Ultrarunners: Who Are We?

The question for today is “What makes a person an ultrarunner?” I’m not talking about whether one needs to cover 26.21 miles or 31 miles to be an ultra marathoner. Nor am I going down the line of “You know you’re an ultrarunner if…” jokes that you’ve already heard far too many of if you’ve ever subscribed to the ultrarunning listserv. No, I’m wondering what personality type or types are attracted to ultrarunninng. Why do folks run 100 miles at a time or run a stage race across the desert in 120 F heat? The question isn’t what makes us tick, it’s what make us run. Read on and then let everyone know what you think!

My contemplation of this question arises in part from a recent existential crisis, but also to two articles I recently read.

The first was a Forbes article, Inside the Endurance Athlete’s Mind, that suggested endurance athletes have common traits including “persistence, endless curiosity, a lack of fear when it comes to failure and a sense of boldness.” The article goes on to say:

Persistence is particularly crucial in helping endurance athletes stick to a training schedule, which they know can’t be compromised no matter how much work is waiting for them at the office or how sore or tired they may feel. The benefits of showing up every day for a workout aren’t just about being physically prepared on the big day. They can help an athlete feel like he or she has done everything possible to meet a challenge, ultimately translating into confidence at the starting line . . . .

Successful endurance athletes also have to know how to psychologically face and overcome pain during events.

My roommate was considerate enough to leave the second article, Desert High, from The Washington Post Magazine. The article focuses on some folks running the 4 Deserts: Atacama Crossing, a stage race similar to the Marathon des Sables. The article was a good read, but what really caught my attention is the following:

“No question they’re different from the rest of us,” [sports psychologist Frank] Farley says. He’s even coined a term for people like the elite runners, mountain climbers, skydivers and others who seem addicted to challenge: “T-type personalities.” T is for thrill-seeking. “It really comes down to a thrill,” Farley says. “They tire quickly of everyday things, and their only remedy is to take on the next challenge, hoping for more stimulation.”

He and other psychologists note these athletes’ defining characteristics: They’re independent thinkers. They’re methodical about goal-setting. They believe they control their own successes or failures. They thrive on novelty. They’re energetic and often innovative. Many are entrepreneurs.

So do you buy any of these theories? Is one better than the other? Got your own theory? Do tell.

There are 14 comments

  1. Kellogg's Camel

    Great Blog. Glad I found yours and added it to our blogrol http://www.kelloggscamels.com. I also noticed that many MDS athletes who maintain a blog, start their "About" with explaining the big "why" (they are doing this). More feedback to follow.CU in the desert!

  2. BGill

    I think both articles hit the nail on the head. Being an ultrarunner and a professional skydiver myself, I recognize that I find a similar type of joy from both activities. We (ultrarunners, skydivers, "T-types") thrive on being active and partaking in activities that most others would never even dream. Because of that, you get individuals that are very dedicated and passionate about their sports and that results in a very tight knit community with lots of comradery between participants that might seem like polar opposites in the "real world".Great post, Bryon!

  3. Meredith

    Hmmmm. I do not think i would call myself a thrill seeker by any means. I am scared of a lot of things. I am however, always on a journey of self discovery and inner wisdom. Most of my ultras have been more zen like than thrill seeking, more meditative than anything else. My training are runs are similar as well. I am a goal oriented, driven person, but i cried on top of freds mtn cause i was scared of heights :)

  4. Anonymous

    I think both theories have there value and are true in some respects.Ultra endurance sports does seem to attract a certain type of person. One that enjoys pushing themselves through pain and discomfort more then the "average" person. Some people that do not want to live the"normal" life, or one that doesn't necessarily buy in to the 8-5 thing for the paycheck. That and some where in between, I imagine. Ultimately, it seems that ultra running fits the loner, or the person who does not have to be surrounded by people 24/7 and doesn't have to feel "comfortable" all the time. We surely thrive on testing ourselves to an extreme more then most and aren't willing to accept the status quo to easily! Do we? I don't have my own theory because I don't care. I really don't need to know why I do it or justify it to anyone, because I enjoy it so much. Being outdoors, in the mountains, and running in particular, has been a part of my life since I was 10 years old. I can't imagine what life would be without it, what life would be like without time spent each week in the mountain's or out in the desert, on the trails.Even after all these years, I'm greatful every single day that I can run! Even if it's a "bad run", it sure beats the hell out of other people's definition of a bad day. When I'm injured, or taking a week to rest, I feel like my body and mind are slowly decomposing!I miss running in the hills and in the mountains, or sweating or freezing my ass off! When I don't run, I think, this is what "normal life" is? Going to work, coming home, chores, kids, feed the animals, etc, etc, It doesn't feel right to me. There is no challenge in being "ordinary". Running long distances and suffering, if need be, is how I challenge myself, life and society. I remember sitting in my college library (Humboldt St. Lumberjacks – ya!) one sunny Saturday, attempting to study. I kept looking out the window at the forest 200 hundred feet away thinking, I can't do this much time indoors much longer. Never again! This is too much sacrifice. I think that is the tell all for me. It feels like sacrifice. Like AJW says,Running is not only what I do, it's who I am".This probably seems shallow to a lot of people who don't challenge themselves through ultra sports, but I'm not really interested in what people think about it. I just know at this age, it was the coming together of some physical and mental abilities and interests in my life that eventually manifested itself in to ultra trail running at the end. Or maybe it is a lot more simple then this. As Tom Johnson (former WS record holder)once replied when someone asked him why he ran ultra's, "Because I can". – Grae

  5. olga

    Nailed, indeed. I remember how my ex was telling me I am an adrenaline junkie (what he turned to be as well) and I am bored with ordinal life. I mean, especially when the job (in my case, not everybody's) is not what I like or particularly good at. Then I seek to improve in an area that I love. At the same time, I would argue the T-seekers (or adrenaline junkie) term as in ultrarunning things in general don't happen to spike the level of adrenaline fast (unless a bear or cougar jumps out). It is more slowly assimilated endorphine release, yet it's the one that stays with you for longer time as well. Also, while I have to admit I am bored with regular chores myself (going 8-5, kids practices, friends talking politics), I am certain there will be many many folks who will feel offended and say they love their families and its dynamics big time. I mean, can we bill AJW or Rod B as the guys who run away from families and jobs? No way Jose!

  6. Paige

    Interesting. This has really got the wheels turning! I don't have much to comment on as I'm the new kid on the block and have yet to run my first ultra, but I feel like the Washington Post Magazine article you quoted from describes it best, at least for me. I love adventure and doing things that most everyone else I know wouldn't ever consider, but until discovering the world of ultra running I was kind of hitting a wall trying to figure out what to do next. Nothing really piqued my interest enough, or presented enough of a challenge. Ultra running is the solution to that one! Just thinking about it gets the adrenaline going for some reason. Where work and ordinary life fall short in challenging and awakening things within, running is where I find what I'm missing. Kind of filling a void? In any event, great post, Bryon, very thought provoking!

  7. Anonymous

    Some of us run to reset headspace and timing. It's much better than getting loaded or thinking about people we've lost – both the loved ones we've left behind somewhere and the dead we'll never get to see again. Or those jobs where we mattered and made a difference… It's a way to fight off demons in a positive manner. We get to hang with people that love to be outside and push the envelope in a constructive manner. I come back to running and other extreme sports whenever I need a lift. Yup, there's a lot to be said for that runners' high – it can keep you from feeling down! "The Northern Virginia Minotaur"

  8. Trail Goat

    Wow! So many wonderfully considered answers to a question without a single answer. Thank you all so much and keep the thoughts coming!Kellogg's camels,Would love to hear more feedback on this issue. I can't say that I'm doing MdS for any reason other than it's there. It's a new challenge – both in preparation and competition. I'm literaly doing it on a whim – 4 days between starting to consider running MdS 2009 after learning of an open slot and sending in my money. Glad you like iRunFar! :-)Gill,It's interested that you confirm that some ultrarunners are from the T-types. I, for one, am the antithesis of the T-type! For me, I think my reasons are, in part, better summarized by the second portion of your response – I love the person and group passion and dedication, the comraddery, the Band of Brothers and Sisters that we become out on the trail.Meredith,I too love the "zen" (in a non-religious way) of distance running. I love it on hte roads and I love it on the trails. It's a gift when I run on a rocky trail or rooty and it finds the way for me rather than the other way around. It's also why, on occasion, I like a long road or tow path run.Grae,I am no pain pusher. Huge, colassal woose. Dislike of pai is why I never ran a good 800m in college and why I don't utilize my speed in a 5k, 10k, or even road marathons these days. They hurt too much. I can slack along with non-actue pain in a 100 miler and still finish well. Totally right on about the loner… and I don't mean that in a misanthropic way. I love people. I espeically like trail folks, but I'm an introvert and recharge my personal batteries in the company when I'm alone or maybe in a very intimate group. It's certainly an appealing side of trail running.Olga,Interesting that you say you are bored with oridnal life, so you become an adrenaline junkie. I, too, am very bored by ordinary life, but am not sure that will every make me an adrenaline junkie. It's so interesting that the similar characteristics (bored in ordinal life) can be so very different. I just make myself very busy (I think) in order to avoid dealing with my ordinary life.Paige,Hmm.. you may have helped me coalesce my thoughts here. I think that perhaps I ultraun, as opposed to just plain run, because it offers a challenge AND because it's not ordinary. Even if I don't think any of my feats are extraordinary, I know that most people do not or cannot even contemplate doing them. It feels good to be uniquely or to be among a small set those who can overcome any given challenge. Either my regular life does not or I don't let it offer me a challenge. My challenge comes on the trail.Wise words, Nothern Virginia Minotaur. I've been seeing a therapist for 16+ years now. Her name is running. I'd probably be dead had we not met.

  9. Anonymous

    Very interesting! I agree with you. What I think it's we are forgetting something else, maybe more important but not disjointed with other theories. Years ago I readed something about our ancestors (thousands of years ago: not so much, folk…): they preferred running instead of walking in their movements (and, I think, not on roads, isn't it?…). So, I think there's an atavistic memory in our body, very strong, theese few years of ordinary life can't erase it. When I was kid, my favorite book was "Call of the Wild" by Jack London: only a coincidence?… I'm from Italy, thank-you all, enjoy your nature soul.

  10. Dane

    I was going to be a professional skydiver but then I decided to save my amateur status for the 2012 Olympics. on a serious note I think it is less "a lack of fear when it comes to failure" but rather a strong hatred FOR failing. Fortunately, "failing" has a much grayer definition in the ultrarunning scene. You can have your ass handed to you by most of your competitors but completing a tough and challenging course under the time guidelines is still a "success".

  11. Bearbait

    I think Dane hit it, for me at least. While I love the solitude of running, and the beauty of trail-running in particular, the real allure of Ultras is the lack of failure. I'm an extremely competitive person, and it was a hard realization that no matter how I trained, I would never be a top 5K,or 10K runner (even locally.) But when I run the longer distances, it doesn't seem to matter so much that I'm in the back of the pack. Just finishing is challenging enough that I'm OK with it – I've changed the focus of my competitiveness from external to internal, and that's probably healthier for me.

  12. Bryon Powell

    Bearbait,I hear ya entirely re internalizing competitiveness. I claimed to not be "racing" at the Leadville 100 three weekends ago. It's not that I wasn't, quite literally, racing my guts out. It's that I wasn't focused on where I was relative to other people. I knew what having a "good race" would look like to me. I was racing myself and the clock, not others… and I enjoyed it.

  13. Paul

    I've just found your blog- i like it ;)I fit everything said in that article..so i suppose i have a T-type personality. I've moved and lived in 3 countries, ran my own successful business for 7 years, mountain biked solo enduro events, and more recently my first Ultra having never ran before….within under 6 months. I can see that i set challenges that most other people could not even consider!Interestingly, I can't sell my soul in a suit or tread on folk under the banner of "a manager" like most folk aspire to…..so i find their world "extreme".One thing that needs to be mentioned dis that us "t-types" can be difficult people if we don't strive for challenges and 'feed" our addiction. Without the support of my Wife none of my lifestyle choices would be possible so i'd be keen to learn more about "our supporters" personality s….I've added you to my news feed and i hope to contribute more here- nice blogging :) http://www.paulpetch.com

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