Laying It All Out There

A look at laying it all out there when running an ultramarathon.

By on November 4, 2011 | Comments

AJWs TaproomOver the past week or so the video footage of Brian Morrison’s finish at Western States in 2006 has been making the rounds on Facebook. I give Brian a lot of credit for posting the video and for continuing to accept responsibility for the situation as it unfolded on that hot June night over five years ago. In the aftermath of that race I had the opportunity to speak with Brian a couple times and he acknowledged, openly and repeatedly, that he left it all out there on that day and, in the end, just ran out of gas. It was a gut wrenching situation for all involved and I recall, at the time, thinking about how we all needed to learn from it. Unfortunately, I am not sure we all have.

I remember the day well as it was the hottest and most oppressive WS100 in my memory. After some sloppy snow in the High Country the temperatures kept going up and up and up. I encountered my good friend Tommy Nielsen as we were leaving Last Chance and we ran much of the canyons together basically throwing our splits out the window and acknowledging that it would be more of a survival test than a race. During the day we heard reports about the battle up front between Brian, Graham Cooper and Jim Huffman and we were listening in awe as news of their insane splits filtered through the course. In the end, we all know what happened, and it is interested to think about what has evolved since.

I know for me, personally, I had my own wake-up call in the 2004 Angeles Crest 100 when I succumbed to acute renal failure after the race and spent seven days and nights in the hospital. Thirty-six liters of sodium bicarbonate later, I pledged to never put myself into that kind of anguish again. The subsequent result of what I learned in that race was a second place finish in the 2005 Western States 100 and a clear understanding of the limits of my own physical abilities. I realized then what I know clearly now that while we have limits physically we have boundless potential mentally, emotionally, and psychologically. It is in those three areas that I feel ultrarunners must focus their energies.

Which brings me to a reflection on the five years since Brian’s painful finish. Have we learned from it? Well, a look across the ultra landscape would suggest maybe, maybe not. Sure, thanks to Marty Hoffman, Lisa Bliss, Sunny Blende, and other medical professionals we know a lot more about what keeps people out of trouble in 100 mile races and what kinds of things cause life-threatening damage to runners pushing the envelope. In talking to other veterans of the sport, I must say that we can’t help but notice the increasing number of runners who need significant treatment after 100 mile races. From IV’s to emergency room visits to months on the couch, the number of issues resulting from runners pushing their limits too far seems to keep going up.

I wonder why this is? Is it increased competition? A new attitude of invincibility among runners? The increased accessibility to the 100 mile distance? Some combination of factors? I’m not sure. But, what I do know is that ending up in the hospital after a 100 mile race is no badge of courage and boasting about a high CPK count is not only mis-guided but also downright dangerous. I don’t pretend to know all the answers nor do I mean to suggest that something is wrong. But, that being said, I worry about the future of our formerly fringe sport when these kinds of events get increasing coverage and the potential glorification of such painful realities becomes the norm.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What are your thoughts on people pushing themselves past their limits in ultramarathons?
  • Are such efforts an unavoidable byproduct of our sport or anathema to it?
  • Are there examples of when such efforts have advanced the boundaries of the sport?
  • What do you think of AJW’s possible explanation for his observed increase in such events?
  • Have you ever pushed yourself past your boundaries? If so, have you embraced such an effort or have your vowed to change your ways? On the latter point, how have you changed?

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Green Flash West Coast IPAWest Coast IPA from the Green Flash Brewery in Southern California.

Quoth the barkeep, “This smooth IPA features just the right blend of hops and spice providing the perfect recovery drink after a crisp autumnal trail run.”

Andy Jones-Wilkins

Andy Jones-Wilkins is an educator by day and has been the author of AJW’s Taproom at iRunFar for over 11 years. A veteran of over 190 ultramarathons, including 38 100-mile races, Andy has run some of the most well-known ultras in the United States. Of particular note are his 10 finishes at the Western States 100, which included 7 times finishing in the top 10. Andy lives with his wife, Shelly, and Josey, the dog, and is the proud parent of three sons, Carson, Logan, and Tully.