Sports Psychology

Are ultra runners normal?

Are ultra runners normal?

So what is normal? I have been asking myself this question ever since I crossed the finish line at the San Diego 100. Is it normal for a person to be an overweight man sitting around the house one day and three years later become a person who runs ultras or 100 mile races? I would like to tell myself this is in the range of being normal but let’s face it, I didn’t even know what an ultra marathon was until three years ago and I found the idea laughable when it was first mentioned to me, so is that really normal? I found it laughable that someone in their right mind would want to run any distance longer than a mile, yet a marathon or a 100 plus miles. When I first learned about the ultra marathon I thought my friends were crazy and I didn’t understand what the draw was. What were they running from? Is there something in their life that they are trying to escape such as an addiction? Who are these people that would do something like this? I asked a million questions that day to them during our run and a million questions to my wife when I got home but the truth is they are normal, we’re all normal. Normal life is how an individual defines it, not how the outside world describes it.

Is normal sitting around the house for hours on end watching TV and eating junk food? I would like to think that it isn’t but realistically that is what I did until I found running and a way to clear my mind. I really don’t know exactly what normal is and I know moderation has never been my strong suit but I honestly don’t find running ultra marathons that far out of the box. Runners often become endorphin addicts but I’m not sure if that is one of the reasons people get hooked on ultras. Ultras seem to be an addiction of a different kind and if you were to look around at the various runners on race day one would probably think this is quite a unique group of people. I am not saying we’re a weird group or any different than say road runners but we all seem to share this unspoken bond. I’m not quite sure what this exact bond is and while some would say we’re just a crazy group of runners I think there is a good portion of us who have found an outlet and a group of friends who can relate.

What makes an ultra runner any different than anyone else that runs? From the moment you step foot at an ultra event you feel like you belong to this fraternity. In high school everyone landed in some click or another but in this world we have all come together to become one. People are accepted the minute they walk into an ultra event whether they are young, old, full of tattoos, in costume, shy, outgoing, athletic, big, small or just a person who wants to check off an item on their bucket list. There are no clicks in ultra running except the community of one. The world of ultra runners has taught me so much about life I didn’t even know was possible until I had the chance to spend some time with them. The running community doesn’t care who wins or loses races, they care about people. Yes elite times are reported all over the internet and several of us follow their times but the truth is we care about the person who finishes last just as much as the guy who finished first. How cool is it to see your friend complete their first ultra or how about watching 61 year old Dan Brendan carry his wife across the finish line of every one of his 103 hundred+ mile finishes. Several of us post on Facebook and Twitter what we ran in a particular day but it’s not to brag to non runners or make people feel bad, it’s because as a running family we care what our friends are doing. I want to hear about what crazy runs someone did in Vermont or how someone spent the summer running the Appalachian Trail. If I didn’t want to hear I would tune it out or turn it off. I tune out 90 percent of the things listed on Facebook but I’m intrigued when someone like Pam Rickard packs up and runs across the Gobi Desert or Mark Hellenthal becomes the second person ever to complete the Vermont 500m in 10 days. This is always everyones option to listen to the stories in life but if I didn’t want to hear about people’s running escapades I would not be friends with over 1000 runners on Facebook, I would be friends with all my high school friends. Most of my Facebook friends are people I’ve never met and most I will never meet but I do enjoy reading their blogs, background, and how they became who they are. I believe Scott Jurek sums up the community well in his new book “Eat and Run. Ultra runners – even the fiercest competitors – grow to love each other because we all love the same exercise and self sacrifice in pursuit of transcendence. Because that’s what we’re all chasing – that “zone” where we’re performing at the peak of the abilities. The instant when we think we can’t go on but do go on.

Yassine DibounWe all have a story of why we run or do something in life but the stories I hear while running through the mountains with new friends are incredible. The places they have been, people they’ve met, their family life, why they run and more importantly what makes them tick. I am guessing that most people that I tell I run ultras to think I am quite odd and must have serious problems but the truth is I’m no different than anyone else, I just found an outlet in life. I don’t think there are many better ways to solve an issue in life than to put on a pair of shoes and head out to run and clear your mind. I don’t need to talk to anyone, I just need a place to think and relax and that is exactly what the trails do for me. How great is it that the ultra running community is a place where you can show up to a group run without knowing anyone and when you leave you now have 20 new friends. I will admit the first race I went to I was a little judgmental and looked at some of the people like they were different but the truth is they’re eccentric. If you want to wear a costume great, run both a marathon in the morning and an ultra at night, good for you. And if your goal is to just make the aid station cutoffs and finish that is just awesome.

It is pretty funny to look around and think about the lives of some of my ultra friends. I find myself saying I wonder how they started? What makes them want to do this? It is not a cheap hobby to travel from city to city, running 50 and 100 mile events. Do they have a motivating factor or is it the friendships they’ve made along the way. There are people who run 100 mile races twice a month and it’s not for the glory or the fame but it is to be around a family, maybe a family they never had growing up or maybe they just relate to people without moderation like myself better. The Old Goats banner at the San Diego 100 says it all “Moderation has it’s place, but it ain’t here.” Moderation does have it’s place but ultra runners rarely know what moderation is because we are a different breed that thrive on challenging the mind and the body to the extreme.

My non running friends say I bet if you ran marathons it would be easy for you. They are completely different and require a completely different type of mental and physical training but I fear the “moderation” in marathon running. My addiction is to distance, trails, and mountains and I live in fear of speed. I am going to run another marathon this fall but it is going to take more discipline, different training, and a different focus. Marathons are a different kind of challenge and I love those that do them but I think my place is in the 100 mile distance. So what is my point in all of this? My point is that we all have different kinds of motivation and for most ultra runners the ultra isn’t about how we finish a race but the journey we take along the way to discover new things about ourselves.

While most runners are probably not running from anything in particular there are lots of runners who are and I am one of them. I can say for sure that running may have just saved my life. I was not caught up in anything dangerous but I was really going downhill quickly after my Dad’s death 4 years ago. My Dad passed at the very young age of 58 years old just two weeks after we took a family trip to Maui. For months after my Dad’s passing I watched myself gain weight, drink excessively, act depressed and my anger grew worse by each passing day. Not exactly sure what to do with myself after gaining almost 30 additional pounds and maxing out at 265 pounds my wife sent me out to the local park to do some hiking to release some energy. What I found that day was not a miracle or a runners high, I found myself. I had never ran a day in my life but that day I decided little by little I will conquer this little 4.3 mile trail until I could run it. Each and every day my lease on life increased and I found an activity that I loved. This was my escape even if it was only for an hour each day. I needed this escape to help me deal with the pent up anger of my Dad’s death and to see how I could change. Little by little I conquered that mountain and my attitude in life also changed as I could now run that loop that plagued me for months. I decided to start a challenge with myself the day we returned from a family vacation in Italy. My challenge was to run at least 4 miles a day for 923 straight days in honor of the day of my Dad’s passing. I won’t go into all the details here but I will say I’m now 843 days into the streak and as I approach the ending I am starting to live in fear of the unknown. What will I do on day 923? When you’ve ran for this long without a day off what is it like to take a day off? Do I just take one day off to honor him and then start again or do I keep going? Is it selfish to keep going? I have until September 23, 2012 to figure this out and it is something to think about everyday while I run but I have to say I am a little nervous about the day. There is something a little odd about this streak that I want you to ponder before I end this part. When I started this streak I said I would run 923 consecutive days and until 3 months ago I never looked at a calendar to see when that date would be and it just so happens to land on 9/23/2012. Karma, I think so. If you want to read more about The Streak and Why I Run check out my personal website at www.mcdowellmountainman.com. I can say with all certainty that I probably would not have ran a mile let alone 10,000+ miles if it wasn’t for my Dad’s passing, but when he was around he always encouraged me to find something I loved to do and go after it. I didn’t know it would be running but from the day I started and could hear him talking to me in my head while I ran up the McDowell Mountains that alone is all I need to carry on each day. To me this is why I think running ultra’s is normal.

When I showed up for my first race it was clear no one cared what anyone thought of them and why would they? This is life, not high school. I loved that and from that day on I didn’t need a new Nike running outfit to fit in or compete, I wore what was comfortable, expressed myself in my own way, and for once I was myself. For those of you who know me well you know I always race in my yellow McDowell Mountain Man shirt and while some may think this is arrogant and self serving it is all about what it says on the back of my shirt. The back of my shirt says “Got to Live”. This was coined by wife Traci when she customized my first pair of running shoes and that motto is what I live by. I “Got to Live” for my Dad who didn’t get to live his whole life.

Why do you run ultras? Do you run for personal pride or for a cause? I bet you do it for those reasons and so many more. We all know it is not easy to wake up every day and train for a race that you really never know if you’re going to finish. You cannot compare one ultra to another just like you can’t compare one marathon to another because each and every course is different but the biggest obstacle with one of these races is not the course it’s the mind. Are you strong enough to overcome your mind when it tells you to stop? Is your body really in pain or is it just the brain’s a defense mechanism telling you to quit? Who really knows sometimes? I am not sure how long I will run ultras or how long I will run but I do know one thing, this community will always be here and I will always be part of it. For those of you who I’ve met along the way and those who I will meet in the future keep doing what you were meant to do. Love the ultra, respect the ultra and remember you can’t fail if you try.



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- who has written 22 posts on Trail Running Club.


Started running for the first time in my life three year's ago after losing my Dad to a pulmonary embolism at the age of 58 and since he began running he has lost close to 100 pounds. On 9/23/2012 Jay finished a running streak of 923 Consecutive days with at least 4 miles while compiling over 9,400 miles with 975,000+ feet of elevation gain and completed 15 Ultra's in honor of his Dad who passed away on 9/23/2008. Jay holds a Bachelor's Degree from Michigan State University in Crop and Soil Sciences.

Jay's recent trail ultra running results:

• 13th OA at San Diego 100M in 22:01:26
• 10 Top Ten Ultra Finishes in 14 races
• 4th overall at Lean Horse 100 in 19:01:12
• 9th overall at Javelina Jundred in 2011 in 18:28:26
• 100K Javelina Night Run Champion in 2011
• Cave Creek Thriller 50K Champion in 2010
• Runner up in 2011 DRT Ultra Series

2013 Race Schedule includes:
• Castle Hot Springs 22M
• Phoenix Marathon
• 3 Days of Syllamo
• Miwok 100K
• Speedgoat 50K
• Pike's Peak Marathon
* Mogollon Monster 100

Jay Danek is sponsored by iRun Honey Stinger



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