Ultrarunning for My Soul

[Editor’s Note: This month’s “Community Voices” column is authored by runner and writer Wes Claytor. You can follow Wes on InstagramIn this column each month, we showcase the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport and wildlands in creative and innovative ways. Read more about the concept and submit your work for consideration!]

Running was a tool I was using to cope with my brother’s death, but it didn’t start out that way.

Almost a decade had passed since he left this world before I bought my first pair of running shoes. It was January of 2018, and I was intrigued by a month-long charity event a friend was sharing on social media and decided I’d participate to show support. The goal was to run as many miles as you could within the month while raising money for the cause. But after a few short weeks, I realized I had run close to 100 miles and I was feeling great. I also noticed how I was able to tap into some of the unresolved darkness inside my head during some of my longer and more difficult runs.

I was hooked.

That’s when I signed up for my first marathon. It was the New River Marathon in Boone, North Carolina, and it damn near destroyed me. I knew I could perform better than I did, and I was determined to prove it to myself. It was June of 2018, and my wife was seven months pregnant with our son when I ran that marathon. I remember thinking to myself, It’s going to get a lot harder to find the time to train once our son is born.

Two months later we were in the hospital, my wife was rushed into an emergency C-section due to severe complications during labor, and our son was born without any noticeable brain function. Four days later we lost him. The time that followed that are still a hazy mix of chaos when I try to reflect. But I remember a couple of standout details that emerged from that period of time: my running got more intense, and so did my drinking.

Another thing that stands out from that period is that I joined a local running group on Meetup and signed up for my second marathon that upcoming November, the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh, North Carolina. The group long runs were just the therapy and camaraderie I needed during that very difficult and confusing time. Every Saturday we’d link up for 16-plus-mile runs, often pulling me way out of my comfort zone and familiar weekly training volume. I went on to achieve my goal of a sub-four-hour finish for that marathon, but I knew I wanted to challenge myself further and with more variables.

I wanted to run ultramarathons.

And not just any ultramarathons. Mountain ultras. The things I had read about in books and seen in YouTube videos, but never thought I’d be capable of. I decided I was going to go all in to truly test my body and mind.

I quit drinking alcohol in January of 2019 and I signed up for the Uwharrie Mountain Run 20 miler for February of 2019 to introduce myself to the trail running scene. Luckily it was only a 20-mile race as I encountered my first true bonk around mile 17 and walked the last three miles in. What an eye-opening experience of how different and difficult trail running can be.

More, please.

I registered for the Promise Land 50k, April of 2019, and this monumental race changed something for me. It was an initiation. It signified me morphing from a guy who likes to run into an “ultrarunner.” At least that’s what I told myself going into it. I went into that race excited and naïve, won the “Best Blood” award, and got to meet and chat with David Horton, a legend in the sport. It was a true ultra experience.

It also qualified me to enter into the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile, which I did, against my better judgment. I ran two marathons, a 20 miler, and a 50k—surely I was ready for a 50-mile mountain race. I’ll save you all the details, but I did finish that race in just over 10 hours, and that was the close of my 2019 race calendar. It was also one of the most transformative years of my life.

It’s now October of 2020, and although racing has taken a backseat to all that’s been going on in the world, I was registered for the Old Dominion 100 Mile. That would have been my first attempt at 100 miles, but it will have to wait until 2021.

When I decided to sit down to write down my origin story of how I became an ultrarunner, I wasn’t quite sure what themes would emerge. I know that there’s a lot of good that I’ve experienced along the way and many lessons that I’ve learned. Now that I’ve written all this down, if I could boil it down to three themes, they’d be: prioritize the awesome, jump in, and be inspired.

Prioritize the awesome just means to do things that are daunting and exciting. Even if it seems impossible, go do that thing. Clear time and space for them and work toward them relentlessly.

To jump in is to go after things without overthinking. A lot can be learned from researching and reading, but many things must be experienced to be understood. Ultrarunning is one of those things. And you certainly cannot fake your way to a finish. Hit the “Register” button on that next race or event and throw caution to the wind.

Finally, be inspired. Allow people, places, and things to move you. Give in to the energy that makes you want to do and be more. To be inspired is to find joy and purpose in life and it is a contagious mindset. If you are inspired to do something, and you give it your all, chances are you will encourage some other people to do the same.

Call for Comments

Does trail running and ultrarunning make it all the way into your soul? Has the sport influenced or guided you at a foundational level? Can you put words to that experience?

All photos courtesy of Wes Claytor.

There are 10 comments

  1. John Vanderpot

    Wes — on the morning of my 47th B’day I ran a homemade half-mary that nearly killed me, Advil, Heineken, couch, day over! But while I was out there I got in my head that I’d dedicate the next 3 years to running, and on my 50th B’day I’d run a 50M and then move on to chess or poetry or take up the sax or something…

    Yeah, well, what haunted me was child’s play next to what you’re dealing with, and as I do the math that was 10 years, 4 months and 3 weeks ago to the day, and last Saturday I finished my 175th ultra, along the way I’ve been befriended by many of the legends of this tribe and run on many of the more preferred courses in this part of the country, so I’d like to wish you well on your journey and don’t be too surprised if you end up going waaaaaay farther than you thought!

    From small things, moma, big things one day come?

    1. Wes Claytor

      John, thank you for reading and for sharing a bit of your own story. I can only hope to establish myself as well as you have in this community. 175 ultras is amazing! It’s a deep rabbit hole that I have no intentions of climbing out of anytime soon. Hope to cross paths with you one day out there on the trail.

      Be well!

  2. Tony McDermott

    Bro…excellent work putting your story out there…and looking forward to seeing what the future brings on your adventure. I’m freaking honored to share the road and trail miles with you over the past year in the RDU. Well done, my friend!

    1. Wes Claytor

      Thanks, Tony! It’s an honor to share the miles with you as well, my dude. You’ve held me accountable on more than one occasion, and have definitely helped me to add some worthwhile challenges into my training. Appreciate ya.

  3. Jen Wheelock

    Wes,
    Thank you for sharing your story. I was already a runner when I signed up for my first Trail Run in 2019. It was a 12k. My Dad has passed away 15 days before and that Trail Run was part of my grieving process. Then I did another short trail run the following month. I overdid it in training and ended up hobbling into a Chiropractor’s office with severely strained calf muscles. Fast forward to December 2019 when I decided to go beyond 23 and 25ks to my first ultra, the 2020 Quicksilver 50k. I hired a Coach. I did not want to get injured. Then the Pandemic hit and everything changed. There would be no QS 50k this year. I decided I did not want to give up on doing my 1st Ultra in 2020. I kept training and on Saturday, October 17th I did my solo 50k with support from some amazing friends. I hope to meet you out on the trails one day.

    1. Wes Claytor

      Hey Jen,

      Thank you for reading. Sorry to hear about your father, but I’m glad that you have also found healing and appreciation out on the trail. It’s funny how whenever life happens we can always find a way to adapt, much like you have this year. Congratulations on pushing yourself and following through on your own 50k – that’s a commendable feat for sure! Keep running and hopefully, we’ll cross paths out there one day. Be well!

  4. Eli Driscoll

    This is cool. When people ask me why I like hiking and running up and down hills I respond that it swweps my neural pathways clean and fills up my soul. I’m just getting back into runing really after a couple of bad years- I guess I’m a year and a half on the comeback trail. A big part of my comeback and pre-comeback involved hiking in the mountains and foothills near where I live in Madrid. I’m generally skeptical and knd of scientifically minded as far as spirituality and what have you, but sometimes when you push yourself hard in a remote, steep place I feel connected to the bones of the world and maybe more importantly connected to myself in way that I haven’t experienced anyhow else.

    I’m not an ultrarunner yet. I’m working on it though, mostly ’cause I want I want to feel where my soul goes after 6, 7, 10 hours on the trail. I want to see what the mountains tell me

    1. Wes Claytor

      Eli,

      Appreciate you sharing and glad you enjoyed my writing. I’m happy to hear of your comeback, way to persevere! I’ve never been to Madrid, but my Father-in-law is from Lugo, and we visited a few years back. I even got to hike a few miles on the Camino. Beautiful!

      You’ll be an ultrarunner whenever you are ready, and it sounds like you are well on your way. Regardless of titles, it’s all about getting out there and learning about ourselves. Or as you beautifully put, “I want to see what the mountains tell me.” Love it.

      Keep grinding and keep listening. Be well!

  5. John Goldfield

    Dude. I enjoyed your story. I especially gravitated towards your stated goal of “Prioritizing Awesome”. That’s IT man! My feelings and attitude precisely. Keep up the great work and keep that head space. This whole crazy world of Ultras is the perfect format to pursue awesome… even for back-of-the-pack guys like me. You’re obviously an NC (or nearby) guy, so perhaps our trails will cross someday soon.

    1. Wes Claytor

      John,

      Thanks for reading and for the comment.

      I’m glad some of this resonated with you, and I agree, no shortage of “awesome” goals to chase in the world of ultras, mountains, and quirky race formats.

      I just relocated from Cary NC to Fuquay Varina, would be awesome to share a local trail or race with you in the future.

      Keep pushing on and I’ll do the same!

      – Wes

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