Making Sense of Ultras

I run trail ultras because marathons are just too hard.

That’s what I jokingly tell people every time someone ask me why in the world  I would run 50 or 100km distance. But interestingly a road marathon can be harder because you are pushing hard the whole distance to set a new personal best each time you race. Whilst in an ultra, the appeal is just to complete the distance within the allowable time limit, and more importantly enjoy the experience at the same time.

In the runners’ circle, an ultra is just the short for ultramarathon, ultra-distance or ultra-running. Its definition however can be very wide, wild and wonderful. An ultra is basically any footrace that is longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometres (26.219 mi). The most common ultra-race distances are 50km, 100km, 50 miles and 100 miles, although many races have other distances in excess of 250km. But the interesting side of the ultras is that they are raced not only on tarmac, instead they can take place in awesome settings like the forest trail, mountainous terrain and sandy desserts.

Running and trekking over beautiful trails can be liberating

Chasing Ultra – Is this a midlife crisis?

I used to share my marathon and ultramarathon completions on social media. There was a time when completing a marathon was already considered a momentous feat. But as more marathons were organised and more people started to complete them, the 42.195km run gradually lost its mystique. Completing the ultras, being longer, tougher and less accessible, then became the new appeal.

Not many people in my circle have ventured into running distances more than the marathon, so running ultras became something that made me stood out with my peers. One day I attended a dinner function with some mates from university days. When we met and exchanged pleasantries, one of them asked me why I am running all these ultras. Without giving me a chance to answer, she promptly said that it’s because I am going through midlife crisis.

Frankly I was caught off guard. Instead of some sort of politeness-induced or politically-correct ‘reverence’ on my achievements, she downright shoved them down to midlife crisis. Yes, it is true that we are approaching our mid-forties and we are in our middle age. But still, her statement stung and made me ponder.

The midlife crisis was invented in London back in 1957. That was when a 40 year-old Canadian psychologist named Elliott Jaques presented a paper on what he called mid-life crisis. Jacques’ theory was that as we approach middle age we begin to realise our own mortality, and start to freak out. Intuitively, the midlife crisis makes sense. As we get older, we start to look back on how much time has passed, how much is left, and what to do with it. This can create anxiety, and that anxiety can sometimes lead to stress and even depression.

We usually associate midlife crisis with older men buying sports cars or carry on affairs with younger women in a desperate bid to feel young again. But increasingly, people are responding to the anxieties of middle age differently. Instead of clinging to the remnants of expiring youth they are now taking on challenges that seem to belong to the young alone. One such manifestation is pushing the limits of physical abilities through endurance athletics and extreme fitness.

I have been running for a few years now. When I started running, I had no clue where it was going to take me. I never thought I would be able to run a half marathon, let alone an ultra. The intention was of pure innocence. I just wanted to engage in some form of convenient workout that can help me control my weight and waistline.

Then through the years running, I saw that speed was not really my strength. While I am not particularly fast, I was able to push myself running further and further each year. So instead of working towards better pacing, I would sign up for longer races in my running progression. When I got all too familiar with road running, I started entering trail races. After my first trail race, I became a born-again trail runner. A few more trail outings in the woods and I was suddenly racing trail ultras and nothing less.

The question on why would anyone run an ultra (and in my case, aspiring to run the 100km trail ultra) is one that is difficult to answer. Why do I need to run really long distances? Why do I race multiple ultras each year? Why would I put myself in so much suffering? My own mother, for the life of her, could not understand why I would put myself through this.

Actually there was no clear reason as to why I started running ultras. Objectively, my life was good. I have a beautiful family. I work with a thriving business and financially I am okay. My work wasn’t too difficult and I have a healthy work-life balance. I am grateful that I live a comfortable life. I don’t think I was in the middle of any real crisis.

But if I were to take a hard look, the dreaded midlife crisis might have sneaked in and manifested in the form of me slackening, losing focus and even dying to ambitions. Sometimes I feel like I am under-achieving based on what I thought I could be. On some days I think I struggled with a loss of identity – What is my purpose? What should I be doing in life? I went into these places and maybe flirted with mild depression. I don’t always have the answers and that can be a tough place to be, sometimes. 

So running somewhat became an outlet for me to reflect and find meaning to the struggles and mysteries of life. The more I run the better I felt about myself. All the hours spent on trails in the forest seem to sooth my weary soul. Physically I became fitter and leaner.

But it wasn’t like trail running came naturally to me. I wasn’t particularly good at it when I started. This might sound strange, but there is something rewarding about suffering on the trail and being okay with it. But that is not to say that the ultras does not demand a lot of effort from you. Throughout my journey, I have spent a lot of time struggling to continue against a mounting desire to stop.

The worst I have experienced was being out there for 16 hours racing to complete an ultra that almost got washout by bad weather. That race took me into what ultra-runners would call “the dark place”. It happened late in the race and I experienced the greatest discomfort (or was it pain) I have ever felt. When I was there, there was nothing left I could do but to embrace the suck. But there is something transcendental about that experience. Somehow by going to the edge, I am reminded of my mortal limits. Ironically that can be something good.

When we push our body to that limit it generates a sense of gratitude for what our body can do. I can feel so exhausted that there is no more energy in me to be in another place with my mind. I am fully present, taking in all the discomfort, suffering and pain. This is when I experience the profound awareness of being in the moment and be grateful for all I am. I have no choice but to be in the now. To survive and to make it back alive.

Most people, including me, run their first ultra to see if they can. But like many that started, we continue to run ultras for something else. There can be many reasons to what motivate people to push themselves like this. From my personal experience, an extreme sports like the trail ultra is actually less about trying to be young again and more about building myself up for the years ahead. In other words, i am trying to get better at getting older.

People who continue to run ultras will tell you about how they learn about themselves through endurance pursuits. I too learned that if I put my mind into it, I am able to persist and overcome the challenge. So that brings us a full circle to my little Project Go-Ultra – to experience and complete a 100km trail-ultra triumphantly would be my next goal. 

Running a 100km or 100mile (maybe one day I may get there) trail can be a metaphor of life. I started running ultras to learn about myself and to discover what I am capable of. But these days I realized that training and running ultras have formed a deeper meaning to me. The practice has now been ingrained into my everyday life. And that I think should not be considered a midlife crisis, I hope.

First shared: 05-Jan-202o
Last updated: 30-Jun-2021