Certain tainted words occur repeatedly in journalism about ultrarunning, all of which cause noisy alarms to go off in my head whenever I see them. The four most frequent culprits are:
- test[ing] limits
Rarely have I ever read an article about ultrarunning by a non-ultrarunner that does not use the word crazy to describe the distance or the mindset of the runner.
I’ve never read an article written by someone who doesn’t do it himself that doesn’t describe the 135-mile Badwater race through Death Valley to the Mount Whitney Portal, or a 100-mile mountain trail race, or for that matter a 24-hour race as grueling. It’s as if grueling were an automatic part of the event label: “Next month I’m going to do a grueling 24-hour race, and the month after that, a grueling 100-mile race.” They’re all grueling, right? I don’t know of a single such race that anyone would consider easy.
The knee-jerk response of many runners, when put on the spot with a question about why they runs ultras, having not prepared an answer beforehand, is, “To test my limits,” or words to that effect. Sometimes it’s, “To see what I’m made of.” And guess what? The answer is always flesh, blood, and bone, just like the rest of us, and in the case of ultrarunners who like to talk about their sport, perhaps also a larger than usual intestinal bag of poo.
I can’t remember when I’ve ever run any distance to test my limits. God help me if I ever reach them. Then what? Congratulate myself and die?
And to persons who customarily view a standard marathon as the “ultimate challenge” (which, when you see several thousand persons young and old of all levels of fitness lined up to start, you realize it’s far from being), any distance longer than that must be extreme. (See my article Half Crazy.)
To me, the word extreme brings to mind the world of X Games, the domain of testoserone-fueled backward-hatted, muscle-shirted, tattooed and pierced, foolhardy risk-takers who live on the edge of life and society (and a few of their female counterparts). I’ve always maintained that ultrarunning in general, as tough as it is to do well, is not an extreme sport in that sense of the word. That category of activity, in my view, must include elements of great danger over which people have little control — like jumping out of airplanes and bungee jumping. Also, I don’t care much to watch rock climbers without ropes for the same reason. It’s just stupid to risk one’s life that way.
Which is not to say that there are not certain events in ultrarunning that could be classified as such. The Barkley, which hardly anyone ever finishes, is pretty weird, but at least no one has died doing it yet. So is the Marathon du Sables across the Sahara Desert. Some people think of the Pike’s Peak Marathon as extreme, but I would call that an unusually tough marathon with one big hill, not an extreme event. One day I ran into an old man running down the street wearing a Pike’s Peak Marathon t-shirt. We stopped and talked. He was in his mid-seventies, had run the race eight times, and was planning on continuing to do so as long as he was able. Didn’t strike me as an extremist. He did it because he could and knew how, not to tempt death, which at his age was likely not far away no matter what.
So the next time you hear about some crazy extreme runner finishing a grueling 100-mile race in order to test his limits, don’t believe it.