What’s It Feel Like to Run for 24 Hours?

The answer is: I don’t know. I did just participate in a race of that distance, the 24 Hour Ultra Around The Lake, which consists of a 3.173-mile loop around Lake Quannapowitt (plus a .85-mile add-on to start), in Wakefield, MA, 20 miles north of Boston. But I stopped moving about 90 minutes before the 24 hours ended, and I had stopped running more than an hour earlier than that, because that was when I learned I needed just one more lap to almost certainly win the race. As such, I walked one more lap, leisurely, with my wife and friends, who had crewed brilliantly, and finished with 111.89 miles in 22:31:37.4, which turned out to be good enough for first place.

So I don’t know what it feels like to run for 24 hours. But that’s the sort of trick question that doesn’t really tell us anything meaningful about ultrarunning. No one, not even the fastest ultrarunner in the world, spends every second of an ultramarathon running. Although, athletically, this makes obvious sense — for instance, a football player who plays every snap of a game could end up nearly dying, which in fact happened to a friend who did that in high school — I would not fault anyone for snubbing, consciously or not, runners that spend a chunk of a running race not running. I was once of this disparaging mindset myself; ten years years ago, while participating in my first trail marathon, outside Bloomington, IN, I decided that to not run every step was to cheat the sport. I remember one incredibly steep hill, in the middle of the race. It was a dirt road, and everyone walked it, except me. I passed everyone, but, on the ensuing downhill cruise back into the forest, everyone passed me. Secretly, I thought this was unfair and didn’t yet understand why I was wrong.

Like all sports, ultrarunning can never be fully conquered — Yiannis Kouros’s absurd 180.335 24-hour road record (7:59 per mile) has stood since 1998 but will not stand forever — but it can be optimized. In pursuit of optimization, pre-race strategies and race-day tactics matter as much as physical training. All of these factors reserve the right to be mutated. Approaching this 24-hour race, which was my first of its kind (as well as my first time-based race), I had mileage goals and placement aspirations. Who doesn’t? What I discovered in the midst of the race was that the task of running 24 hours was, mentally, so difficult, so taxing, and so overwhelming that as I pushed through the teens of hours, I was looking for any way to make the time speed up. This wasn’t a physical thing. My legs could have trudged me along at an 11:50 minute-per-mile slog (including eating/drinking/bathroom/ice breaks) for as long as necessary. But when, finally, I didn’t need them to — when I reached the point, utterly exhausted, where I could stop running and still say I’d won — I snatched this gift and ripped open the wrapping paper faster than I have at any birthday party. Is this antithetical to the ideal of amateur competition, let alone competition that prides itself on informal camaraderie and limit-pushing? Or is it the body and mind’s natural response to a self-imposed torture that has lasted many hours too long?

This all began about nine months ago, when I decided that a 24-hour race this summer would punctuate the fourth stage of my ultrarunning career. (“Career”!) The first stage lasted from the day after my twenty-fourth birthday, when I ran my first ultra, Central Park’s mid-November Knickerbocker 60K, until the following July, when I ran my first trail ultra, the 33-mile Jay Mountain Marathon, and had an epiphany about the misery/elation ultrarunning binary. That was my trial period. Stage Two covered the next 18 months of my life, including four ultras in 2009, culminating with the North Face Wisconsin 50-miler, during which I bonked like three times yet managed an 8:36, and, a month later, the Knickerbocker in 8-minute-miles. Stage Three was the next 18 months: a trail marathon finish, a 100K DNF, and serious questions about whether or not I cared for ultrarunning. Stage Four was the next 3.5 years: working up to the 100-mile distance, to 100-mile training weeks, to age-group finishes, to wins at smaller local races on the right day, and, ultimately, to the 24-hour race, which would prove I could go much farther than 100 miles. After that, I’d transition to the fifth stage (whatever might come to define it) by revamping my training so that I could become more efficient — a superior runner without a superior time commitment.

But, before the transition, I needed to capitalize on this “A” race. I eyed it cautiously. I had planned, for instance, to run a 100 miler in April as a tuneup, but I made illogical pre-race decisions and then got greedy during the race. My ignorance backfired with a mid-race DNF, which I salvaged as a 48-mile speed workout (averaging about 9:00 pace on a flat dirt path) but lamented as a lost chance to accrue mileage and experience. Unless I capriciously entered a race or did an extremely long workout, I would begin the 24-hour race having not run longer than 50 miles in one clip in two years.

I did not try to make up the mileage or experience. Instead, I took a month off, replaced all my crusty old shoes, and returned to training with a glorious five hours exploring the mountains north of Tucson. I built a base of slow miles, which peaked with an overnight run around my in-laws’ neighborhood on Long Island. That night, fueled by Clif Citrus gels, a two-liter of Mountain Dew, fruit, and just-add-water chicken noodle soup, I ran my favorite two-mile loop from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m.: 53 miles total, less than I’d hoped for but, if you excluded the half-hour lightning break before midnight, a pace — 10:45 — that was on par with my hopes for the 24-hour race: 134 miles.

134 miles would, I knew, be a major reach, and not just because of the flawed projected pace methodology. I was about to take off the next three weeks to have my wedding (my wife and I had been “officially” married at City Hall months earlier) and to honeymoon to Italy. In Italy, my wife and I went on fabulous hikes, did some trail running, and walked a lot, but my only true training run was two hours (which included 30 minutes of hiking). And I ate as if in college. The first few nights, my wife and I were downing appetizers and two courses each and splitting a bottle of Prosecco. She got sick, and I switched to the pizza-and-a-half dinner diet: mine, and half of hers. Then I got sick. Walking around Florence, ten minutes couldn’t pass without my stomach, saturated with cheese, knotting and spasming. A weekend in Rome remained. That food! I returned to New York five pounds heavier. Runs were plagued by lethargy and minor injuries. Two weeks before the race, on a gorgeous Saturday, I did an easy 21-miler using new shoes, the Brooks Defyance 7, which I needed for the padding (my feet had taken a beating during 53 miles of pavement in the Brooks Pure Flow 2), and then rested.

During my taper — stretching, icing, foam rolling, salt bathing; resuscitating my core/strength routine; slipping back into my healthy diet — I reevaluated my goals. Delusion had ruined my last race; this time I was cognizant of my mediocre shape. To be sure, I was in decent enough base shape: legs conditioned with junk miles. But I did not feel light, did not feel the hop in my step that comes from speed workouts. I hadn’t done one in months, unless you included 10 miles through the city, with the middle eight a 1 min off/2 min on fartlek, for an overall average pace of 7:04, which isn’t really a speed workout at all.

In this state, I identified three goals:

  1. 120, the lowest mileage I should hit. This stemmed from the fact that I’d run the hilly-ish Vermont 100 in 19:06, two years ago, when I was not as good a runner, at a pace (11:27) that equated to roughly 125 miles in 24 hours.
  2. 124, my goal. During my overnight training run, I spent a couple of hours thinking about potential race splits. (This is the sort of thing I always seem to stumble into to pass time — focusing intensely and redundantly on a single word or number combination. Years ago, I spent hours of a race repeating the name of a person I’d recently met because I found the cadence of the syllables addictive: Scott Arogeti.) I conceptualized the race as back-to-back 100Ks. Once I got there, ideally in 22-23 hours, I would see what I had left. But this goal also came from something else — seeing Rich Riopel, with whom I’d run the last two West Virginia Trilogies, post 127.97 miles in his first 24-hour race (at Hinson Lake). Obviously, this is an inane way of setting personal benchmarks, but I think ultrarunners can be powerless to it, even though we know that we can reach our goals and succeed in races only if we run “our race,” i.e. create and stick to a plan that maximizes our strengths and minimizes our weaknesses, i.e. a plan that has nothing to do with another person’s abilities, even if that person runs similar times to us.
  3. 130, my reach. If everything went perfectly, it could happen.

With the race’s nighttime start — Friday, 9 p.m. — the challenged increased slightly. At least I thought so. Unable to sleep beforehand, I’d be fatigued from the beginning. To hedge against that, my wife and I drove up to Boston Thursday evening, so that Friday I could wake up in the city and lounge around all day, hopefully taking a nap or two (something I rarely do otherwise). We were staying in the cozy apartment of our close friends Greg and Jackie (also somewhat recently married); that they live just twenty minutes from the race was a significant reason I decided to do this one in particular. They are both runners, and Greg, one of my oldest friends, is actually the person who first got me into distance running. Between them and my wife, I knew I would have desired running company.

A few days before the race, I started eating excessive amounts of carbohydrates. Jackie made a huge pasta dinner Thursday, and Friday I ate even more excessively and prepared water bottles, for my sturdy Rubbermaid cooler, with my necessary drinks: 3 bottles of orange Gatorade Endurance mixed with CarboPro, 2 Nalgenes filled with iced green tea (brewed myself with my Czar Nicholas II tea bags) and four spoonfuls of sugar in each, 5 gel flasks with 1.5 ounces of vanilla EFS liquid shot mixed with 3.5 ounces of water, 2 20-ounce Mountain Dews, 2 Siggs filled with some organic berry juice mixed with seltzer water (the drink tasted good, but I wound up wanting none of it), 1 bottle of water with lemon, 1 bottle of water with cucumber (didn’t really drink these two either). These details provide absolutely zero insight into what ultrarunning is really like, because ultrarunning is psychological far before it is mechanical, but people always end up asking what do you eat, what do you drink, and so on and so forth.

Other insignificant details: I slept seven hours Thursday night, took an hour nap around dinnertime Friday then showered, shaved, headed to the race, the four of us did, which was just off the dreadful Interstate 95. Yet despite the race being across the highway from a massive furniture store/IMAX theater (whose towering phosphorescent lights were a fantastic reference point until about midnight) and literally right next to one of those soul-crushing generic corporate office complexes (with the logo of Comverse, which I offhandedly guessed to be some sort of refrigeration technology but which turned out to be a telecom company with $5.1 million net income, supplying Greg and me with a recurring Office Spaceian gag), the start/finish area, bustling with dozens of runners milling about and stretching at the check-in table and aid station and wide timing chute and dozens of tents and chairs set up along a grassy stretch, was pleasant and homey and reassuring in the way these races often are. I set up the cooler, chair, and stand, sprayed bug repellent, coated vulnerable skin areas in Vaseline, and put on the rest of my clothes (I feel very not normal calling running clothes “gear”): sparkling white Defyance exactly 35 miles old, white CEP compression socks (after years of using these for recovery but running in the calf sleeves, I’ve made the switch for good), tight black Sugoi Jack shorts (the latest iteration has some other official name; regardless, these are my go-to), gray Steelers Reebok SpeedWick T-shirt (still unquestionably the greatest technical shirt I’ve ever worn).

“Are you nervous?” Jackie asked.

“Obviously not,” I said cheerily. All of us were just chatting and joking about normal things.

The race began. Starting with the marathoners and 24-hour relay teams, I was passed by many people. Over two laps, I settled into a slow groove, establishing a pattern, on this virtually flat course, of running lanes: pavement here, a dirt path to the left here, a grassy strip to the right there. The ratio was about 60 pavement/40 not. Greg joined for laps three and four; we had normal conversation that distracted me from the race; they all went home. I continued my groove and started nibbling on oranges and bananas and pretzels and taking an Endurolyte every lap and a gel every other lap. Foot traffic thinned as the marathoners finished within a couple hours; sounds evaporated as the restaurant closed and motorcycle gang left the doughnut shop. The weather was optimally cool and reasonably dry in the dead of the night. Into the light from the church, onto the darkness alongside the cemetery. Few cars passed, but when they did they honked or, if packed with kids, screamed. Houselights stayed on until they didn’t.

Vaguely romantic, no? But this type of nostalgia — the lone ultrarunner plugging away when all else have retired — is the seduction of the ultramarathon, for it belies the utter terribleness that can strike you at any second. It makes you forget how awful running these things can be. In this first attempt at a long timed race, I found that these strikes, when they struck, struck harder than ever before. In a distance race, you can envision yourself clicking off the miles until the end. You can get to the finish faster if you run faster. But in a timed race, no matter how much you increase your speed, the finish line does not change. The only way around that truth is deceit: you have to elevate yourself to a higher purpose or focus solely on the road in front of you. At least one of those works most of the time, but sometimes you blank on both. This is when an ultramarathon becomes excruciating tortuous.

Through the night, I ran almost entirely alone, unaware of my exact pace (no watch) and concentrating on my next nutrition grab. I lost count of my laps around eight or nine. I was clueless about place, too. I wanted to believe I was on pace for 130 miles. I needed incentive to keep pushing, to not think about how I’d been running for more than five hours yet had completed less than one-fourth of the race. Could it be that nineteen hours remained? In what context is it normal to do the exact same thing for nineteen hours in a row? The number “19” began to seem far more significant than any other, even ones lower than it, kind of like how turning 17 years old seemed to me somehow more significant than turning 16 or 18 simply because it wasn’t some consensus benchmark, it was just a random, forgotten age. I told myself that the sky would soon lighten and I would switch my shirt, add more headgear (“gear”), and begin anew. But that was three hours away. And so I brushed up against the ultimate oppression of the 24-hour race. It’s not about physical pain. It’s about the fact that you can find yourself thinking things as absurd as, “If I run for three more hours” — a legitimately long time to be running — “I’ll be one-third done.” You think nineteen hours seems interminable, but then you run three more hours and you still have sixteen hours left.

Three hours passed — who knew how — and it was light. The rising sun on the verge of eclipsing low, bored clouds, I changed into a white shirt, prepared an ice bandana every lap, and took a power-walking break to eat a cup of Ramen, which I’d “ordered” from the kind aid station volunteers the previous lap. (No human has ever been kinder than an aid station volunteer at an ultramarathon.) These sucked time and energy, as did my increasingly frequent Porta Potty breaks, and I worried about my pace. Out on the course, the day was grinding into action: cars parking, joggers jogging, walkers walking. This was five a.m. As we made the right turn, a half-mile past the start/finish, from corporate parking lot access road to path along a main street, the doughnut shop was again open for business and cinnamon and coffee were wafting toward us. Just past mile 2, a farmer’s market, whose “Saturday 9 a.m. – 1 p.m.” sign I’d passed a dozen times, would soon be setting up in the dirty grass and pebble lot between our course and the lake. Upon the completion of each lap, I hoped to see my wife and friends, but they kept not being there. I assumed they wouldn’t come at eight, or even nine, but I predicted they’d surprise me at ten. I needed a familiar face.

I was soon shirtless and wearing my Native sunglasses and Zoot hat with its ear and neck flap. These cooled me, which kept my weak gut in check. But my teeth were coated with grime, and I didn’t want to eat. The aid stations had cycled through a few rounds of volunteers, and I felt badly asking one to wipe my sweaty back with my rag and lather me with sunscreen. But she ripped off her plastic gloves and gladly did it.

Another lap: very uncomfortable. No stomach bug or dead legs or low energy. Just overall depletion. Somehow, I was chugging along at that same glacial pace.

At the next lap, I slumped into a folding chair and closed my eyes, only to be overcome with the sensation that valuable minutes were slipping.

Furious to be running, sagging with disgust, I got back on the course and began to understand that this was absolutely the hardest thing I had ever done in my life. Athletically, of course. I have had far greater difficulty trying to comprehend the highest levels of high school chemistry, or molding a Rachmaninoff prelude into performance form, or motivating undergraduate engineering majors uninterested in reading and writing to learn essay structures. Writing a sprawling two-family psychosocial novel is exceedingly more difficult than running for a day. All this pales in comparison to the challenge of continually being a good son, friend, husband anyway. But what relativist junk. This was a kinesthetic struggle bundled into a single interval.

“This is absolutely the hardest and most awful thing I’ve ever done, and I wish to everything that I had never started it.”

That is what I kept repeating to myself.

From the final turn-off by the car dealership, the access road to the start/finish lasted about one-third of a mile. As I approached it, I saw Greg jogging toward my setup with a bag of ice and another 20-ounce Mountain Dew. I muttered something about doing one more lap alone.

I grabbed some food, forced down some water and salt tablets, and went out. I began to lose it. I don’t mean I stopped running or broke down. I just began to feel the pain of having run nearly fourteen hours not being good enough. Not even close. I realized, acutely, that I was suffering. Everything felt awful. As I wound around the lake, inching toward that first mile marker, wedged in the road’s guardrail, I tried to distract myself with thoughts of real suffering of real people all around the world, people who had been born into war or poverty or some terribly unfortunate circumstance. But that didn’t do anything. I tried to think of how I was the great-grandson of, on one side, a penniless Czech immigrant who ended up in Pittsburgh after evading military duty and, on the other, a penniless Polish immigrant who, when he was a young kid, left his entire family and started a push-cart business in Manhattan. That they suffered so I didn’t have to seemed something that should contextualize my self-inflicted suffering. But those perspectives and rationalizations are messier than that.

It was in these moments of intense mental anguish and dwindling physical capacity that I felt guilty for having appropriated this mundane race around a mundane lake as a surrogate for my very manufactured and self-conscious suffering, followed, immediately, by the extreme shame of needing the guilt. Mine was the suffering of privilege, and it was atrocious. Yet I was helpless to it. For how badly I was hurting, I began to whimper and then to cry, not in any sort of rush, because I didn’t have the faculties for that, but a muffled cry, a stupid cry, a selfish and pathetic one. No surprise I had to almost force it out. But it did come out, because it had to. And it performed its cathartic duties. This was its worst and best part. Instantly — having sneaked a peek at the leaderboard sheet last aid station — my thoughts shifted to tactics: I was creeping toward the leader. I was executing flawlessly — I was running “my” race — and all I needed to do was maintain. That would happen: I had been saving my legs, particularly my hamstrings, which felt no strain. Everyone else would soon start suffering physically — most people who run ultras start way too fast, even though, presumably, they know they shouldn’t — and from there would proceed their own version of mental suffering. Whereas I had already outlasted mine. I had done so in my own sick, shameless way, but I had a result: vigor. Suddenly I understood the race in a way I never had, and I knew I would do whatever it took — but nothing more — to win.

“Should I make a move?” I wondered in a swell of emotion. “No, no, it’s still way too early!”

I made no move, and my vigor did not yet manifest. I was beat, I could barely talk, I needed more calories, I got them at the aid station, I picked up Greg for the next lap. Things had changed, slightly. During the middle of the lap, I muttered that I hated this, but to speak it aloud was to acknowledge its lie. He stayed with me for another couple laps, and then Jackie took over for a lap or two, and then my wife. They knew not to talk to me, to just run beside me, to refill my head and neck gear (in the high sun and eighty-five degrees, “gear” now seemed appropriate) with ice, to heed my whispered food and drink instructions as we rounded the corner to the homestretch. I garnered enough hope to mutter to my wife, “I hate this . . . but I love you.” I didn’t run a lap alone the rest of the way.

A few laps later, I was initiating hushed talk of tactics (hushed because I could not summon the energy for anything louder), of making a move at four hours, no, at three hours, no, of stealing a lap at the end of the race with a valiant 9:00 pace. But I was also trying to stave off the super-sore muscle in my upper right quad. (IcyHot spray = magic.) I fueled: two Endurolytes per aid station, EFS and sugary tea and Gatorade Endurance, Ramen, bananas and pretzels, watermelon. Eventually, as I assumed first place and built a three-lap lead, I entered into that state all ultrarunners know, where every muscle hovers just below the cramping threshold and you are chugging along, slowly but efficiently, for all the reasons why you shouldn’t be running, running nonetheless. At one point, I told my companions that I could run like this forever.

But I had no interest in that, not once Greg and I determined, as the hours remaining wound down from ten to eight to six to four — seemingly interminable amounts of time themselves — that if, after my 31st lap, which involved a short sitting break, we ran three more and walked another, I would be basically guaranteed to win. So we did that. On the last running lap, the four of us went out in my preferred mode: silence. Bent forward at the waist, I attacked the most imperceptible rises in pavement, which now felt like serious inclines, by looking at the ground no farther than a single footstep ahead. I grunted through the pain of every step sending a shock through my depleted quads. I now knew every inch of the course, and so when I reached the highest point, just past the farmer’s market, at about mile 2.25, where, for a second, between the road and the trees, ahead you could see a blinking green stoplight and, another quarter mile ahead, another traffic light, the one by the car dealership at which we turned onto the homestretch — in that moment, knowing I would soon stop running, I didn’t care that the four of us would walk a final lap, that I would leave 9.5 miles (three laps) on the table and fall that amount short of my “minimum mileage” goal. On this day, such a goal meant so little it was as if I’d never considered it.

111.89 miles in 22:31:37 will not win most 24-hour races. And? The first goal of any long race is to finish. Like Kilian Jornet said before he casually demolished the course record at the Hardrock 100, you can be in great shape, but you still have to run. In a timed race, where you’re doing loops, to be out running there all day, not knowing what the hours will bring, but taking them on as they come, is impressive enough.

I was incredibly sore after the race, though not any sorer than after any other long race. The temperature dropped significantly with the sun, and I became cold and hungry. Greg and Jackie went to get me a chicken parm hero, and my wife found me one of those plastic blankets on the trainers’ table. I sat — I cannot explain how wonderful it was to sit, even as my hips stung with pain — and cheered on other runners as they finished their loops. I closed my eyes and fell asleep, instantly, for ten seconds, then a minute, then five minutes, before waking and wondering if all that had happened had been a dream.

How Much Rest Do Ultrarunners Need?

Last fall, while researching a profile about the classical pianist Jonathan Biss, I came across a passage, in Biss’s e-book Beethoven’s Shadow, about how in order to better understand a piece he was working on, he needed space from it. “Letting [a piece] rest while the mind and fingers are occupied with other things,” he writes, “often leads to more development than the actual, quantifiable work does.” He doesn’t explain the science behind this, and he doesn’t offer his rest/practice formulas as proof. The benefits of rest are just something he knows to be true from experience.

So, to apply this to ultrarunning . . .

If you take that sentence, substitute “legs” for “fingers,” and do slight structural editing, you get:

Rest, while the mind and legs are occupied with other things, often leads to more development than actual, quantifiable work does.

Is there a better argument for an ultrarunner resting? The key is in the language. The sentence does not advocate a decrease in the amount or intensity of training or dedication. The sentence assumes that the runner has done some sort of requisite training (the “actual, quantifiable” work), which assumes itself that the runner is dedicated. What the sentence suggests is that, in order for a trained and dedicated runner to develop, he must have periods of time where he doesn’t run. Five days of no running, it implies, could make you a better runner than five miles of speed work.

Ultrarunners understand the need for rest intuitively; that’s why so few of us do things on a consistent basis that we know we couldn’t handle — averaging 140-mile training weeks, scheduling tough races three weekends out of four. But we often find ourselves battling our intuition. We know that if we could just finagle one more really great speed workout, we’d be in better shape for a race. Culture is a foe as well. We know that if we run the day after a race, when our legs are dead, and post it on social media, where we’ll receive positive feedback testifying to our awesomeness, we’ll transcend our threshold for pain. And that’s what ultrarunning is all about, anyway, we say: pushing ourselves beyond limits. Rest is a bad thing. It’s for the weak and the uncommitted. Why should we cease the activity we need and desire, the activity that is part of our soul?

(Jon Sutherland, who recently broke the U.S. record for consecutive days running — he’s run at least a mile each day, including days before and after arthroscopic knee surgery, and on a boat during a hurricane, for more than 45 years — might consider this a valid question.)

Ultrarunners reach the point where this mindset becomes serious because by nature we have unusual ambitions. First we begin with the innocuous goal of finishing a race longer than a marathon, and suddenly we’ll do anything to set a PR in a 100-miler, to gain entry to an exotic race, to develop a seemingly inconceivable running project. (I remember hearing once that Dean Karnazes wanted to run across the Pacific Ocean, from California to Hawaii, in a giant inflatable beach ball; I have no idea if this is true, but I prefer to imagine it might be.) Our ambitions are highly relative, but that doesn’t change their seriousness.

As our ambitions escalate, we match them with increases in training. If you’ve been running ultras for two years, and the farthest race you’ve run is 50 miles, and you just signed up for a 100-miler in three months, you need to run more. That’s pretty much common sense. But how much more? Are you a really fast 50-miler who’s planning to take the first half of the 100 slowly and burn the second half? Are you in your mid-30s, with extraordinary general health and fitness levels? Have you been running, both for sports and for running, for so long that you’ve logged 50,000 lifetime miles? Have you ever been remotely seriously injury?

These factors are impossible to accurately gauge, yet they determine how much each person needs to rest. So that’s the trickiest thing about rest, about why it can never be reduced to a science, why it’s entirely intuitive. Occasionally, we’ll be advised otherwise. While training for my first marathon, I read that you should take off one day of running for each mile raced. Even though I knew little about distance running, that struck me as incorrect. It wasn’t that it couldn’t be correct. It was just that, if I was going to rest for nearly a month following a marathon, I would want it to be because I wanted and needed that much rest, not because I was following a resting formula.

I don’t have a resting formula, but I do have resting categories. The first three are kind of obvious and clinical. Number one is rest during workouts. This could be the slow running you do to reel in your heart rate during a speed workout, or the handful of ten-minute stopping breaks you take to eat real food during a long day on the trails. This rest is vital. All runners know this, because all runners have been forced into it at one point or another.

This seems like a good time to acknowledge that, factually speaking, the life of an ultrarunner is comprised almost entirely of rest. A 365-day year contains 525,600 minutes. (Note: I did not arrive at this statistic by watching Rent.) A ultrarunner averaging, in that time, 50 miles a week, at an eight-minute-mile average, spends 57 minutes and 8 seconds running per day, or 20,857 minutes and 8 seconds running per year. Of his available time, he spend 3.9 percent of it running, and 96.1 percent of it resting.

Okay. My second type of rest is rest between workouts. Everyone does this differently. For the past year or so, I’ve been making my training schedule in six-week chunks: OFF week, ON week, times three. If I’m getting in shape, an OFF week might be 30 miles total, with a short/easy speed workout, a recovery run, and a slow long run of 2.5 hours. It might even been a bunch of junk miles. If I’m in shape, an ON week might be 110 miles total, with back-to-back 20-milers, a seven-hour trail run, a 13-mile speed workout, and whatever else could round out 110 miles. I try to rest between these runs, to get good nights of sleep. Sometimes it’s possible, sometimes not. Rest between workouts, to quote history’s greatest philosophers, is what it is.

The third category is rest between races. As I wrote in the second part of my last post, in the fall, when I made my race schedule for the first half of this year, I figured my three races were impeccably timed. To prepare for late July’s 24-hour race, I’d do a late-winter 50 and a mid-spring 100. Two months between between them seemed perfect: a week of no running, a week of recovery running, five weeks of hard training, two weeks of tapering. That fell apart quickly. Ian Sharman has written helpfully about how to use races as training runs, but that’s not necessarily practical for a hobbyist like me whose location and schedule allows only a handful of races per year. To peak for all my races, but to rest adequately between them, is such a tough, individualized thing to negotiate, and it’s not worth going into here.

The last type of rest is the least intuitive. Mainly, it’s a mindset. But for these reasons I think it’s the most valuable kind. I would call this rest simply “real rest.” To me, real rest is the type of rest where you forget that you are an ultrarunner. You don’t follow a training schedule, you don’t daydream about races, you don’t read about running. Basically, you abstain from the sport. This is a hard concept for ultrarunners to grasp, because we’ve conditioned ourselves to believe that, since we run ultras, we are runners, and runners can never not be runners. Yet, inevitably we all reach a point where we do not want to be running, not just in that moment but in the next day, and the next week, and for a long time after that. Our bodies and minds are telling us not to run. Maybe we take off a week, maybe even two. Soon our identity, and the intuition that accompanies it, tell us we’ve taken off too much time. If we don’t start training again, we will cease to be who we are. We find new races, make new training schedules. We seamlessly integrate running back into our lives. We say, “I’ve rested two weeks — two whole weeks without running! — and I’m dying to get back into it, and I’m ready.” This works once or twice. Maybe it works more than that — maybe it works for a few years. But one day it happens, typically without any obvious foreshadowing, that our minds and bodies are no longer happy running at all. We need rest — serious, serious rest. The only way to do that is to get out of the mindset of an ultrarunner.

A month ago, the last Saturday of April, when I was DNFing at the C&O Canal 100, I kept thinking about how glorious it would be to not run for a month. And that explains my May. I didn’t just not run, I turned my mind off from running. I didn’t think about my next race, or about my upcoming training, or about how I wasn’t running. I simply moved ultrarunning to the background of my life. This isn’t 100 percent honest; each time I exercised — biking around the city, lifting legs at the gym, shagging flies at a baseball diamond — I thought about how these variations in my exercise routine would ultimately contribute to my ultrarunning. But I did these things with a detachment; they are the sorts of things I put on hold in order to be an ultrarunner, the sorts of things I’d do more frequently if I weren’t an ultrarunner (but also the sorts of things that can’t yet pull me away from ultrarunning).

Living in the Northeast, many hours’ drive from hills that take more than five minutes to climb, I felt blessed that my first runs after my rest were in Tucson, Arizona, where my friends were getting married. Two Fridays ago, in the early evening, while my wife was getting her nails done with the bride, I did a 50-minute out-and-back in Sabino Canyon. I took the slight-uphill out easily, acclimating to my new shoes, orange Brooks Pure Flow 2 (two pairs of which I snagged for $40 each at DSW while shopping for dress shoes), and the rocky terrain, which I haven’t navigated in months. I was pleasantly surprised to find that running felt just like it always has and that, shaded as I was from the sun, subjected as I was to a cool breeze, the desert air didn’t dry my throat or deplete my energy. On the return, which of course was slightly downhill, I found my rhythm and quickened the pace, catapulting over rocks and around bends. I cannot overstate the exhilaration I felt running on desert trails in the Southwest, a part of the country I rarely visit. Then, just as I was thinking that, if possible, I would run only on trails for the rest of my life, and never again on pavement — a thought I have during most trail runs, a thought that does not mesh with my residence in one of the largest and densest cities in the world — I turned my right ankle, and turned it badly, and had to hop-step until the pain subsided.

The next morning, my wife and I drove to Finger Rock Canyon, just nine miles from our hotel in the city. I had scoped out this trail before our trip and decided I would do the entire hike up the canyon to Mt. Kimball, one of the highest peaks in the Santa Catalina Mountains just north of Tucson on Sunday. So Saturday was just a taste: she and I hiked an hour in and an hour back out the canyon, mostly leisurely, with some light jogging on the return (the first mile of the trail is relatively flat). Then, Sunday morning, when she was engaged in pre-wedding bridal party activities, I returned to the canyon, with a three-liter CamelBak, five Clif citrus gels, a Kashi granola bar, a cup or two of dried cranberries, and a lot of sunscreen on my body. I ran the first mile comfortably, then, as the trail wound up and along the right canyon wall, settled into a strong hiking pace, careful not to let my heart rate increase too much.

After an hour or so, I came to a small plateau that I believe is called Linda Vista. The trail continued easily and obviously to the right, but there was also a trail, to the left, that dropped into the canyon and, presumably, as I could see a trail heading straight up the other side, picked back up. I didn’t have a map, but I wasn’t worried about time or getting lost, so I followed the trail to the left. Indeed, it dropped into and across the canyon and then continued steeply up the other side. I hiked at a comfortable pace, checking out the views every so often. Sometimes I had to scramble. Eventually, I reached the actual Finger Rocks, these huge boulders, visible from Tucson, that stick straight out of the summit like fingers. You can summit them, which apparently offers amazing views, but when I got to a point where I would have to do a bit of actual climbing, I decided that, being alone, and next to some steep drop-off points, and needing to attend a wedding in the evening, I shouldn’t do anything stupid. Without regret, I retraced the trail into the canyon and back up to Linda Vista; the Finger Rock detour took roughly an hour.

I now continued on the path to Mt. Kimball. It was flat-ish and runnable at times, and so I ran when possible. But, even though I lucked out with perfect weather, with clouds moving in front of the sun and a temperature not higher than ninety in the foothills and much cooler as I climbed, after forty-five minutes, I worried that I had gone too fast and didn’t have enough food. When you are hiking peaks for the first time, the trail seems interminable, even when you are so close to its end; and though your will to make it to the top is never in question (at least on simple hiking trails like these; true mountaineering, which I love reading and watching videos about but don’t have much interest in doing, is a different matter), the smart person always considers whether or not he has enough energy, purely in terms of calories stored and available in food, for the return trip, and if he can continue safely. What I mean by this will become clearer when — perhaps in my next post — I tell the story of my worst bonk ever, which occurred on a training run in North Texas.

But, as always happens as well, before I knew it I was at the top. Though its elevation is 7,255 feet (4,700 ft. above Tucson), Mt. Kimball’s summit isn’t interesting. It’s not a peak so much as a plateau. But about 50 yards beyond it is a rocky plateau with absolutely stunning 270-degrees views of the Catalinas. (I got there after a pointless 10-minute side trip down and back up another side trail at the summit.) Having left the car three hours and 15 minutes ago, I allowed myself 15 minutes to eat and take in the views. While doing so, I chatted with a couple of friendly hikers. Then I flew down the mountain. The trail is allegedly five miles long, and has an elevation change of something like 3,700 ft., so my quads took a pounding to which they are currently unaccustomed. I took my final gel at Linda Vista, which was a bit past the halfway point, and eventually I was back on the canyon floor, so unbelievably satisfied in the day’s journey, as well as my overall entry back into running following a month of real rest. I tried to temper my knack to push the pace with the voice in my head that says, as it always does at the end of a long trail run or race, “You’re about to make it out of here alive, so ease up and don’t do anything foolish.”

This was precisely the moment that I turned my right ankle in the exact same place as two days ago, and did so so severely that I would have thought it was broken had I not been able to hop-step through the anguish and regain semi-running form.

“You’re so close, you almost injured yourself — you should walk!” the voice told me. “But you’re so close — you need to get there faster!”

And then I turned the same ankle in the same place once again.

After a month of real rest, after a 4-hour, 40-minute morning in the Catalinas, my advice is: do not wear the Brooks Pure Flow 2 for any trail approaching ruggedness.

Analysis of a 100-Mile DNF, and Why We Run: Part 2

Note: This begins Part 2. For Part 1, click here.

After the Jay Mountain experience, I wanted to run the hardest ultras in the world, like Badwater and the Spartathalon. But my outlook on the length of life is that, for as short as it is, it is also very long. I looked forward to a patient and, to me, logical progression of race distances, one that would minimize my risk of injury and hedge against mental burnout. If running a difficult trail ultra (which is to say, all trail ultras) really could be incredibly viscerally pleasurable during the actual moment of the running, then I would need experience to tap into this state. And why not luxuriate in that experience? Jumping from 33-mile races to 100s in a year or two seemed to eliminate the thrill and excitement and deep pleasure of the sport.

That January, I ran a 3:08 marathon in Disney World, and qualified for Boston. But I’d long lost interest in it. The Disney race was essentially a speed workout for my first 50-miler, the North Face-sponsored race in Bear Mountain, 60 miles north of NYC, on the same rocky ups and downs that I had started training on in Harriman State Park. I ran the race terrified of what 50 miles on those trails might feel like, only to realize, when I finished, in 11:35, that I could have run an hour faster. Over the next ten months, all my times dropped: 9:39 on a muddy Finger Lakes Fifty course on July 4th; 8:36 on the North Face’s 50-miler outside Madison, Wisconsin, in October; 5 hours at the Knickerbocker 60K in November; 3:36 at a trail marathon outside Athens, Georgia, in February. A few months later, I would run the Pittsburgh Marathon, mainly for nostalgia’s sake, and then I would start the push to the 100-mile distance, with the Green Lakes 100K, a trail race outside Syracuse, in August.

Six weeks before the Pittsburgh race, my relationship ended. In the six years since my first marathon, I had come to believe that running was an essential part of me, that I would do it regardless of what was happening in my “real” life. But when my reality changed, I lost my will to train. I tried to defer my race number, but the race didn’t allow it. That May morning in Pittsburgh was terribly humid, and I wasn’t in marathon shape, and I legitimately hurt my foot coming off the bridge into Oakland, and the rain was relentlessly annoying, but the simple truth was that I had no desire to be running. When I saw my parents at mile 15, less than a mile from my cozy house, I stopped. It was my first DNF.

I rested and contemplated not showing up to the Green Lakes 100K. My legs felt heavy, my butt muscles sore and aggravated. But, after recovering physically, I itched to train. I spent June and July in Pittsburgh, finishing my thesis for grad school and training in the searing humidity and Frick Park hills where I’d jogged growing up. The training felt okay, but it also felt off. Nearly all my ultra training had been done solo, and that isolation, which I had always viewed almost pridefully, now seemed increasingly stifling. I had never sought out a training partner because I abhorred the idea of a friendship built solely on running. Even though many of my close friends that I lived with or near enjoyed running even marathon distances, none had felt the pull of ultras the way I had. It was indisputably unreasonable to expect that a perfect blend of close friend and reliable training partner would exist, yet I resented that he or she did not.

Without a network of trusted fellow ultrarunners, I began to resent my own running, and I fell into logically dubious ways of thinking. For instance, I believed a single 5-hour long run would suffice during my peak training, and I ran it in beat-up race flats, on the premise that grass and dirt provided enough cushion. A week later, I developed some sort of muscle strain on the side of my calf. I took time off, but not too much. The strain made me overcompensate, which led to other pains. I did the 100K anyway. I went out too fast, wore out my quads. My joints inflamed, my muscles felt funny, and I feared long-term injury. After six of eight race laps (46.5 miles), I decided I could not do another 15 miles at anything beyond a laboring walk with occasional trotting. I packed up my tent and drove home that afternoon.

I questioned my willful self-destruction endlessly. If I was sabotaging my races, why was I running? The only solution was to take time off and see if I would want to keep running.

Why is it, really, that ultrarunners always want to keep running? Despite all I’ve written, I can’t presume to know in a way that makes sense for every ultrarunner. But I can think about about it sensibly. The whole enterprise of ultrarunning can be considered one irrational choice facilitated by many smaller irrational choices. Some of the irrational choices are smart, some are not. A somewhat popular refrain is that ultrarunners need to experience bad (irrational) things to enjoy the payoff of good (irrational) things, because if we set a PR every race, what good is a PR? But that hypothetical outcome is outside the realm of possibility — no reasonably experienced ultrarunner has an endless string of PR-type races — and so it renders that refrain an invalid line of support. I think a more sensible piece of support is something very simple and universal in a way that goes beyond the act of running. It is about the search for the personal unknown. Not necessarily physical unknowns, because every human has a physical limitation, but more about slicing out the little bits of humility, vanity, shame, pride that live within every normal, everyday person and seeing what they taste like. All athletic competitors strive for some sort of ultimate victory. But a basketball player, say, operates in an environment where greatness has always been measured by the same championship trophy that is the prize for competition in an arena (both literally and metaphorically) constricted by time, space, location, and commercial market demands. That the boundaries of ultrarunning will always be confined by its inability to be monetized as a traditional sport with athletes compensated in wages allows ultrarunning to expand infinitely (the new races popping and filling up everywhere, all the time) and is what creates a space of significance for athletes who are not world-class but who can unselfconsciously devote the same amount of energy to their hobby as the best of the best and experience the same essential validation. When every runner of every level is making the same level of irrational choice, no one is making an irrational choice. Ultrarunners always find themselves returning to the same arena, because it is the only arena to return to: a space to run.

Following my consecutive DNFs, I didn’t race from August 2010 to May 2011. In that time, I finished graduate school and began a relationship with the woman who is now my wife. Then, from May 2011 to April 2014 (or, essentially, the last three years), I entered 15 races, with distances ranging from trail half-marathon to 100 miles. Most were smaller, regionally-sized races, and all were in the mid-Atlantic or Northeast. Aside from a half-marathon pacing my wife, and the Vermont 100, where I took 19th place (19:06), I finished anywhere from 1st to 6th. I did incur one DNF. In October 2012, I raced the West Virginia Trilogy, an amazing 50K-50M-13.1 Fri-Sat-Sun triptych in the state’s highest mountains. Somewhat unprepared, I took 3rd in the 50K, only to, that night, become extremely nauseated. In the morning, I couldn’t process any breakfast food. I ran 18 miles of the 50M, using up every sap of energy in my body and forcing a drop at mile 33. The next year (this past October), I returned in better shape, avoided sickness, and won both the 50M and the Trilogy without ever shifting into fifth gear. When the race director, Adam Casseday, asked me what size I needed for my Patagonia jacket, I thought, “Wait, I get a prize for running in the woods?”

I did not consider myself fast, but speed is endlessly relative. I did, however, finally consider myself a “real” ultrarunner. This hadn’t been a goal as much as something that just kind of happened. I could now train at 100-mile weeks. On the right day, I won smallish races. I would never win a major ultra, no chance whatsoever, but if I could be perfectly tactical, who was to say that I couldn’t will myself into a sub-elite ultrarunner at longer distances? And there would always be thousands of runners in the country who could be faster than me at any distance. But did they want to devote the hours necessary to compete in the elusive races I was doing? As I turned 30, and entered my prime decade as an ultrarunner, I had nestled out an incentive beyond personal satisfaction, the exploration of the self, and excuses to leave the city for nature: actual competition. I’m a pretty poor tennis player, and so I never play tennis. But I had become a pretty decent ultrarunner, and so I would run ultras. Ultrarunning no longer offered me that sweeping, emotional, intoxicating runner’s high I’d felt, but had not known I felt, finishing in the middle of the pack in the Jay Mountain 33-miler. It offered me a way to demonstrate some level of athletic superiority.

Buoyed by winning the Trilogy, instead of taking off from Halloween to New Year’s, as I had the past few years, I recovered, shed a few pounds, and resumed training. I’m most comfortable doing three to five ultras a year, and so I found three races that worked with my schedule: a tune-up training run 50M in New Jersey in February; a set-a-PR 100M on a fast course in Maryland in April; and then my focus race, the race that would prove I could go far beyond 100 miles, a 24-hour race outside Boston in July. The plan fell apart quickly. The Febapple Frozen Fifty in New Jersey is a 5 x 10-mile course. I entered light, rested, trained. On the first lap, a quarter-mile behind the leader, I broke trail in 12 inches of ice-topped snow, incurring lower-leg lacerations, shoes water-logged, frustrated with my laborious 12-minute miles. By the second lap, all the other racers had passed through, and the course had become a packed, runnable single track. I ran the flats at half-marathon pace, ran the rollers at marathon pace, power-hiked the uphills, sprinted the downhills. I did that all day, as the temperature warmed to 50 degrees, as the course became increasingly sloppy. I assumed the lead around mile 20, easily held first place, even won a great CamelBak. Now I was ecstatic; there was no way I wouldn’t set a PR of 16:40 (perfect 10:00 pace) in the C&O Canal 100 two months later.

Yes, we have finally reached the titular DNF.

To prepare for the 100, I took off my customary week, and then, because of a terrible blister scab on my right heel that I didn’t properly treat, took off another. But, when I returned for some light miles, my left knee was tight. For six weeks, I trained through it, only to accrue new pains, in the other knee, in my foot, in my Achilles’. Worried about leaping to the 100-mile distance, which I had run only once, and not in over a year, I incorporated longer speed work (a 1:26 half-marathon done as intervals, a 20-miler in the rain at 7:00 pace) and, two weekends before the race, five 20-mile runs to be completed in 50 hours. Those runs were both easy and painful; I cut the last one five miles short, when, by Sunday night, I was extremely hungry and tired, and had creaky knees, due partly to my rotating old pairs of shoes (which I didn’t particularly like, anyway). I had simulated the race experience, but what I really craved was fresh legs.

For my two-week, no-running taper, I heated and iced my knees and took Epsom salt baths. But the week of the race, I — a deep, deep sleeper — could not get more than six hours of choppy sleep. On Wednesday and Thursday, I drank a bit too much espresso — and I’m not even much of a coffee drinker — and my heartburn inflamed. Overall, I felt heavy and sluggish: I had tried to maintain a healthy diet of fruits, veggies, grains, protein, water, but when social engagements had arisen, I had stayed up late and hadn’t cared to abstain from birthday ice cream and champagne. Why should I have? My rule was that ultrarunning, as much as I loved it, would not interfere with my real life. That rule now seemed incompatible with my reality.

I tried to ignore the ominous foreboding, and, when I reached the starting line, hyped up on electrolytes and thinking about clearing this barrier in my ultra life, the foreboding was gone. I started wonderfully, as we dropped down a steep hill to the canal path that runs for miles alongside the Potomac River. Weather was perfect, trail was flat and reasonably soft, with adequate tree cover and almost imperceptible bends. I ran comfortably and slowly, clocking, I determined from the path’s mile marker posts, 9:20s or so, in 6th or 7th place. From having seen the UltraSignup entrant’s list, I knew I would not win, but a top-three finish was likely.

Problems began within a few miles. My left knee was a bit tight, not in the painful way that stops you from running, but in the irritating way you notice it with every step. My Achilles’ tightened, and I had to stop to stretch it. The tightness dissipated, but it lurked. My arches hurt, too, and the only thing that stretched them were unnatural toe-strikes and awkward, forced overpronation. Why hadn’t I replaced my shoes?

As I warmed up, I pushed my pace into the 8s. This was faster than I had planned, but I wasn’t breathing hard, I figured my pains would reveal themselves regardless of pace, and I reasoned that I was building a bank of time. I caught runners, only to immediately encounter my typical bowel problems. But three bathroom breaks in the first 30 miles was unprecedented. And when I left the bathroom, I sped up, even though my strategy is always patience. In an ultra, if a runner gains a 90-second, 150-meter lead on you at mile 10, you may not see him until mile 60. Nine hours of running behind someone you suspect you will eventually pass takes extreme discipline.

The course is essentially a 16-mile out-and-back headed north, followed by two identical out-and-backs headed south, each leg something like 21 miles. After hitting the southern most aid station turnaround, at mile 38, the sun was high, the temperature was creeping into the 70s — perfect for anytime except in the wake of a frigid winter — and I lost interest in sweet drinks and gels. Having a weak stomach, in races I usually get queasy and sometimes vomit. Some of my best races have been when, after vomiting, I gained an incredible second wind. Yet the process of becoming queasy is always beyond unpleasant, and it has resulted in some of my biggest race disappointments, like the TARC 50-miler, this past August, where, seemingly on the way to a PR, I was derailed by a complete onset of cramping at mile 33 and vicious vomiting at mile 40, and was then passed for second place in the last three miles. Even after years of experience, a nutrition plan that works perfectly in one race may prove disastrous in another.

My shirt was dry, and I could feel the salt building on my face. I removed a Clif Citrus gel (the only kind I use) from my hand-held bottle, squeezed a blob onto my tongue, and gagged, spitting it out. I forced the rest down. I started thinking about how I would have to go all the way back north, and then come all the way back down south. The course, so simple on the map, felt fatally seductive. It was mile 40, and my quads were far stiffer than they should have been. A cramp in my hip, then my calf, then my hamstring. I needed a serious infusion of calories and electrolytes, but I didn’t want it. My body, my being, my aura — everything was exhausted. I ran a few steps with shut eyes, fantasizing about sleep.

The third-place runner, to whom I’d finally caught up, seemed so confident in her quick, mechanical strides. How was she so strong, and me so weak? I pulled alongside her, made pleasant small-talk, and immediately disclosed that I was going to drop. This was a final decision, but she, a friendly Tennessean, discouraged me nicely. And it was unbelievable how just hearing her voice was enough to make me reconsider. But there was a conflicting voice in my head, the one I hadn’t heard in so many years, that kept reminding me that, although I was neither injured nor sick, I was the victim of my mistakes, little ones here and there, that were culminating in a complete mid-race failure. I had eschewed crucial rest for junk mileage, and I had mismanaged everything from shoes to nutrition to strategy, and now I was paying the price. But the reason I had done these things in the first place was because I had allowed myself to reach a point where I would enter an ultramarathon for reasons that ran counter to my every ultrarunning impulse. Somehow — improbably so — I had reduced a 100-mile trail race to nothing but an elongated half-mile track sprint. The 100-miler at 10-minute-miles, no different than the 800 in two minutes. The vanity was excruciating.

When I finally stopped, the nice aid station volunteers (and they were great this race; it was an excellently done race) tried to encourage me, as they always do, but I sat on a folding chair, totally coherent, and chilled. I borrowed a cellphone and learned that my wife was driving to the aid station, with my parents, to run six miles with me. Had I not dropped, she never would have made it, because I was way ahead of schedule. I’d been running for 48.4 miles averaging about a 9-minute pace. As I waited for them, not yet able to grasp my failure, I countered vanity with vanity: I instinctively thought ahead to redemption: the 24-hour Ultra Around the Lake. The next three months would proceed like so: no running, some quality training, some quality tapering. Then race would be nothing more than a long, fun jog, a way to recalibrate my ultrarunning sensibilities. Or was that swinging the pendulum too far? Could I run 140 miles in my first attempt at 24 hours? Maybe today just wasn’t my day.

My family arrived; I unpinned my race number from my shorts and handed it to the official.

A DNF at any level is, as we know, almost silly in its inconsequential nature. It means not a thing for our normal, everyday lives. None of our friends or family really care. No one who has any true bearing on our lives will think differently of us because of it. We are talking, really, about an immaterial failure in a endeavor ninety-nine percent of the human population neither knows nor cares about. The stakes, for humanity and commerce and culture and science and education and progress and all the things that matter, are lower than low. But ultrarunning is, as we know, irrational. To fail in an irrational endeavor, at any level, for any person, represents the truest mystique of the endeavor, particularly when there is an almost prescriptive antidote against the failure. Why would any person fail when the key to success is plainly evident? The DNF is an obvious result of obviously fixable actions: when the shoes are old, buy knew ones; when the pace is too fast, slow down. But we don’t always do the obvious thing. And sometimes the obvious thing isn’t obvious when it needs to be obvious. Sometimes it won’t even work. That’s when things become really perplexing. Understanding this perplexity does not result from unambiguous if-then equations; and the person who successfully fixes things with unambiguous if-then equations cannot be an ultrarunner. Understanding requires us, instead, to burrow down into our relationship with this bizarre long distance running thing we love doing and caring about. We all do the burrowing, even if we don’t think we do. In many ways, it’s the most fun part. Cynically, we could say it’s the only part. But however meaningless and irrational ultrarunning may be, it is the opposite of cynical.

Analysis of a 100-Mile DNF, and Why We Run: Part 1

For years I’ve toyed with the idea of keeping a running blog and have continually created reasons to resist. Distance running is one of my hobbies, something from which I gain satisfaction from doing and talking about with close friends, but not something worth writing about in a public forum. What to write about? Certainly not workouts and nutrition. Even race reports seem best accomplished in brief emails and phone calls. But, over the past few days, after having started but not finished my second 100-mile race, where I’d planned to cruise to a 16:40 finish and crack open the gate latch to the lowest tier of sub-elite ultrarunners, I have found my mind continually wandering to my failure. It’s a failure that has no bearing on anything materially real in my life — my family, friends, career, health, and other hobbies remain entirely unaffected — yet unlike any previous distance-running failure, this DNF is one where I have, both shamefully and pridefully, sought solace in the Google search results for “why i dnf ultra”. Discovering Geoff Roes’s 2013 essay “Why We DNF” aids in some way. So does this post and the blog it is initiating. For insistent DNF daydreams prove the worthiness of the thoughts of meaninglessness that they engender, and that is about far more than not finishing a race.

If you want the anatomy of the DNF, read the next paragraph or so and then scroll toward the latter half of Part 2. What’s between here and there doubles as a contextualization of the DNF and an introduction to my ultra life and this blog . . .

Anyone who has ever started and not finished an ultramarathon — which encompasses, I would guess, ninety-nine percent of reasonably experienced ultramarathoners — knows that each DNF has a long story and a short story. Both stories are interesting in highly different ways. Both have a way of always getting told, at least to one person (fellow racer, spouse, friend, etc.). Few distance runners can keep their stories to themselves. Distance running is romanticized as a lonely endeavor, but it would attract only the truly insane if it did not contain crucial components of group activity. It is too mentally and physically anguishing to not be this way.

The short story of my DNF is that I was rusty coming into the race, went out too fast, and lost the will to proceed. I was content with that decision, yet I could not stop wondering why this happened, about why this happened to me on this day, and about whether or not I could have prevented this. The answers to these questions are evident, yet even when they are answered satisfactorily, they somehow still fall short of explaining why this loss of will to go on was, philosophically, different than any other time. Deeper analysis is necessary — but it’s an analysis that need be done only once. Ultimately, all DNFs can be understood, more than superficially, only from our understanding of the narrative of our personal ultrarunning career, and how that narrative interacts with the larger narrative of the ultrarunner more generally. So I anticipate future posts being much shorter.

If you read ultra blogs, or talk to ultrarunners, you will find a mix of the humble, vain, complacent, innocent, calm, maniacal, and so on and so forth. I know of no vast and convincing scientific survey that explains who ultrarunners are, but generally they strike me as normal, everyday people who, when confronted with the choice of running more than they have before, have opted in. Taken extremely literally, that is extremely obvious. But that is an important line of demarcation. All runners are presented with the opportunity to increase the distances they run. The point at which the choice is made to increase or not increase beyond a set distance of 26.2 miles is the language that defines an ultrarunner. Whether ultrarunners know it or not — and I suspect most do, or at least have an inkling — this decision to run beyond a marathon fulfills some void in their lives. But the next question is, because the void is not survival-based, why fill it? Only the slimmest subset of ultrarunners earn a sustainable livable income off the sport; the number is possibly less than 20 worldwide. And I imagine that, on the opposite end of the spectrum — the ultrarunner who runs truly just to run, to simply fill his day with an activity that happens to be ultrarunning, and for no other reason, with no motive — my guess is that that number is precisely zero. Running like that would be an insane thing to do. Finishing an ultra of any distance at any speed entails far more time and energy than my sampling of “normal, everyday” people can waste (with “waste” defined literally — as an unusable, purposeless thing, a thing without value). What I’m saying is that, viewed with a wide lens, nearly all ultrarunners occupy the same space of society. These people are not insane, but they are definitely committed to an irrational endeavor. Why?

My “career” as an ultrarunner strikes me as rather typical. Basically, I have no background in “pure” running. Growing up (in Pittsburgh), running was a requisite tool for playing sports. Sprinting drills and jogs built stamina; an hour of continuous running around a field or through city streets or park trails seemed interminable and possibly counter-productive. In high school, I was a somewhat serious soccer player, and soccer players get in shape by playing soccer. My middle two years, I joined my school’s track team, in the spring, primarily as a means of seeing if I could improve my soccer speed, even though I already considered myself usually the fastest player on the field. It helped a bit.

What most surprised me about my first attempt at continuous running was how differently speed manifested itself in a sport that requires 80 minutes of unpredictable accelerations and decelerations of up to 80 yards, always at 100 percent of effort, versus one in which you lock into a pace just below lactic threshold and hold on. I ran the 400- and 800-meter dashes and relays. I was one of a few who had PRs around 54 seconds and 2:05, respectively, with typical times around 56s and 2:11. But there was one kid, a year older than me, who had run 51s and 1:57. On the track, in an open race, I would watch helplessly as he would accelerate in front of me and stay there. No matter how hard I trained, how much I improved, I was incapable of catching him. But, before switching entirely to track and cross-country, he had played soccer, and on the soccer field I had been able to run him down, run past him, beat him to balls. I always suspected I would be faster and quicker than him on a basketball court or football field as well. But, when we ran just to run, he possessed an extra gear that was, to me, completely unrecognizable.

In college (in Indiana), I lifted weights, jogged and played racquetball, and did a fair amount of pickup and rec league football and basketball. Very fun, nothing approaching seriousness. At the end of my sophomore year, my friend from high school, who went to a different college, suggested we (plus another high school friend) train for the Chicago Marathon, in October. I told him no way, but, somehow, after he raised the idea, every casual jog felt like it ought to be a training run. I missed the competitive aspects of high school sports, and I still enjoyed random speed workouts, particularly as sprints and intervals through my picturesque campus, at night, when no one was around. Eventually, we all gave in and began following a Hal Higdon training schedule. Then we all got injured. I was the only one least injured to run the marathon (a cartilage thing in my left knee that a good physical therapist eradicated), so I ran it without my friends. I began the race very slowly, very afraid of the horrible things 26.2 miles could do to my body. Ingesting only two cups of Gatorade at each aid station, I finished in 3:49. My first thought was that I could run at least a half-hour faster. In fact, despite the impossible soreness in my quads, the chafing that would render showering unpleasant, I wanted to test myself immediately. That week, I signed up for Tecumseh Trail Marathon, in two months. I ran it cautiously and absentmindedly, taking almost no nutrition and, thinking, “This is a running race,” jogging the steep climbs, only to be passed immediately on the ensuing downhills. Yet I finished happily, with typical marathon soreness, in 4:24.

That spring, while studying in Christchurch, New Zealand, I ran the city’s half-marathon, finishing exactly at my goal of 1:40, and decided I should try for a 3:20 full marathon in Chicago. Once I broke that barrier, I would try for 3:10, which sort of seemed to be the point of all this distance running: to qualify for the hallowed Boston Marathon. But then came a semi-convoluted series of events that swept me out of that mentality and, in retrospect, served as my conduit into ultrarunning.

The time period I’m referring to is 2005. Back then, the second U.S. distance running boom was in its infant state, but neither me nor my running friends knew that. A year earlier, in 2004, we had registered for Chicago during late summer. We had registered whenever we had felt like registering. This year, the race reached capacity by May, well before I had signed up. Ultimately, I decided I would run in it as a “bandit.” I wouldn’t receive an official time, but I would test my fitness. If I ran 3:20, surely I could replicate that pace in a subsequent race. And it just so happened that the Indianapolis Marathon was six days after the Chicago Marathon (and even more convenient for me, travel-wise). So I signed up for it, too. And as I continued training for these races, it occurred to me that, even more than officially recording a good time, I liked the idea of running two marathons in six days. Who did that? It seemed the sort of challenge that no one else I knew would take on, but was within my athletic reach.

In Chicago, I ran an unofficial 3:21. I didn’t run for five days, and my legs recovered far faster than they had after last year’s marathons. The day before Indy, I jogged for twenty minutes. I was sore, with my minor joint pains, but nothing too bad. I would be able to push through any pain, right? It all sounds so easy in theory. In the race, by mile 10, my knees felt like they were going to splinter. The pain became increasingly intolerable, some of the worst I’ve ever felt, but the race officials were allowing people to officially drop to the half-marathon. I did so and finished in 1:38, which was two minutes faster than in New Zealand. A PR in the half-marathon, while terribly sore and pacing for a marathon, boded well for my future as a half- and full marathoner.

In the spring, I graduated college and moved to New York City, where I was interning for the regional version of the free sports magazine now known as Competitor, plotting my grad school options, and working a few part-time jobs. One of those jobs was at the relatively new specialty running store called JackRabbit, where the manager, a guy named Chris Bergland, happened to be a world-class endurance athlete who had won Triple Ironmans and, two years earlier, set the 24-hour treadmill record. As we became friends, he talked about running a 135-mile race in the desert, and I learned of his peculiar attitude toward ultra-endurance sports. He believed that while they are of course not meaningless, in that they have very real effects on very real people, they can be reduced, at any level, to meaninglessness, and thus should be done on a bliss-inducing level, stripped of most outwardly unironic intensity and competition. His 24-hour treadmill record of 153.76 miles (9:21 pace) — which put him in the hospital for four days — had bested the previous record, set just seven weeks earlier by the Hungarian Edit Bérces, by .16th of a mile. “It’s two blocks,” he once told me. “What does that even mean?”

Now that I was no longer living a collegiate lifestyle, my half-marathon time magically dropped, in a summer race in the Bronx, by five minutes, to 1:33. And what better place to live to enter such races than New York? The New York Road Runners club held a half-marathon series, with one race per borough, and the next was two months later, in Staten Island. My goal was 1:30; my finish was a breezy 1:27. Then, in the Manhattan race in January, on a freezing, hilly course, I ran 1:24. It wasn’t necessarily easy, but I had no reason to suspect that my next race wouldn’t involve, at the very least, a 90-second PR — a measly six seconds per mile — which would put me under 1:23 and good enough to qualify for the NYC Marathon. Now the point of this seemed not to reach Boston, with its quaint 3:10 qualifier, but to run every race as fast as possible so as to access more exclusive races.

In the spring, I ran the Brooklyn Half-Marathon, intent on breaking 1:23. But I started way too fast and stumbled to a 1:27. Afterward, as I considered the dozens of runners who’d effortlessly kept up and surpassed my dream pace of 6:20 miles, I decided that the difference between running 13.1 miles at that pace versus at a 6:26 was, for me, impossible. But if I could glide (in Staten Island) and stumble (in Brooklyn) to a 1:27 half-marathon, certainly that pace, 6:38s, was reasonable for me for a full marathon, which would equate to a sub-2:54 finish, which happened to be another qualifying tool for the NYC Marathon. I wasn’t a half-marathoner, I was a regular marathoner.

I set my target race for Chicago and began training. One night that summer, while out drinking, I decided I had to run the four miles to home. I was wearing flip-flops, but so what: I would do it barefoot. I did, and the next week scar tissue bunched up in both my Achilles’, making running impossible. I took time off, underwent successful physically therapy, and healed properly enough, but I was not in Unprecedented Marathon PR shape. It wouldn’t have mattered, anyway: that October weekend, an epic heat wave overtook Chicago. Unprepared racers fell far off their paces, and unprepared race officials ran out of supplies and canceled the race. I decided not to do anything stupid and ran a 3:30. It was an odd day.

Where I stood was here: objectively speaking, I had only slight and inconclusive evidence that I couldn’t run a sub-1:23 half-marathon or a sub-2:54 marathon. But, even if I could run those times, what would that mean? As I had met more distance runners and learned more about this world, those times, which just a few years earlier had seemed unthinkably fast, now seemed pedestrian, the sort of times any washed-up collegiate cross-country runner could post in his first race with no training. And suppose those times were manageable. What lay beyond them? I knew that, when I tried to sustain a pace of six minutes-per-mile, I became immensely fatigued after just a few miles. I was never going to run a sub-2:40 marathon; my physiology simply couldn’t handle it. The situation reminded me of the primary reason I hadn’t returned to the track team my senior year of high school: I didn’t want to endure the daily physical and mental pain wrought by intense workouts that might take me a second or two closer to the two-minute 800-meter barrier, especially when other runners so easily surpassed that barrier, and when I might not get there at all.

Having reached the limitations of how hard I was willing to work to maximize my speed at the distance-running hobbyist’s conventional long distances — but nonetheless craving the internal competition of pushing myself beyond some sort of limit — I decided that I could up the ante only by upping the race distance. As it happened, NYRR’s annual ultramarathon, the Knickerbocker, a 60K (37.2 miles) in Central Park, occurs about six weeks after the Chicago Marathon. That year, 2008, I signed up. I had no idea what running 11 miles more than a marathon might feel like, but I knew it would require some extra training, so I incorporated back-to-back Saturday-Sunday runs of 2.5 and 3.5 hours. I was fresh for the race, and ran some easy miles, and then some speedy miles, until my lack of a nutrition plan became a detriment. I had been taking only salt tablets and sipping Gatorade, and I cramped badly the last 10 miles, finishing in 5:24 (8:42 miles). I barely exercised for three weeks, and my foot hurt in a weird way. Yet, with this foray beyond the marathon distance and officially into the world of ultras, I felt as if an entirely new territory had opened up in front of me, and it was mine to explore.

If I was unsure of this, the uninspired 1:32 I ran in the next Brooklyn Half-Marathon provided the answer. With some running buddies, I signed up for, in late July, the Jay Mountain Marathon, a 33-mile trail race that commenced with a climb up Vermont’s Jay Peak. Though I did some trail running and long (eight-hour) cardio gym workouts, I trained much in the uninformed, patchwork way I had for the Knickerbocker, and I raced equally as foolishly, running as quickly as I could in the beginning, taking no gels and fully cramping down the mountain, less than a third into the race — at which point I learned that the course description wasn’t lying about the course being raging creeks and chest-high swamps and sand pits and beds of mud. I had no clue how to negotiate these obstacles; and then when a stretch of runnable terrain appeared, I was too beat to take advantage. I had thought I was in shape and hoped for a strong finish; now I despised every second of the race and wished for some easy way out. Racers passed me and passed me, each one exponentially more mentally crushing than their predecessor.

Seven miserable hours later, I felt like a pathetic middle-of-the-packer. Having been a rather decent above-average overall athlete my entire life, I had felt entitled to being a rather decent above-average ultrarunner, whatever that meant. Certainly it did not mean that men older than my father could run up and down a mountain and through the woods faster than me. Sitting on the grass, under the race tent, I removed my shoes and socks and stared at things. And in this time, what entered into my head, against all rationality, was the very clear thought that the race had actually been an incredibly enjoyable experience. Yes, it had forced me into a wholly uncomfortable physical state that had morphed into an almost tortuous mental one. These were real, pronounced feelings — I had not enjoyed a single step of the race while I was literally running it. Yet when I thought about having run it, my feelings did a complete one-eighty: suddenly the race had been the most pleasurable running experience of my life. Notice that I did not use the verb “had become.” This is an important distinction. The change in question does not regard the memory of the race in the race’s aftermath. The memory has not changed; the memory is still of a deeply painful and unenjoyable race. The change regards the actual race itself. What I am saying, in other words, is that the actual race itself truly had been deeply pleasurable and enjoyable, only my realization of this at the time the race was occurring was blocked by factors like my lack of experience and short-sightedness about and understanding of what an ultramarathon is. The positive feelings were there, but they existed on an unconscious level and could be accessed only when preceded by my conjuring of negative feelings, for how could I have continually banged my knees on creek rocks, or taken running steps with depleted leg muscles, and thought anything other than, “This is fucking awful”? So the race was simultaneously tangibly awful and ineffably pleasurable. Both feelings were experienced and thus real, but only the latter was ultimately correct.

I find this to be the realest paradox of ultrarunning, and the one that differentiates it from running distances expected to be covered at our fastest paces. It also explains the ultrarunner’s intoxication. And, furthermore, I find it unsurprising that I came to this realization — that ultrarunning is always pleasurable, even when it seems not so — as a novice ultrarunner, in a race where I finished but had every reason not to. Even more fascinating is that in this realization lies the truest root cause of my current DNF.

Note: This ends Part 1. For Part 2, click here.