When I think of ultramarathons, I inevitably picture a dirt trail through thick woods going up the side of a mountain—the Sierras, perhaps, or the Appalachians. Thing is, I live in rural Illinois, and while you can certainly find places here that resemble this picture, they just can’t compare to what lies further east or west (or north or south, for that matter). What’s more, many of the ultras I’ve run in these parts have not been in this kind of terrain—sometimes not even close. Case in point, the Brew-to-Brew ultra I ran this weekend, a point-to-point 44-miler stretching from Kansas City to Lawrence.
Brew-to-Brew is an odd race. It benefits the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a serious and significant cause, and yet it starts and ends at breweries, which means many beer-themed (and beer-fueled) relay teams: “Team Lager-rhythms,” “Team All About That Beer,” “Team Brews Brothers,” etc. The race is 44 miles, a substantial distance, and not exactly flat or easy, yet most of the participants do the relay, not the solo, on teams of as many as ten people, meaning there are a small number of camelbacks and a large number of costumes. Lots of tutus, a few feather boas, Captain America, and a giant bottle of pale ale all passed me up at various points along the way. The course itself crosses the state line between Missouri and Kansas, from the warehouse district of Kansas City to the shopping district of Lawrence, over levees, across train tracks, up and down hills, on busy city streets, on remote rural roads, over dirt, gravel, asphalt, and concrete, and at one point runners have to get into a boat to cross the creek. That’s right, there’s a boat, though I’m not sure if the distance from one side of the creek bed to the other is counted as part of the 44 miles. In short, this was nothing like my idealized vision of an ultramarathon—and yet it ended up being one of my better races.
Why? I’m not completely sure. Luck, in large part, because no matter how well you train and how carefully you plan and how super-duper badass amazing a runner you are, stuff can and will go wrong. I did in fact train reasonably well, though my longest long run, a solid 22-miler, still only covered half the total distance of the race, and even in the twisted algebra of experienced runners, where if you can run X number of miles, you can surely run 2X number of miles, this made me uneasy. The weather, always fun in its unpredictability and equal unwillingness to be what you want it to be, looked to be good, then great, then not so great, then horrific, as the week before the race progressed. Perhaps T.S. Eliot was thinking of ultras when he penned the line about the month’s cruelty, because the first weekend of April can be anything, sunshine or snow or gale-force winds. The Saturday before the race, 40 mph winds came roaring at us from the west. Guess what direction the one-way race was going?
Yes, things got tough after those first 22 well-trained-for miles. Yes, the wind was at times like one giant fist of fury slamming into me. But it wasn’t always tough, the wind wasn’t always furious, and a lot of things that could have gone badly went well. The porta potties, for instance. Solo runners were given license to jump the lines, and let me tell you it was worth it to be running all 44 miles just to be able to move to the front of the ridiculously long queues. Every kindergartener knows that cutting in line is one of the worst things you can do, on par with stealing from the church collection plate, so I felt bad for about a nanosecond as I sashayed past the cross-legged relayers holding it in, but I left that bad feeling with the bad smells in the pottyhouse and went on my way.
What especially went well was the fact that I didn’t actually run it solo. After the first 22 miles—the point where the race really was starting for me—my friends running on a relay team caught up to me, and from then on I had very welcome company. My running companions told jokes and funny stories (ask Don the one about the kayak and the electric fence sometime, you won’t regret it) and just kept me going however they could. Whenever we approached another aid station, we’d hear raucous cries of “BUFFALOOOOO!” (the name of my running group, minus the extra O’s) and at one point there was even a triumphant bugle riff to greet us. I kind of want a bugle-ist to follow me around during work to motivate me when the morning’s coffee buzz wears off.
I finished in 8 hours and 50 minutes, which isn’t all that fast but isn’t all that slow either, and in fact I ran the whole thing without having turned on the GPS function of my watch. I never had any idea at any point how far I’d gone or what pace I was running, so I didn’t really care all that much what my finish time would be so long as I got there before the finish line got packed away. Sometimes you care about doing well—it is a race, after all—but other times you run for other reasons. I’d like to say that I did this one solely out of the desire to benefit CFF; two of my relaying friends have a young son with cystic fibrosis, and every year they organize a group of Buffalo to run this race and raise money. I did want to benefit the foundation, and their boy; CFF is the real deal, an organization that knows what it’s doing and gets results. But let’s be honest: I could, as I have in past years, simply donate to the foundation without running for nearly 9 hours, and doing so would have also benefited, at least a little, all those poor suckers who had to wait at the porta potties while I jumped ahead of them. No, something else compels a person to run an ultramarathon like this one, and I don’t think I really knew what it was until I was running it.
Every runner will tell you there comes a point, perhaps several points, in a race when you’ll ask yourself why am I doing this? Usually you don’t answer that question until you cross the finish line, exhausted, elated, victorious: yes, this is why, because look, look what I just did. That wasn’t how it happened this time, because the answer came to me before the ending, and it had nothing to do with victory, because running an ultra is not just about being super-duper badass amazing. It is also, I admit, about being petty, wanting to tell every relay runner who zipped by me in the late stages of the race hey I’m running the whole distance, what are you doing? It’s about being selfish, happily jumping the 20-minute line to pee. It’s about needing help, desperately, at the point where you just want to stop moving and you don’t even care that you’d end up being buried in a shallow grave somewhere in east Kansas. And it’s about the swell of gratitude you feel when you get that help.
No, you don’t always run the perfect race on the ideal trail; if anything, far more often, in a race or otherwise, things will not be even remotely perfect or ideal. Yes, there are trails that resemble the pictures in my head; there are places in the world so wildly beautiful they can’t even be imagined, merely sought after, hungrily, because who wouldn’t want to seek such untamed, uncontained beauty? But all this, too, is the world: railroad cars and shipping containers, levees and gravel roads, factories, farmhouses, and in the midst of all that a small field newly blooming in violet hues. It’s necessary, I think, to see it all, even the parts that may not at first seem beautiful or interesting or in any way desirable, because, well, there it is around you—and within you. How can you look away?