The Ultra-running Tribe
As our waist sizes increase and our rear-ends flatten under the weight of a sedentary body, you’d think that the existence of endurance/ultra sports would be threatened. Apparently, sitting like a lump on a log is only a fraction of the story and demands further scrutiny. It is true that most Americans do not participate in endurance sports, however, it is also valid that most endurance athletes spend the bulk of their time on their posterior. Long-distance running and especially ultra-running puts an immense strain on all of the body’s systems. It places a significant stress on the muscles, cardiovascular system, and more importantly (and often discounted), adrenal system. The adrenal system is comprised of endocrine glands that are primarily responsible for releasing hormones in response to stress and affects blood plasma. If this system is over-stimulated you will suffer from an accumulation of cortisol (stress hormone) and feel lethargic, have reduced immune function, delayed recovery/healing, insomnia, depression…the list goes on. To avoid the potential harm from something that gives us so much pleasure and so many health benefits, it is of supreme consequence that you allow yourself to be lazy. Yes, lazy. If you run 40-80-mile weeks, you should feel comfortable in reclining and respect the recovery process. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ever get up, in fact standing for 2-minutes for every 20-minutes of sitting can aid in keeping your metabolism raring. Athletic laziness means ignoring the insidious statements our society expounds: always be busy, don’t be idle, lead cumbersome lives filled with anxiety just so you have a sense of accomplishment and feel productive. These ideas should be refashioned into something far more balanced and relative. For runners and non-athletic people alike, we should get outside and move, eat a balanced diet, eradicate stress by engaging in positive personal relationships and activities which deliver the most delight, and then follow it all up by a nice night of uninterrupted sleep. Easier said than done as most of us have jobs that get in the way, but weeding out the pressure of “doing” can make you feel more at ease.
This brings up a broader issue of stress and exercise. Runners who cover more than 40 or 50 miles a week are known to have suppressed reproductive systems: men have lower testosterone in their circulation and less functional sperm, half of women have menstrual irregularities. This information indicates that excessive amounts of exercise aren’t necessarily extremely good for you. We know that frequent exercising improves your health a lot, but at some point, too much exercise will begin to damage various physiological systems. How much is too much? Is it a definitive 40+ miles per week? Is it the same for every person? Everything in physiology follows the rule that excess can be as harmful as too little. An example of this optimal stress balance law is clear when you consider that moderate amounts of exercise increase bone mass, while thirty-year old athletes who run 40-50 miles per week can wind up with decalcified bones, decreased bone mass, stress fractures and scoliosis–thirty-year-old athletes with a skeleton that rivals that of a seventy-year-old. This should be sobering for ultra-runners and they should schedule as much stress-reducing activities into their lives as possible. Because of the inherently stressful nature of the sport, it is auspicious that in the trail running community there are so many involved and supportive members. The community becomes a family and this social support is a tremendous alleviation for stress, in fact social networking and being around others with whom you have something in common is one of the best remedies for anxiety. You spend hours out on a trail, mostly by yourself, with some very stressful conditions and an allostatic load that is rapidly accumulating as your body pounds the earth repeatedly by choice. The choice to run so far is part of what enables you to do it. It is the success of finishing a race, the spiritually transcendent feeling it gives you, and the camaraderie involved that are hefty elements in the enjoyment of ultras. If you didn’t want to do it, your stress would be even higher.
What is interesting here is that though, on average, we are more sedentary than ever before, people are running farther than ever before. Ultra-running has risen steadily in popularity over the last 30 years, and the extraordinary tales from the trails are motivating people to venture into marathons and 50ks when they’d only ever before run for a half hour. Why are we so thrilled with something that is so stressful, let alone painful? There seems to be a certain personality diagnosis or syndrome that can be applied to the ultra-runner. The shared characteristics are neither good nor bad, just conducive to the runner’s performance. It takes an assembly of very different people to construct a connected/practical/functioning world, and some of us have the genes that predispose us to greatness, be it sports, writing, engineering, mathematics, or art. However, simply being predisposed does not mandate success. A genetic phenotype is not solely biological, it is influenced by environment and psychology. Red-heads have a higher pain threshold than people with other hair color, but that doesn’t mean they won’t ask for an epidural during labor–it simply suggests that most of them won’t. Ultra-runners are unique people to say the least. They are usually successful, intelligent, tenacious and independent. It comes as no surprise that they also possess a higher pain threshold than most other people, and though there is such a companionable bond between runners, they tend to be more sovereign and self-interested. It is possible then that ultra-running lures people with a predisposition to these traits, and in turn, contributes to success in the sport. Decreased sensitivity or awareness of pain has been associated with diminished emotional reactivity which conjures up ideas of your average sociopath…well, running this far requires a bit of psychasthenia. I am not making claims that all ultra-marathoners have some impaired moral compass or are in need of therapy (for most, running is therapy and it greatly enhances their lives), I am evaluating the qualities that are necessary for an individual to have the desire to and enjoy such a stressful endeavor.
Whether these features are written in their DNA or are a psychological construct based on experience is inconsequential. One hundred mile races, Ironman events, Fastest-Known-Time trail trots, and any ultra-endurance sport is an exhibition of human flexibility adaptability, unyielding spirit, strength, and something far more extraordinary: the mission to shatter norms and resist limitations–exclusively human features that allow for a journey that is always evolving, never complete, and eternally harnesses more and more personal returns as well as cementing a tribe…the ultra-running tribe.
Writer and trail runner