Ultrarunning in 2020: What does that mean?
This year seemed to change the way we do just about everything. For Altra athlete Kyle Pietari, he noticed newfound challenges and disruptions surrounding his ultrarunning routines. But athletes adapt. Here’s how Kyle navigated ultrarunning in 2020.
Since I started running ultramarathons in 2011, my running life has generally followed an annual rhythm:
WINTER: Down time; base building
SPRING: Training ramp-up; early season training races
SUMMER: Peak fitness; competitive 100-milers
FALL: Recover from summer; second training peak for another big race
This structure was logical and organic and became predictable. I leaned into that predictable structure for stability in a sport that, by design, takes participants through extreme highs and lows. Until 2020. To put it mildly, 2020 is like the crippling nausea at mile 75, the wrong turn at mile 10, the injury one week before race day, and the chaffed skin for days after wearing that article of clothing that is now in the garbage.
Without races, and with the more important things in life brought into sharper focus—health, safety, livelihood—ultrarunning, at a surface level, has taken a back seat this year (or been stuffed in the trunk). But at a deeper level, ultrarunning means far more than just racing. For me, it is about adopting a lifestyle conducive to personal stability and personal growth—this, too, has come into sharper focus in 2020.
Now I see that years of working through the highs and lows of an ultrarunning lifestyle prepared me to better handle dramatic changes to that lifestyle, and other stressors of 2020. What steps can I take to deal with seeing the framework of my daily routines in disarray? The same steps I would take any other year. Literal ones, with my own feet. Get out and run. Even if it looks different year to year, consistent running fortifies me and enables me to handle serious challenges on a racecourse or elsewhere.
When times are great, run to celebrate the present and prepare for the future. Enjoy the privilege of training hard and racing. Believe that the strength you build will help you handle unknown challenges ahead.
When times are challenging, run to deal. Hang on to the daily practice not to compete, but for stability and all the other benefits running provides. Tap into all you learned from training and racing.
Until early 2020, I relied on my daily run-commute for 9+ miles per workday. It took minimal effort to build that into my schedule. Without the structure of a run-commute, and with most childcare options no longer available, my total running volume has been lower this year. Like many runners, I have found it more difficult to prioritize running in 2020.
But a key aspect of ultrarunning is being flexible and adapting one’s approach to keep making forward progress. Even when things get tough. Whether it was fitting in heavy training on minimal sleep (every year) or figuring out how to compete for 93 miles on a badly sprained ankle (2017 Western States 100), being an ultrarunner has taught me that success usually requires adapting myself to unforeseen circumstances that are beyond my control.
Earlier in 2020, I thought about simple principles that I would focus on this year. With mixed success, I have spent recent months applying them. To put them in writing:
Be okay with less training.
Try to run every day, but only rarely twice a day.
Accept missed training days as beneficial rest days in disguise.
Use the lack of races as an opportunity to recover and be fully healthy for the next racing season.
Take kid(s) in a jogging stroller whenever possible and cherish having more opportunities to do so.
Preserve baseline fitness, but do not aim for peak fitness until you have a race to prepare for.
If you have spare time, go on non-race adventures (exploring the mountains, attempting a Fastest Known Time, running to that famous bakery for that pastry, etc.)
Do not make running a top priority. But make it just enough of a priority that you keep doing it day after day.
It turns out, these principles are a lot like what I did in past years. Although the focus on racing is gone, at its core, as a lifestyle, ultrarunning in 2020 is the same sport it has always been.
Not everyone can prioritize a physical activity they are passionate about right now. 2020 has been far harder on many than on the lucky of us who, like myself, can still devote time and energy to something like running. Personally, I think of this as another reason to run. While I can, I enjoy maintaining an ultrarunner lifestyle, attempting to live fully and give myself opportunities to grow. And when the time comes that I cannot, I hope others will for me.