Ultrarunners: Who Are We?

The question for today is “What makes a person an ultrarunner?” I’m not talking about whether one needs to cover […]

By on October 2, 2008 | Comments

The question for today is “What makes a person an ultrarunner?” I’m not talking about whether one needs to cover 26.21 miles or 31 miles to be an ultra marathoner. Nor am I going down the line of “You know you’re an ultrarunner if…” jokes that you’ve already heard far too many of if you’ve ever subscribed to the ultrarunning listserv. No, I’m wondering what personality type or types are attracted to ultrarunninng. Why do folks run 100 miles at a time or run a stage race across the desert in 120 F heat? The question isn’t what makes us tick, it’s what make us run. Read on and then let everyone know what you think!

My contemplation of this question arises in part from a recent existential crisis, but also to two articles I recently read.

The first was a Forbes article, Inside the Endurance Athlete’s Mind, that suggested endurance athletes have common traits including “persistence, endless curiosity, a lack of fear when it comes to failure and a sense of boldness.” The article goes on to say:

Persistence is particularly crucial in helping endurance athletes stick to a training schedule, which they know can’t be compromised no matter how much work is waiting for them at the office or how sore or tired they may feel. The benefits of showing up every day for a workout aren’t just about being physically prepared on the big day. They can help an athlete feel like he or she has done everything possible to meet a challenge, ultimately translating into confidence at the starting line . . . .

Successful endurance athletes also have to know how to psychologically face and overcome pain during events.

My roommate was considerate enough to leave the second article, Desert High, from The Washington Post Magazine. The article focuses on some folks running the 4 Deserts: Atacama Crossing, a stage race similar to the Marathon des Sables. The article was a good read, but what really caught my attention is the following:

“No question they’re different from the rest of us,” [sports psychologist Frank] Farley says. He’s even coined a term for people like the elite runners, mountain climbers, skydivers and others who seem addicted to challenge: “T-type personalities.” T is for thrill-seeking. “It really comes down to a thrill,” Farley says. “They tire quickly of everyday things, and their only remedy is to take on the next challenge, hoping for more stimulation.”

He and other psychologists note these athletes’ defining characteristics: They’re independent thinkers. They’re methodical about goal-setting. They believe they control their own successes or failures. They thrive on novelty. They’re energetic and often innovative. Many are entrepreneurs.

So do you buy any of these theories? Is one better than the other? Got your own theory? Do tell.

Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.