Traveler's Test

Impossible goes out the window the first time a runner crosses a finish line

Impossible goes out the window the first time a runner crosses a finish line

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It’s the trick every runner falls for: if you can run a 5k, you can run a half-marathon. If you can run a half, you can run a full. Every time a finish line is crossed, the goalposts are moved, taunting runners to keep going.

It’s not a lie. If someone can run 3.1 miles, adding 10 more miles to that isn’t entirely out of reach. It takes training, sure, but it’s not impossible. The fundamental truth of running is that if you can cover even 1 mile, it’s within your power to run 10, 100 or even 1,000. “Impossible” goes out the window the first time a runner crosses a finish line.

Maybe that’s why runners tumble so easily into that next big thing. A finish line is really just a starting line for the next goal. So, by that logic, if you can run a full, you can definitely do an ultramarathon, right? That was the dodgy reasoning that got me into the Pony Express 50 -mile trail run.

For years, I’d admired the low-maintenance coll of ultrarunners. Unlike road racers, who have been known to wear pricey, color-coordinated outfits of moisture-wicking tech materials, ultrarunners often show up in mismatched socks and whatever clothes are clean that day, whether it’s a free tech tee from 1998 5k ‘n’ Vegan Potluck or a flannel shirt. Instead of obsessing over splits, they seem more interested in finding out what the view is like from the top of “the mountain over there”. They eschew gels for cookies, stomp through mud puddles, and think nothing of stopping on the site of the trail to take a power nap. And they always have the most epic stories.

I have friends who have not only run 135 miles through California’s Death Valley, but they have done do in the hottest part of July. When one friend came home from an ultramarathon in Hawaii, she shared the tale of being chased midrace by a wild boar through a dark, slick cave. While crewing at a 100-mile race in Colorado, I learned that one of the race leaders had gradually lost her vision in the final miles of the race, feeling her way through the trail’s rocks, hairpin turns, and obstacles by touch alone.

Every ultrarunner I encountered would spin fantastic and outrageous tales of badassery that had me swooning. They really were the coolest.
“Oh, man,” I would always say. “I wish I could do that.”
And the reply, every time, was always the same: “Well, why don’t you? If you can run a marathon, you can do an ultra.”

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See more in Running Outside the Comfort Zone: An Explorer’s Guide to the Edges of Running by Susan Lacke

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