personally, I have far more gameness than the average Joe. My gameness is nothing compared to most of my ultrarunner peers, however. Shit, I DNFed a half marathon last year.

My recent foray into fighting has been good barometer of non-ultrarunner gameness. When sparring in jiu jitsu (which is much like wrestling… it’s the ground fighting most mma fighters utilize when they’re not standing), I developed a bit of a reputation as having excellent conditioning. Yes, I probably have more actual aerobic fitness than most as a result of running ultras, but I still get tired as fuck. I roll (what we call live full-contact sparring) to the point of having to choke down vomit, heart rate increasing to the point of beginning to black out (you know… seeing your field of vision shrink to that blackness), and muscles becoming too fatigued to contract. It just doesn’t occur to me to quit. I’m having too much fun. The “suffering” is just something to ignore so I can roll a few minutes longer.

I’ve found this trait to be somewhat absent in most. Others will stop when they get tired. At first, this seemed a little foreign to me because I’ve spent the last few years n the presence of ultrarunners. It took some time to realize not everyone had that “gameness” trait.

Time for another disclaimer. Not possessing a high degree of gameness isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s smart. Knowing when to quit keeps you healthier. It also probably results in better progress when learning since these folks aren’t always exhausted. A lack of gameness isn’t a bad thing, it’s just different. In fact, those that possess a high degree of gameness could be considered idiotic.

Anyway, I digress.

I’m always deeply interested in why we do the things we do. Specific to the issue of gameness- why do some people have this trait while others don’t?

If we consider evolution (calm down Jesus fanboys… I’m sure you can twist my logic to fit your Garden of Eden model), human “gameness” would be a desirable hunter-gatherer trait for some, but not all, to possess. If we have a tribe, we want some people that are willing to ignore adversity to get shit done. Since those people are going to take stupid risks and are likely to die, it’s also good to have plenty of people that don’t ignore important things like pain. A tribe of ultrarunners wouldn’t survive too long.

This idea assumes “gameness” is an innate trait, but is it? Could it be learned? Could anyone learn it?

I’m a fan of convincing anyone and everyone to run ultras. I’ll often use the “If I can do it, anyone can” line. But is it really true?

Hold on to your pants because I’m going to drop a bombshell – I don’t think anyone can run ultras.

I don’t think everyone possesses enough gameness to persevere when the shit really hits the fan. Furthermore, the number of people that possess the requisite gameness is inversely proportional to the distance. The longer you go, the smaller the numbers that are capable of finishing.

There’s also a degree of humility with gameness. Many people are often surprised the truly elite ultrarunners are humble. Same deal with most elite folks at any level. The more gameness they possess, the less need they feel to put up an “I’m great and I want everyone to know it” facade.

The interesting thing is the exact nature of gameness. I can usually predict with a high degree of certainty which people are capable of ultras and which are not. As a general rule of thumb, if I don’t think people have what it takes, I don’t bother trying to convince them. If I think they do, though, I badger them relentlessly.

Physical traits don’t matter. Even if you’re an obese couch potato, you can possess gameness. If you possess gameness, you have what it takes to run ultras.

We’re fond of saying something to the effect of “sports don’t build character, they reveal it.” The same thing goes for gameness. Many people have it, but don’t realize it. Many fall for the “quitter bias.” You know, those people that quit anything and everything they’ve ever started to the point where they believe they can’t accomplish anything. The problem isn’t that the don’t have gameness. The problem is they’ve never encountered something that elicits that drive.

So… how do you know if you have gameness?

If you’re already an ultrarunner, you have it. If you’re considering running an ultra, in my experience, there’s an incredibly high likelihood you have it. People that don’t have gameness dismiss the stupidity of ultras well before the “I’m going to read Jason Robillard’s writings” stage. In fact, if you read this far, you have gameness.

Now go sign up for that ultra. Trust me when I say you have what it takes to eventually get to the finish line.  ;-)

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4 Comments

  1. Dave
    August 21, 2013

    Awesome – that is a badass article

    (It totally has gameness :-) )

    Loved it.

  2. Rob Y
    August 12, 2013

    Gameness or Grit. http://www.irunfar.com/2012/01/grit-have-you-got-it.html

    If you can run a marathon then you’ll have no trouble with the shorter ultras probably up to 50 miles or 100km. But a hundred miler (and beyond) definitely take gameness or grit.

  3. Peteco
    August 9, 2013

    About a month ago you mentioned that an ultra can be completed “just by showing up” and now you are saying “I don’t think anyone can run ultras.”…

    • Jason
      August 9, 2013

      “If you’re considering running an ultra, in my experience, there’s an incredibly high likelihood you have it. People that don’t have gameness dismiss the stupidity of ultras well before the “I’m going to read Jason Robillard’s writings” stage.”

      ;-)