When It Ceases to be Fun

An essay about mentally managing the difficulties of a long ultramarathon.

By on November 9, 2018 | 3 comments

AJW's TaproomOne of the most vivid memories of my early ultrarunning training was a group run on the Angeles Crest 100 Mile course in 1999. I was running with a quartet of highly experienced locals and attempting to suck up as much wisdom as I could. About four hours into the run, we arrived at a creek crossing that was overgrown, laden with poison oak, and painfully rocky. It was also at the base of the last brutal climb of the race, the Sam Merrill climb. One of the guys turned to me and said, “Right here in this spot, AJW, this race ceases to be fun.”

Of course he was right, as we were at what would be mile 86 of the race with a final climb looming. But what he said resonated with me for years afterward, off this specific race course. The truth is, at some point in every race, in every training cycle, things stop being fun. It becomes work. Hard work. Painful work. Work that, at times, seems futile. In these moments, we need to summon all of our reserves to pull ourselves up and forge on, in spite of it all. In doing so, I daresay, we can transcend the ordinary and become extraordinary.

Many of us have gravitated toward ultrarunning because it’s inherently fun. Long runs with friends in beautiful country, wonderfully organized events in far-off places, and a welcoming community of like-minded people are all things that bring joy to the process of training and racing ultramarathons. The fun factor in our sport is contagious and, for me, some of the most fun-loving people in my life are my ultrarunning friends. That said, at some point, the fun inevitably stops and we are tested and challenged in ways that are decidedly not fun.

I recall one such occasion for me back in 2009 at the Leadville Trail 100 Mile. I was running my third 100 miler of the summer after finishing the Western States 100 in June and Hardrock 100 in July. I came into the race with little in the way of expectations. It was my first time running Leadville and I attempted to kid myself into the belief that I was just “running this for fun.” And for the first 50 or so miles, it was fun.

Then, after turning around at the mining ghost town of Winfield, the race’s halfway point, and traipsing back over Hope Pass for a second time, the fun abruptly stopped. Each mile of the inexorable descent off Hope felt longer and more arduous. The climb up and over Powerline later on also seemed impossibly steep and endless. After that, while on a smooth, easy stretch around mile 87, my stomach violently rebelled as I jogged into the May Queen aid station. I emptied its contents all over the feet of my crew and pacer. It was not a pretty sight.

With only 13 relatively easy miles left to go, I felt like I was done. All the energy was sapped from my body and I felt as though I had little reserves left upon which to draw. My stomach ached, my quads were shot, and my blistered feet were throbbing. In that moment, I had no motivation to continue. Sitting there feeling sorry for myself, my wife Shelly looked me straight in the eye and said, “You know Andy, if this was all fun and games, it wouldn’t be so great. Let’s get you out of here.”

And with those wise words on my brain, I hauled myself out of the chair and proceeded to plod around Turquoise Lake, up the Boulevard, and across the finish line of the Leadville 100. I can admit it now, it was not fun. It was a slog.

Nonetheless, in the midst of that death march and especially in the weeks afterward, I felt a deep sense of satisfaction about the whole thing. I took solace in the fact that I soldiered through the physical and emotional pain I was feeling and just put one foot in front of the other until I didn’t need to anymore. It was one of the most enriching finishes of my running life precisely because it was so miserable. As a result of that day and night in Leadville, I felt more prepared for the next time things inevitably ceased to be fun.

Bottoms up!

AJW’s Beer of the Week

This week’s Beer of the Week comes from Ardent Craft Ales in Richmond, Virginia. Just recently available in cans across the U.S.’s South, Ardent’s IPA X is a new take on the increasingly popular New England IPA variety. Juicy, hazy, and with a deep hop aroma, the IPA X is in a class of its own when it comes to NEIPAs and represents another outstanding offering in the Richmond craft-beer scene.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • When was the last time a long ultramarathon got mentally and/or physically difficult for you? Can you share the story of what happened?
  • Do you feel that there’s a certain inevitability to the mental and physical challenges of an ultramarathon, despite them being mostly fun?
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.