Friday, December 2, 2016

The long and short of it

An anonymous reader made a comment on last week's blog post about my intention to run 100 kilometers at the Sulphur Springs Trail Run next spring:

"This may be heresy, but what about challenging yourself to race SHORTER distances (but faster & more intense)?
I respect all events, but it makes me a little sad that people seem to glorify only the longest events and look down on the short stuff. everyone wants to "run" 100 miles; few of those people will ever test themselves with an all-out 1 mile.

Food for thought."

I left a response to the comment, but I'm going to address it more thoroughly here, because a) I didn't actually cover all of my reasons in the response and b) it's actually something I've been asked before, and even asked myself.

Often in the context of "WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?!?"

Now, those of you who have known me for awhile will realise that I'm no stranger to short races. As I told my anonymous commenter, I have actually run an all-out mile - the Cambridge Classic Mile in June 2013. It's one of the hardest things I've ever raced, and I spent at least 30mins afterward practically coughing up blood - I swear there was nicotine from cigarettes I'd smoked in my teens coming out of me. I've also raced short course duathlon and triathlon as recently as two and a half months ago, and even ran a 5k trail race last June that had me deep in the pain cave.

In 2014, when I first became a Vanderkitten VIP, I actually challenged myself to take a year off from long-course racing to focus on speed. That plan developed a large kink when I was hit by a car in May, but I actually managed 3rd woman overall at a trail 5k in June, and by mid-July I actually put in a decent showing at the Belwood Sprint Triathlon - I clocked a faster run pace at the end of the race than my best open 5k time. Based on that, I decided to go for a 10k PR in November - unfortunately I missed that by about 30sec (just 3 stinking seconds per kilometer!), but I put in the focused quality runs and track workouts beforehand that let me get close. I deeply respect the intense work required to maximize your speed and push your VO2max to its limit.


My annual "let's go wander around in the forest to have fun with awesome people" at Horror Trail that's happened each fall since 2010 notwithstanding, I'm actually a relative newcomer to true long-distance racing. Sure, I've done a couple of half-iron distance triathlons (2013 being the most recent, and also the introduction of the stupid crayon art that now litters most of my blog entries) and ran my first 50k that same October, but I don't feel like I really arrived as an ultrarunner until just this year with my audacious entry into the Dirty Girls 12-hour. I never had any inclination to try a full iron distance triathlon - I simply don't have the time to train properly for one, because cycling and swimming are both very time consuming - and even last year was really supposed to be one of shorter-distance racing for me. I wanted to try some races I hadn't done before, but keep things fairly easy on the long-haul training. I entered the Seaton Soaker 25k in that spirit, plus the wee little Ontario Women's Triathlon, and was only going to race the 25k at Conquer the Canuck. Then, in early April, I went for a run with friends and found out that 2016 would probably be the last year for Dirty Girls. It was only then that I made the decision to try to run twice as long as I'd ever gone before, and changed my registration to the 50k at Conquer the Canuck to use it as a training day.

"Fifty kilometers is a training run now?"
- My Mom

There's a difference between the kind of pain one endures in short, fast races and the drawn-out suffering of going long. The former will make you feel like you were shot in the chest and turn your legs into lactic acid flavoured jello - the latter is more like being pummeled to death by a small but determined child. Both are admirable demonstrations of human fitness and determination - it's impossible to say that one is harder than the other, because they're both incredibly difficult in their own ways. More importantly, both will take you to deep, dark places within yourself where you have no choice but to face down the worst things about who you are as a person in order to continue and show the world the strength you carry within.

If you're really pushing yourself to your limits, you'll get to that place by either road - one is just much longer than the other.

"What's in there?"
"Only what you take with you."

I applaud anyone who makes an effort to train for and race at any distance - it's a challenge that a relatively low percentage of the population will ever take on, and holds rich rewards at every level of competition. Whether you're chasing a particular time, have your sights on the podium, or just want to see if you're capable of finishing what you've started you will benefit in many ways from the experience. The personal draw of ultrarunning for me is fourfold:

Assuming anyone is still awake & reading at this point..

1. Return on Investment

I'll use this to encompass both financial and logistical concerns. Flatly put, long course events tend to be more expensive to enter than shorter events, but cost fewer dollars per hour/kilometer of racing. Similarly, despite Southern Ontario being a hotbed of endurance racing, you tend to get a better ratio of time spent racing to time spent travelling for it. I still can't believe we spent 3.5hrs on the road to get to and from Ontario Women's Tri for just over an hour of racing - the 6hr round trip to Trenton was much better balanced by 6hrs of running up & down Batawa Ski Hill at the Fat Ass last month.

2. Venues

Short, intense races are usually held on road courses instead of in beautiful forests. Part of the reason I've decided that I'm setting aside triathlon for ultrarunning is that I'm sick of riding my bike through cornfields and running past a bunch of houses or buildings - I'd much rather lose myself (hopefully not literally) on a trail. Even if I was to do shorter runs on trails, it wouldn't be the same - I love to see the changing qualities of light throughout the day - it was something I delighted in at the Fat Ass last month, as the trail looked a little different every loop. The training offers more chances for adventure and exploration, too: you can't really do proper interval training on any interesting terrain as it tends to impose its own shape to the workout, and running tracks are seldom very picturesque. Shorter races also mean shorter long runs - it's highly unlikely I'd spend 4+hrs exploring all the Hydrocut trails for a fast 5k, and I quite enjoy spending hours in the woods.

This will always be more alluring than a stretch of pavement, cement or cinders.

3. Vanity

I'm not going to lie to you - there's a part of me that, no matter what other goal I may be chasing out there, still wants to place decently in the results. It's highly variable because you can only race whoever happens to come out on that particular day, but I know that I will never be fast enough due to my lack of physiological aptitude (combined with various other factors, like 19 years of smoking) to place well at short, intense races. I can, however, be stubborn enough to do ok at longer course racing...which is undoubtedly helped by the fact that ultrarunning fields tend to be much smaller than 5k and 10k races. Many more people are comfortable competing at race distances up to marathon length than beyond it, and it's way easier to be 3rd woman overall when there are only 5 women racing instead of 5,000. While I can honestly say I've never tried to cherry pick a race just because I thought I could podium at it, it certainly is a nice perk when I see my name near the top of the results sheet.

4. Discovery

I feel like there's not much left in the way of new experience with intensity: when I go to the well, I feel the same lung-busting, kill-me-now horror as always, because (with very few exceptions) I have always gone all-out in short races. Drenched in sweat, snot streaming down my face, legs screaming, heart trying to hammer its way out of my chest, wide-open mouth tasting pennies as my view narrows to just one small point and I try to pull the finish line closer by sheer will alone.

Oh yeah, baby - I'm a vision in spandex.

I know who I am when I'm pushing through the red haze, trying to wring every last ounce of speed out of my haggard, chubby arse. What I don't yet know is who I become after watching the sun rise as I run, then seeing it set again while I'm still running.

But I may very well find out..

Will I always feel the same way? I don't know. A friend of mine who used to race ultra distances found himself unhappy with all the training drudgery this year, and has found his mojo again by running 5ks throughout this year. Another friend who similarly was a long distance runner has decided in recent years that the best kind of racing is the sort that lets you get home in time for a nice, relaxing lunch, if not elevenses. I may look back on this post and laugh at my own foolishness at some point, but the beauty is that short course racing will always be there to come back to if I choose.

The short road to the pain cave is always open.


  1. Love your entries, they are honest and open. You shouldn't have had to address that comment, but glad you did, as it was another good read . I'm sure a lot of us agree as well.

    1. Thanks so much Robin! I know that distance elitism definitely exists - some people feel you're not a "real" runner or triathlete unless you've got a marathon or Ironman under your belt, no matter how incredible short-course athletes like Simon Whitfield and Andre de Grasse may be - so I can see where the commenter was coming from. I also know that the #1 question I get when I tell non-ultrarunners that I'm planning to run X-number of hours or kilometers is "WHY?", so I figured I'd spill a bit of the jumbled contents of my addled little brain in an attempt to make some sense out of it, even if only to have it straight for myself. Thanks for taking the time to read it!

  2. I feel that there is a difference between long and short- the effort can be immense either way, but I can't help feel that the longer the distance... it becomes less about you and more about connecting with others. Run 7+hours with someone they become your family, run 30 minutes they are competition.

    1. I love that thought, and couldn't agree more! There's so much of a sense of community in ultrarunning; encouraging one another as you share the experience of suffering while you strive to achieve a mutual goal. Thanks so much for reading and sharing that wonderful insight!

  3. Anytime, thanks for all your help and advice! As for your inspiration, I am looking to change my sulphur to the 100k. Do I think I can do it... no. But I thought what you have said and what Laz has said about Barkley... take people who are used to overcoming and offer them something that they likely will not succeed- finishing may be the goal, but doing it and finding a ceiling to push you further is something else! Keep inspiring!


Go on, have at me!