Lessons From the Long Trail

A look at the lessons that can be gained from training for and running ultramarathons.

By on February 3, 2012 | 24 comments

AJWs TaproomThe commentary which followed last week’s column on Grit was thought-provoking and inspiring. In particular, I was intrigued by the trajectory of the conversation. It seemed to me that two trends emerged:  one, commenters noted a certain upper/middle class bias in the sport and the suggestion was made that the presence of leisure time makes this a sport for those with means and two, commenters observed that the obstacles faced in ultrarunning pale in comparison to the obstacles faced in life. While I tend to agree with both of these sentiments, I would like to re-direct the conversation back toward what I intended as the point of the column.

From my point of view, I was hoping to highlight the research on Grit as a way to suggest that ultrarunning can teach us about life and, perhaps, how to live. Furthermore, I meant to suggest that, while certain innate abilities and tendencies are fundamental to success in ultrarunning, there are others, like Grit, that can be learned and nurtured through experience. Additionally, in my time in the sport, I have come to realize that I have personally learned much about myself and how to live through my involvement in ultrarunning and that while it may be an optional, leisure activity for me, the lessons I have learned have allowed me to become a better, more complete person. What follows are five such “lessons from the long trail:”

  1. Focus and Discipline – Success in ultras depends on focused and disciplined training. Most people know this, of course, but regardless of innate ability there is no substitute for “doing the work.” So it goes in life, as well. While there are those select few who due to circumstance, temperament, or luck are able to breeze through life unencumbered by actually having to do something, most of us will not succeed without doing what it takes to get the job done. Focusing on the task at hand and being disciplined enough to follow through on that task, however difficult, makes us all a little bit better. Think about this the next time you hit the snooze button on your alarm clock.
  2. Presence in the Moment – While it is never easy, in my experience, mourning the loss of a loved one, friend or colleague often impels us to think and talk about “living life in the moment” or “living each day as if it was your last.” While some of these thoughts can be hyperbolic, perhaps the great American writer and thinker Henry David Thoreau said it best in Walden,  “I went to the woods because I wished to live life deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” For me, and I know for any others, running long distances brings us into the moment in ways that few other activities do. In the midst of an ever-changing and fast evolving world, there is something quite profound about living deliberately. Running through the woods on a hot summer day certainly is one poignant way to do just that.
  3. Managing Expectations – Life is always throwing us curveballs! Just when we think we’ve got things figured out, right at the moment we think we have life under control at home, at work, on the trail, something comes along and knocks us off our game. It’s inevitable. What’s not inevitable is how we react to these circumstances. Hence, this third lesson, managing expectations. I cannot think of one 100-mile race that I have run where I have not, at some point, taken stock of my situation and re-adjusted my expectations. Even in the midst of the best race of my life (2005 Western States), I made adjustments down the stretch based on external factors that were completely out of my control. Running long ultras gives us a living laboratory for expectations management. And, while work in that lab may not stop the curveballs from coming our way, it will undoubtedly help us face up to them with confidence and hope.
  4. Learning from Failure – One outdoor adventurist who has been inspiring to me over the years is blind mountain climber Erik Weihenmayer. Erik and I taught classes together in Arizona in the mid-90’s before parting ways. Over the past 12 years, Erik has inspired millions with his exploits in the mountains. In particular, five years ago, Erik became the first blind man to stand atop Mt. Everest. Erik speaks often about something he calls the “adversity advantage.” In fact, he strongly believes that his blindness gives him strength he would not have if he could see. Certainly, after going blind at the age of 13, Erik experienced a series of failures and disappointments. Rather than wallowing in despair, Erik turned those failures into successes. So it is for those of us who run. In my experience, there is no substitute for failure and disappointment when it comes to education, growth, and personal development. Take Matt Carpenter’s experience at the 2004 Leadville 100. After that race, Matt could have easily folded up his tent and returned to Pikes Peak where he has dominated for the better part of 20 years. Instead, he took his lumps, put his head down, and came back in 2005 to establish a standard on that course that is truly extraordinary. Next time failure and disappointment rear their heads for you, think about Erik and Matt.
  5. Patience – Whether it is dealing with an injury, allowing the training volume to build on itself, or biding one’s time in the heat of a 100-miler, perhaps the greatest lesson learned in ultrarunning is patience. These days, of course, being patient is a dying art as we are increasingly called upon to behave and react with a “sense of urgency” to even the slightest evolutionary change. And yet, looking around, it appears to me that the patient ones seem to consistently survive and thrive. Keeping an eye on the Big Picture, understanding and accepting your role and position in the order of things, and allowing the passage of time to provide meaning and purpose in life are all valuable lessons learned on the trail that can point us out to the horizon and open our eyes to the “long view.” In the midst of all of today’s speed, let’s not forget that.

Bottoms up!

AJW Taproom’s Beer of the Week
Long Trail AleThis week’s beer comes from the Green Mountains of Vermont. Long Trail is one of the more established craft brewers in the country and while their beer is widely available, to me it tastes best from the tap in their original brewery in Vermont. Next time you’re up in the Northeast Kingdom, be sure to stop by and savor their smooth drinking, old school, flagship beer, Long Trail Ale.

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • What lessons have you learned from ultrarunning that you apply in other areas of your life?
  • What do you think of the lessons AJW has shared above?

[We were unable to identify the photographer of the thumbnail of Matt Carpenter running Leadville 100 that we used as the homepage/archive thumbnail. Please let us know if you can identify the photographer and we’ll gladly add credit.]

Andy Jones-Wilkins
Andy Jones-Wilkins finished in the top 10 men at the Western States 100 7-straight times. He's sponsored by Patagonia and Drymax socks and is iRunFar's editorialist.