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Machinations of Running an Ultramarathon: Curiosity, Imagination, and Ego

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Curiosity has a way of getting us places that we'd never thought we'd be (like, say, the moon). There's always something further, something more complicated, or something tougher -- and if there's a way to figure it out, humans tend to do just that. The scale of our curiosity and the lengths to which we'll go to satiate it are often staggering; go on a cruise and look out into the ocean at night -- then realize that some crazy-ass Spaniards crossed oceans in sailboats just to figure out what there was on the other side of the pond (or where the other side of the pond really was). This same sort of curiosity often is manifested in runners -- we wonder how much faster or further we could run, what sort of arbitrary barriers we can break.

Imagination is a close relative of curiosity. While curiosity has gotten the best of numerous cats, imagination has likely driven far more mad. Often, imagination is what happens after a curious thought -- i.e. 'I wonder what it's like to run a marathon? (this is curiosity) … Oh I bet it's like _____ (this is imagination)'. Imagination by itself is often fairly benign, resulting in fantasizing about a burrito or some straight-up fantastical thoughts with no basis in reality (in Russian daydream, burrito eats you). We start to get ourselves in trouble when we imagine things that may be, perhaps setting ourselves up to fail or imposing an unfair set of expectations onto others. I'll get to negative implications of imagination in the context of running in a bit, but first there's one more topic that ought to be brought into the mix before getting there:

Ego.

Anybody who sets out to do something that they see as absurd or difficult has a certain amount of self-worth that drives the idea. If there's no sense of improvement or no self-confidence in approaching a goal it's very likely that nothing significant will come from it. In general, we like to think that we're going to be able to accomplish whatever goal we set, because achieving a goal always feels good. Much like curiosity and imagination, a bit of ego is fine on its own; an un-checked ego is the kind of thing that results in an ill-prepared marathon, frustration, and injury.

The problems arise when we start mixing the three and letting things take a life of their own. When I ran New York, I had the idea in my head that I would qualify for Boston. This was not based on a curiosity, but a figment of my imagination and ego that I parroted to myself enough to accept as fact; this was a huge issue. When I trained for my first marathon I wondered what it would feel like to finish the race, but without any previous experience I kept my daydreaming to a minimum lest I get ahead of myself -- this was not an issue.

I bring these three things up because one of my goals this year is to run my first ultramarathon. More specifically, I'm staring at the JFK 50 miler off in the distance (late November) as a target. I'm not sure why I'm fixating on a 50 miler rather than a 50k, but such is my brain and at this point I'm going along with it. At this point I am so far removed from being in shape for the race that it hasn't become a real thing yet -- but it's there, and it's very real.

My desire to run a race such as JFK is purely a result of curiosity. Simply put, I want to know what will break me; the tinkering curious part of my brain has become fixated on that question. In order to keep my brain from getting out of hand, however, I've got to keep my imagination and ego in check.

Here, ego is the easy part to keep in check. Sure, I've finished four marathons. But I've never finished two in the same month or week, let alone in the same day. I have no idea how to balance race nutrition for a twelve-hour ordeal. I know that I can't just assume that I'll finish a 50 mile race. Finishing will take the kind of resolve that I'm not totally sure that I have -- but there's only really one way to find out.

I'm far more worried about my imagination getting the best of me with this whole endeavor. I know how badly my legs can hurt after a marathon. I know (mostly) how to keep my mind occupied for four hours at a time. But I have no idea what it's going to be like still on my feet after six hours, or how awful I'll feel running singletrack up one of the Appalachian mountains. If I let my imagination run wild, I'll end up with unreal expectations (and if my ego gets involved, I'll make myself overly confident).

The whole notion of running an ultra has a sort of draw that I first felt with the half marathon, and then with the marathon. How much further can I go and still make it out in one piece? It also is terrifying to a certain extent -- being out on my feet for that long, being exposed to the sun for that amount of time, always pushing further and further. But at the same time I'm drawn to it, drawn to the unknown.