On the Ecstasy—and Agony—of Running an Ultramarathon in Your Seventies
Bernd Heinrich Doesn’t Ever Want to Stop Running
At age 18, running felt most visceral and primal in all its power, simplicity, and purity. As we grow older, we act for purpose rather than for pleasure, geared perhaps toward achieving a reward or trinket like lab rats pushing a lever for a food pellet. Pandering to that model, running in races used to be cheapened by fake-gold so-called trophies that take up space on a shelf, when the real rewards are the pleasures and treasures in the mind.
However, it was and is perfectly okay that watching an ultramarathon is as exciting as watching paint dry, because we runners do not need to spill our guts to please anyone. Running is contact with the real and, because it demands effort, is often associated with acute discomfort. Nevertheless, the contentment of rest cannot be felt without a backdrop of experienced exhaustion. Pleasure in running is reminiscent to me of the pleasure of sidling up to the fire in a stove after experiencing the routine of a long, cold winter day.
I had not felt true contentment, such as after running an ultramarathon, for a long time but had over several years raced in two 10k’s every fall. For training I had daily run a four-mile route, out the cabin door and down a rocky path, a mile along a tarred road, and then off onto a sandy side road to a bridge over a brook and back. An ultramarathon was far from my mind. Been there, done that. That is, until Jason Mazurowski, a student, friend, and ultramarathoner, casually told me about one.
He described the race to me as “on mostly rolling hills on rural back roads.” I envisioned farmhouses, fields of goldenrod and yellowing grass, forests of reddening maples in a bucolic Vermont countryside of meadows and cow pastures, reviving also the nostalgic image of my very first ultramarathon, the 50k held in nearly the same location 40 years earlier that had ignited the ultramarathon fire in me. It seemed fateful if I were to be back, to complete the circle and run my last ultramarathon at nearly the same time, distance, and place. And so it was that I stepped up to the starting line of the Brownsville 50k at 8 am on Sunday, September 29, 2019, the tag identifying me as number 1486 pinned onto my shirt. That was by far the largest number I had ever worn, and I realized that this could be unlike any ultramarathon I had ever run.
There were 243 registered runners, of whom 111 were women. In my previous races there had been perhaps 30 to 40 participants, and they had almost always been mostly men. This time there was no command of “On your mark, get set, go!” for the start, so it was not important for me to be in the front row to take advantage of every second recorded by the timer’s stopwatch at the end. This race was advertised as one “to enjoy a challenging and scenic Vermont landscape course.” What? Race to enjoy the scenery? What is this?
In less than a mile we were laboring up a steep hill along a narrow dirt path with steep drop-offs to one side and winding in tight loops and switchbacks; it was the roughest trail I could imagine, even for hiking. As we wound through the woods, over bare roots and among loose rocks and boulders, there were 45-degree uphills and downhills. We had to watch every step. The switchbacks were so tight that at one point a runner behind me called me back because he thought I was heading in the wrong direction. So I went back, but it then turned out I had been right the first time and had done the same distance twice. The same course was simultaneously occupied by a separate 50-mile trail race, plus a third race, a 50-mile bicycle race.
Sharing the path with bicycles racing down upon you from above and behind required stepping off to avoid collisions. As the cyclists came careening downslope they were hollering “Left!” or “Right!” to indicate which way you should move but without saying whether they were coming by at that side or you should step to that side. Perhaps there had been instructions, which I had of course not read. Clearly, finishing time was irrelevant. This was no race against the clock, and I gladly stepped off the trail entirely every time, to let them all pass. Invariably each rider said “Thank you” or “Much appreciated,” something I had never before heard in a race.
As the runners and bikers careened on, I more crawled than ran up and down along the mountainsides, down the steep winding slopes and over stone walls of abandoned farms. It was unlike anything I had ever done or even imagined. It was more like my slightly later, barely possible deer hunt, but this one with assured beer instead of a deer promised at the end.
Running is contact with the real and, because it demands effort, is often associated with acute discomfort.
Unlike in any deer chase, there were pleasant and welcome compensations, as local people had provided aid stations along the way. A party atmosphere prevailed, and all sorts of food and drink were offered, including pickle juice—a new one to me. Eventually I heard loud music as I approached one station that from a distance I thought meant the finish-line festivities. But once there, I was informed that there were “only 14 more miles.”
I was already near exhaustion and stumbled on at an ever-slower pace, trying to stay upright and not stub my toe on a root to be flipped downslope against the rocks. The course would have made excellent hiking trails except that hiking trails go from one destination to another. This one did not. It would end where it had started. But what we were encountering was no secret. Had I read the course description before coming, I would have stayed home. It read “Alpine slopes” and “If you get lost you must go back on your own to the spot you went off course” (did that), and “Total vertical of 5,600 feet,” along with “A climb of a 1,600 feet attention getter” (no kidding) and “Fairly decent footing” (for mountain goats?) but “Rocks and roots,” “Base to peak mountain climb,” and “Gnarly peak to peak challenge.” All of that.
A revolution had happened since my old running days. The goal of this extravaganza was different from any I had known. It was no longer to achieve a win or a good time for the distance. Neither time nor distance were relevant. Here, distance was a deliberate impediment, just like all the rocks, roots, loops, precipitous slopes, and sometimes weather. Only the last was excluded here. This day the weather was perfect, but that was by accident.
The point was to make not one thing but practically everything difficult. The goal here was to triumph over adversity, and finishing was no mean achievement, as proven by the 44 participants who dropped out despite the perfect weather. The difficulties were by design. They make the achievement, for without them there is no such thing as accomplishment. Meanwhile, everyone was supposedly “having fun” or trying to convince themselves they were—maybe taking in the scenery?
I was experiencing something from a new era, my first trailrun. I had to walk at times, as did others. But stopping to walk here was not considered quitting. It was not shameful. Again and again in the latter part of the race while I ran stumbling and bumbling along, I was passed, and the passers one after another said, “Nice going!” or “Good job!” No, no, no, I was barely surviving. My only goal, after a while, was indeed just to finish.
Finally, when I could see the foot of the mountain where I thought the finish might be and it seemed I might even make it—if I really tried hard. But it turned out that it was a (deliberate?) illusion; there was still another three-mile loop to go that once more led first up and then down the mountainside, and then back to the afore-presumed finish, one that loomed ever larger as a sort of Shangri-La. What an incomparable relief to finally see it up ahead and to somehow still be able to run the last hundred yards.
After that race, due to stiffness and aching pain in both knees, I could not walk for hours and was left with one thought: don’t do this again. Nevertheless, there was also the huge satisfaction in having done it. Simply having finished canceled out the pain of exhaustion in minutes, and to my surprise and joy, my knees were perfectly fine the next day.
Ultrarunning is a young person’s sport, and now it is also as much a woman’s as a man’s game. The first woman, Lucy Skinner, age 26, finished second overall, beating all but one man. As would be expected, of the first 13 finishers, all but one were in their twenties and thirties, reminding me of my boyhood hero, the unbeatable Aussie Herb Elliott, who quit running at age 22. My official time was accurate to a hundredth of a second, but it was as irrelevant to me as for everyone else. Due to the variability between trail courses, any “record” in a trail race can refer only to that specific course. Of the 182 runners who finished, I finished 143rd, having outrun 16 percent of those aged 20 to 49 years of age and 30 percent of those 50 to 69 years, but I placed first of anyone 70 years old or over—in fact, I was the oldest person to finish the race by a margin of ten years. I could still run with the crowd and was thankful for it.
Ultrarunning is a young person’s sport, and now it is also as much a woman’s as a man’s game.
More than a race, the event was a worship ceremony. It was fittingly held all day on a Sunday, reminding me of the Good Will School in Maine, where in my teens, after the required Sunday attendance in the chapel, I would run back to my residence, Pike Cottage, change out of my church uniform of neatly ironed white shirt, tie, and suit jacket into shorts and a T-shirt, then run out into the woods on nature trails to hear the music of the birds and see the beauty all around. Here in Vermont that Sunday the “church” building was a big tent. There was no choir but instead a band. There was no preacher in a pew in a black robe giving a sermon but organizers wishing us all “a great run” and to “enjoy the natural beauty on this magnificent day.” It was a meeting of minds and body, with live music and afterward a barbecue meal with complimentary beers.
I had experienced my first trail run, a new model of running, the sequel to running that used to be for state, national, and international titles, if not also records. Running long distance has morphed into a new experience, a model that combines the supporting of charities (through sponsorship funded by race entry fees), Nature appreciation (by being geared to the natural setting), health for everyone (everyone can choose his or her own goal), integration, and tolerance (as it is of course open and inviting to everyone regardless of age, gender, nationality, race, or belief). It either substitutes for religion or is becoming one, since it supports and promotes harmony and kinship with Nature, doing good, sympathy and concern for others as individuals, and a humbling to us as humans. We are part of a symbiosis with all of life, and the creatures we encountered were as well, and they were not insignificant in this new setting.
Ravens, using their specially designed front pair of limbs rather than our specially designed hind pair, had been flying overhead, swooping down the mountainside, catching the air, and winging their way up to do it again and again in the company of others of their kind, shouting at and with each other all the way in raucous voices we could never mimic, although they can and do mimic us.
Blackpoll warblers (Dendroica striata), which live on mountains all over the North American continent, were just then gathering and starting to travel their own challenging traditional route, a three-day, 1,500-mile, nonstop, fly-or-die flight down the eastern seaboard and across the Gulf of Mexico to South America. Many of them would have already traveled across the continent from northern Alaska to the East Coast, never having done it before.
In the spring they will take a different route, with a stopover in Florida on the way back to Alaska or to their spruce-topped home on a mountaintop in northern New England. They do it, we say, because they are migrating to escape winter, and in the reverse direction to come back to nest in the spring. But let us never forget: the ravens and the warblers do it for the same reasons we do, like us runners on the mountain that day: they do it because they feel like doing it. Period. And how did evolution make them feel like doing it? By linking the activity to a flow of endorphins that make it fun and, if important enough, irresistible.
So it is for the joy of it, with no thought of an ultimate reward. They (at least the young of the year) cannot consciously know where, how, or why they are going because they have no language to transmit that knowledge to the adults. The ravens feel like plunging down like an arrow through the air, the warblers feel like flying with the wind at their tail rather than into it, and so they wait for that as the signal to start, just as we take off on our runs when we wait for and then hear “Go!”
Excerpted from Racing the Clock: Running Across a Lifetime. Used with the permission of the publisher, Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright © 2021 by Bernd Heinrich.