I have a marathon left to go, and 10 hours to do it in. My feet are pretty beat up. But… the rest of me feels kind of OK, uh, so I’m just going to keep going until I don’t feel OK. And then I’m going to keep going until I’m done.” - Eugene Day, Hamster Endurance 2022
I used that as the starting quote for my race report for Hamster Endurance 2022 because I thought it was such a pithy insight into the enterprise of running an ultramarathon.
First, Eugene tells us that his feet are pretty beat up. That’s par for the course, and I saw his feet at the end and they were, indeed, pretty messed up. And yet he tells us that the rest of him feels kind of OK. This is a peculiar sort of ‘OK’. He’s kind of OK, which means he’s not really OK but he’s sufficiently OK to carry on.
And he can see forward into the future enough to see that, shortly, he will no longer be even kind of OK. He’ll be not OK. He has a plan, though, for what he’ll do when he reaches that point; he’ll keep going until he’s done.
If I were forced to pick one mental experience that is central to running an ultramarathon, that would be it: you come to the realization that you can keep going after you are no longer OK.
There was a big effort a while back to round up funding so that some elite African marathoners could be given a chance to run an ultramarathon. In one story from this effort, the marathoner was running an ultra, leading the race, and announced he needed to stop because his toe hurt. The ultrarunners who were crewing for him insisted he was winning, he was doing great, carry on despite. And the marathoner was adamant. His toe hurt. He had to stop.
No elite marathoner is a stranger to pain. Elite marathon running pretty much has to be all about pain at the end of the race, because if you’re not willing to run so hard it hurts, the other runners will run so hard it hurts and win. An elite marathoner is not going to insist he’s not OK just because it hurts. Yet somehow this was different pain, pain that was outside his ‘normal’ running pain experience. I’m not suggesting this runner was a wimp. He supports his family by running marathons. He can’t afford to risk an injury that would mean he might not be able to run. I’m just pointing out that, like most of the world, this runner ran until he was no longer OK, and then he was adamant that he must stop.
Running an ultramarathon is about reaching the point where you are no longer OK and then… continuing until you are done.
So my experience at Hamster was frustrating. My stomach troubles started surprisingly early but I managed to continue. The stomach issues certainly kept me from going faster, but since I was trying to hold a slow steady pace to avoid provoking the injured hamstring, that wasn’t a problem. And then, just as I got the stomach problem sorted out, the hamstring flared up.
I’d pretty carefully considered that I’d end up in this situation before the race, because I knew when I got to that point, I’d be pretty compromised cognitively and so I wanted to make the decision in advance. The race this year was, for me, sort of like playing pool. It’s not just about getting the balls in the pockets, it’s also about where the cue ball comes to rest. I wanted to come out of the race uninjured, because I can’t face going through the darkness of winter unable to run - experience has taught me that’s a formula for horrible depression.
The decision I made in advance of the race was that if the hamstring flared up past a 2 on the 1-10 scale of pain, I’d pull the plug. At the end of that 26th lap, on the flat, it was probably between a 3 and 4, so when I got to the aid station, I pulled the plug.
Could I have continued? Yes, I could have continued. I had 26 laps = 67.6 miles done. So I needed 13 laps = just under 34 miles to get a buckle. I suspect that if I had fully committed, just put my head down and gritted out the laps, I could have gotten it done.
I’d run as long as I was OK, and then when I was ‘not OK’ I stopped. It turns out stopping like this is a particularly unsatisfying way to end a race.