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What does it take for a runner to move on to a longer distance? This question has long been one that rattles around in my head. I have blogged about it before (here) but I still don’t have an answer that satisfies. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of Long-distance running:

Long-distance running, or endurance running, is a form of continuous running over distances of at least three kilometres (1.86 miles). Physiologically, it is largely aerobic in nature and requires stamina as well as mental strength.[1]

While some runners break into a sweat at the idea of adding another 8 km to the end of a marathon, others think nothing of jumping from a 50 km to their first 100 miler. What allows one runner to constantly search for bigger challenges while another holds back?

I choose to enter races that my running friends organize or have successfully completed, thinking there is some kind of safety in that. Often I know a few folks out on the course which gives me some reassurance. Slowly, over the years, the distances have increased and my sense of adventure has grown with it. But I am still cautious in my selection of events and in monitoring my readiness for a longer distance, always wanting to read through results and blogs to know exactly what I am getting myself into.

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At C4P 2005, Canadian Club Smart Ass took Ventura County by storm because there was safety in numbers.

Most of us think that the marathon or even the 100 miler is the upper limit of possibility because we are unable to imagine anything beyond. But those distances are only known and accepted because someone broke out of the mold and attempted something unknown with dubious possibility of success. If you dare to do some research, you will find unbelievable events which fill to capacity with people who are able to open their minds to the endless possibilities out there. Once the bar is raised and a new distance is established, the flood gates will open with others wanting to try.

But, even more daunting than increased distances, I am amazed at runners who enter an inaugural race – a race that has neither stood the test of time nor had the wrinkles worked out. What if the water-drop gets put on the wrong mountain top or the distance is measured in nautical miles rather than those regular ones? (Don’t laugh – these things have happened!) A race’s long history is a sort of proof of its do-ability and that the organization has worked out the logistics. But this proof is absent in a first-time event and therefore it is not a race that I would enter.

Recently, Get Out There magazine published an article titled Going Long which featured two humble athletes who thrive on those kinds of races – the ones with no results, no blogs, no history. One of those featured athletes is my own husband.

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Inaugural year of 332km Tor des Geants 2010 – the great unknown in action

Those who read farther than Bruce’s extensive resume were treated to a glimpse into the philosophical thinking behind his leisure pursuit. These inaugural races of ultra-long distances, put on by unknown race directors, often in distant countries are the kinds of boundaries he aims to push. There is a purity in being completely self-reliant and, in some cases, self-sufficient, having to carry all necessary food and supplies or even having to acquire those enroute (in another language). There is also a thrill to being ahead of the curve – competing in an event that the media has not yet sullied as ‘the next great must-do race’. These events are not about the speed-work sessions you did, the number of Strava kudos earned or even the number of training kilometers logged. It is more about being able to filter out the noise and focus solely on the immediate present so that the next mountain pass can be attained. It is a great reminder that the finish line is arbitrary; the journey is everything.

No matter how far we aim to run, our limits are directly linked to restrictions we put on ourselves. If you say “I could never run that far”, then you can’t and you won’t. An open-mind and deep self-knowledge are the tickets needed to go longer.

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The Transpyrenea route follows the GR10 trail from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic through the French

For each of us, our perceived limit of what is possible is different.  I have many friends who do not run long distances and some who do not run at all.  I have watched eyes glaze over when I talk about my upcoming 50km run or even the 3 hour run I did on the weekend.  Yet I completely understand the glazed-eye look, because I often get it when others talk about something beyond the limits of my  mind.  (For example, who can imagine playing test cricket for more than 5 days?)

Recently, I was getting some updates about a friend who was running an unbelievably long race (The Iditarod Trail Invitational 350 miles).  Upon reading about her daily progress, I caught myself wondering if running such a distance in such conditions were even possible.  What nerve I have!  While she was plodding along, day after day, in the darkness of an Alaskan winter, I was simultaneously questioning if what she was doing was real.

It struck me then that I had come across something that my brain could not process.  The limits of my imagination in running had been reached and my eyes were being opened to a bigger picture.

I had the glazed-eye look that I have seen countless times on the faces of non-running friends.  But this time it was my turn to abandon my facial composure while I stretched my thinking beyond its regular boundaries.  Mental gymnastics ain’t pretty!

I have run a variety of distances, with 50 miles being the farthest that I have pushed myself in one day.  But, although that is the limit that I have imposed on my body, it isn’t the limit of my mind.  I have attended many 100km and 100 miles races.  I have crewed for Bruce in countless events that I considered too long/tough/gruelling/crazy/etc for me but I understand that these are all in the realm of possible.  Even multi-day events, totalling a couple hundred kilometres of running, are plausible to me.  But for some reason, running the Iditarod race was hard to fathom.

But that is all in the past now.  Thanks to Shawn and her amazing run, I have added running 350 miles in the arctic to my list of possible, although highly unlikely, running endeavours.

Where is your mind’s limit for running endurance?  How far can you imagine going?

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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