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The Essence Of Running 100 Miles

Running is Latin for beauty, and other half-truths I believe 100 percent.

Running is Latin for beauty, and other half-truths I believe 100 percent.

I’m not exactly sure when I decided I wanted to run 100 miles or even believed that I could.

This realization just kind of crept up on me, much like the requisite gear appropriated the spare space in my guest bedroom. But that’s the thing about half truths I believe 100 percent—for example, “you can do it”—they’re not little white lies you might tell yourself in a vain attempt to trick your ego into doing something. They’re actually kernels of genuine, albeit inconsistent, meaning that, with the right environment, slowly and stealthily grow into full-on truisms, not to mention a closet full of shoes and technical fabrics.

But let me get back to the start. My collection of wicking toe socks has not always been so impressive. In fact, it came from more humble beginnings when just a pair or two sufficed for my modestly distanced, semi-weekly jaunts in the hills around Boulder, Colo. I spent most of my time mountaineering or climbing. Trail running was just a fun distraction that made extra beers a little easier to stomach without actually showing up around my stomach.

Even though beer was the first thing in hand upon crossing the finish line of the Run Rabbit Run 100-miler in Steamboat Springs, Colo., in 2012, the fact that I had burned the caloric load of at least 30 brews was beside the point. The run was a 100-mile celebration of the significance trail running had grown to have in my life beyond its fitness aspects—all the more so with the summer of 2013 as the backdrop.

Exactly a month before the event, I was in the ER hoping to avoid a stroke (or worse) from the blood clots discovered in both of my lungs. Resulting from complications due to an injury earlier in the year, the clots left doctors wondering if I’d be running a mile, let alone the 100 I had scheduled.

For me, trail running had grown from a few miles of casual caloric burn here and there into a source of joy, meaning and mindfulness that went the distance on- and off-trail. And I drew readily from that source to complete the race. Finishing with my setback, and my doctors’ approval, represented the culmination of my physical and mental efforts. Efforts that brought me to the start line and a place where I was able to continue doing what I love, while embracing the inevitable challenges that come with it.

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It was also a nod to finding belonging and support in a community that shares my love for what trail running really means.

It was a couple years earlier, in the summer of 2010, when my relationship with trail running heated up beyond the two-pair-of-toe-socks level. Like any great climate change, it wasn’t noticed for what it was when it began. I had recently exited the corporate fast track at IBM, resulting in more free time, a good amount of which was spent running. The amped-up running was nothing serious or premeditated, more like an extra mile tacked onto a hill climb or running to meet friends for lunch instead of driving. I wasn’t thinking about increasing mileage with intention or signing up for marathons, let alone 100-milers. In fact, I wasn’t even thinking in terms of (or, really, measuring) things like distance, pace or VO2 max. (And actually, I still don’t). I was out to have fun doing what I wanted to do in that moment. Trail running proved a slippery slope, however, as it worked as much on my mind and spirit as it did my body. As my tech T-shirt collection expanded, my relationship with trail running deepened. I wasn’t aware of it, but I’d created an environment for my yet undiscovered passion for ultrarunning to flourish.

Of course, if ultrarunning were fueled solely by deep emotion, self-awareness and nice vistas, then maybe the sage meditation master (and trail runner) Sakyong Jamgon Mipham Rinpoche would moonlight as a marketing copywriter for the training and energy foods industries. But running 100-milers (or any ultra-distance trail race, really) also makes demands of your diet, fitness and body. I quickly discovered I couldn’t simply eat more and run more—I had to be smarter about how I did those things. It wasn’t too hard to add an extra mile or an additional run because I was healthy and enjoying underemployment in sunny, summery Colorado. But I eventually hit limits. I’d want to run farther, tick off a new trail or run in hours a route I used to hike or mountaineer over several days, and I’d find my ability simply wasn’t enough to fulfill those desires. Out of that was born a happy and fulfilling back-and-forth.

As I eyed a bigger run, I found lessons in adapting everything from my diet to my work schedule and my social life in order to accomplish that goal. With stronger lungs and legs and a deepening knowledge about how to feed, fuel and recover, the cycle began anew, at a higher level. I explored a new world of running, health and nutrition, and the relation of all three to my overall growth as an athlete.

One of the most rewarding aspects of the process was the natural tendency for the lessons learned to extend into other parts of my life and persona. Whether it’s during a run, in a training plan, or even something totally unrelated to trail running, the lessons learned in ultrarunning run deep. While these notions aren’t new or divine revelations made to me atop some mountain, they’ve reframed old lessons in new contexts.

The mindfulness required for logging long miles challenges you to view your on- and off-trail actions and habits in a new light. The first time I ran the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim, I did so on a last-minute invitation, even though my ankle was tender from a smoothie-related slip-and-fall accident in my kitchen. I had never been timid in previous undertakings—my modus operandi was usually “power through it”—but trail running had quietly softened (yet, also strengthened) my approach to challenges and vulnerability.

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Committing to a 42-mile run through the Big Ditch—where the term “rescue” is just a fancy word for hobbling your way out instead of running—required me to accommodate rather than ignore my injury.

By accepting, working with and appreciating my vulnerability in a more Zen and direct way, I gained strength and endurance, rather than spending physical and emotional energy fighting it. I also internalized a key, yet often overlooked life lesson, where the gap between adjustments and results is wide enough to seem disconnected.

In sport, the experience of overcoming setbacks and achieving informs your approach to any of life’s challenges. Ultrarunning is no exception in that it imparts wisdom on its committed practitioners, but I find its method unique. Any misstep, weakness or crack in the early stages of a 100-miler can have serious consequences later in a race. This taught me a great deal about listening to my body and fostering good instincts. In doing so, ultrarunning imparted a fine appreciation for subtlety, finesse and efficiency. Just as small problems often can grow to large hindrances, and small unnecessary efforts repeated over long distances become laborious, subtle solutions and adjustments can lead to equally noticeable gains. It’s another half-truth that ultrarunning is a great way to learn a lot about yourself. Because, it’s only half-true that running is a vociferously independent undertaking.

Sure, there’s no alley-oop, assist or partner at the baseline to back you up in our sport, but if you don’t have a team in the form of community, it’s a denser path to plough, a harder hit when you fall and much tougher to get back up. A strong will alone won’t support you like a group of eager and loving fellow runners. I never had a coach or saw a trainer, but that’s certainly more a testament to the knowledge-sharing generosity of the ultrarunning community than some John Galt-esque bootstrapping on my part.

Learning technique by osmosis while running with more experienced ultrarunners was just the start, though. There’s a value to community, even in a highly individual undertaking like ultrarunning, that can’t otherwise be replicated by the knowledge in a book, the advice of a coach or personal study. It’s the trust that comes with sharing some of your most personal, exhausted, and vulnerable moments together on the trail. Running a 100-mile race only strengthens this bond. While you can (and often do) run it alone, you nevertheless receive support from organizers, volunteers, pacers and crew members that forges long, trusting friendships. For me, these friendships became an important part of my life on and off the trail, and are part of the greater meaning of ultrarunning. My cherished solo pursuit is also the cornerstone of my most rewarding relationships. My passion is at once developing a personal strength and nurturing a strong community.

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If you ask five 100-mile runners the significance of the sport in their lives, you’re likely to get at least nine different responses.

Nearly every narrative begins with the physical experience—“I love to move my legs”—and then wanders off to something a lot more personal and related to their core values. Maybe the colloquial “runner’s high” lasts 100 (or more) miles for some, but I’d bet my wicking base layer collection that most everyone’s 100-mile experience includes ups and downs—just like life.

And not too unlike the journey of preparation and perseverance it takes to get into the 100-mile distance. Something not only “keeps you going” through the painful moments of training for and completing a 100-miler, but you discover enough meaning and enough connection to what you love about life that you want to keep going, bringing new insights with every run.

The strides between these points are the essence of the 100-mile run. Depending on the race and your pace, you usually start with a sunrise, run through the day, through the night, and for some time after the next sunrise. Running through that cycle is a fitting tribute to whatever brought you to the race and the cyclical nature of the work it takes to get there. Your inspiration may be a basic love for running, for nature, or for just being in the moment, or an ever-changing compilation of these and countless other passions and emotions—the distance gives you plenty of time to think.

Ultrarunning is life condensed. Innate to the sport is an opportunity to practice openness and awareness of body, spirit and surroundings. This practice demands and cultivates an emotional awakening that has value beyond being able to motivate one foot in front of the other and across a finish line. Your first 100-mile experience will have enough meaning and impact that it will probably take another 100 and some more technical fabrics to reflect back on what you just finished. And that’s how it starts.

Be sure to watch the 2014 Western States 100 LIVE STREAM on UltraSportsLive.TV on June 28, beginning at 5 AM PST.


About The Author:

When he’s not running trails around Colorado, Basit Mustafa can be found running his software startup or engaged in volunteer work as a board member of the American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado. Follow @basitmustafa on Twitter for more half-truths.