Managing The Ultra Lifestyle
One way or another, we all face the need to reconcile our running passion with what is going on in the rest of our lives. We have to find a lifestyle that equitably balances running goals with obligations to friends, family, work, and other interests.
There’s no escaping the fact that ultrarunning requires a significant investment of time. Even the casual ultrarunner, just trying to maintain the minimum fitness required for the sport, is probably spending eight to ten hours a week running, that is, time equivalent to a full day’s work.
Someone outside the sport looking in might see time spent running as a zero sum game with the rest of a runner’s life. Of course, ultrarunners know differently. For most of them, ultrarunning enriches the other areas of their lives, rather than detracting from them. After all, we’re healthy. We get our exercise. We’re goaloriented, tireless employees. We work out our stress and think through our problems on the trail. We return home ready to focus on our partners and kids. We’re energetic, most of the time, maybe not able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, but we’re equal to all sorts of tough challenges both mental and physical. We’re fulfilled. We’re doing something we love.
But the time demand is there. One thing I do to keep my running from impacting my family is to “hide” my workouts; that is, I run when I’m away from home anyway or when the family is all engaged elsewhere. In fact, the lion’s share of my standard workouts are done over the lunch break at work. My kids are at school, my wife’s working elsewhere, and I get five free passes a week to knock myself out. Working some hills, a tempo run or intervals into my lunch break, I can maximize the bang for the buck even if time is tight.
Depending on your circumstances, you can “hide” your workouts in the early morning, if you’re the only early riser in your family, or even get out with some lights in the late evening after everyone else is on their way to bed. I schedule a full slate of workouts when I’m out of town on business and not available to my family anyway. Likewise, I grab opportunities to run when I would otherwise just be killing time, like waiting through my daughter’s piano lesson or my son’s Boy Scout meeting (although this isn’t going to work if you happen to be the Scoutmaster).
A long run on the weekend or a day spent at a race is another story. Here you probably will be sacrificing what might be quality time with family or pursuing some useful chores around the house, like finally painting the garden shed or putting the big hurt on some dandelions. One strategy for claiming such big chunks of time is to “pay it forward,” that is, to do something extra special for your spouse or kids in the day or the weekend before your running activity.
I’m always quite open about the deal being made here. “I’m running long Sunday. What do you want to do Saturday? Anything works for me.” And we’re off to the big flower show.
Of course, you can truly be in a bind when, for example, a race you want to do falls on your kid’s birthday. Every situation is different and you could try to work around sticky spots, but I would be inclined, whenever there is doubt, to deep six the running plans. Opportunities for racing and for long runs will come again; your daughter’s clarinet recital is a one-time thing.
Do Something Extra Special For Your Spouse Or Kids In The Day Or The Weekend Before Your Running Activity. I’m Always Quite Open About The Deal Being Made Here. “I’m Running Long Sunday. What Do You Want To Do Saturday? Anything Works For Me.”
I’m also leery about trying to include family members in my running plans as a way to be with them and get some running done at the same time. If it’s not really their thing, the joy of crewing for you can wear off pretty fast. And they might be too nice to tell you that waiting endlessly at a hot, dusty trailhead for you to come back out of the woods is not sparking their burners. If you do include others in your race weekend, work extra hard at making sure they have things to do that are as interesting to them as running is to you. My wife used to visit garage sales while I was running a trail marathon and she was perfectly happy with the deal. Plan a post-race or post-run activity that doesn’t require too much heavy lifting from you. Sitting by the pool watching the kids is good after a race; striking camp and driving the family 200 miles is not good.
You can be doing a lot while you’re running to nudge the rest of life onto a smooth path. The break from work that a lunch time run gives you is invaluable, a real stress buster, but at the same time, running induces a flow of ideas so you often find yourself solving problems or at least gaining a new perspective on things while you’re on the trail. I’ve often rushed back to my desk after a solo run to write down all my good ideas before I forget them.
If you’re running with a buddy, your running time can become a beneficial social hour. You give each other a sounding board and gain the satisfaction of voicing your problems to a sympathetic ear. You might even get some good advice in return. My running partner and I always take the time during our runs to establish plans for future workouts. We’ll settle on schedules for the next couple of weeks, decide on races, and agree on the logistics, like who’s driving, where we’re meeting, and the like. That way no time is wasted when we’re not running thinking about all those details.
I also like to take the perspective whenever something difficult needs to be done that it’s “good training” for my ultrarunning. Let’s say you have to get up at 2:30 in the morning to drive someone to the airport. Well, that’s a good dry run for getting up for a race. Or maybe volunteer day rolls around at work and you spend eight hours tearing out old barbed wire fencing in a newly designated wildlife preserve. It’s hard work but it’s also good practice for toughing out that 50-mile run. Every challenge takes on a positive spin and of course there’s a positive feedback loop. Ultrarunning prepares you for tough challenges and the tough challenges prepare you for ultrarunning. People like to peg us as fanatics or addicted to running. If you are neglecting other parts of your life for your running, they may have a point. On the other hand, if you’re leveraging the benefits of ultrarunning to make the rest of your life more enjoyable and make yourself a better person for those around you, then I’d say you’re successfully managing the ultra lifestyle. One consolation is that either way you get to eat a lot of great food.