I didn’t know Ultra running was even a thing until recently says Pulitzer Prize winner John Archibald
I didn’t know ultra running was even a thing, until recently.
And then I read about a guy in Kansas last year who was about to complete a 50 kilometer race when, before he could cross the finish line, he was struck by lightning and killed on the spot.
I thought at first it was the saddest thing I’d ever heard, a guy running for hours, pushing himself beyond limits I could fathom, to die in a flash before he could reach the end.
But the more I thought of it, the more I thought I might be wrong. Maybe it was just the opposite. Maybe it was a beautiful, poetic way to exit this realm, testing one’s body, stretching one’s will beyond earthly bounds. The race couldn’t break him. It took a bolt from the sky.
I couldn’t even define the sport, much less participate in it, for my knees hurt when I drive 26 miles in a comfortable car. Ultra running is anything longer than a marathon, really. The sport is a global phenomenon, and big in Alabama, too, from the Bearly Ultra, a 27-mile trail race sponsored by the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society – or BUTS – to 50 mile and 100 mile races across this state.
It seems so surreal, so impossible. I knew Birmingham was home to Micah Morgan, one of the best ultra runners in the country, because I’d read how she finished the Badwater 135, a 135-mile race that starts in Death Valley, Calif., and ends impossibly at the summit of Mt. Whitney, the tallest mountain in the lower 48 states.
I knew Michael Jordan played baseball in this town, too. It didn’t make him less superhuman to me.
But I’ve come to see the people who are committed to ultra running, and they are very real. I look across the office at my colleague, Bob Sims, who entered a couch-to-5k program eight years ago when he couldn’t run a single mile. Last year, at the age of 62, he ran in two 100 mile races.
I see my colleague Anna Beahm, who started running in high school to get her mind and body right but was driven to longer distances for the joy of competition, for the sheer badness of doing something 99 percent of humanity cannot or will not do. She ran four ultra races last year – three 50ks and a 50-miler.
I can understand those things. Even if I will never be a 1 percenter.
What I didn’t get, until I talked to BUTS president Lisa Booher, was the depth and the breadth and the complexity of the ultra running world in Birmingham. I always thought of running as a solitary exercise, a plodding one-foot-in-front-of-the-other fight against boredom.
“I think that’s why you have to have friends,” Booher said.
Which was not as pointed or personal as it sounds now.
“I fell in love with the running because of the competition,” she went on. “I kept running because of friends.”
That’s what I really didn’t get about this exercise in super endurance and hyper drive. It can be a form of moving meditation, as Booher puts it, a time of self-discovery and exploration. But running 50 or 100 miles requires more than a solitary soul.
It requires a crew and volunteers and an understanding that simply competing in events like these amounts to a part-time job. It takes support and sustenance and friendship. It requires conversation, often, mid-race, about anything but the running itself, or the pain, or the shoes. It requires a community.
It’s a good thing Alabama has one of those. An ultra one.
John Archibald, a Pulitzer Prize winner, is a columnist for Reckon by AL.com. His column appears in The Birmingham News, the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register and AL.com. Write him at email@example.com.
posted Friday January 3rd
by John Archibald