Seeking Suffering through Ultrarunning
Presented at UX Week 17, 8/29/2017
This is an extended “transcript” of a talk I gave at UX Week 17 in San Francisco on 8/29/17. This isn’t an exact transcript, rather it’s the long form write up I produced prior to the talk.
Instead of having a traditional slide deck for the talk, I had a 25 minute video running in the background of footage I recorded trail running with a handheld gimbal. The footage was described by someone in the session as “…mesmerizing — like being in an art installation.”
I’ve included the background video here. Feel free to open up a second browser window to have it running in the background, while you read the rest of the post. I’ve also included several photos that weren’t part of the original presentation.
In addition to being an interaction designer, I’m also an ultra distance trail runner. What does that mean? That means I like to run distances beyond 26.2 miles on trails (50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, 100 miles, and beyond).
In ultrarunning, there are no shortcuts, there is no blackbox to improvement. There is only hard work and long hours on the trail. You can’t fake it until you make it, or cram before the race.
In the words of Tom Waits, you “got to get behind the mule…in the morning and plow”
As we are getting started today, I want to pause and I want you to take a moment and think about a pivotal moment in your own life. Maybe you think about this all the time or maybe this is the first time you’ve ever considered it. While you are thinking about that, I want to share with you a few of my own.
In the spring of 1984, I was eight years old and my dad comes into my room to wake me up. With tears in his eyes, he tells me that my mom won’t be coming home from the hospital. That she passed away that night from the brain tumor that she’d been fighting. That moment still hangs with me today and has guiding the direction of my life in countless numbers of ways. It has very literally made me the person that I am today and I’m grateful for it.
Fast forward 30 years, and my wife leans over one evening and tells me she wants to train for another half marathon and this time she’d like me to train with her. I begrudgingly agree. You see, I’m 38 at this point, and I’m out of shape. I’d played soccer in my youth, but spent the bulk of my 20’s and 30’s focussing on my career at the expense of my health.
Unlike the first moment that inherently felt life changing, this second decision set in motion things I couldn’t have imagined.
Today, I going to share with you a bit of this journey and the experiences I’ve had over the last 3 years as an ultrarunner. To do this, I want to take you one run with me on one of my home trails in West Michigan, and I want to share some stories about my experiences running in the wild. I’m not an elite runner, so these aren’t all stories of standing on the podium, but stories of adventuring and learning about myself and the human condition.
Okay, here we go. (Start movie)
This will give you a feel for what it’s like to be out on the trails instead of me just telling you about it.
WHAT IS ULTRARUNNING?
One of the best known ultras in North America is the Western States Endurance Run held every summer in the mountains of California. It’s the world’s oldest 100 mile trail run. The race began unofficially back in 1974, when Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse he was going to ride in the 100-mile Tevis Cup horse race came up lame. He decided he still wanted to participate in the “ride” so he set out from Squaw Valley to traverse the course on foot instead of on horseback. 23 hours and 47 minutes later he arrived in Auburn establishing what would become the Western States Endurance Run.
…but this isn’t the first example of ultrarunning, by far…
For that, let’s go back to ancient Greece. How many people have heard the story of Pheidippides running from the battle of Marathon to Athens to report Athenian victory, but this is only part of the story. You see, Pheidippides is a “hemerodrome” or a professional messenger (runner). Before he made the 26 mile run from Marathon to Athens, he first ran to Sparta, a mere 140 miles away in only 48 hours and then after Sparta agreed to help the Athenians, but would be delayed several days until to end of the lunar cycle, he made the same return trip from Sparta to Athens, another 140 miles to inform the Athenians of the Spartan delay. If you are counting that’s ~280 miles in 4 days before he made the 26 mile run to and from Marathon. No this isn’t unheard of in modern times, Karl Meltzer currently has the speed record for running the Appalachian Trail in ~45 days, which is an average of 50 miles per day, every day for 45 days straight.
So, this idea of endurance running is nothing new. There are other sources that indicate that humans were once persistence hunters, meaning they would run down their prey until their prey overheated because they couldn’t stop long enough to cool down.
So, I had these images in my head as I started running, and something about the idea of running far, just appealed to me.
RUNNING AS A PRACTICE
So when I started running consistently a little over 3 years ago, in training for this half marathon with my wife, I had never run more than a 5k. A few weeks into the training program I had to run 5 miles as my “long run” and I thought I was going to die. I literally thought, as I was running, how I’m I going to keep this up? How am I going to get back to where I started? How am I going to run 6 miles next week?
I quickly learned that the be fastest way to progress as a runner (or anything really) was to create a daily practice of running. Now having a practice is different than practicing or training. Having a “practice” means it becomes a mindful routine in your day, and you just do it no matter what. But how do you do this?
I read a couple articles (well, I read a lot trying to get my head around this whole running thing) and I synthesized some of what I read into the idea of “Identity before effort.” Let me explain…
Most of us when we try to adopt a new practice or habit or behavior we put effort before identity, meaning that we think we have to achieve some arbitrary level of effort before we can claim the accompanying identity. Problem is, the arbitrary level of effort is constantly changing, so most of us never achieve the standards required to become a runner, or a designer, or whatever.
However, if we flip the script and put Identity before Effort, then everything just falls into place. When its wet and cold outside we go for a run, because that’s what runners do, and I’m a runner now, because I’ve appropriated that identity. And if I don’t run for a day, that’s okay, or I don’t reach my training goal one week, I’m still a runner. With this approach of “Identity before Effort” the goal line doesn’t move. You are a runner and you do what runners do, you run.
“Okay” you might say, “that’s great, Erik” but how do I appropriate the identity of a runner (or whatever)? Great question.
There are few little tricks you can use. It’s all about culture, ritual, and totems. If you can create small rituals that integrate into your life that reinforce the identity and behavior you are appropriating, then it is easier to imagine yourself in this new identity. For me this meant having my running shoes and shorts next to my bed so it was the first thing I saw every morning and the last thing I saw in the evening. I had a physical copy of my training plan on the refrigerator and I had a magnet that I had to move every day to indicate what day it was. The location of the plan made it prominent, but the daily physical interaction made it meaningful.
Though these cultural mechanisms (among others) I was able to easily maintain my program until something in my mind flipped and I started to actually enjoy running, enjoy being outside away from my computer, away from all the day to day of life and just run. I was no longer “practicing” or training, but I was now developing what I call a “practice of running.” Around the same time I started feeling like I had super powers, I could get up and do things I didn’t used to think were possible, and now today to the idea of running a marathon, which used to seem so impossible is now a regular Saturday morning trail run that I don’t really prepare for.
But this all takes time, consistency, and hard work. Every day, you’ve got to get behind the mule and plow.
I’ve been running for a little over three years now, and that first year I managed to run two half marathons. Right around my one year anniversary of running, we moved to West Michigan and I ran my first trail marathon. There I connected with the local trail running community and my love for the trails and for longer distances bloomed.
I always had a desire to run long. Even before I ran my first half marathon, I had a desire to run a 100 miler. Some of my wife’s friends, who were long time runners sort of scoffed at me and said, “maybe he should run a marathon first before he starts talking about 100 milers.”
I didn’t listen to them an kept on my path of doing what I was doing. Running, listening to and learning about my body and how it adapted to the stress of running.
2 years ago (October 2015) I ran my first official ultra. A 6 hour timed race on a 4 mile trail loop, in which you run as many loops as you can in the allotted time. That day I ran 36 miles. Fast forward another year, I had run a few more ultras and was getting ready to run one of my favorite local races, The Yankee Springs Winter Challenge, which is a 50 mile run in West Michigan in early January regardless of weather.
Well, this past year, there was snow falling and the temperatures barely inched into double digits in the early afternoon. Now, I like running in the cold, but it wasn’t long before my water bottles were frozen and I’d need to rely on aid stations along the course for any water. One of the first lessons I learned running ultras, is the need to adapt when (not if) things don’t go as planned.
Like I said, I like running in the cold, but I do have a major issue which is that its very difficult for me to keep my hands warm. It usually takes me a mile or two to get my hands warmed up. This means over the course of 9 hours running in single digit temps, I probably spent 2–3 hours of that time with numb or excruciatingly painful fingers.
During the course of the race, there was no way for me to not have my hands be in pain, I needed to come to terms with the pain, acknowledge it and move forward. The only thing (outside of quitting) was to run to keep them warm. And when I stopped to eat or drink, I knew I would have 15–20 minutes of pain in my hands if my body cooled down too much.
After 9 hours of running like this, I finally crossed the finish line in 2nd place overall and 1st place masters (over 40).
When you are running ultras, you learn to quickly assess what you can and can’t control. Then you do what you can and let go of the rest.
ULTRAS WILL HUMBLE ANYONE AND EVERYONE
Even elite runners have bad days when things go very badly either physically or mentally or both. These experiences will humble you quickly and break down any pretense you may have and completely strip you bare.
This past May I had the pleasure of running a workshop and giving a talk at UX Lisbon. Of course, I looked online and there happened to be a 100k (~64 miles) mountain race the weekend before. So I went over a few days early to run in the mountains. But more on that later…
Okay, if you aren’t familiar with Michigan geography, I live on the west side of the state near Lake Michigan (across the lake from Chicago) and while it is beautiful there, we decidedly do not have mountains. The race I would be running in Portugal, UTSM (or the Ultra Trail Sao Mamede) has 15,000+ feet of elevation gain total with individual, steep, sustained climbs well over a couple 1000 feet each. That’s approximately 12–13 times up and down the Empire State Building over the course of the 64 mile loop. How was I going to train this? Well, I did what I could locally, but I just couldn’t simulate the long, sustained climbs until spring break this year.
We rented a cabin in North Carolina, and I decided I would run a self supported 40 mile stretch of the Appalachian Trail near our Cabin from Davenport Gap to Hot Springs over 3 or 4 mountains and 10,000+ feet of elevation gain. This is a notoriously difficult stretch of the trail and I thought it would be good training for my run in Portugal. As it turned out, our cabin was nearly right in the middle of this section.
I ran a 17 mile test run from our cabin up to the top of Max Patch (the midway point of my upcoming AT run) and back. This run had a long sustained climb of about 3,000 ft. It went well, I was feeling confident and excited.
I ran a 17 mile test run from our cabin up to the top of Max Patch (the midway point of my upcoming AT run) and back. This run had a long sustained climb of about 3,000 ft. It went well, I was feeling confident and excited.
Two days later, my family drove me to the trailhead at Davenport Gap and dropped me off with the plan of picking me up that afternoon, 40 trail miles later in Hot Springs sometime that afternoon. As we were driving to the trailhead, my 8 year old daughter starts to get car sick on all the twisty-turny mountain roads. With a grunt from the back seat, we peel over to the side of the road and she barely makes it out of the car before she throws up. After a few minutes, she’s feeling better and we continue on our way. In retrospect, I should have taken this as an omen of day to come, but little did I know what was about to happen that day.
Everything was going well, the weather was good. I summited the first two peaks and made it to the mid-point, Max Patch for lunch pretty much on schedule. However, the afternoon would take a turn on the back side of Max Patch.
Coming down the mountain the AT empties out on the some two-track or jeep road. I had looked at a map of the route and it looked like the AT followed a short road section and I thought this might be it. After about a half mile of downhill running I stopped seeing the white blazes of the AT and started seeing signs for another trail. I finally made the decision to turn around and back track up the hill to where the AT emptied out onto the road. Sure enough, I’d missed the AT trail entrance on the other side of the road. Back on track now with two more big climbs in front of me.
As I summited the last peak, the trail was getting more sparse as most of the thru-hikers and day-hikers were off the trail and setting up camp for the evening. I also realized I’d stopped eating and couldn’t stomach to eat any of the food I still had with me. I started slowing down and was having trouble even running the downhills. This wasn’t looking good.
At Garenflo Gap, I saw a sign that read 6.6 miles to Hot Springs. This is about the length of a normal daily run for me, but it felt unsurmountable on the empty trails as the sun was starting to move towards the horizon. I had to get there, I didn’t have another option. My family was waiting for me. I just had to keep moving forward.
Finally, I got to a point about 2 miles outside of Hot Springs. I was nearly there, but I couldn’t move. I was nauseous and hunched over on the side of the trail. Then it happened, I felt it coming up. I started vomiting on the side of the trail. Now this part of the trail was on the side of slope. I quickly moved over to the low side of the trail and lay down on the moss as I continued to vomit. I wanted to lay there for hours, for ever. But I couldn’t. I finally stopped vomiting, and stood back up, and then slowly moving down the trail. I even started running again.
With renewed spirit and a growing desire to be finished I moved towards my destination, my family, and my ride home in Hot Springs. About a mile outside of Hot Springs you and see and hear the town and you continue to descend towards it. The feeling of finishing that run with my kids running down the sidewalk of Hot Springs towards me as I emerged from the outskirts of town was amazing and heartwarming. It’s difficult to even describe what that it feels like.
On the trail, you will have highs and lows. You will be broken, but you learn that you can move through it and be reborn. Your emotions will undulate like the ups and downs of the trail beneath your feet.
BE IN THE NOW
After my adventures on the Appalachian Trail, I was humbled and undertrained going into UTSM in Portugal in May, but the thrill of running overseas in a new area was exhilarating. We arrived the day before the race and made our way a couple hours east of Lisbon. Scott Sullivan, who was also running a workshop at UXLisbon came over early with me to “crew” for me, meaning he would drive around and meet me at the aid stations to help where he could.
The race started at midnight in a stadium in Portalegre and made a big loop through the countryside of eastern Portugal (and a mile in Spain) connecting several small towns, mountain peaks and medieval fortified cities. We had 24 hours to cover the 64 miles and 15,000+ feet of elevation gain along the course. I had run this distance once before, but on a much flatter course.
Over the course of the day, the elevation, heat, and mostly exposed course took it’s toll on me. I arrived into the aid station (Castelo de Vide) around mile 48 totally broken. I was overheated and dehydrated. I came in at least an hour later than expected, and I think Scott was starting to worry about me.
All I could think about was finding some shade and rehydrating. At this point Scott says I was incoherent. I don’t think I was muttering anything more that single word answers when I would respond. I started thinking about DNF’ing, which in ultra circles stands for Did Not Finish. I was thinking of dropping from the race.
As I sat there trying to regain my composure and my wits, I knew I still had plenty of time before time cutoffs would be an issue. I knew I could sit there for literally hours and still have time to get back to the track at Portalegre before midnight. In my head, I started to let go of the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world around us. The negative stories about the preceding hours or the anticipation of the hours to come. I started to focus my mind on the present moment, like a series of snapshots, trying to assess how I was doing, in that moment. I needed fluids, and electrolytes, and shade to cool down. Perfect. I had all those things. Now just sit and reassess. I did that for at least 45 minutes until I started to feel better. Until I started to feel like I could move again. Finally, I was moving again. I would have to go through this process again at another aid station before finally crossing the finish line after 18.5 hours of being on the trail.
So, thank you Scott for being their to witness the carnage, and for letting me work through it and not making me stop.
That day, I learned stories are the way we makes sense of the world around us, both what’s behind us and what’s in front of us. When we are in a negative place, those stories can sabotage us and trick ourselves into thinking we aren’t capable of accomplishing what we set out to do. However, if we focus on the present moment, we can keep moving forward.
The SEAL’s have a 40% rule, which essentially means most people feel physically and mentally maxed-out when they’ve reached 40% of their actual capacity. Going beyond this 40% is when things become uncomfortable.
IF YOU WANT TO GO FAST GO ALONE, BUT IF YOU WANT TO GO FAR GO TOGETHER
This summer I had the pleasure of crewing and pacing a friend and local running partner at the Bighorn 100 mile run in Wyoming. This meant while he was running 100 miles on the trail through the mountains, we would be driving ~400 miles around and through the mountain range schlepping gear to and from aid stations and then hopefully running one or two of the later sections of the run with him.
As we were driving into town the day before the race we decided to do a test drive into the most remote aid station, which required a mile hike from where we could park the truck and scouted out part of the course lovingly called the wall, because you ascend several thousand feet over the course of a couple miles up to a ridge line. It was a beautiful day, the weather was gorgeous and while the trail was steep, it was manageable. And the views were amazing as you climb out of this canyon up to the ridge line above.
The run started uneventfully at 10AM the next day, and my friend Jeff was on pace and moving quickly through the first two crew accessible aid stations at mile 16 and 32. However, this would change as he started the 18 mile climb from Sally’s Footbridge to the top of Jaws and the turn around point of the race.
In the mountains, the weather can change in an instant. During that climb the temperature dropped and the rain started falling. The course got muddy and cold.
We were waiting at the top of the mountain for Jeff to arrive as the sun started to set. The rain was still coming down and darkness was rolling in. Runner after runner slowly emerged from the darkness and the aid station at the top of the mountain quickly turned into triage center. Runners were coming in near hypothermic, and about as many runners were dropping as those who would emerge from the aid station to venture back down the mountain into the muddy darkness.
Jeff finally arrived, only 30 minutes or so after his expected arrival, but he was pretty frozen. He had taken a risk and run light out of the last aid station and was unprepared for the weather to turn before he made it to the top.
We stayed with him in the aid station for the next hour and a half at least, getting him warmed up, cleaned up and dried off. During this time, he fell asleep several times in the chair trying to get warm. However, in an amazing turn of events, an acquaintance who Jeff had met briefly at a previous race the year before came into the aid station about 30 minutes behind him. He sat down next to Jeff and we helped him too as he didn’t have crew.
They recovered together at the top of the mountain and decided to descend together. As the old saying goes, if you want to go fast go alone, but if you want to go far go together.
They would end up running the remaining 50 miles together and I had the pleasure of running with them for the last 18 miles of the course from Dry Fort aid station to the finish line, where they would finish in just under 30 hours.
But it wasn’t just Jeff and Kurt that finished together that day, the top four finisher of the race all crossed the finish line together in a tie for first place as they had all relied on each other in various ways to just make it through the day.
This also happened last year at Hardrock 100 (arguably one of the hardest 100 mile runs in North America), where two elite runners, Killian Jornet and Jason Schlarb finished the race together, hand in hand.
Another amazing thing about Hardrock 100 is what they call the golden hour, which is the last hour before the 48 hour cutoff for the race. Many of the elite runners come back out to the finish line to cheer on the final runners coming in before the final cutoff time. The meaning comes less from your time and pace than it does from the shared journey and hardship regardless of the time it took you to finish. Everyone is part of the family.
The ultra community is first and foremost about uplifting each other and the celebration of the shared experience, as opposed to being about competition and winning at all costs.
How would our world be different if more of us celebrated the success of others and worked to make sure everyone had an opportunity to succeed?
While I love these races and adventure runs, I actually spend much more time on my local trails sharing time and miles with friends. And when you share long miles with people in a condition that can be very raw, there is no time for pretense. You can quickly find yourself in very personal and vulnerable conversations with near strangers, which can be scary and liberating a world seemingly filled with and increasing amount of social media facade.
Just the other week, someone joked that they would send me the bill for the therapy session after we found ourselves talking about family relationships and the death of mother and the impact it’s head on my life all in the context on a long run on Saturday morning (on this very trail from the background video). I don’t think they know how meaning fun that was for me, but I cherish those times and the small moments and decisions in my life that have reverberating impacts.
For me, ultra trail running is a place of compassionate connections, and for that I am grateful.
I don’t believe that everyone should become ultra runners, but I do believe that all of us should find those things in our life that challenge us and make us uncomfortable, and that we should push through them to find growth and fulfillment on the other side.