What makes the finish line of an ultramarathon so incredible? Ask any race director and they’ll probably tell you that everyone’s finish, from the victorious winners to the very last runners, pulls at the heartstrings when races come to an end. But why?
When we root for our favorite athletes and sports teams, there’s a powerful connection that compels us to scream at the screen or jump out of our seats. In the book, The Body Keeps the Score, author Bessel van der Kolk, MD, writes, “Our brains are built to function as members of a tribe. We are part of that tribe even when we are by ourselves, whether listening to music (that other people created), watching a basketball game on television (our own muscles tensing as the players run and jump), or preparing a spreadsheet for a sales meeting (anticipating the boss’s reactions). Most of our energy is devoted to connecting with others.”
This could explain the reason why we become so emotionally involved in the efforts of other athletes. Just like any parent that erupts in the excitement of their daughter’s first basket, or their son’s game-winning goal, we all have the capacity to connect with others – family or not – when we witness a struggle.
In ultrarunning, the challenge is completely solitary. There are no teammates to pass the ball to. While crews, volunteers and pacers provide necessary support, it’s up to the runner to get to the finish line. And, for many, it’s one of the most difficult feats they will ever accomplish in their lifetime. They aren’t competing against others, they are struggling against cutoffs, DNFs and their own mental demons — the competition is with themselves. And it’s not often we witness this kind of struggle in other sports. Especially not where the average age of competitors is over 40.
A connection forms between athletes like no other, and it’s why you’ll often find winners staying at the finish line to congratulate the very last runner. As it is often said, “Pull up a chair.” In 2015, Rob Krar, winner of Western States in 14:48, unexpectedly ran with 70-year-old Gunhild Swanson (while he was wearing flip flops) to help pace her to the finish in 29:59 with just 6 seconds to spare. It was one of the greatest moments in Western States history.
In this issue, we celebrate racing season, and as race day approaches, our columnists offer up advice, answer questions and dig into stories of legends in our sport, including renowned race photographer Glenn Tachiyama, who recently retired his lens, on page 30.
Jason Koop answers the question, “How Much Should You Race?” on page 11, Meghan “the Queen” Canfield gives new (and old) ultrarunners advice from fellow veterans like Tim Twietmeyer, on page 13 and we bring you a little “Octogenarian Inspiration” on page 50.
There are many who resist stepping to the start line of an ultra because they are afraid of the struggle or possible failure. However, the ultrarunning community was built around people who fell and got back up, only to try again. And again. That struggle is the foundation of our sport, and it’s why the ultrarunning community is like no other – we’ll offer hugs at an aid station, but we’ll also pull you out of the chair when you so desperately want to stay put, because we’ve been there and we want to see you finish what you started.