‘Musings from an Ultra-Marathon’
A Personal Reflection by Isaac Chang
M3 Director, Co-Founder, Strength and Conditioning Coach
I’ve been asked by recreational runners, daily gym-goers, and the seemingly interested in what possibly could drive ANY human to run an Ultramarathon. In hindsight, I’m certain I asked myself that exact question.
Allow for a quick intro — My name is Isaac, and running has enriched my life in ways I can never comprehend.
Growing up in Sydney, Australia means one of many things — You can explore Mother Nature at its best or visit your local Westfield doing well, you know. . . biding time? Though the answer may seem obvious, human behaviour is a peculiar mystery. And that mystery, I find, is what led me to run an Ultramarathon.
Running for a very very long time is definitely not for the faint of heart. It requires a very disciplined training schedule, many early rises, and a constant war between convincing the mind that the body is okay.
But this still does not address the aforementioned introduction — What possibly could drive ANY human to run an Ultramarathon? Well, of all the joy, determination, pain and suffering I have put my body through, these are the honest words of a man digging deep into his soul to muster: because I can. And this is life’s biggest truth — your will to do anything is directly proportional to your will to do it.
102km is a peculiar mystery.
Why that number?
Why do it?
Why? Why? Why?
Is that not the problem? Why do we have to keep asking why? Because it’s consensus. And we’re programmed to believe that any decision must begin with a logical introduction. But then you miss life’s biggest mystery. That every great story to come out of life begins with uncertainty, randomness, and chaos. What follows, in this instance, is a courageous soul that can guide another to be even more courageous.
Play Before Work
On the eve of Race Day, your mind and body are at peace. It has to be. You cannot possibly squeeze out any further training adaptations. You have done everything you were supposed to do. What then remains, you may ask?
A Benjamin Button-esque thought experiment:
Remember the days when I ran simply for the act of running?
Like a child who does not know the difference between a training run or race day, they just play.
And this is a major pitfall on modern fitness — we’ve forgotten the meaning of play.
As a fond reader of philosophy, Mark Rowlands puts it as such:
“In running, the goal is to get from A to B — or to get from being at A at a given time to also being at A at a later time, if you begin and end at your own house — and there are various ways of achieving this pre-lusory goal: driving, walking, cycling. Indeed, if the goal is to get from A to A, then all you need to do is stay put. To run is to voluntarily choose a relatively difficult way of achieving this pre-lusory goal. This is true of games in general, not just running games: to play a game is to adopt a (relatively) difficult way of achieving a goal that could, in principle, always be achieved by other, less difficult, means. We do this precisely so we can engage in the activity of achieving the goal in this way: we do it precisely so we can play the game. All running can be play — it depends on why one does it. In fact, it seems I must go further than this. The essence of running is play — play is what running essentially is — and even when one runs for other, specific, reasons, play keeps continually reasserting itself at the heart of running. Running may be hard, but when it is done properly it is not hard work. Play can be hard too — as hard as any work.”
Upon glancing at the beautiful lakes of Rotorua, I found myself reminiscing on my childhood and the joy it gave me to be liberated on my own two feet. To not wonder about where they were going to take me, but just knowing that they were. Not worrying about the cadence, heart rate, and pace, but if my heart was content. Am I dragging my own feet to keep pushing, or is the enduring nature simply another reason to smile about?
This became my solace.
Grit, Will, and a Story
As we examined the philosophical breakdown of why we run, I cannot ignore other positions the mind must conjure up to endure such a painful event. As mentioned, one must have sheer will.
After five dreadful cramps (each lasting anywhere between 15–20 minutes), two heavily bleeding blisters, and almost falling off the track course, the power of will always seems to be the hot topic around the dinner table after an event this. We’re wired and geared into such proclivity that we miss the forest for the trees. Nevertheless, a bit of grit should always receive credit. It is, by the way, 102km after all.
In this particular part of the muse, I found myself repeating these words at multiple intervals throughout the race: get some scars and tell a damn good story!
You see, without this will, I don’t have scars. And without these scars, I have no story. And without a story, you cannot inspire someone else to do the same.
For the historian kind, Yuval Noah Harari speaks on this exact concept — that why human beings have sat on top of the animal kingdom is our ability to share information at higher levels of consciousness than our counterparts. As such, storytelling becomes one of these higher forms.
I’ve been gifted the ability to have a curious sense of how the human body functions. So much so that the world of performance, strength, and conditioning has been my choice of formal studies and act of service for the last 10 years. For me, this will continue to be a goal for many years to come. To guide that ‘one more’ to the mystery that awaits them.
Love Trumps All
I remember clearing my second last aid station, sitting in immense pain, digging deep to find every possible ounce of energy I could find to complete the race. And then the tragic news came — “do you have your jacket and headlamp?”. This was because, by this time of the race, the night’s temperature in Rotorua gets extremely cold in a matter of moments when entering more inland. Previous runners in previous competitions have ended up in quite dire situations where medical assistance was required.
My heart and will quite literally sank into a hole, and all doubt crept in — “No.” I replied. At that moment, I realised that I had forgotten to pack my jacket and request it to be placed at the aid station.
“We cannot let you continue the race. It is a requirement to have one.”
Quickly scoffing down my only slice of pizza (to give further context, my Garmin had read 6500 calories burned, so you can imagine when writing this how agitated I had become), I asked the lady — “What if I run my ass off now and hit the last aid station by the cut off time?”
“Boy, you’re going to have run very quick.”
And there came that last ounce of energy I needed — an obligation to hit the last station with the greatest 10km split I needed my body to drive out. And boy, was I flying. For those familiar in the Running community, picture this: 80km in, second last aid station, only one slice of pizza consumed and told to run the fastest 10km of my life, on the Trails! Not a bloody road run, a Trail!
Time = 37:00 minutes. How did this happen? Ha. Who bloody knows. After 80km in, you sure as hell don’t think this is achievable. But then again, Running and the body does some pretty remarkable things. I guess it kind of helps, looking back, that one of my pet peeves is being late. So. . . maybe that?
Then came the last aid station, and my body began entering a quasi-hypothermic state. I enjoy the cold in general, but this was something else. Uncontrollable tremor, headaches, numbness. It was all present and very real.
Then came the miracle of all miracles. A wonderful Turkish gentleman greeted me and asked me if I needed a jacket. Without any hesitation, I took up the offer. He also noted how pathetic my headlamp was. Then he flexed and showed me his. He basically had a torch. Pretty sure this was going to be my saving grace.
“Want to finish this damn thing together?” He asked.
“LET’S GO!” We both yelled.
And off we went.
This part here was the greatest end to such a grueling event I could’ve asked for. By this point, my blisters had covered both my feet in blood; I could feel the bath of it moving around with each step. My cramps settled back in (I just ran the fastest split of my life). And my nutrition was on the verge of complete depletion. And then my Turkish friend went into a long monologue about how when I visit Turkey, he will greet me with his culture, food, and family (we never spoke about me visiting Turkey. He just assumed it was going to happen. By this point, ladies and gentlemen, there is a lot of hallucination).
Anyway, we laughed on matters your imagination can wander.
“I cannot wait to see my beautiful wife at the finish line.” My friend had sporadically said.
And this right here was what I meant about the greatest end to such a gruelling event I could’ve asked for — “Are you married?” He asked. “No,” I replied. “Make sure one day you do.”
He had extended the following: “I don’t really know why I chose to run this Ultramarathon. But my wife did. She had said how much I enjoy it and will be with me every step of the way. When you see me at the finish line, I will comfort you with my love, food, and care. Because in agony and anguish, I know you will do the same.”
You will never see a more distorted imagery of two men crying, looking the way we did, whilst trying to control the other stressors of withholding cramps, to name one a few. But by this time, we didn’t care about the pain anymore. The words of love can conquer mountains.
Upon stumbling across the finish line, there she was. I couldn’t help but stand there in joy, watching these two beautiful humans greet each other the way they did. And it was in that moment that I had totally forgotten my own accomplishment, my why, and subconsciously focused it on another person. He never really ran for himself. He ran for her. He runs because he knows that what follows is a greater sense of love that can be endured with his partner. Another story. Another boring conversation to sit through. But it is her love for her husband that she would want nothing else but to listen to it all over again. For it is in the simplest of acts that love is born again and again and again. An effort to the end.
14 hours later, love became my theme, muse, and life’s biggest lesson. Without it, nothing is possible. With it, everything is possible.