Ultras and Health
by Gordo Byrn
I recently finished up Scott Jurek’s autobiography. It brought back memories of many a big day. By way of background, I asked Scott to coach me when I was trying to get myself out of a funk due to overtraining. Probably a good thing that it didn’t work out between us. At that stage of my life, I needed rest more than I needed to run a 100 miles!
In addition to sharing an interesting life story, it was brave of him to open up through the book. The guy is an amazing runner and the book has a unique layout. Riding my bike this morning, I was thinking that it would be a fantastic read if a triathlete like, say, Mark Allen shared his story in a similar format -- combining his thoughts on training, spirituality and nutrition.
Scott’s story reminded me of logical traps that have caught me in the past. I’ll share a few areas of my personal psychology where I need to be very careful.
There is a difference between embracing life and embracing health. With that in mind, no amount of kale can make the continuous pursuit of epic training healthy. Elite sport is a temporary phase of our lives. For me, it was a very valuable phase. That said, nutrition gives a big advantage to an athlete. My experience is similar to Scott’s -- daily exercise combined with high quality nutrition changed my life. Gradually, I’m shifting to a similar nutritional direction as him.
Scott reminded me that fully releasing ourselves to the journey of athletic excellence and the fringes of human endurance isn’t courageous. It’s a lot of fun, quite tiring and, for some, a spiritual quest that brings peace of mind, likely via exhaustion. True courage is shown when we leave our addictions -- to winning; to sexual conquest; to alcohol; to drugs; to exercise; to consumption. When we get used to living on the edge, stepping back and into a more moderate lifestyle can feel like quitting (at least it did for me).
Ultrarunners have “no quit” built deep into their psyches -- I’ve heard more than one story of people running themselves into dialysis. So be careful with the direction that you push your training. Epic training appeals to many and is appropriate for only a few; even then, it is more of a spiritual journey than a quest for physical health and personal wellness. Once I saw my compulsion to train as a psychological characteristic it was far easier to examine its source and feed my needs in a way that’s consistent with being a parent and spouse.
When I started, one of the appeals of running was how it suppressed my appetite while burning calories. Weight loss, associated with strict dietary restriction and long term energy deficits, is highly appealing to many endurance athletes. Scott’s story reminded me that some of my happiest memories are the highs I received by combining exercise with calorie restriction. If you’re built in a similar fashion then you’ll do best by setting a weight floor that you have to stay above at all times. It was a tip that I learned from Mark Allen.
Scott mentions the death of a friend via suicide, something I’ve experienced in triathlon. From what I read, my periods of depression are mild compared to others. Still, I need to take responsibility for my mental health and be careful with choices that feed my tendency to isolate myself. Social integration is essential to balance the natural ups and downs of life, particularly in athletes that are prone to depression. Be careful with choosing goals that let you withdraw from the stability provided by community.
I recommend Scott’s book. Both for his story and what we can read between the lines when we apply to our own lives.
Gordo is the founder of Endurance Corner. You can find his personal blog here.