My Favorite Kind of Marathon

One of my peeves is when I am introduced as "Tom…the marathoner." Usually this is by non-runners who do not understand why anyone would run 26.2 miles- much less 50 or more. They are just trying to be friendly and sociable, they have no intent of irritating me.

Now, I have absolutely nothing at all against marathoners or running 26.2m marathons. I have run a few marathons myself;  they're fun and they make great training runs.  Getting out there and running is what counts, no matter if your chosen event is 5-k, 13.1m, 26.2m or beyond. I respect and appreciate everyone's ability and reasons for running, it is not about the distance or the races.

And yet, I'm annoyed when I am called a marathoner..

"I'm an ultramarathoner-not a marathoner!" I correct them.

This usually draws a blank stare and the question: "What's an ultramarathon?" There are more bank stares as I explain the difference.

"You're insane!" they finally tell me. I nod my head and smile, "Darn right I am!" 

How is it possible to explain why I run to people who don't exercise? To explain to people whose primary physical activity is walking from the couch to the refrigerator? If I can't explain why I run, how could I ever explain why I run as far as I do? It's impossible, so I don't even bother trying.

I don't like being called a marathoner for a variety of reasons; it is not only because of the difference in distance. Marathons were once "on the fringe" and people who ran them were considered "crazy" (they still are by most non-runners).  However, the last few decades, marathons have gone mainstream. The events have become heavily commercialized. It seems that now everyone is running a marathon. That's great. However, in all of this new-found popularity, many have lost sight of why we run in the first place.

Many marathoners are focused on time and achieving a PB. I respect that. Perhaps if I wasn't such a slow runner, I might focus on that also. A marathoner once told me that he is amazed by what I do. The fact is, I am amazed by folks who are able to go 26.2m at a pace that me the slow ultra-tortoise would consider a sprint. 

For me and many other ultramarathoners, going long is not about the time or pace, or for that matter, even the distance. It is about learning about ourselves, overcoming adversity, realizing how small and insignificant we humans really are, enjoying and being a part of nature, and re-learning what the important things in life are.

I just can't get that feeling running through the paved streets of a distant city with thousands of strangers, despite how much fun a 26.2 mile party can be. 

Of course, there are many many people who run 26.2m marathons and shorter races or who don't even run any races at all, but who run for the same reasons ultrrarunners do.  I consider such runners to be ultramarathoners in attitude and spirit, if not in distance.

This weekend I ran my best long run since my 100-kilometers at the Javelina Jundred in November. I'm training for the Antelope Island Buffalo Run 50 mile in March to be followed by the Bighorn 50 mile in June.  My plan was to go at least 22 or 24 miles.

A storm system is blowing through the Black Hills the past few days. It was cold, about -1 F (-18.3 C). I'm sorry that I don't have any photos because the batteries in my camera didn't work in the cold.   

A light snow fell all day but there was only an inch or two on the ground. I ran along snow covered gravel dirt roads and saw only one pick-up truck on my way out. Some parts were slick and icy but my Yak Trax Pros kept me from sliding too much.  

The snow-covered forest was magical. Except for occasional flocks of chickadees and nuthatches in the distance, the forest was silent. I turned onto Highway 16A or the Norbeck Scenic Byway. I soon reached a locked gate with a sign: "ROAD CLOSED No vehicles beyond this point."

I pressed on and was surprised to see how quickly nature was trying to take back the road, even though it had been closed only for a few months. There were branches and even a tree lying across it. Before the road opens again in the spring, road maintanence has a lot of work to do.

The Norbeck Scenic Byway is a favorite of tourists coming to the Black Hills. It is known for its tunnels, pigtail bridges and views of Mt Rushmore. In the summer, there are plenty of cars and RVs traveling on this road.

Now in the off season, I had it entirely to myself.

I looked at my GPS… 12 miles, I felt really good, no need to turn back now, I thought. Plus, I was curious about what lay ahead of me. I decided to keep going at least until I made it to the top of the mountain.

I took plenty of walk breaks and finished the last of my Boost. It tasted much better now that ice crystals had formed in it. As the altitude increased, the temperatures grew colder. My fingers started to ache so I put wool mittens over my gloves.

I passed through a small tunnel and noticed an opening in the pines. Off in the distance, the clouds cleared just enough for me to glimpse the faces of Mt Rushmore. 

A minute later… snow started falling again and they disappeared.

At the top, was the Peter Norbeck Monument. When the road is open in tourist season, the parking lot is full of cars, RVs and motorcycles. But today, there was only me, the pines and the falling snow. I didn't stay long, as soon as I stopped running I felt the chill penetrating my clothing.

I looked at my GPS: 13.5 miles.

The best part about going up is the going down afterwards. I moved quickly down the mountain and felt warmer. I stopped briefly in the tunnel to change my gloves and hats which were now frozen with ice.

I passed back through the closed gate. The sun began to set and I put on my headlamp. I saw another pick up truck and we smiled and waved at each other.

I wonder what they thought of me running in the snow in the middle of nowhere?

I didn't want Jeanne to worry about me so I tried calling her on the cell phone. "LOW BATTERY" it said and promptly turned itself off.

How annoying! What if I was injured and needed to call for help?

I put my cell phone under my shirt to try to warm it up but that didn't seem to do the trick. So I stuck it in the wamest place I could think of… my undershorts. Brrrr! It was as if I put a chunk of ice down there! After a half hour or so, it finally warmed up enough that I could jog more normally and not as if I had a block of ice next to my privates.

When I reached another high point with cell phone coverage, I tried calling again. I had only a few seconds to tell her that I was OK, don't worry (she had been), you don't need to come get me, and I'm only three miles from home- before it shut itself off again.

As I ran those last couple of miles towards home, I saw several pairs of eyes staring at me in the dark trees, glowing in the light of my headlamp. They were deer and I was glad to see them.  

There are mountain lions here in the Black Hills. If there was one prowling about you can bet the deer would know. They would be nervous, excited and probably would have moved out of the area. I was relieved to see only the glowing eyes of deer calmly looking back at me and not those of a large cat.

As I walked the last 1/4 mile up our drive, my stomach growled in hunger and the snow began to fall more heavily. Perfect timing, I thought. I certainly earned my dinner tonight.  

27 miles in the snow alone….. this is my favorite kind of marathon. 

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9 responses

  1. I understand your attitude about being referred to as a marathoner and you totally captured my view on running which is probably why I am planning on doing my first 50 miler this year. I too am a slower runner so it's not the distance that worries me it's the cutoff times. I loved the 50k's I did on the trails and I look forward to joining the ranks of the ultra community and will smile after I do when I referred to as a marathoner.

    January 25, 2009 at 7:59 pm

  2. We ultramarathoners are a small and eccentric tribe; we welcome everyone of all speeds and skill levels. There's no room for attitude out on the long trails; the mountains and deserts are the ultimate equalizer. I must warn you however, once you move up in distance, it's hard to go back. These ultras are addicting.
    By golly, if you've done some 50k's then you already are an ultrarunner!
    That's my greatest challenge too… not missing the cut-offs. That's why loop races are so nice. There's no finish line and no cut-offs until those 24 hours are up.
    I see on your blog that you are thinking of possibly doing the Deadwood Mickelson Trail Marathon. It's a local race for me so I was thinking about it too. However, it's just a little bit too close to the Bighorn 50. Maybe next year. The Mount Rushmore/Crazy Horse Marathon is fun to do here in the fall too. Then of course there's the Lean Horse Hundred and Half-Hundred the end of August.
    You also listed the McNaughton Park Trail as a possibility. I was invited by an ultra-buddy this year but the timing won't work out. If you decide to go this year, let me know. I may do it in 2010, we'll see. I like the option for the 100 milers to start with the 150 milers for an entire 52 hours before cutoff.
    Of course, if it takes me 52 hours to go 100 miles, I have some serious problems. If it took me that long I think I'd need to take up something less arduous, like golf.
    Good luck and enjoy those trails!

    January 25, 2009 at 8:42 pm

  3. I do need a SD event so I may do one of the marathons in your area or the ones just across the MN/SD border are tempting for the logisitics as well, I am also eying the Lean Horse 50 but I don't think I can do it and Superior. One of the two would be good. I look forward to hearing about Bighorn and Antelope Island as in looking at them they look interesting and they would allow me to click off a couple of states in my quest for 50. Best of luck in your training.

    January 26, 2009 at 6:10 pm

  4. I've also thought about doing Superior but that will have to wait. Maybe in 2010 or 2011?
    If you ever decide to do Lean Horse, let me know, it is my local ultra so I'm planning on either running it or volunteering every year, unless I'm out of town running another ultra. I DNF'd the 100 mile in 2008 but am looking forward to another chance this year! For photos and my race report check out:
    There really are too many races and too little time…
    We're crazy, aren't we?

    January 26, 2009 at 7:31 pm

  5. Crazy huh? No comment. 🙂 See ya at Antelope; Bighorn might be a maybe at this point as my climbing objective might get in the way. 52 hours? Golf might be a better option…
    Runwesty – welcome to the rush, or madness.

    January 27, 2009 at 8:32 pm

  6. great run report! only 13 more days till i get my boot off and i'll be back to running which i've been craving lately. lusting might be a better word! those kinds of runs are THE reason i run. i like running with my buddies and sometimes a group run is the only thing that can get me out of bed…but nothing beats a solo long run run under difficult conditions. the sense of solitude, the quiet, the animals and trees. that's what it's all about for me. good story. you and Haliku are keeping me stoked about getting back out there!

    January 29, 2009 at 12:50 pm

  7. Thanks! Good luck getting your boot off and getting back to running. Maybe we'll see you out on those trails one day!

    January 30, 2009 at 8:56 am

  8. Your blog was the first one I read on here and I found it inspirational. Sounds like you really like your running. I'm a runner too. Thanks for sharing your blog.

    January 30, 2009 at 10:13 am

  9. Thank you for reading and commenting! I'm glad that you found it inspirational.
    When I'm struggling in for those last few miles of a 50 mile or 100 kilometer, I remind myself of why I do what I do and think of as many inspirational thoughts as I can. That is often very difficult, almost impossible.

    February 1, 2009 at 6:16 pm

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