At least once a year, a close friend seriously confronts me and let me know that they think I am ruining my life and the life of others by participating in, and encouraging ultrarunning. The typical belief is
1. That because low-mileage runners get injured, surely a high-mileage ultrarunner is seriously damaging their body far more.
2. That some exercise is of course good, but the level of exercise an ultrarunner participates in not normal and therefore unhealthy.
3. That ultrarunners are neglecting their families and being selfish.
Such concerns from non-runners and recreational runners are common and hard to explain away. Some don’t want to hear explanations.
Let me deal with each concern:
Because low-mileage runners get injured, surely a high-mileage ultrarunner is seriously damaging their body far more.
It is my firm belief that ultrarunners are far less-susceptible to injury than recreational runners. When I was a recreational runner, I was always getting injured and it would make me quit running. I then became a couch potato, gained weight and had poor health. I see recreational runners always battling injuries. I constantly advise runners how to recover from injuries. On a road-runner blog I’m on, I see high-milage road runners battle injuries.
There is one huge difference in the running I do. I avoid roads like the plague. The only time I run roads is during a road race (5k, 10k, etc.) or during the winter when the trails are muddy. This makes a huge difference on the wear and tear of an ultrarunners body. I do believe that high-mileage on roads can be damaging to the body over time because of the jarring caused. Soft trails are a world of difference.
I also believe that once ultrarunners have established a high mileage base (and sometimes they do go through injury to reach this) that their body has gone through some amazing adjustments that now prevent injuries that a recreational runner may more commonly see. I’m always asked, “Aren’t you ruining your knees?’ No! My knees now are stronger, the ligaments and sinews tighter, such that they can endure great distances without problem. I don’t get ITB or runner’s knee problem anymore that a low-mileage recreational runner has to deal with often. People just can’t understand the wonder of the human body, that it can do amazing things to adjust once it has become used to stress. It puts up new barriers to protect itself from that stress.
Recreational runners don’t know about the fast recovery ultrarunners experience once they have a high-mileage base. After my first 100-mile race, I could hardly walk for a week, and couldn’t run for a month. I also experienced some soft-tissue damage in my knee. But I didn’t have that high-mileage base to protect me. Now I do. I can run a 4-hour marathon and feel no pain the next day. I can run a 50-mile race, and be out running pain-free in three days. I can run a 100-miler and be out running pain-free in one week. The human body is amazing. It fascinates me how it adjusts. Recreational runners just don’t understand this. If they feel a month of pain after a marathon, surely ultrarunners must feel several months of pain after a 100-miler. Well, that logic is a fallacy.
OK, surely I have developed some chronic injuries from the 40,000 miles that I have run, from the more than 80 100-milers, and 130 ultras in the past ten years. Yes, I have some chronic injuries to deal with. I’ll document them.
1. I have some numbness in my feet — the ball of my feet extending to a couple toes. It is minor and I don’t really notice it much or I’m just used to it. After long races it will be more pronounced, but then it mostly goes away. I don’t see this as much of a problem.
2. I have a neuroma in the ball of my right foot. This is a bunching of nerves that can cause severe pain extending out to your toes. Anyone can get this even non-runners. I just deal with it. Using a thinner insole helps. During a race it can flare up for about ten miles and really hurt, but then it calms down, I think once the surrounding tissue swells a little to protect it.
3. I tore the meniscus in my right knee when I was an over-weight backpacker. So, I have less cartilage protection in that knee. I can feel pain there at times, but I have learned to manage it and the knee has became stronger and now protects itself.
4. About twice a year I bruise my bladder, usually due to running dehydrated. The result is soreness in the abdomen and hematurina (blood). This can be alarming but a running doctor understands what is going on. I let it heal and am more careful about hydration.
5. I have some cool scars on my arms and legs from face-plants on the trail. Big deal, at age 50 I’m not entering beauty contests anymore. To prevent this, I like running with hand-held running bottles. When I fall, the bottles take the brunt of the damage.
That is it. I really can’t think of anything else. No stress fractures, no ITB problems, no chondromalacia (runner’s knee), no planter fasciitis, no serious muscle problems, no back problems.
When I have health checkups, the doctors and nurses are impressed. My cholestoral level is great because of the super high level of HDL caused by good fitness. Nurses who draw my blood always comment on the wonderful deep red color due to high oxygen content. When I had a EKG the technician commented on my strong heart and said, “you must be a runner.”
So, how am I damaging my body? I get occasional colds and sinus infections (due to a deviated septum) but never the flu. I’m old, 51. Where is this damage?
Some exercise is of course good, but the level of exercise an ultrarunner participates in not normal and therefore unhealthy.
Recreational runners for some reason believe there is a wall at 26.2 miles and that anything over that is not normal. What is so magic about 26.2 miles? OK, yes recreational runners constantly complain about “hitting the wall” before that distance. They therefore think it is a barrier, and anyone going past that is not normal and doing something amazing or unhealthy. All this is silly. The recreational runner just doesn’t know how to fuel properly and get the balance in their body to prevent bonking past their “wall.” Their body hasn’t yet adjusted to the stress of high mileage. Just because they haven’t experience the lack of pain and stress at long distances, doesn’t mean it isn’t possible, even for them.
I probably exercise on average about 10-12 hours per week. Is that excessive? Because I now have a high-mileage base and my body has adapted in amazing ways, I can be dormant for days and then just jump right back into the saddle with no problem for even higher performance. Recreational runners or non-runners just can’t understand that. I’m not exercising huge amounts each week. Yes if I wanted to be an elite ultrarunner, winning races, I would need to do much more. But, I’m 51 years old. Its not going to happen. I’m happy with strong performance in races and a fitness level so I can do them often.
With the amount of exercise I do, I know far more about my body. I understand the signals it sends me when there is something wrong. I believe strongly that if I develop a serious illness, that I will detect it far faster than when I was a couch potato. I know my body now. I didn’t before. I believe my life will be extended for years more because of ultrarunning if I’m lucky enough to avoid accident and disease. As a couch potato, or even as an occasional recreational runner, I didn’t have this knowledge or fitness to protect my body.
Ultrarunners are neglecting their families and being selfish.
I am an obsessive-compulsive person. I know that. I try to use that as a strength, not a weakness. I’ll take hold of something and go crazy with it. I’ve authored/published three books in 18 months. Obsessive. I’ve gone crazy doing family history research, far more than any “normal person.” I’ve studied LDS scriptures and history far more than any “normal person.” I helped establish a successful Internet startup that went from nothing to amazing in just a year. I know I go overboard, and put in safeguards.
As far as running, I try to be careful with my time. My wife sleeps about nine hours on average per night. I sleep about 6.5 hours on average per night. Therefore, there is on average about 2.5 hours per day when I’m awake and the rest of the family is asleep. I try to do almost all of my training during those hours. Where is the harm to the family? Yes, for races I’m away, but I try to get my family to go with me at times and when I add up the days, I’m home far, far, less than others who have demanding jobs that take them away from home or church callings that require them to be away so much. In a few months, with another son graduating from highschool, I will only have one child at home (compared to the six that were home previously). The family time-demands are now much different when the family was younger. Yes, my wife will grumble at times because of my running. She isn’t a runner. But I negotiate, try to listen, and try to be a good husband and father. We have a very happy family life. I exercise on average 3 days a week. So why all the criticism?
Some argue that ultrarunning is a very selfish use of time. I don’t buy this at all. A musician will spend hours each week practicing. How is their talent less selfish? I make sure my ultrarunning experience is not selfish by writing about my experiences and sharing them with others. This is very fulfilling. I know my writings have affected hundreds of people who have been inspired to improve their lives with better fitness or set greater heights in their goals.
I’m comfortable with being an ultrarunner. I know the general population thinks it is crazy because their conclusions are from their own experience and prospective. Almost all of the serious concerns come from people who never exercise and their judgmental comments are puzzling. They don’t understand the facts. I’m at the point where I just avoid trying to debate it with close friends or relatives. Ok, I have that off my chest, now I can go do something better with me time, like go running.