Ultrarunning as a Soul Sport

AJW writes about finding food for the soul, in running or other sports.

By on September 22, 2023 | Comments

AJW's TaproomEarlier this summer, I was visiting with a physical therapist friend of mine up in Flagstaff, Arizona. Ryan Whited, a longtime mountain athlete and passionate outdoorsman, was sharing stories about his career in bouldering, his sport of choice. Knowing very little about the sport, I found myself asking tons of questions and at one point Ryan stopped me and said, “AJW, bouldering is a soul sport.”

In the days that followed, I found myself reflecting on Ryan’s comment. As far as I could tell, from Ryan’s point of view, a soul sport is one that is not necessarily competitive. Rather, it is a sport, in and of itself, that exists for the simple act of participation. A sport that, while also building the body, feeds the soul. For Ryan and many others, there is more to his outdoor pursuits than competition.

Growing up, I spent most of my summers on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. This delightful place, a peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast, is good for the soul in many ways. One of my good friends from those days, Andy Gere, was an avid surfer and took any chance he got to break away from the Clam Bar, where we worked as a line cook, and hit the waves. Never competitive, Andy embraced his life on the ocean as a big part of who he was, and, in fact, still is. Being at one with the ocean made Andy happy. The challenge of the pounding surf and the joy of sharing his passion with others was infectious, and in the act of surfing, Andy made everyone around him feel just a little bit better.

Andy Gere - Cape Cod surfing

Andy Gere surfing. Photo courtesy of Andy Gere.

Another one of my closest friends, the founder and former editor-in-chief of iRunFar, Bryon Powell, discovered fishing about 10 years ago. And not just any fishing, but high mountain fly fishing in the mighty San Juan Mountains of southwestern Colorado. In my observation, as Bryon became more passionate about his fishing, his drive to compete in long distance running started to gradually wane. Don’t get me wrong, Bryon continued to compete, he just did so less frequently. In fishing, as well as daily running, he found more nutritious food for his soul than in competitive running.

2023 Hardrock 100 - Darla Askew - Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell sharing some miles and smiles with Darla Askew at the 2023 Hardrock 100. Bryon also found the time to catch some fish during the race! Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

As for me, I don’t have a traditional soul sport. However, as I have left competitive long distance running in the rearview mirror, solo long-distance outings in the mountains and in the desert, most times on foot but sometimes on my bike, have become my soul sport. While I loved my years as a competitive runner, I find myself savoring these soul sport years just as much. Bouldering, surfing, and fishing may not be my thing but, inspired by my friends’ passions, I have found nourishing food for my soul in my chosen sport. And that, for sure, will get me out the door again tomorrow.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s beer of the week comes from Cape Cod Beer in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Cape Cod’s oldest craft brewery, Cape Cod Beer is a local favorite up and down the peninsula. Their Cranberry Harvest German Ale is a fall seasonal ale, which combines classic German styling with Cape Cod’s trademark crop, the cranberry. Not too sweet and not too tart, Cranberry Harvest is a lovely accompaniment to the chilly days of a New England autumn.

Call for Comments

  • Does the non-competitive side of running feed your soul as AJW describes?
  • Or have you found an alternate sport or hobby to fulfill this part of you?
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.