[Term paper for Psychological and Sociological Aspect of Physical Activity class; It's just a paper for a class, it's not like a dissertation or anything major like that, but it definitely could be. I also could have put way more work into it than I did, but hey, it wasn't bad for the night before it was due.]
Ultra runners, endurance runners, or “those idiots”; these are just some of names given to those individuals who willing choose to run distances farther than a standard marathon of 26.2 miles. The marathon is still considered by most to be the pinnacle race of running, which is interesting, because in the ultrarunning community a marathon is considered just a weekend training run. That is not meant to belittle the accomplishment of finishing a marathon, because simply starting such an event is an extraordinary feat, it’s just a statement of fact. Thinking of running in such terms doesn’t happen over night, but is the result of being thoroughly absorbed into the ultrarunning lifestyle, and make no mistake about it; it’s a lifestyle, not a sport.
James Lampman wasn’t always the ultrarunner he is today, and had very humble beginnings in the sport of running. He had always loved to be active as a young child, and constantly made adults wonder, “Just what are they feeding that kid?” He went on from chasing his sister around the yard to winning the “Fastest Runner” award in his second grade gym class, which still hangs on his wall to this day. This experience, of excelling at something he enjoyed and had fun doing, would serve as the basis for what he expected of future sport experiences. (Coakley 1992 p. 12)
Years later in Junior High, James would join the Cato-Meridian Modified Track & Field team with a handful of friends, and join the distance squad to run the 800 meter and 1600 meter races. Even at that early level of competitive running he favored the long distance races, where it was more of a test of endurance than how fast your were, like shorter runs or sprints. As well as wanting to do an activity that he enjoyed, his other main reason for joining the team was, because it was something he could do with his friends. He had missed out on his opportunity to join the school’s Modified Cross-Country team the previous fall, but his friends had joined, and they encouraged him to join the team the next fall. James was less of a competitor when it came to sports, and was always more concerned with the enjoyment he got from the activity and the camaraderie with this friends and teammates, which will continue to be the case through the rest of his sports experiences.
When it came time to join the cross-country team the next fall a few of his friends who had urged him to run cross-country with them had decided to join the football instead, in the hopes of glory and girls. With the accomplishments of his first track season James had been ready to show his friends how proficient he had become as a runner from training throughout the spring and summer, which according to White (1992) addressed his need to display his competence in the sport to his peers. James had wanted to quit the team since his best friends were no longer on the team, but his parents (mostly Father) had encouraged him to at least stick it out for the season, and if he didn’t want to do it next year, he didn’t have to. His father wanted him to take responsibility as a young adult, and uphold his promise to be on the team (Coakley 2006). Also, the small school had a limited number of runners, and every boy was needed to have a full roster to compete for the season. So, he stayed with the team for the rest of that season, and return for a second season of track in the spring. This is in keeping with Martin’s (1991) findings that, “encouragement from others may influence perceived ability which in turn influences sports participation” Throughout his continued experiences on modified and high school running teams, James was encouraged by parents, coaches and runner buddies to continue on with his running after school.
After his graduation from High School, James went off to attend a college that didn’t offer a varsity running sport, because he felt that he wasn’t good enough or fast enough to compete at the collegiate level. White (1992) found that an individual is likely to participate in a given sport if they have a perceived competence in the sport. Although he was quite competent in running, he was less than ambitious about having to be under the pressure to perform at the high standards needed to be on a college team. He didn’t want the sport to become like work, where it would stress him out, and possibly make him burnout on the sport. He wanted to continue to run, but on his own terms and at no cost to you enjoyment to the sport, but in what arena could he do that? (Coakley 1992)
Once at school James found a group of individuals with ideals about running not unlike his own in the form of a newly created Running Club on campus. He was easily welcomed into the group; they too enjoyed running in a stress free fashion and sought to run unfettered by coaches or ridged training schedules. The club was to carpool out to a series of runs the first few weeks of school, which included a 5k run and a half marathon. The club thought the latter of which you had to be insane to attempt, and James thought he would attempt, after all the club was paying for it, and even though he had never run that far before he was confident he could at least finish the race. He ended up surviving the half marathon and completed another 10-mile race a month later.
Throughout the year James moved onto the marathon distance and completed a number of these, but still had not found what he was looking for with running. Even at this distance it was the same as it had been with the previous distances, it was a running culture of individuals. In marathons runners have a very “me” mentality, in which they are all trying to individually meet their own goals, and there’s not a lot of camaraderie for your fellow runners. He felt like an “outsider” in the sport, because he didn’t possess the perceived ambition that everyone else (“insiders”) had to succeed in face of others failing. (Stevenson 2002) This would be reflected in the fact that everyone at the starting line would be all business and getting into the right frame of mind while waiting for the race to start, and almost no one would be joking or catching up with friends before the race.
At some point during his second year at college James would be introduced to the idea of “trail running”, and the concept of a “ultra” run that covered a distance farther than a marathon. This experience exposed him to the group that would later make up a good portion of his social world, the ultrarunning community. He immediately identified with the norms of this group, and noticed a huge contrast to the landscape of marathons and those runs of even short distances. Gone was this “me” mentality, and it was replaced by the over feeling of a “we” mentality, in which everyone was part of the group, and we were all trying to finish the event together. This was apparent even from before the start of the run when everyone was talking with friends, introducing themselves to newcomers and carrying on as if they were all meeting to go on a Saturday morning jog together instead of a 30-mile trail run that would last some hours.
During the run, it became less about what your finishing time was going to be, and more about whether or not you were going finish the event at all, because it wasn’t a given that you would finish and there in lied the challenge. Everyone offered each other words of encouragement, and helped others keep moving through the tough parts of the course, getting everyone to the finish. Elise Braner (2009), coach of the North Face Endurance Challenge program, commented, “…ultra-running is more than just a race. It is about building a community and connecting with other athletes out on the trail. It is more than just about you and your race, but how you can leverage the relationships built on the trail to help you finish.” (A Marathoner’s Experience, para .5) James would return to this event every year after that first, and each time it would feel more like a meeting of good friends to take on the trail together, and less like a competition. After being made aware of ultrarunning and participating in the community it fosters, he began to form an attachment to it and a desire to continue to be accepted within it. (Funk 2009)
After that initial positive adventure into the world ultra running, James had an idea of his possible potential for success in that running community and positive impact of the people involved in that community, which both concreted his eventual commitment to that community. (Stevenson 1990)
For the next few years James would become the familiar face of a youngster in a community dominated by veterans at ultra runs in Western New York and the Northeast U.S. The average age of a participant in most endurance runs 50-miles or longer is usually around 42 years old, which at the time at the time of James’s first 100-mile trail run was his age flipped. Although he had completed a few dozen marathons and shorter distances runs, several ultra distance runs and was decades younger than most other finishers in such events, he still felt small by comparison to those runners around him. It wasn’t that they were necessarily faster than him, because that didn’t matter, it was that many of them had run distances that many people dread driving, and he wanted to be counted among them, among those who some might say are of questionable sanity.
It wasn’t until the completion of that first 100-mile trail run in the mountains of Vermont, that James finally felt at least on par with most of the runners in his community. He soon realized however that everyone in the group had their thing, and everyone looks at everyone else in the community with awe, for one reason or another, no matter who they were. Some people hold course records; others have done prestigious runs in various parts of the country and world; and others like James raced as far as they could as often as they could, and maybe never won a race, but was always back at the starting line the very next race to run again. According to Stevenson (1990), these accomplishments by individuals in the ultra community “produced valued identities and reputations” (p.12), which were constantly being reinforced by other runners, family member and friends. Stevenson (1990) continues by say that “these identities therefore acted to reinforce the athletes’ decision to continue in their commitment to the sport.” (p.12)
Over the past several years, since his introduction to the social world of ultrarunning, James has been accepted into the ultrarunning subculture after demonstrating to the community that he too lives the ultrarunning lifestyle and places value on the ideals of the group, such as: maintaining an injury free body and improving personal performance through training and help from the group. (Donnelly 1998, p.3) James is a member of Ultrarunning Matters, an ultrarunning club/community based in Syracuse, NY, with members all over the United States. The club offers members of the group a social world in which to share knowledge and discuss topics pertaining to ultra running, and a network of peers who can offer encouragement and support to fellow runners as they continue to explore the potential of human endurance. This encouragement comes to individuals about to participate in an upcoming event and congratulations to those who just completed an event.
The running club is comprised of ultrarunners, which include: race directors, doctors and healthcare professionals, academics, students, and individuals in their twenties, sixties and every age in between, Everyone has some to offer the group as far as an expertise in some area of knowledge that is pertinent to the rest of the community. Even with his young age James is able to contribute to the group because of the variety of running events he has completed by offering information about the runs to other that might be considering the same events in the future.
James looks to continue to run, and be involved in the ultra running community as a whole, for many years to come. As long as he retains the physical ability to run, has the support and encouragement of family, friends and peers (and runner peers), and opportunities to see just what he is ultimately capable of. He’s very hopefully of his continued future in running, the oldest individual to complete one of his most recent ultras was 72 years young, and he was still smiling as he crossed the finish line after 30 hours of being on his feet to cover 100-miles. “Once you become an ultra runner, there is no turning back” (A Marathoner’s Experience, para. 6).
Braner, E. (2009. Oct 6) A Marathoner’s Experience as an Ultramarathon Coach.
Message posted to http://blog.irunfar.com
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