Longevity in Ultrarunning


Experience From - Jay Hodde, Karl King , Rob Apple , Norm Yarger , Heidi Schutt , Scott Burgess , Dan Baglione , Laurie Staton , Al Howie , Chris Rios , Dana Roueche , Shawn McDonald , Len DeMoss , Rich Schick ,

Jay Hodde

For those who have been running ultras for several years (or more), I have a question:

What has contributed to your longevity in the sport? I guess what I am asking is this: Why do others quit running ultras while you continue to be out on the trail running them after many years?

Why ask such a question? I've noticed that since I started ultrarunning back in 1993 many names have come and gone relatively quickly, yet others have remained constant.

I know that the responses I get won't tell me why people "stop" running ultras, but I would also like to hear your opinions as to why people "drop out" of the sport. And if there are runners on the list who ran ultras but no longer participate in them (I said "if"), why don't you run ultras anymore?

Karl King

Jay asks why some of us continue running while others have dropped out.

I've seen some people quit because:

  1. They got seriously njured
  2. They got over-training syndrome too many times
  3. They took up ultras for social reasons, their social support system changed and then they moved on to other activities and friends
  4. They took it up for the challenge, met the challenge and evolved in a different direction to new challenges.
  5. They discovered that they didn't need to run long to enjoy running (especially trails)
  6. They didn't find the right blend of training and nutrition to make the sport enjoyable - it all became too much of a struggle, taking too much time and energy away from other aspects of their life. The stress of this sport can take an extreme toll on the body over time.

I've continued because:

  1. I've found training and nutritional methods that allow some success without too much strain
  2. I like the people involved in the sport - as a group, you could hardly do better.
  3. It doesn't get boring - every ultra is a challenge and a chance to learn.
  4. It gives me a chance to travel and see places I'd never see if I didn't run ultras (like the summit of Hope Pass, for example).

Rob Apple

This is an interesting question with both mental and physical considerations. I started in 1982 at the age of 21. I just completed my 217th ultra this weekend with my sexy wife, Pam. Because I have been running for so long, at times I do feel ancient. I know most of the people running today can't remember when I was fast and did win a race from time to time, but having ran both up front and trail sweep I'll write my observations.

  1. Physical Considerations
    Most ultrarunners in the beginning of their career are near the peak of their running years. They have probably reached PRs in the shorter distances and realizing this are seeking new challenges. I remember ten years ago I was much better trained physically than today. As an ultrarunner reaches their PR for 50, 62, and 100 miles, the work necessary to improve seems like a great investment without much in return. As the finishes mount up the desire to train decreases and finally at some point the lack of training leads to poor performances and chornic injuries. The injuries and lack of improvement leads to the retirement of the ultrarunner. For some this could be a year for others a decade. I feel my longevity has been my love to train. I still run 80 to 110 miles per week, but recently the pace is more like 10 minutes per mile rather than 6. Since I've been in decent shape over the past 15 years, I've still been able to "complete" races and not be destroyed physically. I've been xtremely lucky with no major injuries.

  2. Mental Considerations
    I'll start again with the disclaimer of "most" ultrarunners are complusive subjects. When one completes their first ultra, the drug addiction for the complusive runner begins. I just finished 50 miles, next I'll do 100 miles, then 24 hours and six days, in six months I'll be running across the country. Most addicts at some point reach their fill and move on to another drug. The moving on happens when the expected "high" doesn't happen anymore. It just is'nt fun, I don't want to be here, I can't believe I'm doing this again are the commments the retiring ultrarunner repeats until the final race. I went through this stage about five years into my career. I was doing races with unrealistic visions. I was able to convince myself running slow was okay and just finishing still feels good. Don't misunderstand me, I still have little twitches to run fast, but they get fewer as time goes by. Most retirees can't mentally watch the pack run away. I have fun running ultras and it's up to me to make the party happen!

Norm Yarger

I took up running almost 20 years ago, some time after turning 40. The first couple of years were not serious. I ran one 5k the first year and one 10k the next. Then I started to get hooked and ran my first marathon in 1983. I ran my second marathon about 4 weeks later and limped in from the turn-around. But being naturally stupid, I ran my next one the next year. But it wasn't until 1990 that I got into ultras.

Some time in late 1989 I saw an article about the Dukes Club in Milwaukee. Gary Hauser was mentioned by name, so I contacted him and he sent me a copy of ultrarunner. The next spring I started training and attempted Ice Age 50 mile. I was a DNF at 25 miles, cold, wet, and almost unable to unlock my own car. I changed clothes, got some lunch, and went back to the trail head. A little later I went over to the finish line, umbrella in hand, and watched the first finishers. I saw the buckle and decided that I had to have one too. The next year I did.

But in between I sprained my ankle half way through the Glacial Trail 50k, but finished -- still stooopid. But I have always loved hiking and camping. Just being out on the trails. And my ultrarunning combines the best of all worlds along with a sense of accomplishment when I overcome a new goal. Finishing with a broken hand (Glacial Trail 100k) or a sprained ankle has shown me that I can keep on going in the face of adversity.

So out there I meet someone really important to me, ME. And I am still learning more about ME, so I don't want to quit yet.

Another reason, YOU. I have never associated with such a fine group of people. Whenever I go to an ultra, I know I'm among friends. If I were to go to an out-of-state 10k, would I end up with as nice a "date" as Lady G afterwards? I doubt it. (And if I went out with a young lady after a 10k, my wife would shoot me, ultrarunners are a different story.)

Of course I also have a long term goal of running an ultra on my 100th birthday on Sunday, April 10, 2039. And only 40 years to train for that one.

Heidi Schutt

Ron Apple wrote:

"I was able to convince myself running slow was okayand just finishing still feels good. Don't misunderstand me, I still have little twitches to run fast, but they get fewer as time goes by. Most retirees can't mentally watch the pack run away. I have fun running ultras and it's up to me to make the party happen!"

This is so true! If one can just enjoy the moment (or the hours) spent in doing an ultra, even if they have become slower, it can still be a great experience. I remember the "sweet" feeling of running a fast half marathon - the first 6 miles were at a 6:30 pace and the overall event was done in under 7 min miles - I was on a high for months after the event - I had never run that fast in my life - I don't know what happened, except that I had been training harder than I had ever trained in my life and I just didn't know how fast my training was until I did the half marathon. But a couple of years after that I slowed down, couldn't do the training, I contribute the slow down to being a woman and hormonal changes. It has taken several years to change my thinking and attitude, so when people ask me if I have a goal - I tell them I have an escape, and adventure planned - but no goal! I have trained my mind that it is ok to go out slow and continue at a slow pace and just enjoy the moment. This mind change does take a lot of work, but it beats being lazy and becoming a couch potatoe! And, yes, in the back of my mind, I hope to some day come out of this phase - but if I don't, I will have enjoyed many trails and ultras along the way!

Scott Burgess

Karl King wrote:

"I've continued because: ...4) It gives me a chance to travel and see places I'd never see if I didn't run ultras ( like the summit of Hope Pass, for example )."

On a more mundane level (400' instead of 14,000') than that of Hope Pass, I have often commented (to those few that would listen) on the "travel" aspect of ultrarunning, even ultratraining. It seems that running often provides an "excuse" for visiting places you and crew never would have otherwise.

My wife and I have recently moved to a strange new country. If it wasn't for ultratraining, we *never* would have gone to Hertford, Warwick or Long Buckby (accurately described as "in the middle of nowhere") ... we would have somewhat disconsolately wandered around the tourist sites of London and wondered where to go next... we would have suffered from that feeling "we've seen what we're supposed to see, what do we do now?" and in doing so would have missed out on the "Real England."

Jon "on-Thames" Moore inspired me to do a little known waterway for 26M this Sat; again, my wife met me at the end and we shared the rich incongruity of watching an England football match in a faux-American bar in a semi-rural canal town. Had it not been for the "travel" component of ultras and ultra-training, we would no doubt have been putting back pints (and putting on weight) at the becoming-rather-boring local pub.

Next weekend ... on to Leighton-Buzzard (I kid you not!) for further exploration of the Grand Union Canal in preparation for a big 145-miler scheduled for May 29.

Ultrarunning and ultra-training make otherwise unconceived-of travel plans a necessity, and in so doing, enrich the lives of both runner and crew.

Dan Baglione

I started running ultras 20 years ago. Unlike Rob Apple, I was 48 at the time and well past my physical prime. I am more like John Davis than Ray Piva. While I still have cartilage separating the bones in my knees, I have other physical limitations which limit my ability to train at the level required to complete many ultras. I am unable to recover quickly enough to train at that level. This is already forcing me to do fewer ultras than I once did and may eventually prevent me from doing any ultras. There are others older than I who have reached this point.

In my later years I tend more to the timed events since they have no cutoffs to be met. My ability to meet cutoffs on the more difficult, more challenging, and more interesting events is gone. I would love to try Hardrock again, but why start when I will probably miss a cutoff in the first 28 miles.

I have not given up. I may still try Massanutten (Hardrock without altitude and exposure) again simply because I like the course and the attitude that exists among volunteers and runners alike at that race. I like Hardrock and Leadville for similar reasons.

Those of us who are slowly being forced out of ultras by the deleterious effects of age will still be physically active outdoors. We will still run, shuffle, walk, or something. We do these things for the sheer joy of it. When we can no longer do ultras we may spend more time volunteering at ultras in some capacity. It is ironic that I, the King of Cutoffs, am now on the team that enforces the cutoffs at Leadville.

Laurie Staton

I've been running ultras for 19 years, beginning with the one-time only Flight of the Eagle 40-miler (in August of 1980), on the first sections of the Wasatch course) and six days' lead-time. I had preregistered for a Bonne Bell 10K (remember those??) for that Saturday, but had fallen into "evil companionship" with some adventurous souls in the meantime. This sounded like "much" more fun, not to mention the fact that I figured that I could forego another *lousy* 10K time. Three weeks later, I ran my first Wasatch.

What has kept me running ultras?

  1. My husband, Ian Rothfels, is my best friend and running buddy. We dream up running misadventures and assign ourselves with the mandatary task of reconnaissance.
  2. I (still) enjoy running. Short runs, long runs, trail runs, pavement runs (short only!!), treadmill runs. More running is more fun.
  3. I like being outside all day long and all night, if at all possible.
  4. I like exploring new places and revisiting familiar places.
  5. My own curiosity and generally wondering about a lot of stuff. What would I find if I went (way) over there next time? What if I tried eating and/or drinking this next time? Hmmm...
  6. The people I've met through running ultras have become and stayed my life-long friends.

Al Howie

Laurie wrote:

"I've been running ultras for 19 years, beginning with the one-time only Flight of the Eagle 40-miler (in August of 1980)..."
I also ran my first ultra in the summer of 1980; two months after my first marathon (race of any distance) in May '80 when 34 years of age. I'll never know if I'd still be so committed, or even still be involved in the sport if 'ultrarunning' hadn't turned out to be what I'm good at. However I am certain that the only reason I can still run so far relatively fast three years into my second half century is because of all the years of near obsessive training.

To entangle threads a little .... my viewpoint is that, unlike man made machines whose effective lifespan is inversely proportional to the amount they are used, the more the human body (machine) is used the longer and better it will run. (Contingent on adequate rest [sleep] of course!!)

Chris Rios

You guys and gals have some great replies on this longevity post. I sure don't know why I'm still running Ultra's. I started running in 1977 or 19978, I think. Soon started running lots of Marathons.

Ran my first Ultra in 1981, I think ,the Skyline 50k, proceeded to DNF'd. Went back in 1982, finished, felt pretty good and decided I would run AR. Well I started in AR in 1983 and DNF'd again. Ran an Ultra in Ridgecrest (moved there) in 1985 and finished. Went back to AR in 1986, finished and haven't look back since. I have started Angles Crest 100, 3 times, DNF'd, Vermont once, DNF'd and Western States last year and DNF'd. That's not going me because I will be at the start line of Leadville this year. I have ran over 100 Marathons and have at least 50 Ultras under my belt. I will continue to run Ultra's until the good lord says it time to stop.

There's a lot of things to love about running. As for me, I'm a Race Director, I've RD'd 5k's/10k's. a 1/2 Marathon, full Marathon and 50K's. I'm the President of our Running Club, Over The Hill Track Club, for 4 years. I still run 5k's, 10k's, 1/2's, Marathon's and Ultra's. What can I say, I'm glad that running has brought me to the Ultra running scene.

Dana Roueche

Many great responses so far regarding longevity. I've been running for 27 years, ultras for the past 7. Like Rob, the biggest thing that keeps me going is the fact that I like to train. I have found that over the years, my interest in racing is somewhat cyclical. There are years that I'm really into improving so I push hard and race hard. After several seasons of that, I grow physically and mentally tired of pushing so I back off and enjoy the ride. Soon I'll get restless and start pushing again. I look at it as very long term periodization where a cycle may last 4 or 5 yrs.

Because this type of cycle is so long, some may not want to hang with a down cycle so they end up dropping from the sport. It is important to understand that long term cycles exist, for those who love the sport regardless of their race performance, they come to find this out with time. Ultimately, we will all slow down with age, the down cycles may get longer, but so what, as long as we enjoy being out there, that's all that matters.

I think what Dan Baglione does at Leadville, enforcing the cutoffs, is just fantastic. Dan may not be fast enough to run the race anymore, but he is still very much a part of the event. He shares the experience with those who are struggling to finish, some make it, some don't. There certainly is a lot of emotion, passion and intensity at the back of Leadville. I have seen Dan a couple times at the last cutoff and I must have looked like I saw the bogeyman because he reassured me that I had plenty of time to finish and told me to get the heck out of there. I'm sure Dan has spent more time at Leadville helping people finish than enforcing cutoffs.

It's people like Dan that keep me interested in returning to these races. Although, I never want to see him during the race, at the awards ceremony will be just fine with me.

Shawn McDonald

Thanks to all so far for the interesting responses to Jay's questions about why do people stop running ultras, and how do they keep going. Personally, I think the most likely reasons I would stop would be if I got an injury that I could no long run long distances (in training) or if I did not have the time to get in training (due to many hours at work, or a family/marriage). I would still run in the later case, and probably go back to running shorter road and track races. I can train for those in just a few hours a week, and without access to trails. Plus it would be fun to see what I could do a few years down the road as a masters runner on the track, compared to my 20's. If I got an injury where I could not run, I would most likely get into long distance cycling. That might involve racing, and probably some touring trips. If I could not tolerate long distance running but could do some running, maybe I would get back into triathloning.

So far there have been plenty of challenges in ultrarunning for me, and many more are out there. I try to roughly plan out each year with the goal of racing a few events well, and not racing that often, and also taking a break (of a few weeks) sometime during the year to rest and heal any aches. During the rest time I run about 1/3-1/2 of my normal training period mileage, and don't do any speed running. Usually I do this over the Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season. Another key to staying with ultras is that I have lived in places with a strong ultra/trail running community. San Diego is a great place in terms of training partners and a variety of places to train. Maybe some runners get bored with doing the same events and training routes and move onto other sports ? We have had a few runners here in San Diego, who don't run ultras anymore. Most of them still run, but put less time into training and racing. The most likely triggers for making that decision were getting married or starting a family, or a change in job situation. It is likely that if I were to get married or start a family, I would not run ultras (or less frequently), but I would still stay in touch with ultrarunners and help out at races, and probably continue to direct one ultra race per year. I like the people too much to stay away from the sport.

I guess this thread ties in with the emails about "where are they now" that were on the list a few months ago. What were the most popular reasons given by those folks as to why the don't run ultras anymore?

Len DeMoss

I'm in agreement with Rob. I've been running ultras now for about 9 years, my first having been the Ky. 50 miler on a "whim" with a buddy and we both finished in under 9:30, all the while, he telling me, hey we can qualify for W/S if we run under 9:30. I thought he was nuts! I'd run over a 100 marathons at the time, my best around 3:05 and loved doing training for marathons. The thrill of finishing a fast marathon or 1/2 marathon, to me was exhilarating.

Then disaster struck in Jan., 93 after finishing Ky. 50 in Dec. I experienced severe knee pain which culminated in going under the scope that April (after doing AR50 that first week in April). The doctor told me when I woke up..."it was God awful in there" and proceeded to show me the crabmeat look of my cartiledge under the kneecap. He had to shave it back to smooth it down. Upon my waking up, he told me I should think of becoming a "recreational" runner, and do runs on the weekend. But his idea, and my idea of running on weekends really didn't coincide. It took me a full two years of rehab, endless hours of doing exercises with surgical rubber bands, weight work, water running, et. al before I was able to do another ultra event. I ran Pikes Peak Marathon that Aug. 95 as my return, and it was a very emotional event. I resolved then, that I would run till I drop. Then my best friend I ever had, an ultra runner that I introduced to the sport and traveled with all over the country in our "youth" doing marathons, died of brain cancer. The last time I saw him in May, 97, 5 days before he died, his final words to me were run long, my friend. I've never forgotten him or those words.

There have been many times over the past several years, where I've need a brief respite from ultrarunning. But then it's like someone is calling me back. I too love the training. We did an 18 mile trail run this past Sat. that bordered on nirvana; totally effortless on a beautiful sunny cool morning. Those are the days I live for...

Why do I continue to run ultras?? 1. Because I can't run fast anymore 2. I figure if I'm going to hurt running a marathon in under 4 hrs., I may as well run 50 since I dont' hurt nearly as much. 3. I can eat all I want and not have to really worry about my weight. 4. Because I can and most people can't.

But the main reason is perhaps the most valid reason to me...because when I'm running an ultra and starting to suffer, I think back of my best friend and realize that I don't even know what suffering really is. And I can feel his spirit beside me...

Rich Schick

I'm a 20+ yr. and 200+ ultra guy who often laments how many people come and go in the sport. One reason for attrition not mentioned so far are the really fast guys who hang it up when they slow down or a new phenom comes along and relegates them to an also ran status.

I have hung around so long because I enjoy both the races and training. I have run most every venue and done fairly well. An early goal I set was to win a race on the road, track and trail so I could claim to be a well rounded ultra runner. I accomplished this, and haven't run a track race since! I don't enjoy them. I also admit to being a wimp - I don't do 100 milers any more - I don't like going without sleep. I stick to 100K and shorter races for the most part because I enjoy them.

My point is that you have to enjoy a thing to keep at it. Pavlov proved that even a dog is bright enough to quit an activity that is consistently unpleasant. I do not train in a manner that ever makes me dread a training run nor will I enter a race that I would dread doing. When in a race I use a kind of sliding scale to determine how uncomfortable I am willing to get. If I'm in contention for an award or having a particularly good performance I may suck it up and push to the point of "this definitely ain't fun anymore." This is on the theory that the ego massage of what I accomplish will make the overall experience a rewarding one. On the other hand if I'm having an average or below day I'll modulate the old pace to stay well within my comfort zone and let finish place and time be damned.

We all age and we all slow down, this is no reason to quit. Injuries and loss of health can force one into a retirement from ultras, but for the most part the majority of those who quit running ultras because for them it is no longer fun. While this is only a reasonable decision for a given individual, I think it could often be avoided. If runners would closely examine what makes ultras enjoyable for them and structure their running to enhance those aspects while learning to avoid or minimize the less appealing aspects we might lose far fewer from the sport.