A few weekends ago, I found myself in Southern California, watching a handful of my friends race Santa Barbara’s Nine Trails 35 Mile Endurance Run (shoutout to the fine people at Rabbit!). With over ten thousand feet of vertical gain and descent over the area’s technical terrain, this race is no walk in the park. In fact, the design of the course has been built to optimize not only for gorgeous Santa Barbara views, but also for a good amount of pain.
The night before the race, we all retire early, while Santa Barbara’s nightlife is just waking up. Staying in a house full of runners, everybody is anxious to get a reasonable amount of sleep, anticipating a morning of suffering. But... why suffer?
- To undergo, be subjected to, or endure (pain, distress, injury, loss, or anything unpleasant).
- To endure pain, patiently or willingly.
These definitions evoke experiences that people typically try to avoid at all costs. As a society, we seek lives that shelter us from pain and extreme experiences. We work towards lives of comfort and convenience (no wonder there are several food delivery apps valued at over a billion dollars). The growing sport of ultrarunning seems to stand in stark contrast with that comfort-seeking behavior; suffering is something we as ultrarunners put ourselves through, patiently and willingly. It is no easy task, regardless of a person’s talent, fitness, ability, or speed. Those outside of the sport often assume all ultra runners must have a loose screw or two. I think those in the sport wonder this about themselves, too. I think back on the race and wonder what it is that brings all these people to subject themselves to something so difficult on a beautiful Saturday morning in sunny Santa Barbara (that could otherwise be enjoyed from the comfort of a terrace overlooking the ocean, drinking coffee and eating scones, I'd imagine). Why is it, though, that we crave this suffering, and what kind of person pursues this pain?
“The harder the race, the more accomplished I feel,” Rebecca Murillo tells me, and I think we can all agree. “There is a certain level of pain when you’re on a big climb and losing oxygen with every step and screaming F*CK THIS HILL in your mind, but then you take a second to actually look around and see way down where you started, and for whatever reason that makes it okay, and worth it.”
We’ve all had occasional moments, however small or big, of accomplishing something difficult and finding comfort in knowing we got over the hill. Ultra runners FILL their lives with hills, though, and find comfort in making it up and over those hills with others.
Trail running does not discriminate; there are participants from all walks of life, and everybody must complete the same task. Tim Freriks tells me, “Everybody on the starting line has to cover the same course, from point A to point B, in the same conditions, and ultimately everyone is going to have to suffer at some point to make it to the finish. It’s a unifying experience with your competitors and I really enjoy that.” Tim is typically at the front of any given race, but that doesn’t mean he is enduring any less than those bringing up the rear. Every gender, every age, every race, every story: all here for the same purpose.
Sarah Burke also shares her motivation to be here - “In my mind, the feeling of letting your body flow over the trails, paired with a little (sometimes a lot) of suffering is unparalleled. Stepping into the pain cave and exploring the mental and physical parameters is what I live for. What makes it even better is knowing that everyone around me in a race is sharing in that suffering.”
Kelly Wolf shares a similar sentiment, telling me that racing is when she feels the most alive, “… in tune with my body, senses alert, keen in my mind. It’s the challenge of drawing out my best self to cover the distance. It’s comforting to know in a race we are all out there pushing ourselves, digging out our best.”
The common thread? The sentiment of sharing a unifying experience of going through something difficult, together. All of these people have a desire to seek their best self - to dig deep, and access a part of their character that might not otherwise see the light of day. In discomfort, there is growth, and sharing that with others unifies us in a way that's as powerful as it is rare.
Words and pictures by Sarah Cotton.