As we headed towards full Covid-19 lockdown in March, I was chatting online with fellow NZ ultrarunner Fiona Hayvice. Bidding each other a slightly nervous sign-off ahead of this unknown time, she mentioned in passing that, while it was indeed surreal, ‘us ultrarunners are used to extraordinary’.
At the time I agreed and we moved on, but something about that the truth of that sentence popped into my mind later.
Five reasons ultrarunners can do extraordinary:
1. Prep and pacing
Ultramarathoners know how to prepare for different eventualities, and then settle in for the long haul, without knowing exactly how long the haul will be. Endurance skills transcend the context. Whether ultra or lockdown, it’s about taking one step at a time and not using up all your resources in the first lap.
2. Adjusting to new challenges
If you anticipate using chafe cream and lollies in an ultra and pack accordingly, you will probably end up needing something like duct tape and bear spray. Some things are out of our control. All you can do is prepare what you can, as per point one, and then aim to face what arises with some manner of grace and pragmatism. Washing groceries before use, not leaving our suburb, homeschooling while both negotiating working from home – I didn’t pick that to be a big part of April and onwards, but with each new thing, it was ok that it was. I don’t think this mindset is unique to runners but it may be more developed.
3. Running can happen anywhere, with no other people required
I was going to say ‘almost’ anywhere, but did you see the guy running around his living room in the huge virtual Last Person Standing event? Running is supremely flexible. Footballers couldn’t play and swimmers couldn’t swim, but even if it was around a house or on a treadmill, runners could run. Or accept that lockdown was a great time to finally do those core strength exercises, but runners are runners, so…
4. He waka eke noa
This popular whakatauki means ‘a boat we are all in together’. One of the joys of ultras is the joyous camaraderie and ‘LOL, how much does this totally suck?!’ unity between entrants as things get rough. I haven’t posted a report here about last year’s World 24-Hour Championships yet – in summary, it got rough – but one of my favourite memories was walking around with the US’s distance legend Gina Slaby chatting about groundhogs and nausea, among lots of other great conversations. Nobody signed up for a pandemic, but we are all in it together, creating a unique connection.
5. You know the worst too will pass
Maybe you’ve done all the preparation and pacing right, courageously faced new challenges, accessed all the gratitude you can muster, and STILL reach a point where you need to collapse under a table and cry (and maybe vomit). Speaking from experience, that’s absolutely fine too.
And this is perhaps what Fiona was touching on – most ultrarunners have experienced some pretty weird lows that they didn’t bargain for, and come out the other side with a story. It’s just one race, or one point in time. Feel the feelings, and tomorrow is another day. Although maybe one with DOMS and chafing.
One of my answers on the ‘why’ of ultras is that choosing to do hard things helps prepare for the hard things you don’t choose. Covid is piling these hard things on for some right now. Ultimately, events of this scale can’t be compared to the niche masochism of a voluntary long run, but we can still hope that the skills gained help a little along the way.