Ultrarunning for My Soul

[Editor’s Note: This month’s “Community Voices” column is authored by runner and writer Wes Claytor. You can follow Wes on InstagramIn this column each month, we showcase the work of a writer, visual artist, or other creative type from within our global trail running and ultrarunning community. Our goal is to tell stories about our sport and wildlands in creative and innovative ways. Read more about the concept and submit your work for consideration!]

Running was a tool I was using to cope with my brother’s death, but it didn’t start out that way.

Almost a decade had passed since he left this world before I bought my first pair of running shoes. It was January of 2018, and I was intrigued by a month-long charity event a friend was sharing on social media and decided I’d participate to show support. The goal was to run as many miles as you could within the month while raising money for the cause. But after a few short weeks, I realized I had run close to 100 miles and I was feeling great. I also noticed how I was able to tap into some of the unresolved darkness inside my head during some of my longer and more difficult runs.

I was hooked.

That’s when I signed up for my first marathon. It was the New River Marathon in Boone, North Carolina, and it damn near destroyed me. I knew I could perform better than I did, and I was determined to prove it to myself. It was June of 2018, and my wife was seven months pregnant with our son when I ran that marathon. I remember thinking to myself, It’s going to get a lot harder to find the time to train once our son is born.

Two months later we were in the hospital, my wife was rushed into an emergency C-section due to severe complications during labor, and our son was born without any noticeable brain function. Four days later we lost him. The time that followed that are still a hazy mix of chaos when I try to reflect. But I remember a couple of standout details that emerged from that period of time: my running got more intense, and so did my drinking.

Another thing that stands out from that period is that I joined a local running group on Meetup and signed up for my second marathon that upcoming November, the City of Oaks Marathon in Raleigh, North Carolina. The group long runs were just the therapy and camaraderie I needed during that very difficult and confusing time. Every Saturday we’d link up for 16-plus-mile runs, often pulling me way out of my comfort zone and familiar weekly training volume. I went on to achieve my goal of a sub-four-hour finish for that marathon, but I knew I wanted to challenge myself further and with more variables.

I wanted to run ultramarathons.

And not just any ultramarathons. Mountain ultras. The things I had read about in books and seen in YouTube videos, but never thought I’d be capable of. I decided I was going to go all in to truly test my body and mind.

I quit drinking alcohol in January of 2019 and I signed up for the Uwharrie Mountain Run 20 miler for February of 2019 to introduce myself to the trail running scene. Luckily it was only a 20-mile race as I encountered my first true bonk around mile 17 and walked the last three miles in. What an eye-opening experience of how different and difficult trail running can be.

More, please.

I registered for the Promise Land 50k, April of 2019, and this monumental race changed something for me. It was an initiation. It signified me morphing from a guy who likes to run into an “ultrarunner.” At least that’s what I told myself going into it. I went into that race excited and naïve, won the “Best Blood” award, and got to meet and chat with David Horton, a legend in the sport. It was a true ultra experience.

It also qualified me to enter into the Mountain Masochist 50 Mile, which I did, against my better judgment. I ran two marathons, a 20 miler, and a 50k—surely I was ready for a 50-mile mountain race. I’ll save you all the details, but I did finish that race in just over 10 hours, and that was the close of my 2019 race calendar. It was also one of the most transformative years of my life.

It’s now October of 2020, and although racing has taken a backseat to all that’s been going on in the world, I was registered for the Old Dominion 100 Mile. That would have been my first attempt at 100 miles, but it will have to wait until 2021.

When I decided to sit down to write down my origin story of how I became an ultrarunner, I wasn’t quite sure what themes would emerge. I know that there’s a lot of good that I’ve experienced along the way and many lessons that I’ve learned. Now that I’ve written all this down, if I could boil it down to three themes, they’d be: prioritize the awesome, jump in, and be inspired.

Prioritize the awesome just means to do things that are daunting and exciting. Even if it seems impossible, go do that thing. Clear time and space for them and work toward them relentlessly.

To jump in is to go after things without overthinking. A lot can be learned from researching and reading, but many things must be experienced to be understood. Ultrarunning is one of those things. And you certainly cannot fake your way to a finish. Hit the “Register” button on that next race or event and throw caution to the wind.

Finally, be inspired. Allow people, places, and things to move you. Give in to the energy that makes you want to do and be more. To be inspired is to find joy and purpose in life and it is a contagious mindset. If you are inspired to do something, and you give it your all, chances are you will encourage some other people to do the same.

Call for Comments

Does trail running and ultrarunning make it all the way into your soul? Has the sport influenced or guided you at a foundational level? Can you put words to that experience?

All photos courtesy of Wes Claytor.