Does Ultraunning Promote Health and Fitness?

Tired runner

It’s my contention, especially after having varied my activities greatly over the last few months, that while there is great variety in ultrarunners and ultrarunning participant intent, none of it really has much to do with health and fitness.

“What? He’s an idiot”, you might be saying. That’s ok, you’re kinda right, I’m not very smart, but I digress…

50-Mile Ultramarathon

Let’s look at a 50-mile ultra. While there is an elite field, typically of very small, efficient runners, running continuously for the duration of the event, and doing so without tremendous trauma to the body, the majority of runners on the course are either shot-out by 30 miles in, walking a ton, maybe limping, or at the very least, working around some kind of overuse injury that’s flaring up.

They may or may not choose to continue to endure this trauma until the finish.

Depends on how bad they want it.

Fitness or Fight?

In my opinion of one, this is not participating in activity for health and fitness benefit. Nor is training like this a key to improved health and fitness.

Does it make one stronger?

Perhaps.

Depends on your definition of “stronger”. If stronger means both physical and mental ability to endure pain, then yea, I guess so – but if stronger means better and more efficient adaptation to perform well, then I would say, no. Instead, you put yourself in a position of needing more recovery, allowing for less quality workouts, and thus a sort of stagnant athletic performance improvement.

Room with a View

Standing on the outside a little now, I see the close relationship between ultrarunning and addiction. NOT EVERYONE, but I do see the undertones that I perhaps did not recognize before. From the social aspects, to feeling a need to abuse oneself within a venue of others, who are also absuing themselves and thus making it seem ok – or even better, “as an extreme sport”

But like the Jurek article showcased a few years ago in Runners World, its hard to view it as sport from the outside perspective, late in a race, when physical bodies, in poor, untrained physical shape, are walking and leaning, barely covering ground, and simply enduring for hours on end.

It’s a resilience and determination worth applauding, but is it athletic sport? Is it performance?

This is the grey area where a lot of ultrarunners stand up and start screaming – “who are you to tell me how to enjoy my sport?!” – and – “Ultraunning is very personal and can be defined however I want”

And flames start between the “yea, leave us alone” crowd, and the “well, you know, 15 hours on a 50 mile course is not racing” crowd.

Fragmentation of “Sport”

I believe this is what makes ultrarunning a very fragmented, varied sport. Less respected by athletes of the popular definition, and way respected by those who only have a very small understanding of what true ultra event participation isreally like, and what really goes on.

In the end, I guess its true. It’s a personal thing. Some, like me and my experiences, have addictive personalities and dove head first into ultrarunning, seem to progress a little, but suffer a lot, and flame out over and over (just like Rob Y. warned me).

Others, take to the sport, learn they have a knack for it up front, in the elite pack, and choose to become racers – but always struggle with the “when will we be recognized as real athletes with real winnings?” — interestingly, there appears to be a lot of burn-out and injury here, too.

Then, there is a more “life long” crowd. These people stay attached to the sport because they genuinely like it – the people, the challenges, the long excursions outdoors – but they never seem to take it too seriously. The non-addicts. They jump in and out when the feeling hits, try to train reasonably for a finish, and rarely judge the performance based on anything other than how they felt about the entire experience.

I guess, in 2013, this is the ultrarunner I strive to be. There are some events, like Zane Grey 50-mile, like Fuego Y Agua 100K, that I want to do for very personal reasons, knowing full well I will have a mind-blowing experience that will wreck me to complete exhaustion, regardless of how well I’m trained.

But, not for one single second will I believe that any of my training beyond 20 miles is really fitness training – and in fact, I will view it as counterproductive to becoming the strongest, fittest and healthiest that I can become.

With regards to physical movement (i.e. exercise), strength, fitness and optimal health comes from a variety of functional training, from a variety of styles and adaption, and NOT specialization in one movement or activity.

 

Shock at the Jungle Cup

First of all, I guess I should start an obstacle racing race report website since clearly these aren’t ultramarathons, and that’s what people expect at this site.

Stay tuned for Obstaholics.com, but in the meantime…

The 2012 Jungle Cup Race Results

Let’s Get Ready to Jungle


photo: chillin’ with some local obstacle racer pals. Scored 7th AG, 32nd Overall.

I’ll admit I went into this race with little positive expectations. The reviews were really bad, and after racing Spartan races, the bar has already been set pretty high for me.

Let’s face it – I’m not a team-building guy when it comes to these events. I enjoy times with friends and I’ll help others along the way, and accept help from others, as certain obstacles call for it, but I like to race, and if we both approach a cargo net together, you can bet your butt I will work hard to get up and over it before you do – both because I’m competitive, but also because of the fact that I have a paralyzed diaphragm, and my weakness, and where you’ll catch me afterwards, is during the run.

Rope climbing

Less Obstacles, More Running

The Jungle Cup race was what I call organic.

There were a lot of man-made objects, but they did a really good job of using the surrounding terrain, too, to create obstacles that felt functional and “real world”-challenging. Most of the man-made obstacles were at both the beginning and end of the race, with the remaining long stretches winding through lots of ups-n-downs and technical single-track trail at the Conyers Horse Park, home of the first-ever Olympic mountain biking course in the world.

On the difficulty scale, this one was a 5 out of 10. I was tired at the end, but that’s because my boy Matt B. Davis, star of the famous obstacle racing podcast, was pushing me a little more than I wanted during the run. We both later shared stories of, “well, if you were going to run the hill, I was too…”-kinda stuff that always seems to get a dude in trouble. Hash tag – ego.

Did I Say Organic?

“So is the course marked well”, I asked.

“I think so.” said the race volunteer at the start. “This is our first time out of Miami and not many of our volunteers showed up.”

uh-oh.

But not to worry. No one got lost, and although I lead our heat a few times, I never made any wrong turns, or took people off course …well, not too off course.

A Blazing Beginning

Our heat was so small compared to other races, so the start felt more intimate with lots of hand-shaking and “good luck” nods. We took off across the chip-timed mats and headed across a field to the first obstacle – a short, 5 foot wall that I leaped without really even thinking about it. Being used to Spartan, I found it a little lame there was just this one lone wall, but it was sort of there to introduce the next section of technical trail, I think.

We ran through some trail and jeep road, and a dude named JD joins me upfront. He moves ahead and hits the freezing-cold water river before me. The water was, at most, waist deep, but it was really cold and murky, so the footing was slow and deliberate.

After popping out of the water, we ran up to stack of logs where we had to carry them up a short hill, circle a stake in the dirt and return. Once again, after experiencing Spartan sandbag nightmares, coupled with the concrete block carry and tire-flipping obstacles, this log thing at Jungle Cup was a piece of cake. I ran with mine.

More fun single-track led us to a sandbag carry, negotiating a weird, horizontal net, then descending into some cold water, traversing the water while a photographer fired off photos, and then ascending a muddy, slippery bank to return the sandbag, before running again up a nice li’l uphill.

Technical Trail Trotting

This must be where they had trouble getting volunteers, but what the course lacked over the next miles in obstacles, it made up for in good ol’ technical trail running. Tight turns, quick steep climbs, slippery sketchy downhills, and plenty of downed trees to scramble over and across.

But it was during this section where I found the coolest obstacles of the day – the rope rappel.

The trail skirted this HUGE drop-off, maybe 100 feet, and volunteers would stop us so we didn’t just run right off the edge, into nowhere. They had placed a couple ropes, down this VERY steep, and long, drop-off. It was a little intimidating to look at, but I tend to be strong at things like this, and I had a great time getting myself to the bottom …but, then, we ran a few feet past, and realized we had to then climb back up using another rope.

I loved this, but think it would be most cool and challenging if they would have had a series of those. Down-n-up once was challenging and taxing, but 6-10 times would be an all-out physical war with one’s strength and grip.

More technical trail running ensued, and all this time Matt Davis was chugging along with me.

We both ran a long, semi-steep hill, that we later said we only ran cuz the other one did, but both of us were glad we did it. +1

Playing on the Playground

Cargo net climb

Jungle Swing

As we rolled into the last mile of this 3.77 mile obstacle course trail race, we did a lot of climbing:

  • Pretty typical cargo net
  • A log climb thing with logs spaced out about three feet apart, going up
  • A very easy, climb-able wall
  • Climbing ropes
  • A very weak mud crawl with zero danger (no barbed wire)
  • Some kind of barrel push thing that I missed. (never even saw it)
  • A cool, and VERY challenging slanted muddy wall
  • A Tarzan rope swing over cold water
  • Some skinny balance beam logs over cold water
  • A bar traverse over water

Then jump into this freezing cold, nasty brown, water pool, before climbing out and running across the finish line.

Done.

Would I Do It Again?

Yes. I had a great time, and when I finished, I felt like I had done something, so that’s a win; but I did just look at it as Spartan Beast training for Texas next weekend.

In all honesty, I didn’t feel that great (and still don’t typing this out with a 100.9 fever), so I appreciated the tamer obstacles and the opportunity to trot around on some technical trail. Typically, I like them to be more difficult than this race, but clearly, this race is designed to accommodate all levels of obstacle athlete.

What  I liked:

  • Lots of technical trail running
  • Low key atmosphere
  • Really cool rope rappelling section
  • Sandbag carry
  • the “playground” of back-to-back obstacles at the end
  • encouraging volunteers

What I didn’t like:

  • Missing an obstacle cuz I never knew it was there and no volunteer to point it out
  • No food or fluid replenishment to be found anywhere at the finish
  • Limited obstacles

The Jungle Cup is a good race for those looking for a more modest challenge. It’s nothing like a Spartan Race, and the obstacles are just not that challenging. However, it’s fun and great day of physical fitness training, outdoors, and sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered.