If marathons exist for people to prove that they’re intrinsically better than you, ultramarathons exist to shame you for drawing the same air as their participants. And Australia’s Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon is the pinnacle. The event consisted of a 544-mile run – we’d give up on driving that – across brutal and unforgiving territory. So imagine everyone’s surprise back in 1983, when a 61-year-old potato farmer named Cliff Young lined up right alongside the strapping young gods and goddesses that normally go in for this sort of thing. Literally toothless, dressed in gumboots and long trousers, he ran in a weird old-man shuffle. Cliff further revealed that he was a virgin who still lived with his mom – as though that needed elaborating.
By the end of day two, Cliff was not only markedly less dead than everyone expected, but had a sizeable lead on his competitors. This was largely due to his coach/insane friend Wally Zeuschner who, after an exhausting first day of running, accidentally set Cliff’s alarm clock for 2AM. For the remainder of the race, Wally was right there, informing Cliff that sleep was for pussies, and hacking off foot blisters with a rabbit knife. When Cliff shuffled his way into Melbourne, he wasn’t just ahead of his competitors – he was miles and miles ahead, having knocked a good two goddamned days off the previous record for the course.
Running great distances is mostly done with your head…and with your heart. The human body is capable of amazing physical deeds. If we could just free ourselves from our perceived limitations and tap into our internal fire, the possibilities are endless!
Today I’m emerging from the little cocoon I’ve been hiding in. Sometimes we have to take a little break to process the big things in life. I’ve missed a couple of races and had a birthday since last week, but today I feel good. After a few espressos I’m heading to the gym!
Cheers to life and being grateful for it.
Happy Monday ✌🏼
My art teacher pointed out that humans are essentially running machines, especially with our ability to sweat. He then proceeded to tell us about ultra marathons, which can span from around 50-150 miles. He pointed out the "world's toughest foot race" the Badwater Ultramarathon. It runs through Death Valley in mid July. 135 miles. The cumulative elevation is 13,000 feet. It's so hot people try to run on the paint lines in the middle of the road so their shoes don't melt. How would aliens react?
Probably the same way I, a very human person, react:
Running ultras has changed my outlook on life in a lot of ways. When you transform from a sedentary lifestyle and the inability to even run a mile on a treadmill to going 50+ miles on foot through the mountains, you remove the concept of “impossibility” from your thinking. When I first moved to San Diego 9 years ago, a half mathon was impossible. Then a full marathon was impossible. Then 50 miles was impossible. Now I have a dozen ultra-marathons under my belt and I’m a month away from trying 66 linear miles and 2 vertical miles of climbing at 8000-12000 feet in the colorado mountains. And while the numbers still seem crazy, nothing about it seems remotely impossible.
This new outlook applies in a lot of areas. When I was cripplingly afraid of heights a couple of months ago, I still felt pretty confident that I could work my way through it (and I did). When I was doing parkour last winter, I was confident that with a little bit of practice I could do flips - something that I’d never come close to doing in my life (I did). And while I don’t really have time for it, I have no doubt that with some work I could learn to play an instrument, speak a foreign language, or just about anything else. Maybe not at an elite level. But if I really wanted to climb Yosemite someday and wanted to devote the effort to training for it, I could do it.
Along with this is knowing that failure is required to get better. I spent most of my young life afraid to try new things in front of other people because I didn’t want to fail in public. I never once was on an organized team of any sort in school because I didn’t want to fail and let down my team. I sat out of baseball in PE because the thought of striking out was too much. I still struggle with trying something completely new in front of a crowd. But I’m forcing myself to do it. Both because I know that it takes effort to succeed at anything worth doing and because I want to set an example for my kids. I sometimes feel like I wasted a big portion of my life taking the easy route (and playing too many video games). I really want to see what my kids are capable of if they’re fearless and know that hard work can get them anywhere that they want to go.
I don’t even have time to get into the concept of what running ultras does for your pain tolerance and the ability to keep pushing when you’re uncomfortable and deflated.
I’ve had a lot of people ask me why I subject myself to that kind of punishment. And I’ve never really had a profound answer (other than I like being outside, I like the level of fitness require for ultra endurance sports, etc). But the psychological impact is huge and lasting and a real benefit to everyday life.
Ultra Marathon number 3 of the year took me south west,
beyond Fort Augustus and along the magnificent A87 passing the pleasingly
pointy five sisters of Kintail to Glenelg, a wee town on the edge of the
Scottish mainland and the start of the Lochalsh Dirty 30.
It’s confession time dear readers, I saw that the course
record for this 30 mile circuit was just under four hours. I read a report from
a hiker who had completed the report which informed me there was “a few
thousand feet of climb” over the route. 2000 feet of elevation over thirty
miles…in under four hours? I could kill this…I could actually win this!? Whilst
I have approached every other Ultra with a combination of humility and dread, I
was complacent about this race. The shortest distance of the 5 Ultra’s I’ve
chosen for this year and one that doesn’t attract a lot of big names in Ultra
running…should be easy.
I am a moron.
The Lochalsh Dirty 30 was insanely difficult. Significantly
tougher than the John Muir Way earlier in the year, and with more technical
difficulty than the Highland Fling. I was humbled by the Dirty 30 and will
never be complacent about an Ultra Marathon ever again.
I should point out that the Dirty 30 is a ‘Challenge’ rather
than a race…you can opt to run it or hike it and there were a combination of
runners and hikers at the start line. There were some VERY fit people at that
start line. After a very funny race briefing, we set off from Glenelg on
tarmac. Lovely, smooth, flat tarmac along the banks of Loch Alsh itself,
mountains loom on either side of us, but I fly along, far too quickly for me,
I’m actually up with the top pack, banging out a mile every 7 and a half
minutes. I’ve fallen the sirens call of the flat tarmac, so it came as shock
when we turned off the road at about the 2.5 mile mark and hit trails.
It rained pretty much all of last week, and the rain water
was draining from the mountains, often the trails are the route of least
resistance so the paths become rivers and swamps. In one section we battled
through a pine forest, the trail was non-existent and we waded knee deep
through the mud until the forest spat us out on a hillside that wound its way
upwards for around 500ft before returning us to see level and tarmac at about
the mile 10 mark.
With the famous Eiliean Donan Castle visible across the
loch, I spun my tired legs back up to a half decent pace on the tarmac and
spent the next six miles looking at the mountains that towered around me. The
road was flat and I refueled on Jelly babies and water at the Letterfearn rest
stop before continuing down to Shiel Bridge. At mile sixteen the road ended and
the trail returned, twisting and climbing upwards, with every few feet of
climb, the trail become less recognizable, wetter and steeper.
In a little less than two miles, over broken ground, the
dirty thirty climbs from sea level to 1500 ft. It is one of the toughest climbs
in a race that I have ever encountered. The Devils Staircase during the Glencoe
Marathon took us higher, but over a longer distance. As my watched beeped to
celebrate mile 17, I looked up to see another mile of almost sheer hillside
before me, I honestly considered pulling out. My ankles and calves have never
been so sore, the fast start, the bog, the merciless climb…each hurt in a
different unique way.
But somehow, I kept going. I got to the top and marveled at
view. I can remember the top of the devils staircase and the headlong descent
on good trails down to Kinlochleven during the Glencoe Marathon. Sadly this
downhill was not so much fun, the trail was just broken rocks and heather,
making speed impossible. Legs rendered useless by the climb couldn’t muster
much speed anyway. I ran out of water at some point on the descent and risked a
refill from one of the many mountain streams.
Eventually it levelled out and the trail improved. For great
chunks of this race I was alone, perhaps a few runners on the horizon in front
and behind me. At around mile 23 that all changed, I was joined by Shirley a
runner from Forres, very close to my home town of Nairn and we exchanged
stories and cheered each other along for the next five miles. It was fantastic
and she really raised my spirits for the final push.
I finished the Dirty 30 in six hours and eighteen minutes..
It was far from my best effort, but a brilliant lesson in humility. It’s a
great race…with only water and the occasional jelly baby up for grabs at the feed
stations, so make sure you’ve bought plenty of food. But aside from the limited
menu, it’s a little gem in the running calendar and I may well be back next
The Australian ex-model Turia Pitt suffered burns to 65 percent of her body, lost her fingers and thumb on her right hand and spent five months in hospital after she was trapped by a grassfire in a 100 kilometre ultra-marathon in the Kimberley. Her boyfriend decided to quit his job to care for her recovery. Days ago, in an interview for CNN they asked him:
“Did you at any moment think about leaving her and hiring someone to take care of her and moving on with your life?”
His reply touched the world:
“I married her soul, her character, and she’s the only woman that will continue to fulfill my dreams.”