“Every mile serves a purpose.”
Now that the race is less than a month away and the mileage has started to add up and take a toll and general morale is pretty low given the state of the world, I reached out to get some help this week. Tom Foreman is an experienced ultrarunner with a great sense of humor and the author of My Year of Running Dangerously, a memoir about running. He generously took some time to share a few stories and answer questions about what to expect while running an absurd distance and pushing the body to extremes. I’ve also included some of my favorite quotes from his book.
Hannah: Do you have any advice for first-time ultrarunners doing it on something of a lark?
Tom Foreman: Ultrarunning is different from marathons. The marathon is very special and it’s fearsome in its own way because it can grind at you, and you can make a mistake in the marathon and be ok. If you’re in reasonable shape, you will still finish.
The ultra—you make a serious mistake in your ultra strategy or preparation, and you can be 30 miles in, 40 miles in, and you are crushed, because you’re often in such challenging conditions they all take a toll on you. Because you’re out there so long you become much more aware of what it means to shepherd your body through that whole experience making sure you’re getting the right fuel and that you’re keeping your head right.
Ultramarathoning, for most of us, is not about speed. It’s mainly about keeping your system functioning and keeping your head right. Just one foot in front of the other relentlessly, grinding the miles down.
“Whether something is uncomfortable or unpleasant has no bearing on whether it should be done. The decision and commitment must be made, if not heedless of the pain, then at least with recognition that sometimes good things require bad days.” - My Year of Running Dangerously
Hannah: I’ve been reading a lot of running books in preparation and yours is by far the funniest. A lot of running books take on a quasi-spiritual seriousness. And yours, it’s not like it’s lighthearted—there are a lot of intense passages—but you do have a sense of humor. Could you talk a little bit about your sense of humor and keeping your head on straight?
Foreman: I’m serious about my running for me, but I don’t take myself seriously as a runner. I’m not going to win a race. If I win something in my age group, I’m thrilled beyond all belief. One time, third place in my age group at the Cleveland Marathon. And you know what’s funny—the fourth-place guy was something like 10 seconds behind me on every mile. And I thought, if you’d known, you could have beaten me.
I think it’s really worthwhile to be able to laugh at yourself because, because why not? I mean, everything is so dire in the world anyway. It’s like, why not be happy about it and have a good time? And I’m lucky because, you know, our family has always laughed. Great. And my dad and my mom grew up in a family that we laughed a lot. I think some of the bravest people in the world are comedians because it’s super hard.
It helps me in running because even when it’s hard, I remind myself, you’re here by choice and the world isn’t going—the sky is not going to fall.
“This is the real reason I love running like an idiot against the miles, against the calendar, and against the odds. Running puts me in touch with the moment, and reminds me how each one is rare and precious. As we get older, it is easy to believe in failure, cynicism, bad intentions, and worse plans. It is hard to believe in honest effort, the kindness of strangers, and true challenges that can be honestly conquered. Running pushes all the bad aside.” - My Year of Running Dangerously
Foreman: A friend of mine who’s an Olympian, Meb Keflezighi, we were talking one day, just chatting about the New York City Marathon and he said something about running the race. And I said, man, when we start that race, you and like six other guys have a chance to win—the other 50,000 of us are running for something else.
That's one of the things I like about marathoning, too: I just find that running in general is a really honest sport. For all normal people, you start here, you finish there, whoever gets there first wins. Doesn’t matter if you run backward or walk some, or you hop on one foot, it doesn’t matter. You cross the line, that’s it. I like that purity and simplicity of it.
And I like the fact that you really are racing yourself. You’re really saying what can I get out of myself. I’ve had races that were not particularly fast races but were beautiful races and I was really proud of them.
Hannah: I love how you put that—the rest of us are “running for something else.” When it comes to balancing life, especially when we’re going through something major like the pandemic and now global turmoil, obviously running takes a bit less priority, but do you feel that running has helped you deal with everything going on?
Tom Foreman: Yeah, tough couple years. There have been many times when I particularly have gone out trail running and have been on the trails in the woods, doing anywhere from 5 to 20 miles, and I may only see a half dozen people. During that time, life felt normal, which is a pretty big thing for these days. Everything about life was different: You couldn’t see friends the way you would, you couldn’t go places the way you would, but the woods were the same. The trail was the same.
Hannah: Do you have any tips or tricks on how to refuel or what to eat during an ultra?
Tom Foreman: Your fuel really depends on the race. For shorter races, you can do GUs and gels and blocks. If you're like me, usually around mile 18, 19, 20, you’ve had enough of that, the residue is hard to deal with. But you can do it for those because you want something that’s going to burn fast, getting you going and you don’t have to endure it for a long, long time.
For races beyond that distance, I think it’s wise to have alternatives. I typically run my 50 with at least some kind of mini burrito. It’s more of a slow-burning food, but it’s also something that I know I can process. Because your body starts sort of shutting down the digestive system at that distance in particular.
Above all it’s personal. The main two goals of fueling are simple: 1. Keep your energy levels up. Don’t let your muscles get depleted because it’s hard to bring them back when they do. And 2. Keep your stomach under control. I think more people have terrible races because their stomach goes bad on them. Because you’ve got the legs, you’ve got the lungs, but just couldn’t keep the stomach in check.
This talk, unfortunately, had to be condensed for space and clarity, but Foreman is a rich conversationalist and everyone should check out his book.
“’If it is inevitable, it is ideal.’ She was quoting an aphorism I had said to her since her youngest days. I’ve never been able to trace its origin, but I’ve thought of it countless times on the job as I’ve faced angry policemen, even angrier protesters, armed thugs, or even more heavily armed soldiers. … When I’ve been tempted to complain about the unreasonableness of the universe, I’ve remembered those words. They are my private clarion call to quit screwing around and get busy solving the problem. They tell me that the ground on which you are standing, no matter where it might be, is the perfect place to take a stand.” - My Year of Running Dangerously