The Ultra Tripod: 3 things you need to finish an ultra

“I called it quits today just past the halfway mark after some 30 miles. I’ve never been more at peace with a tough decision. And I’m so proud of Marna, Heidi, and Sarah, who are out there along the coast right now, finishing the second half. I’ll welcome them back sometime tomorrow with joy!

That was my post at 9 p.m. Friday, 30+ very slow miles and 19 hours after my friends and I started out for a single-push go at the 58-mile Olympic Coast route. (My friends finished on Saturday, 38 hours—including a few hours of rest breaks while waiting for high tide to recede 2 miles before the finish—after we started.)

Enjoying a relaxing moment on the Olympic Coast route

Of the three events I’ve gone for this year—Badger Mountain 50 miler, Twilight Overnight, and this route—I’ve only completed Badger.

Sunset from Candy Mountain on the Badger Mountain Challenge 50 miler

It’s not clear to me what’s up, but it certainly isn’t the events or the routes or the weather conditions. At Twilight, I was too cold. But everyone was out there in the same conditions. On the Olympic Coast, I was hurting. But so were my friends, and they finished.

On the Olympic Coast, somewhere between Shi Shi and Rialto beaches

This got me thinking about what makes finishing an ultra possible. It seems like there’s an “ultra tripod” and if one of the legs is just a little shorter than the others, the damn thing just topples over.

  1. Physical Fitness. This one seems obvious: You do have to have a certain level of physical fitness and a generally injury-free body to complete an ultra. But, when it comes to fitness, I wonder how much the actual physical aspect of training my body helps compared with the mental training of my mind to stick to a plan, to push through fatigue and soreness, to keep going.

    Very few people can hop up from a couch and run/hike/walk for 12 hours or for 50 miles. However, it’s surprising what you can do without the optimal level of fitness. It will probably take longer than it would if you are fitter and it really depends on how deep you’re willing to go into the pain cave to get it done—and you can do that when you have mental fitness.

  2. Mental Fitness. When I’ve been successful, it’s been because I’ve had a game plan and an end goal that I could visualize following and getting to. I knew my route, I had an eating plan, I knew what clothes to wear and carry. But, more than anything, I knew where I was going.

    When you can stay focused on your plan, the fatigue and/or pain and/or tummy issues and/or external conditions like rain/heat/sand/rocks exist … but they’re not at the forefront of your mind. Relentless forward progress is. it’s taking you to the next milestone and the next, each one taking you to the end—to whatever finish line you’re looking for.

  3. Desire. Many pursuits that take you to the edge of your endurance are referred to jokingly as Type 2 fun. The kind of fun that’s only fun after the pain has worn off and you’re warm and comfortable again, and you forget all the bad parts and all you remember is the adventure, the accomplishment, the journey. What gets you through Type 2 fun is desire: you gotta want to be doing what you’re doing, you gotta want that belt buckle or medal or patch or personal satisfaction.

    Ultimately, if you don’t really want it, you don’t have that desire burning inside you, no level of physical and mental fitness will get you through it.

My tripod’s been tipping over too often lately.

Some of it is physical fitness. I haven’t been training as much because I’ve been focusing more and more on my girls as their activities are picking up. My favorite battle ropes class has been cancelled, so I’m not getting to the gym as much as I used to. And there’s kind of a snowball effect … I work out a little less, I eat a little bit more, and, well, you can guess where that’s headed.

Some of it is mental fitness. I’ve been stressed trying to do everything at home and still work and still parent and still train. So things have been feeling thrown together when I get out there. I don’t have plan, I haven’t mentally prepared for what I’ll be doing. So when things get tough, my mind spins. And instead of being able to see each milestone ahead of me, I get mired in the immediate: I feel the pain, I feel the fatigue, and they take over.

And some of it is desire. I’m not sure what I want or why I’m doing it. What are my priorities? Should I spend my weekends training, or should I spend them with my daughters? They’re turning 10 in a couple of months, and I feel like pretty soon they’re not going to want to spend time with me the way they do now. Should I spend more time with Mike, who’s so wonderfully supportive of my running? I miss our adventures scrambling and climbing throughout the Cascades together.

Spent a weekend in Leavenworth with my family—had only a little time for training but dang it was so fun to take the girls out on “real rock” for the first time

Here are some things I do have figured out:

  • I love the mountains. There are very few places I’d rather be than in the mountains with trees and towering peaks and the sense of power that lives there. In whatever form I’m there—as a runner, hiker, backpacker, mountain biker, climber—the mountains are my happy place.
  • Hard adventures need to be my dreams, not the dreams of others. They’re certainly better when they’re shared, but whether I do a challenging outing on my own or with a group, I have to want it for myself for it to be fun and rewarding and something where the three legs of the tripod are in balance.
  • I love pushing my body and mind to their limits. The feelings of personal empowerment, of strength, of confidence in myself. I like to do hard things. I like to sweat and get dirty. I don’t mind short, dirty fingernails, or getting smelly, or having funny tan lines. I don’t mind getting scrapes and bruises, as long as I earn them.
  • I am a person who needs some downtime. I don’t talk about it a lot but I do struggle with depression and anxiety attacks. I take medicine for it. Exercise is immensely helpful too. But when I push continuously on all fronts, the tripod falls over.
  • I love adventures with Mike. I love adventures with my cherished friends. I want to do it all! I can’t do it all if I don’t create time to do it right, which seems like a paradox. But I’ve figured it out before and “just” need to do that again.

The next big adventure is planned for the end of July. I still don’t know how to resolve the conflict of family vs. adventure. But, this is one I’ve wanted to do for a while. The desire is already there! This time of reflection is helping me to create the focus I need. I’ll be working on the physical and mental fitness so when I get out there, I’ll be back to embracing the “fun” in type 2 fun!

5 thoughts on “The Ultra Tripod: 3 things you need to finish an ultra

  1. Your blog has been very helpful to me, I can so relate to this post.Hope to see you on the trails.

    Thanks for sharing, life the pictures’


  2. Great post. I think this might be my last year of running ultras. I will still be on the trails, though! I just have lost the need or desire to run for so many hours, and train for it. Good luck in your next race!


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