Why This is Your Year to Run an Ultramarathon

woman from back running on the trail in the mountains with first

It wasn’t all that many years ago that I didn’t know what an ultramarathon was. I have a distinct memory of chatting with a friend of a friend at a party, and the exact moment he mentioned that he was training for a fifty.

Fifty… miles?

I stood there, a few months off my first marathon, the feeling of utter physical and mental exhaustion (and accomplishment) fresh in my mind. The prospect of someone running anything longer left me flabbergasted.

Yes, fifty miles. Just think about it.

But immediately after that conversation ended, I knew it was something I had to explore. And not too long after that, I registered for my first 50K race.

I’ve spent a lot of time since then explaining (and justifying it) to myself and others what it is that drove me to ultrarunning, but until recently, I didn’t even understand it myself.

30% Excited, 70% Terrified

Why someone runs an ultramarathon is deeply personal. But still, if you were to ask around on race day, I’m sure you’d hear at least a few of the go-to responses:

  • To push myself towards a new goal.
  • To do something I wasn’t sure was possible.
  • To spend time playing in the woods.
  • Because of the finish-line beer (there’s always someone who brings up the beer).

These are so common, and so impersonal, you could argue they’ve become go-tos only because they’re good enough to change the subject. Why you run an ultra just isn’t an easy question to answer.

Over the past year, I’ve been thinking a lot about my original Why, and in the process, have taken myself back to that Spring 2011 day when I clicked “register” for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K outside Washington, DC.

Before registering, I was 100% excited. But after registering, it looked more like 30% excited…

And 70% terrified.

In other words, so scared I immediately regretted hitting submit.

But — for some reason beyond my control — that 70% didn’t stop me from moving forward. My training started a few days later, and day after day, I made progress towards my new race goal.

Choosing the Challenge

In the modern world, we work very hard to make things easy on ourselves…

A huge chunk of the grocery store is taken up by frozen meals, because we can’t be bothered to do anything other than unwrap food and throw it in the microwave.

Products like smart voice assistants (Alexa, for example) are becoming household standards. Not because Alexa does anything more than we can already do with the phones in our pockets, but because we want to do those things without lifting a finger. Literally.

And at the same time, the sport of ultrarunning, and all the mental, physical, and emotional challenges that come with it, is booming — growing at a rate of 233% in the past decade.

When it comes to running, people are rebelling against easy and instead challenging themselves at ultra-long distance races. They’re embracing the fear and discomfort in search of something else.

They’re choosing challenge over ease.

Ultrarunning Is About Who You Want to Be

Committing to, training for, and running an ultramarathon requires:

  • Dedication,
  • Patience,
  • Courage,
  • Perseverance, and
  • The ability to manage uncertainty.

If that sounds like a lot, that’s because it is. But here’s the thing:

Those are exactly the traits most people want to foster in themselves.

We want perseverance for when life gets hard…

We want dedication and patience to fight for our goals and dreams, even when they seem bizarre to someone else…

And we want the courage and skills to manage the uncertainty around whether we’ll achieve those goals, even in the face of failure.

We want to be the type of person who runs ultramarathons.

Not to spend time in the woods or for the finish-line beer — there are much easier ways to have both. We do it because of who ultramarathons help us become. Through the process of training for and racing an ultramarathon, you’ll nurture those qualities, and discover things about yourself that you might not know you had.

While I may not have realized it then, this was the original reason why I didn’t let that overwhelming fear stop me before I even got started, and it’s the same reason that pushes me to continue racing today. It wasn’t about who I was, but about who I wanted to become.

Is This the Year You Choose the Challenge?

I’ve long said that any runner who wants to run an ultramarathon, can. It’s just a matter of setting aside your fear and stepping up to the challenge. And, if there were ever a time to make that commitment, that time is now.

  • There are more races than ever before, so you can find one that fits your schedule and goals.
  • There’s more information available to you to encourage injury-free training.
  • There’s a massive community to support and encourage you.

And that’s good, not because it makes it easier, but because it makes it more accessible.

It’s not the things that make life easier that help us grow, but the things that challenge us to get stronger.

Deep down, you know you can do it. Maybe you’ve already faced your fears and succeeded by training for a half or full marathon, or by going vegan when your family or friends told you it was too “extreme.” You’ve already experienced that 70% terror, but pushed it away and stepped up to the starting line.

You have what it takes to choose ultra, and this could be the year you prove it to yourself.

Will I see you on the trails?

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  1. Brett Oblack says:

    Does that mean you’re going to run another ultra Matt?

  2. Chris Simms says:

    Absolutely explains how I felt when I signed up for a ‘Tough Mudder’ and after, and my ‘why’. The same for my one and only half marathon in London. I couldn’t explain to anyone except to say “it seemed like a good idea the time”. It also goes for other life challenges like setting up business on my own…

  3. Shepherd Mamba says:

    Is it true your kidneys easily get worn out if you constantly make ultra runs

  4. Sammy schafer says:

    Shepherd, there are indigenous tribes around the world who run ultra distances regularly, and have been for many centuries. I have not read any articles about them having high rates of kidney failure; they do, however, enjoy an absence of diabetes, heart disease, stroke, ca, and overuse injuries.
    I’m sure your kidneys will be fine.

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