The Phoenix Community

Posted by Inside Trail Racing in Blog, Commentary, Uncategorized on Dec 20, 2018

All communities, from ants to the digital sphere, depend on a system of rules and only remain functional as long as its constituents adapt and maintain regularity. These are complex groups that exhibit cooperation and dynamic behavior that result in structure, replication, and progression. The community of ultra-runners is relatively new, though many of its members have enjoyed a long history as outliers in the larger, more popular community of short- to middle-distance runners. Trail-running in particular is often described as a spiritual experience; it is meditative, grounding, and suspends the sometimes obsessive self-focus that drives excessive worry and rumination. Whether it is the feeling of being connected to a far greater natural system, or it is the silencing of a busy mind, being on the trails is rejuvenating. It is this shift in attention that creates a bond that transcends the human relationship and compels one to spend ever more time in this space. But running does get uncomfortable, sometimes to the point of inducing vertigo, muscular fatigue, and even vomiting. Surely these symptoms would deter most people from pursuing long hours on the feet, opting only for maybe 5-9 miles before they return to the routine of their life away from the trails.

Veteran ultra-runners relay anecdotes of independent adventures, self-supported, and endured for no other reason than intrinsic reward and adding value to their lives. It was a community of one, or perhaps two, but these unusual athletes began to find each other, as their extraordinary feats became known in a world that had grown accustomed to lauding speed and promoting the marathon as running’s apogee. This was a period of revelation and growth; runners who did not hit the genetic lottery for speed could compete at an elite level relying on their endurance, while faster runners sought unique challenges that aligned with their identity. Race companies soon recognized this untapped niche and began hosting supported long races, and with the rise of social media, anyone who joined this swelling group of extreme endurance athletes became nourished by public recognition and their atypical ability. Through this shared interest and the specific hardships it delivers, confidence builds, friendships form, purpose mounts, and a network of like-individuals become a unit.

While the ultra-running community has expanded, it has remained relatively small and male-dominated, though more and more women are jumping into training groups and races each year. I’m convinced most people have bodies that can accommodate the demands of an ultra. I would say that physically most of us are unremarkable. What I have come to understand as a female ultra-runner and Race Director is that it is our innate psychological traits and brain anatomy that sets us apart. To finish an ultra, especially a trail ultra, runners do have to be conditioned and possess strong legs and sufficient aerobic capacity and VO2max (maximal oxygen uptake). But this essay will not explore the physiology or nutrition required for ultra-running, rather it is about why and how we tolerate something so time-consuming and painful.

It is seductive to think that we are passive agents in the environment, and “stuff” just happens to us, rather than acknowledge how we seek, choose, modify, and actively engage with our experiences. It’s no coincidence that the ultra-running community is comprised of people with similar attitudes and beliefs. What makes us successful in this sport is also what draws us to it. It is an activity for stimulus-seekers, people who crave novelty, frisson, and dopaminergic stimulation; for those who are independent, competitive, risk-taking, impulsive and, often, prone to addiction. These are dimensions of personality usually assigned to men, but it is important to remember individual differences are not the same as group differences, and plenty of women possess some or all of these characteristics. But sex-linked behavior matters when we are looking at the big-picture of ultra-running and come to see how few women participate. Unlike other sports that have excluded women from competition in the past, ultra-running’s history is shorter and newer, reaching popularity after Title IX was enacted. This sport has been egalitarian from its infancy, and women have simply not faced any barriers. The discrepancy in participation is reduced to preference.

Women are more inclined to run shorter races or events with a heavy social element, such as road marathons, which are usually very populous with runners quite near one another and a cheering crowd, often with signs and big fanfare along the course. This does not discount that women don’t have legitimate goals; it is presented to describe that many women enjoy these activities as social events and are motivated by friends. Much of this preference has to do with evolutionary pressure. Women are smaller, more sensitive to threats and harm, and bear children, thus making them more likely to choose sports that do not deplete energy stores or place them alone and exposed on a trail for too long. At the same time, women have a particular edge when it comes to success in ultra-running, and it stems from one of the evolutionarily driven detractors I just mentioned: child bearing. Women may have a greater ability to suffer because of the pain we are expected to endure during labor. Estrogen, the major female hormone, conserves glycogen stores, and because women produce more of it, they may have superior endurance in long events. Essentially, women are just as capable as men when it comes to ultra-running, and they have plenty of opportunities to race, but on average, they just would rather not. It’s a mistake to expect equal levels of participation, and when freedom of opportunity is high, we will expect to see these differences emerge. Ultra-running women may be endowed with more masculine aspects of personality, but that in no way makes them men or lacking in femininity. We are all individuals, and there is immense crossover between the sexes.

Because extreme endurance exercise is taxing and depleting, our brains send out signals in response to sympathetic nervous system activation. Central governor theory posits that our brains will rein in physical activity such that we will not damage tissues. When we work hard and our heart rate and breathing is maximal, we feel like stopping, even though our muscles have not yet run out of glycogen and ATP is still being produced. Elite athletes are better at regulating their workload and find strategies that allow them to override the discomfort than those who are just beginning a program. Ultra races longer than 50k usually don’t push participants to the high intensity zones for very long due to the nature of the run, however, the perception of intensity increases the longer the heart and other muscles contract. Blisters form, knees hurt, tissues get tight and tear, the gut bleeds–these are legitimate issues for calling it quits, but one of the most significant common traits ultra-runners have is grit. Grit is the ability to persevere when confronted with setbacks, misfortune, and failure; it is quite simply indefatigable determination, and is mostly influenced by genetic inheritance.

Another shared characteristic that contributes to the typical ultra-runner profile is the ability to suffer; these individuals usually have a high pain threshold. Perception of pain is often mediated by context: Being unexpectedly pinched by a sibling is usually unpleasant, but anticipating and being in control of exercise discomfort changes our experience to something close to tolerable. One brain structure, called the insular cortex, is heavily responsible for interoception, the awareness and understanding of the internal state of the body, and integrating perception. In athletes, the insular cortex may be more active, allowing them to assess and predict sensations, which aid performance by effortlessly adapting to upcoming workloads and pacing effort. Being more in tune with the body can assist in fueling appropriately, as hunger and thirst may be recognized earlier.

Although it is highly stigmatized, addiction is pervasive in our society. It comes in many forms, from substance abuse to eating disorders to exercise. It isn’t fair to criticize a person for their lack of will, when they are genetically predisposed and/or have strong neural pathways that need to be altered for their habits to change. Ask anyone who has suffered from addiction and they will express disdain for their dependency; assuming they are weak is both unkind and unhelpful. We have been taught to examine the dangers and dilemmas caused by addiction, but we rarely consider the silver lining of the other end. Some psychological traits that accompany addiction could actually encourage creativity and non-conformity. Many ultra-runners are former addicts, having turned to running in an effort to get healthy. This sport has changed the lives of these individuals by offering them a stable, organized, supportive alternative that elicits some of the same changes in consciousness that caused them to maintain their former addiction. These folks have a greater need for dopamine and thrill, and their minds are generally whirling and active, which makes ultra-running and its community a welcome place for them. Ultras quiet the mind and move attention away from the past and future to being anchored in immediate problem solving, making us less self-referential and more present. Every ultra is essentially a puzzle that has infinite solutions, but they all involve fortitude and mental durability. After the first couple of hours, the mind has no time for negative thoughts, as its focus is on willing the body to continue to place one foot in front of the other. It forces us to think about what matters right now and what it means if we choose to stop.

Why not stop?

Ostensibly, the motivation behind so many ultra-runners is not a monetary reward. Prize purses are usually small and most runners will never receive them. Instead, what inspires this group is a bit like the story of the phoenix. We break our bodies down, strip away our pretenses, and arrive at the core of who we are and who we want to be. We finish as anti-fragile agents, worn but empowered and charged with life. And it is our community that catches us as we reach the finish or fail to make it even half-way through. We see each other as brothers and sisters, as a dynamic bunch who happen to have an appreciation for choosing the harder solution to the problem–to keep going rather than give up.

By Tanya Stahler

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