Monday, August 3, 2015

How to Howl

This Saturday I will attempt to run my tenth ultramarathon. The first ultra I ever ran was, in fact, two years ago, this very same race, an 8-hour ultra on a roughly 3-mile loop course. Yeah, I know. Eight hours of running in circles in August, which at the very best will be warm and more often tends to be molten. And for this I paid money. Look, lions don’t get killed and there are margaritas on the final loop. I could do a lot worse.

I’ve told anyone who will listen (and a few people who refused to listen, but I still managed to blurt it out when they thought I wasn’t around) that this race is fun—basically an 8-hour picnic on your feet. I still maintain this view, but I’ll admit having mixed feelings this time around. A lot of the runners I know are doing this race, and while this enhances the picnic atmosphere even more, it has also made me sharply aware of the different approaches people have to running ultras like this one.

There are those who follow a strict training plan that incorporates many different aspects of racing—eating the foods you are likely to eat during the race so you’ll be used to them, running in very hot temperatures in case the weather gets ugly, training on the course itself so that nothing is unfamiliar. Then there are those who sort of run a bunch of miles here and there and just show up on race day with a shrug and a smile. I’m in the latter camp as far as this particular ultra goes, but that doesn’t mean I disdain those who do favor painstaking preparation. Or at least I know I shouldn’t disdain them, though that, like so many things, is easier to acknowledge than it is to practice.

My mixed feelings come from the fact that many of the runners I know who are doing this race have been talking about it for months. They have discussed training plans, they have weighed shoe and clothing options, they (of course) have talked about food—why be an ultra runner if you don’t care about eating? People have counted down the days, and now that there are only days left, weather forecasts are checked nearly hourly. And I’ll be honest: it’s all kind of driving me nuts. This is my problem, not theirs; I fully admit that. There is nothing wrong with getting excited about a race. Hell, it’s fun to get excited about things, fun to get back some of the enthusiasm we once had as children, before disappointment clobbered us one too many times over the years.

The thing is, the best long races I’ve done were surprises. I didn’t expect to do as well as I did—I didn’t expect much of anything at all; I merely hoped to finish without death or dismemberment. I not only didn’t die, not only retained all limbs, but did well and, most important of all, had fun. The biggest disappointments came when I had specific and ambitious goals that I obsessed about for months. I know it isn’t this way for everyone, and in fact I wish it weren’t this way for me. I would much prefer to be someone who could work steadily toward a goal and be reasonably confident that my chances of success were good.

What I have to remember, though, is that I don’t run ultras because I’m good at them. I run ultras because I’m actually not good at them, at least not consistently. The mark of an amateur is inconsistency; anyone who can throw a baseball 60 feet 6 inches can probably throw a strike once in a while, but even a major league pitcher can’t do it all the time—though he sure as hell can do it more consistently than you can. And so it is with ultras. I’ve run some really good ultras, but those times are far outnumbered by the not-so-really-good ultras. Any time I go out to run 30 miles or more on trails, odds are things won’t go exactly the way I’d hope. The trail might be muddy, or icy, or covered in slippery leaves that hide holes and roots. I might trip and fall—several times. The weather might suck. I might just not have the energy to keep going strong—or keep going at all.

Then why do it? Because running ultras is one of the hardest things I’ve ever chosen to do—and the key word there is chosen. The difficult thing you do voluntarily is probably going to be more memorable, regardless of the outcome, than most anything else in your life. It will also probably seem like a piece of cake compared to the difficult things you don’t get to choose.

Of course I want the ultra to go well. More than that, though, I want to have fun. Of course, it tends to be easier to have fun when you run well than when you don’t, so I’m kidding myself if I think I don’t really care how I do. But even if I don’t have a good race, eh, so what; I’m not really all that good at this to begin with. Which is fine; if I were good at it all the time it would become a job. I already got one of those, thanks. Besides, do you really have to be “good” at picnics? Nope; you just have to show up and stick around. I think I’ll give it a shot.

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