Ultra Running, Climbing, and the Future Blurring of Disciplines

flatironsPhoto: Sean Munson [The Flatirons]

I consider climbers, and specifically alpine climbers (those who find greatest satisfaction in summiting big peaks), to be the pinnacle of badassery. I’m not sure exactly why I’m so attracted to the lives of climbers. I think it’s because they live so close to that line between life and death. I respect that because I have an idea of what it must take. My understanding is that climbers recognize the risk of their endeavors yet decide that the richness of the experience is so integral to who they are that to do without climbing would be to not live at all.

I don’t think anyone would seriously consider ultra running to be even close to the same level in that regard. Most people, if they put their mind to it, can run 100 miles. On the other hand, it takes a very rare species to climb Denali in Alaska or any 6,000+ meter peak in the Himalaya. So hands down, climbing takes the cake with respect to the mental fortitude required … to do the thing.

So while ultra runners may not need ice in their veins, our ability to endure and to lean into pain and discomfort is paramount. Perseverance is perhaps our most defining characteristic. If you look at what Karl Meltzer did on the Appalachian Trail, Pete Kostelnick’s Trans-USA run, or even Jim Walmsley’s R2R2R speed record…that’s some serious suffering. And just generally epic undertakings as well. I think even renowned mountaineers like a Conrad Anker or a Melissa Arnot would give some props to those achievements. They may ask the questions: Why? What’s the point? They may wonder what the motivation was behind the objectives, but I don’t think there were any eye rolls when those news pieces hit their social feeds.

The same goes for the general public. While your average citizen can’t conceptualize a fast time on the Western States 100 course, if you tell them that Meltzer ran from Maine to Georgia in 45 days … I think we are getting close to the same ballpark as she’s been to the top of Everest. [Enter snide remark about supplemental oxygen and built in ladders on Everest here]. It’s still insane.

Now, if you couldn’t already tell, I fully admit that I have climber envy. And I imagine there are a lot of you out there that might feel the same. Why is that? I was listening to the climbing-focused Enormocast recently when I heard the host Chris Kalous call trail running and hiking, “the long approach to nowhere.” I found that hilarious and couldn’t help but sort of agree.

What are we doing out there? Sometimes it feels like all I see is singletrack dirt passing under my feet. I know I don’t stop and smell the roses enough – take in the vistas – listen to the babbling brooks. I’m running hard, unashamedly going for Strava CRs, trying to keep up a solid average pace – exactly what most other runners are doing out there that are trying to progress in the sport. Yet still, when I get back to my house or car after a run and my heart is pounding and my body is drained, I am immensely satisfied. It’s enough for me. It always has been and it probably always will be.

One thing is certain though. Ultra running is changing and it’s swinging further and further towards a sport with a similar stimulus as climbing/mountaineering/alpinism.

Let’s turn back the clock a little bit. Just during the course of the last 6 years (the amount of time I’ve been running ultras), things have changed a lot. First, we had the simple concept of ultra running – anything longer than a marathon. We weren’t as concerned with the course or terrain; it was more about just sticking it to the marathoners … the roadies. Next the “movers and shakers” of our sport needed the big vert stamp to even toe the line. So races like Speedgoat and the Rut came into existence to meet that demand. Next: enter ski-mo. Okay, so now every badass mountain runner is doing ski-mo and developing those winter skills needed for the alpine. Schlarb and company skied Hardrock. Krar and Foote just did Pierra Menta. Sweet. Sick. Epic. Around the same time, the traverse/FKT/objective based ideologies showed up on the mainstream ultra scene. We have a new speed record on the Grand Traverse, we have environmental awareness projects like the Mikes Crown Traverse, and Kilian’s Everest FKT attempt.

Are we losing the purity of ultra running? And is that bad? I don’t know. Should the mountains be the focus? Or should the running be the focus? Or does it matter?

Anton Krupicka spoke recently in a podcast about his love of scrambling the Flatirons [shown above in featured image]. To paraphrase, he said he enjoys scrambling because of its aerobic challenge, requisite full-body engagement, and the need to be fully present. He also mentioned that it’s a nice little niche for him because it’s generally too scary for runners yet too boring for climbers.

Buzz Burrell, an undisputed endurance legend, said that hanging around on ropes on rock faces was too slow for him … boring. He found greater satisfaction in planning big running objectives and problem solving in that way.

On the other side of things, we have the likes of Walmsley, Miller, Hawkes, King and Canaday. These cats are runners – and they are super inspiring at what they do too.

So where does all this leave us? And by us, I mean the 99%. Will the masses follow the mountain badasses as they go more mountain or will we follow the runner badasses as they go faster and faster? I think we’d all like to say that we are going our own way, but it’s those in the spotlight, in the interviews we watch, and on the covers of magazines that are really bending the curve in one direction or another – even if it’s just our subconscious being effected.

My opinion is that a split is happening between the mountain purists and the runners. This divide will grow and I think it should – we are talking about essentially two different sports. Over the long haul, runners can’t fake a true love for the mountains and thus do what it takes to move efficiently in that space, and the mountain purists don’t want to do all the little things that it takes to run really fast.

You can try to do it all … but your real passion will rise to the top. Neither one is better than the other.

Rise & Grind.

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