By Kelly Paparella, UltraRunner
"Why do you do this to yourself?"
That is the question almost everyone asks. Some word it a little differently or you can see it by the looks they give you, but I think that's probably the most asked and most wondered question about ultrarunning... And one that I have never been able to answer.
Recently though, I may have discovered it, or at least my reason for running. As many of my friends and family know, I have always struggled a great deal with depression and anxiety. I do not talk about it much, but it's not a secret. But no, ultrarunning has not cured me of these problems- it is not the end all to my problems. I did realize however, that in a way, it does help.
When my husband and I bought our house last year, I painted the whole inside of the house. I thought I hated painting, but as it turns out, I absolutely love it. Me and my husband were recently talking about this, he said he has never seen me so happy as when I was painting, he said he thought I was so concentrated on painting that I'm not able to worry so much about everything else. I started thinking about other things I enjoy, and realized there were a few other activities I do as a way to try and cope with my unwelcome thoughts and feelings, running being one of them.
My main activities that help me are music, running, and an app called WordWarp (in the app you have to make as many words out of the given letters in 2 minutes). All of these, and now including painting, are so simple yet require thought-blocking concentration.
That's when it hit me. So that's why I'm so obsessed with running even though, let's be honest, I'm not very good at it. I don't mean that in a self deprecating way, it's just the truth, and I'm OK with that. Sure it would be nice to know the feeling of being fast and winning, but I accepted long ago that it's not happening, and that's not why I'm doing this. I know people don't understand, but it doesn't matter, I'm not doing any of this for other people.
When I go for a short run, sometimes I do still think about and worry about all that's going on and many of my worries are about things I have absolutely no control over. During and ultrarun though, or even just a long trail race below ultra distance, you are broken down. Your mind and your body are things you have to fight to stay in control of.
You become so exhausted mentally and physically, that it's almost like you are thrown into a "fight or flight" state, where primal basic needs are priority. When that happens (though yes, in the moment it sucks), but it also gives you a break from the constant, repetitive, spirit-breaking frustrations in your every day life.
You can't think about past or present heartache, disappointment and hurt, failures, death, loss, trauma, loneliness, self-loathing, not being good enough, disappointing others, bills, work, relationships, guilt... Your never ending to do list. All of those things are not priority in those moments. You, alone in the wilderness, miles from anywhere, in the heat or cold, with minimal food and water, extremely fatigued, that's the priority. That's what you have to think about.
There's almost a euphoric feeling you get from being out in the wild, in the mountains, struggling and being full of self doubt, but overcoming it, and being able to look back at the experience and say, I'm proud of myself, I know now I am capable, I am good enough, and I am strong.
I've heard people say this sport is selfish, a lot of them being runners, and I hate to hear that, I really do. Maybe it is a little selfish in that, yes you are doing this for yourself, and in a race it's all about you, but at the same time, who cares? Why does it matter? What sport is not selfish? What is there that anyone does for pleasure that is not selfish? It is rare that I would ever ask someone to go with me to a race, twice this has happened because I needed and wanted help, but if it wasn't possible, it still would've been OK with it.
If this is something that improves your mental and physical health, and improves your quality of life, helps to give you purpose, and relieves some of the immense pressure that so many of us are under these days, then why not? A word of advice: never make someone feel guilty about something they're passionate about. Not if it doesn't hurt anyone of course. Be happy for them, and let them inspire you to find something you're passionate about.
So that's my reason for ultrarunning, or at least a big part of it. Maybe I won't say this when someone asks me in person, but I'm glad I finally realized what it was. I hope anyone that reads this will find something that will help them the way ultrarunning and trail running has helped me.