This morning I bit the bullet and signed up for my first real ultra-marathon, the American River 50 Mile Endurance Run. Some of you might point out that the Bizz Johnson 50K in October qualifies as an ultra, and it does. Technically, any race which is longer than 26.2 miles is an ultra, and I have no problem with that definition. However, adding 5 miles to the marathon distance does not result in a significantly different experience. Training for the two distances is very similar, and the 50K is actually an easier feat in most comparisons, as the 50K participant is likely going to incorporate tactics not seen in the marathon distance. For example, walking in a marathon is seen as a sign of failure, while walking in a 50K is seen as a smart strategy to ensure the runner has enough gas in the tank to finish. In addition, the pace for a 50K is slower and finishing times are not as much of a primary goal or focus.
So, while I hope to have at least two 50K races under my belt by next April (three if I am so lucky as to survive the lottery system in the Way Too Cool 50K), this race will be my first real ultra. People are beginning to ask me why I am so intrigued by distance running, and my gut reaction is to recall my history of backpacking and hiking. Spending time moving through wild country has been an important pursuit in my life, providing much needed recreation during college and some of the most memorable experiences of my youth. My graduate research took me through a 40+ mile slot canyon in three days. I hiked rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon in one trip. I spent three weeks in the Sierra Nevada as a teenager on an Outward Bound trip, which included a two day solo (to this date the longest stretch of time I have gone without seeing or hearing another human being). All of these experiences come bounding out of my memory when I consider why I am drawn to this activity. Ultra trail running brings me back to these times of wonder and awe which I find myself yearning to recreate. Moving relentlessly forward, with minimal gear and rest, over and through beautiful terrain with vistas of oceans, alpine peaks, lakes, and wooded valleys, has provided me with a new meditation, which I can apply in that most wonderful of all temples, nature.