All-Season Runner Q&A: Mark Ulett
Here, we catch up with Mark Ulett, from Northwestern Montana, U.S.A. and talk about his goal: to run the distance of the world's circumference.
What motivates you? And what pushes you to get outdoors in any weather?
Let's start with what does not motivate me: races/events/competitions, beating my records, beating other people's records.
My running psychology was shaped in high school cross country, I think. Unlike most everyone else, I lost those races. I was objectively the slowest. Luckily, I was smart enough to ask myself the question: am I the slowest because I am the weakest? I had plenty of time to think about how I was going to play this whole "you came in last" thing.
There were only two psychologically viable options. One, quit. Two, change what "winning" means. Like the chumps who DNF'ed behind me, most people faked a physical injury so they didn't injure their pride. I just took the hit. But as I ground myself down to nothing while running well-behind the back of the pack, I realized a critical equation: grit equals overcoming discomfort multiplied by time.
By the time I finished, red-faced, and physically destroyed, all my friends had already recovered. They were back to happily sipping Capri Suns, eating orange wedges, and flirting with each other. Clearly, I had suffered just as hard as they did, but for much longer. If what the race judges had been looking at was grit, not speed, I would have been at the head of the pack. The quantity of grit I displayed was higher than my opponents. Because of those losses, I learned one of the most important lessons of my life. You can generate pride and a sense of accomplishment by merely withstanding discomfort for a long time. 20 years later, I am happy to run in the rain, sleet, or snow. The added sense of accomplishment and pride that I feel after gritting through uncomfortable conditions far outweighs the discomfort itself.
Tell us about your current challenge - to run the distance of the world's circumference?
I love running, but I needed a project to motivate me to run consistently. I'm in it for the mental and physical wellness that necessarily emerges from consistent physical activity. Clearly, I was also not going to be motivated by a race. So signing up for an ultra was likely to end sadness and injuries. I knew that I needed a big goal to keep me going, something to work on every day. So I started doing calculations. I could build myself up to run 25 miles per week. How long would it take me to run 2,680 miles, the distance across the United States? About 2 years. That seems fun!
But hang on a second...how long would it take to run 24,901 miles, the distance around the earth? Not long, just 2 decades. Then I asked a follow-up question that people forget to ask about their goals. What would happen if I chose 24,901 miles as my goal? Would I be a happier, healthier, more grounded person if I spent 20 years consistently running? Obviously, yes! And that, my friends, is how it came to pass that I'm almost 1,400 miles into a nearly 25,000-mile journey.
What do you feel has been your greatest achievement as a runner?
Part of the beauty of having a spectacularly big goal like running 24,901 miles is that you have every reason to focus on the process, not the outcome. There is no finish line, no fans, no Capri Suns, or orange wedges waiting for you to share with friends at the end. There is no outcome, only process. My greatest achievement as a runner was realizing that focusing on achievements doesn't work for me. Now I focus exclusively on the process and creating a positive experience. The results have been spectacular.
"Part of the beauty of having a spectacularly big goal like running 24,901 miles is that you have every reason to focus on the process, not the outcome."
Which races stand out as some favorites, and some challenging ones?
The only race worth mentioning is a half Ironman event that I did in 2012. I really enjoyed triathlons, but this race was the dead canary that told me that the mineshaft of racing is filled with poisonous gas. The event was terrific because I did it with my dad, and I beat my goal time by an hour. But it was also a spectacular failure. I failed not because I DNF'ed, but because I ran the event with a foot that I knew was broken from training. You could see the crack on the x-ray. Don't get me wrong, the grit factor required for crushing your goal while running through a broken bone pain feels badass, but it's not healthy. It's not sustainable. That's not what winning looks like unless your actual life is on the line. Up until 2019, the furthest I ever ran before getting injured was about 250 miles. Today I've gone five times further than ever before without injury, simply because I took competition out of the equation and started to focus on the process.
Are you training for any upcoming races?
Given the above answer, you may be surprised that the answer is "yes." I am going to participate in a 50-mile event in Montana called Le Grizz. It's a flat 50 on dirt roads near my house overlooking Glacier National Park. With just a few dozen people participating, it is the kind of long day out that will be only fun. I realized that participating in a few events could be an excellent way to meet other runners and start to make some social connections around running. Running is, after all, one of the few non-work things I do. Naturally, I have taken precautions to avoid becoming concerned with my pace or finishing time. I'll probably end up doing about 60 miles that day. When I complete the 50 and cross the line, I'll get in my truck, drive to find my dad, and run with him to the finish.
How has COVID-19 changed your outdoor lifestyle?
Mercifully, it has not. I live in a small town in the middle of the woods with easy access to no less than 3.5 million acres of public land. Unlike a city park, there is no practical reason or mechanism for the state to "close" 3.5 million acres of wilderness. Given the difficult situation that people are withstanding at the moment, I know that I'm beyond blessed and privileged to have access to the outdoors where I can be healthy and free.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to start running, or to go from road to trails?
I would say take it really slowly. If you are transitioning or just starting with trail running, then the most significant risk is twisting your ankle or hurting your knee with a wrong footfall. Take it gently. Remember that, unlike the roadrunners, you actually need to use all of your stabilizing muscles just to navigate the trails. The reason to take it slow on the trails is that the part of your body that needs the most training is your central nervous system. The quads and calves get all the attention, but it's actually your brain and nerves that matter most. Without your brain, those sexy muscles don't know when to fire! Here is the condition for which you are training. You're running down the trail, looking up at the next bend. Your foot lands half on a rock and half in a little gap, meaning that your food is at a very steep sideways angle. At this moment, you have only about 0.01 seconds before your body's weight breaks your ankle. If you trained your central nervous system well, your brain would recognize the foot angle is wrong, and you will react by bending your knee and never putting the weight on your foot. Because that happens in 0.01 seconds, it's far too fast for thinking. It is an instant reaction, but one that you must develop slowly over time by gradually increasing the difficulty of the footing. So when you transition to trails—which I strongly recommend because nature is greater than cars —take things slowly. Don't overload your brain and the stabilizing muscles that make it all possible. Happy running!
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More from this series:
All-Season Runner Q&A: Brandon Miller (U.S.A)
All-Season Runner: Elìa Diehl Ruberto (Switzerland)
All-Season Runner Q&A: Clare Shea (U.S.A)
All-Season Runner Q&A: Dr. Marilyn Simmons Bowe (U.S.A)
All-Season Runner Q&A: Jesse Taylor (U.S.A)
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