Running is the ultimate solo sport. It’s the heart of simplicity; throw on some shorts and shoes and head out the door. Go when you want, for as long as you want. You don’t have to join a team, then wait until the right weekday evening to meet up and play. You don’t have to call or email anyone else, trying to find a time on the weekend when you’re both free. You just… run.
Out on the road or the trail, your time and thoughts are your own. There are no plays to memorize, no score to pay attention to. The minutes and hours pass deep inside your own head. The peaceful freedom is yours and yours alone. You are the runner. You, and only you, are running. Except, of course, that’s not nearly the whole story. Running, and especially training for and racing in ultramarathons, is most definitely a deep, personal journey. You must tap into your own wells of strength and perseverance that you didn’t know you possessed. But are you really alone? The answer is a resounding no.
Anyone who has raced in an ultramarathon knows the first line of help, assistance, and companionship out on the trail are the aid station workers. These tireless volunteers stand around in all manner of tough conditions, heat and cold, rain and wind. The provide food and drink, a place to lie down, and plenty of smiles and morale boost to those of us in need. And when you’ve been trail running for 6, 12, 24, or even 30 hours, you are most definitely in need.
Speaking of tireless volunteers, what about the ultrarunner’s crew? They spend hours driving, then sitting and waiting, all to get 15 minutes with an ill tempered, bad smelling runner before the next bout of driving and waiting. At the end of a race, a successful runner gets all manner of goodies: belt buckles, t-shirts, glasses, and more. The crew just gets to finally go to bed.
How alone is a runner after he picks up a pacer? The pacer waits for who knows who long at an aid station for his runner to arrive, all to deal with a runner at the edge of their endurance. So the pacer provides all the moral support and encouragement of a crew member, but does it while running a marathon or more of their own mileage. All while monitoring their runner’s nutrition, pace, and overall mental state. Their reward for their efforts is being able to take a handful of M&M’s from aid stations in passing.
Crew and pacers can only help a runner once they arrive at a race. Getting to the starting line of an ultramarathon takes many months of training and preparation. Long, frequent training runs need to fit into day to day schedules, so runners must draw on the support of family and friends who understand their passion. Missed dinners, alarm clocks set for odd times, and shopping trips for yet another pair of shoes all must be accepted and embraced by spouses and partners.
And during those months of training, how many runs really live up to the lone wolf archetype? Running partners and training groups are incredibly common, and social media allows for sharing of every vital stat and selfie with a running community even when a runner is ostensibly alone. Even when solo at the time of the run, an ultrarunner’s training regimen was likely influenced by many sources, whether from their own research and reading or from the mentoring and guidance provided by a coach.
Running is still the ultimate solo sport. It is absolutely essential that anyone who runs an ultramarathon is comfortable inside their own head. Spending hours on the trail with only your thoughts for company is unavoidable for those who run and race at 50 kilometers and beyond. But likewise, ultramarathon running is most certainly not done alone. So many contribute, from race volunteers to crew and pacers, from family and friends to training partners and coaches. We can celebrate the dual nature of running and love both aspects, but we can’t deny that running an ultramarathon is most definitely a team sport.