by Matt Gray
When it comes to competition, ultra running is a strange sport. Very few of us will ever be neck and neck at that finish line, or even within striking distance of the leader, or even care to be remotely close behind that first finisher. The difference of 15 or 30 seconds per mile from one runner's pace to the other, over 30 miles and beyond, becomes a matter of minutes, half hours, hours ... not those nanoseconds that define Olympic victories. You would thus think that time becomes insignificant.
But it doesn't. That starting gun goes off, you pass through the gates, the clock begins, and suddenly you find yourself concerned with how long the four mile section up ahead will take you. How many minutes is it taking to run this steep mile? How fast can I get through the aid station? Should I spend the time changing my shoes at the drop bag? Can I really finish in under six hours? (No, by the way).
I ran the Cheyenne Mountain 50K trail race on Saturday and all of these thoughts crossed my mind. As I watched the winner, an 18-year-old who has kicked down nearly 5000 training miles since moving to Colorado Springs in November, take off up the first hill breaking away from any would-be competitors immediately, I felt compelled to do better, to run faster, to stride harder.
I hadn't set out to win the race, nor will I ever. Just finishing is the first priority (I heard that more than 20% of the field dropped out because of injury and heat exhaustion). And then finishing without injury and with an ability to recover in time for the next run, remain my primary goals. But why then did I become possessed by the clock? Why couldn't I just take my time completing the distance?
Just as the runners in the lead are often competing against one another, those of us in the middle and back of the pack are also competing. But rarely against one another (we're usually making friends, grumbling together, and sharing tips on nutrition, training, and shoes ... thanks Jim Roche!). Long distance runners compete against their own self. Can I run this distance faster and stronger? Can I overcome my stomach issues? My sugar and/or caffeine bonk? The IT band injury that's been plaguing me for weeks and nearly paralyzing me on the downhills?
The clock becomes a means to measure ourselves against the true competition. Long distance runners compete to conquer the challenges presented by mind, body, and spirit. Can I overcome this pain? Can I outrun this exhaustion? Can I escape the nagging voices in my head? Can I fend off the emotions gnawing at my motivation and will to continue?
Running is unbelievably fun ... for about fifteen miles (for me currently). After that, it's an experience ... an opportunity to test my own strength and to voyage deeper and deeper towards my limitations ... an experience that allows me to know how to live all the other miles and days more fully, with more discipline, and with more profound levels of happiness.
So no, in the end, when I do cross that finish line, I'm not actually running against the clock or other runners. I'm running for life.