I can rarely remember the things I think about during a run. Unlike a sensory memory, like hearing a song or smelling a distinctive smell, my thoughts while running aren’t attached in my memory to a specific place or thing. Because of this, I can almost never give people a straight answer when they ask me that question. And since most of the people who ask me that question already seem to feel insecure about not running ultramarathons, not giving them a straight answer only adds to their consternation. I’ve lost a lot of friends that way.
Since I’m such a forward-thinking guy, I decided to try to fix this problem. Thus, while running the Ultra Race of Champions last weekend, I made an honest effort to remember all the things I thought about and said. What I found, however, was a lot of repetition, both real and imagined. By that I mean I would have a thought while running, but since I had nobody to whom I could express that thought, I would hold it in and remember it and reword it and polish it up until the thought had exactly the tone and connotation I wanted. The idea was that when I came into an aid station or saw my cheering crew on the course, I would be able to tell them my thought and then… I don’t know. Blow them away? Get it off my chest?
I am not sure why these thoughts seemed to matter so much at the time. What I do know is that, like the trash stored in my shorts pocket, I would think these thoughts constantly for miles and then, right when I came into an aid station and the chance was nigh, forget about them entirely. I soon realized that, rather than being a forward-thinking guy, I was a backward-thinking guy. I was trying to remember to tell people what I thought long ago, and then when I forgot that, I wanted to tell them what I thought long ago as well as how I forgot to tell them the first time.
In short, I lacked focus.
After a while, as this downward mental cycle continued and my level of physical effort increased, I started to lose track of the discerning point between my real conversations with people and the imagined conversations I was having in my head with imagined people. Nevertheless, I continued to do my best to remember these conversations, and now that effort is coming in quite handy because, not only can I tell people what I was thinking, but we can make a game out of it. iRunFar readers are the only people who would find this interesting because you are the only people who can understand what is going through a runner’s mind while competing in an ultra. So here’s the game:
Real or Imagined? It’s the classic mind game designed to turn your head upside down! Ultrarunners are crazy enough to want to run so far, but they actually get crazier as their races progress! All you have to do to play is read each imagined conversation (accompanied by appropriate context in italics where necessary), and decide if it is Real or Imagined! Let’s go!
Running up the first climb in a pack with everyone.
Me: So Kilian… how’s it going?
Kilian: Good! And you?
Me: Good! Yeah good, good. I’m real good.
Kilian: Cool in Alaska?
Me: Yeah! It was really cool, really good. I had a good time.
Running with Sage, Rob, and Kilian up to Vail Pass on the bike path.
Bryon Powell: So how is the bike path section?
Me: Well, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. The two freeways are raised up way above the bike path so you can’t hear the traffic too badly, and the stream next to the path actually looks like a surprisingly healthy riparian ecosystem. And if there’s anything that gets me inspired to run hard for 62 miles, it’s a surprisingly healthy riparian ecosystem.
Descending down the west side of Vail Mountain toward Minturn, Rob Krar and I come upon two hunters in blaze orange and carrying guns.
Hunters: Oh come on guys! We’re hunting! This is dangerous for you and you’ll scare away all the game!
Me: Yeah dude, there are about 250 people behind me.
Running in the snow over the Ten Mile Range.
Me: Hey Kilian! Je parle le Francais!
Kilian: Oui? C’est bon! Je fais l’amour a votre soeur et vous m’avez dans tous les sens degout!
Descending down from Vail Pass on the bike path.
Bryon Powell: So how is the bike path section?
Me: I can’t believe this. We’re running on the shoulder of the interstate. Hundreds of cars speeding past and huge diesel trucks grinding up the road with banging and crashing and black smoke. Ugh. If there’s one thing that doesn’t inspire me to run 62 miles, it’s industrial noise.
Pretty much every time we passed someone.
Them: Good job!
Me: Thanks! Ugh!
Like five different places on the course.
Me: You see that guy in the Spiderman costume shooting photos?
Me: I live with him.
Nobody: That’s really cool!
The whole race.
Me: You can’t keep up this pace. What are you doing?
Me: I can too! I trained for this! I’ve raced this hard before!
Me: Yeah, like a year and a half ago. You’re washed up dude. Give up. All you do are pointless intervals and write stupid editorials online.
Me: You’re a stupid editorial! I can do this!
Me: Alright, you’re not falling apart yet.
Me: I want to stop.
Me: Don’t stop! Keep running! Okay, hike this section, but hard! Now run!
Nearing the top of the final climb, as Rob approached ominously, two people were hiking.
Guy: You’ve done it! You’re at the top of the climb!
Me: Are you sure! Don’t lie to me!
Guy, smiling: Yes! You’re pretty much at the top!
Me: *Grumble, grunt, grumble*
I top the rise.
Me: No! This is still not the top! That up there is the top! Not this! You suck!
Answers. The thing about this game is that after playing it once, you realize that it’s super easy. The key is that all the real conversations are boring, and all the interesting or funny conversations are imagined. As I said before, when I have a thought while running, I tend to repeat it in my head until it is perfect. That gives me the time to think over the different options and make it funny. This is unlike real-life conversations, when I have to think quickly to be funny. That’s why people who know me don’t think I’m funny. So if any of the above is funny, it’s not real.
I don’t know what I think about when I run. I think of a lot of different things, but like a dream, they seem to vanish in reflection. Racing hard is an entirely unique experience. At no other time in my life do I work so hard with so much uncertainty. The more experienced I become, the less I trust myself, because I know that complacency is the biggest mistake I could make. If I have to think about anything while racing, I have to think that I want to continue. Not just to win, but for the sake of maximizing my ability over the whole length of the race. And then I need to want to keep running after that.