I like to think that my running career spans forty-some years, dating back to the early 1970s. In the early days I mainly specialized in the three legged race at my mom’s company picnic or attempting to out sprint my older brother while being chased down after destroying, stealing or critically damaging one of his many prized childhood possessions. In time I advanced to elementary school track and field day, running home whilst being chased by neighbourhood bullies and busting my ass doing laps around the school in an attempt to earn one of those coveted Canada Fitness Award badges. By junior high I regularly found myself on the track team where I would spend leisurely days at regional meets as the fifth member of the 4×100 relay team. I was there to fill in if one of the other guys got injured or fell ill before their event. It was a pretty sweet gig, I got to skip school in order to lounge around drinking sodas, talking to girls and napping in the bleachers. I didn’t ever run a single step in those competitions. In the autumn I was on the cross country team, but my reasoning for joining had more to do with missing school than winning at all cost. It was a bit silly really, I had to show up extra early every day for weeks in order to get one or two days off for competitions at the end of it all. I was twelve, what did I know? Once I got to high school and our gym class jogs through the woods became an excuse to amble along out of the teacher’s sight and smoke weed, I decided to put my running career on hold. I shifted my athletic focus to more cosmopolitan pursuits like petty crime and random acts of senseless rebellion. After a twenty-five year hiatus, I decided to give running another shot.
Pushing forty, out of shape with a bad back and a beer gut, a coworker put it in my head to start running. I mocked her for a while but eventually relented and attempted to jog around the block. Everything hurt. I couldn’t believe how wrecked I was. I had been a bicycle messenger for ten years back in the nineties with strong legs and endless cardio, and in my head I was still that fit, twenty-something rebel on a track bike. In reality I was something very different. I had become a schlub.
I kept running around the block and soon my beer gut went away and my chronic bad back got better. In time I could run down to the ocean, past the amusement park and keep running to the top of the hill at the end of my street. One of the moms at my kid’s school told me I should sign up for a half marathon, so I did. I looked up training plans and got a proper pair of running shoes. When my plan called for a longer run, I found myself exploring places like the Trans Canada Trail out to Burnaby from my East Vancouver home. I loved the early morning runs through the dewy tree lined trails so much more than plodding along city streets. Eventually I ran a couple half marathons and even the Big Kahuna, a 42.2 km full marathon. Although I was proud of my accomplishments and the new direction my life was headed, I found the racing part of it gross. I couldn’t find common ground amongst all the a-type personalities with their shiny new gear and mountains of race course litter.
By the time I ran my marathon, I’d already been bitten by the ultramarathon bug. My brother had turned me on to a book about a guy who’s life was in the toilet before he found out about ultras and hundred mile races in particular. I was intrigued and wanted to see what laid beyond the marathon distance. On the morning of my marathon, I ran to the race and afterwards I ran home. After all was said and done, it was my first unofficial ultra and I was hooked. I trained for and ran a 50k race in Manning Park that summer, the Frosty Mountain Ultramarathon. Leading up to the race, I trained for hours on end in the local mountains. I had lived in Vancouver for twenty years but I had never ventured into those hills other than to go for a walk on the well groomed paths of Lynn Canyon or some other family friendly locale. Soon I could name a couple peaks and I knew my way around somewhat. I met a few folks who were also training for Frosty and added terms like “BCMC” and “Baden Powell Trail” to my lexicon. The race was great, it was the most physically demanding thing I’d ever done. Better than the sense of accomplishment and pride that I felt when I crossed the finish line, was the feeling that I had stumbled into something special. It was something brand new to me yet at the same time it was eerily familiar.
That first ultra was punk rock. Let me explain…
During my aforementioned hiatus from running, between my half hearted participation with the junior high cross country team and the beer gut, the punk scene had become my life. It was my family, my muse, my true love, my arch enemy and my inspiration. And although there was enough stupidity and negativity for a thousand lifetimes, there was also endless beauty in that scene. The things that kept me excited about the punk scene for so long were the same things that have drawn me to ultra running. The community, the culture of compassion, cooperation and sharing, the feeling of being accepted into a group that is completely over-the-top passionate about something that the vast majority of the world finds utterly ridiculous. The punk scene that I was a part of held the DIY ethos as it’s guiding principle. We did everything ourselves, from recording our albums, booking tours and printing t-shirts to running venues, bicycle libraries and food banks. Imagine my surprise when I signed up for my first ultra, and realised that the whole operation was run the same way. The race director, along with his friends, family and volunteers did it all themselves. Unlike the big, corporate sponsored road races that I’d gotten disillusioned with, this ultra thing seemed to be on a much more grassroots level. There wasn’t piles of cash laying around, this was all being done on the cheap for the love of the sport. Anyone could and did help out to make the event a success, from promotion to leading group training runs to marking the course on race day. I felt like I was back amongst the punks, only this time I was the only one covered in all those sad, blurry tattoos. The race day prizes for the winners of my first ultra were even bottles of homemade wine! What’s more punk rock than homebrew?!
The similarities between punk rock and ultrarunning don’t end with DIY ethics. There’s all the swearing and beer drinking, for example. Perhaps the ultra runner doesn’t go quite to the extremes as that of the foul mouthed, drunken punk but rare would it be to hear a “golly gee” instead of a more vulgar expletive uttered while suffering up a deathly climb or an “oopsie daisy” in place of a serious *#@%$!! when smashing one’s head on a low hanging branch. And although you’ll find the odd ultra runner whose first thought is reaching for a lemonade after a tough race, my non-scientific polling tells me that if there’s beer to be had, it won’t last long when there’s thirsty ultra runners afoot. And what about the filth? Punks and ultra runners both pride themselves on their filthiness. Ever since my days as a lowly high school punk, moping around in soot coloured rags, I was never exactly sure why we found the need to be so filthy. Perhaps washing was considered nothing but a trivial construct of The Man himself? The ultra runner’s filth tells the world that she has spent the day charging through trails and over mountaintops with little regard for her personal hygiene. Imagine the embarrassment if you crossed the finish line of your next hundred miler looking like you’d just emerged from a bubble bath. If you’re not covered in dirt, you’re doing it wrong.
Now don’t get me wrong, I realise that not all ultramarathons are warm fuzzy family affairs, there’s plenty of all-star studded, big money showdowns taking the spotlight. But just like the punks choosing between Green Day at the stadium or the unknown band from Moose Jaw playing in your friend’s basement, the beauty may lie in the diversity. You can go run some big time shindig like Western States or you can take part in a Fat Ass event in your local trails with a handful of friends… some days you just end up getting your new nose ring from the kiosk in the mall instead of making one from a rusty old coat hanger. Same difference. From what I’ve seen, there’s awesome folks at all levels of this ultra running game, and I for one am grateful everyday that I get to be a part of it.