From the world of outdoor education, I learned the concept of the “types-of-fun” scale. Type 1 Fun occurs during an activity that is inherently fun while doing it, like eating cake or riding a roller coaster (well, for some people). Categorize an activity as Type 2 Fun if it’s fun once completed, i.e., the so-called “sufferfest.” The enjoyment derived from Type 2 experiences comes from the sense of accomplishment post-completion; these experiences are not enjoyable while doing them. As for Types 3 and 4, you’ll have to consult an Outward Bound instructor for the precise definition, which I cannot remember. If there is a Type 4 Fun, it must be a euphemism for being completely miserable in every way. Avoid Type 4 Fun.
I suspect that many runners I shared the trail with during the Black Canyon Ultras 100K were having Type 2 Fun. I too have propelled myself through an ultra with the sole motivation of reaching the end. The finish line feels so sweet because getting there hurts. But as I reflect on my first 100K, I am perhaps most proud not of the finish nor the difficult training that got me there, but of my enjoyment of the race experience itself. For most of my day, I could have plead guilty to committing Type 1 Fun.
In the early miles, as the sun rose over the clear, cool desert, I couldn’t help but smile. I was running without the aid of any traction device on clear, dry surfaces! After many a training run in snowshoes or spikes or on the treadmill at my home (10,000 feet), I reveled in the joy of just running. In shorts! I smiled at the shivers of the crowd at the start line as I enjoyed the relatively balmy 32 degree temperature. I kept smiling as the miles ticked by and none of the little flare ups during training turned into concerns during the race. I nearly laughed with pleasure as our Conga line rolled over the hill and down the long stretch of descending single track in the first third of the race, a stretch of trail that to runners is like “hero snow” to skiers. I couldn’t help but love being there.
I rolled into the first crew-accessible aid station and smiled even more at seeing my mom. She proved to be crew extraordinaire. I excitedly told her that my feet and knees felt a little sore, but those were downhill running issues, not fitness issues, so I was feeling quite positive. As I departed and continued south with a lovingly refilled vest, I felt extremely grateful. I thought about the friend who hand-delivered a note to me on the morning I left for the race. I thought about the handful of people who sent me thoughtful messages the day before. I thought about the coach who has put up with me for three years and handled the thinking required to prepare for this day. I thought about the gift of being able to spend an entire day in the middle of winter in a warm, sunny place doing something I love surrounded by desert beauty. I couldn’t help but keep smiling.
Let’s be clear: I am the kid who cried after every basketball game my team lost in 5th grade (in addition to being a competitor, I am also I crier). I loathe participant ribbons. I’ve never identified with the my goal is just to finish the race sentiment. Despite what my race results may show, I like to say that I just race for fun…and winning is really fun.
But I am learning a very important lesson. My goal is to compete. But if I don’t enjoy the experience along the way, especially given how many hours of my life I devote to this pursuit, what’s the point?
I made it to the second crew-accessible aid station at mile 37 feeling a little less smiley. Seeing Mom again remedied that. There she was, getting my attention in the chaotic scene and leading me to the table where she had neatly arranged my supplies. I took a bit more time here, changing into dry socks, eating something that wasn’t the texture of glue, applying some sunscreen, chugging that La Croix. The miles leading into this aid station had been hot, and my knees and feet were significantly more sore. On the 0.9 mile out-and-back to this aid, I had passed three outbound women, which dampened my spirits a bit. Three women in less than a mile? How many more were ahead of me? But in the weeks leading up to the race, I’d wondered how I’d feel at this aid station. Though I did not feel great, I knew I had all the strength I needed. I grabbed my phone and ear buds, soaked my neck bandana, put ice in my hat and departed.
The next stretch was the longest between aid. Here I started to see typical ultra carnage. In the heat of the day, with 37 miles behind us and a sustained climb ahead, I began passing runners bearing desperate expressions. Though I too felt physically at my lowest, the addition of music made this stretch my mental high point. I danced down the trail, moving slowly but steadily. I have a calm, measured disposition and tend not to come off as an emotional person. But running, especially ultra distances, is a deeply emotional endeavor for me. In that raw state rarely reached except well into an ultra, analytical thought ceases, and I feel things most deeply. Music is also emotional to me, and the addition of meaningful songs to my race experience kept a smile on my face during a trying stretch of trail. As I reflect on a race during which I both enjoyed and was present in nearly each moment of running, I acknowledge an irony here. Some would argue that listening to music distracts from one’s ability to be truly present in an ultra. For me, in those miles, the tunes kept me joyful and added to my experience. (Important note: I listen to music quietly enough to talk with the person next to me and with an ear bud in only one ear.)
I arrived to mile 50.9, Mom and aid after 1.75 rounds of my playlist. Here I was sure that this 100K experiment would succeed. I again took some time here, leaving things, grabbing a headlamp, eating more chips and guac, smiling again. I departed with music but soon pulled the plug to listen to the sound of the desert coming to life at dusk. Those thirty minutes of insects and birds welcoming the coolness of night were magical. Soon I ran through stands of saguaro cacti 30 feet tall. Pinks and purples lit the sky. Then, I clicked on the headlamp to begin another special experience–nighttime in the desert and the solitary feeling of living within the radius of my light. At this point, my legs and body did not want to be running anymore. But somehow, at the point in the race when I was most likely to switch into “just get through it” mode, I found myself still grateful, still aware of how special this day was, still smiling, despite the discomfort.
In the company of a new running friend, another unexpected race-day gift, I abruptly crossed the finish line at 8:00 pm. I felt too many feelings to name; indeed, I still haven’t identified everything I am feeling. Ultrarunning demonstrates that puzzling fact of life, the coexistence of conflicting feelings. I felt extreme gratitude. I felt proud of my effort in light of the challenges of winter training and my lack of experience at the 100K distance. I felt disappointed; it was not a successful day for the competitor in me. So go the mind and heart after 62 miles.
I realize that for those chasing a course record or golden ticket, a race experience devoid of fun is the price gladly paid for the extreme satisfaction victory brings. For some, the desire to win provides total motivation. I too crave performing to the best of my ability, and I’m convinced doing so would mean a very competitive finish. I also, however, realize that I want to run for decades more. I doubt I will stick with it if my only source of enjoyment is arriving to the finish line. But perhaps there are countless races ahead for me if I can emulate my proudest achievement of Black Canyon, enjoying nearly each moment of the race itself. This race boils down to an entire day doing something I love in a beautiful place. I had Type 1 fun.