Satisfaction In The Suffering: In Ultramarathon Running, We Get By With A Little Help From Our Friends

Twisted as it may sound, that intersection where pain, delirium, and determination collide is where I feel most alive. But, a decade ago, if you’d asked me whether I’d ever enjoy spending 33 hours and 55 minutes running across 120 miles (193 kilometres) of mountainous BC terrain, the answer would have been obvious. F*ck no.

words :: Hilary Matheson

I became an ultramarathon runner by accident, signing up for the Squamish 50 literally on a dare and with almost no training. Five years later, I can’t imagine what my life would have looked like without running. I’m certainly a better, stronger, and saner (relatively speaking) person for it.

Tromping together through snow, sleet and mud, friendships formed on the trails tend be very honest, mostly because it’s hard to keep any sort of walls or guards up when you are struggling to breathe and sweating like a pig.

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Ranging anywhere from 50 kilometres to several hundred miles (or longer) and often run in heinous weather conditions, ultramarathons require a particular affinity for Type 2 fun[1]. And yet there is something about embracing that endless physical pain that’s as empowering as it is exhausting. We rarely lean into discomfort, but when you allow yourself to exist there, it strips away all pretense and artifice. There’s no place for “our best selves,” just our real selves.

The bliss comes from trying not to faceplant. Photo: Ben Jenkins

As the races and adventures I sign up for become more ambitious, my training has become more dependent on companionship, because how else do you keep an eight-hour training run interesting? Thankfully, the Sea to Sky has an incredibly strong community of badass female trail runners (or ‘unicorns’ as we often refer to ourselves), and their support and friendship has kept me sane and further fuelled my love for this crazy pastime.

I don’t know of too many other sports where you find women competing at a high level who celebrate each other’s successes as equally as their own. Tromping together through snow, sleet and mud, friendships formed on the trails tend be very honest, mostly because it’s hard to keep any sort of walls or guards up when you are struggling to breathe and sweating like a pig. The oft-heard excuse “It’s a long story, you don’t want to hear it,” is music to the ears when on a 4-hour-plus run. “Oh, but we DO! Don’t spare any details!”

Ultra running itself is a sport where women particularly excel, and I love that it’s not uncommon for a woman to win an ultra outright. Last autumn, Courtney Dauwalter finished the Moab 240 mile race in 2 days, 9 hours, and 59 minutes, beating the second place finisher (and first male) by more than ten hours. Female-first finishes are not that unusual in a sport that calls for more mental strength and strategic racing strategies than pure muscle and aerobic capacity. It’s nice to be fast, but it’s better to be smart.

Time spent in the mountains is always beneficial, and I find trail running provides some of the cheapest therapy around. Anxiety, depression… as my feet begin to flow over familiar paths, I find myself relaxing into the solitude of the forest and the perspective it provides. Running helps me make sense of the world, and find my place in it.

Don’t be lulled however, trail running is messy. It involves excessive amounts of sweat, chafing, faceplants (I’m good at those), and the occasional mid-run dash into the woods to poo. It also provides belly laughs with girlfriends, immense satisfaction through overcoming physical and mental obstacles, and teaches you how to be entirely present. It feels great to hurt so good.

 

 

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