Hurt So Good

An article about the pain experienced during ultrarunning and the importance of knowing your why.

By on July 15, 2022 | Comments

A few weeks ago, I ran my first ultramarathon since 2019. It was the Trail 100 Andorra by UTMB, a 105-kilometer race through the Pyrenees in Andorra. The last ultra I had started before this one was the UTMB, a race I failed to finish. The last ultra I had finished was the JFK 50 Mile in 2018. The last ultra I had won was the 2016 The North Face 50 Mile Championships.

Toeing the line after a reprieve of such length comes with a few question marks. How will my body hold up? Am I adequately prepared? Am I as good as I once was? All are valid questions.

When the starting gun sounded at 7 p.m., I leaped off the line and began my journey toward the finish. Over the next 14 hours and 20 minutes, I hunted down some answers to those pre-race questions. Fortunately, I found a lot of good ones. The body held up, my preparation proved adequate, and my performance was solid. But of all the things I was reminded of that day, one really stood out, and that was this: ultras stinkin’ hurt.

Zach Miller in the night at the 2022 Trail 100 Andorra by UTMB

Zach Miller running through the night at the 2022 Trail 100 Andorra by UTMB. Photo: Dani Speedy/@trail100andorra

It seems obvious. A race of such distance is bound to be painful. It’s something I’ve known full well for years. I’m no stranger to the pain. Yet, in the midst of the race, it felt overwhelming. Not that I couldn’t navigate it, but that it inundated my mind with force. For miles and miles, I was stuck on the following thought, Why does the thing I am so good at have to hurt so much?

Sure, the first half of the race was very enjoyable. My body felt good, and the terrain was amazing. It was varied and playful. The views were astounding, and the weather was great.

About halfway through, things started to get difficult. It was nothing crazy. My wits remained, but it was enough to make me squirm. Around mile 40, I found a groove and rode it for a while. It was nice, but, somewhere toward the end of the race, maybe 45 or 50 miles in, I found the misery.

The pain was immense. I wanted so badly for it to subside. Stopping would have been the remedy, and yet I continued on. It’s interesting to think about these moments, the ones in which the solution to our affliction is at our disposal, yet we do nothing to help our cause. Why do we behave in such a way?

The answers vary. I think oftentimes we do it because on the other side of the pain lies a reward that we value that much more. The satisfaction that comes with winning, setting a personal best, or even simply finishing is worth far more than the pain we must push through to get the result.

When priorities are kept in check, I think this can be a healthy practice. If out of check, things can go a bit sideways. But what does out of check look like? Personally, I think it looks like no longer having fun, doing something solely because you have to, and doing it at the expense of everything else in life. Out of check is where families, friends, and partners get neglected. It’s where goals no longer feel exciting. Essentially, it’s where the fun stops.

To be honest, there were moments during this race that did not feel very fun. It felt as if the fun had stopped. But, this was largely, if not solely, due to the pain that I was experiencing. And the pain, in my mind, was justified. Justified because I wanted to be there. Justified because I was stoked on the course. Justified because I thrive on competition. And last, but certainly not least, justified because I love running.

The 2022 Trail 100 Andorra by UTMB men's podium, with Zach Miller at the center in first place

The 2022 Trail 100 Andorra by UTMB men’s podium, with Zach Miller at the center in first place. Photo: @trail100andorra

Take away the justifications and you have a whole lot of pain with very little reason for it. And this, my friends, is a problem. This is where DNFs happen (though not always for this reason), burnout occurs, and people grow resentful toward the sport of running. But all this is avoidable if we take a step back and have an honest look at our goals and motivations before chasing after them.

So, next time you set a goal or select a race, take some time to analyze your motivations. That way, when the pain sets in and the fun has become un-fun, you know what you’re suffering for. The reasons don’t have to be overly deep. They can be as simple as the fact that you simply enjoy running.

But, if you don’t check your motivations at the door, you could find yourself in the depths of the pain cave not knowing why you’re there. That’s not a good place to be. Save yourself the trouble and check yourself before you step to the start line. That way, you can make it hurt so bad, and still be good.

Call for Comments

Do you have any strategies for coping with pain during ultras?

Zach Miller
Zach Miller lives in a school bus he outfitted himself. He competes for The North Face and Team Colorado. Additional sponsors/supporters include Clean-N-Jerky, GU Energy Labs, and Nathan Sports. Follow him on Instagram.