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Ultra Trail Running and the Many Rewards of Suffering

By guest blogger, world class trail runner, and Cuba City native Justin Andrews

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”

Laozi, Ancient Chinese Philosopher

Twenty-seven hours and five minutes—that’s how long I spent circum-ambulating Ultra Trail Mt. Fuji this past April. It was a week after my 34th birthday, and I couldn’t think of a more fitting gift to myself than to suffer and triumph together with friends over those 104 miles. Christopher McDougall in his widely acclaimed book, Born to Run, posits that humans were made to run and run long.

World Class Ultra Trail Runner (and Cuba City native) Justin Andrews

I wasn’t always an ultrarunner. Growing up in Cuba City, Wisconsin, distance running wasn’t a popular sport. In the late 90’s in Cuba City, being labeled a distance runner, much less an ultrarunner, was akin to saying your favorite sport was badminton—not many folks really understood what it all entailed. I didn’t meet an ultrarunner until after my freshman year of college. He enthralled me with a story of tree branches morphing into rattlesnakes in the middle of a non-stop 200-mile race.

Owing to my dubious skill in “ball sports,” I began searching for a sport in which to excel in junior high school.  Cross-country and track and field went well enough in high school that I continued my running at UW-Stevens Point with a focus on 5k and 10k distances. Post-collegiately, I trained with the Kansas City Smoke USA Track & Field club and set my sights on the half and full marathon races.  These races took me further afield to some well-known courses—a debut at Chicago in 2007, my personal best at Atlanta in 2009, and then Boston 2013—the edition we will never forget.

Though I desired to run a 50k (approximately 31 miles) trail race while I was still living in Kansas City, I never did so.  It wasn’t until I moved to Chengdu, China in late 2013 that I was introduced in earnest to trail running and was delightfully surprised to learn that China, indeed all of Asia, was in the midst of an ultramarathon boom. The middle class is burgeoning but is still stifled by woeful pollution in large cities. Thus, the numbers of those taking to the mountains on foot has been increasing exponentially. It is, after all, such a simple sport and accessible to all anywhere.

Why? Why subject oneself to searing heat, blisters, bruises and lacerations, blackened toenails, bee stings, snake scares, arachnid encounters, lightning threats, twisted ankles, chafing and more? The rewards these runners seek, I included, are longer-lasting and of greater worth than any temporary suffering. Feeling the sense of accomplishment at a mountaintop, the camaraderie of fellow runners, redefining what’s possible for oneself, trekking through pristine wilderness , exploring new places, creating lifelong friendships, expanding one’s worldview, improving fitness, and building tenacity and perseverance—these are just a few things we ultrarunners garner from covering 50 kilometers to several hundred miles underfoot in a relatively short timeframe.

Chances are you’re reading this from the comfort of a chair or sofa in a temperature-controlled room. In a society where easy living is oft-promoted and creature comforts abound, ultrarunning is one of those rare windows where we (voluntarily) can enter a realm where energy levels sink, muscle fatigue mounts, the mind intensely battles the will, and your friends and family may question your sanity! And yet, science is beginning to show that ultrarunners willingly tackle such challenges because it is one of the few pursuits where there are surprises, great challenges, risk, and measurable rewards.

Indeed, I have found this and more to be true in every race and at every finish line. Even in races where I drop out due to a sprained ankle or dehydration, there are yet lessons to be learned in those struggles. The pilgrimage always rewards the pilgrim who takes the first step

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