This post is partly to give myself some public accountability – now I’ll really need to run some of the distances I’m thinking about and complete a tough race in the summer. But let’s backtrack a little, to when I was a kid… I’ve oddly enough enjoyed running from a fairly young age, but I was never great at it and I also never ran any long distances. In fact, before 2019 I’ve only once ran more than 10 km in one go. In the last few years I’ve been working out more or less regularly, including running distances around 4 to 9 km. But my training had very little in terms of goals beyond just “being fit for my hiking trips”, and it’s much better to train if you have a more concrete goal in your mind.
So fast forward to February 2019, one day I decided to push myself a bit more than usual and I did a 14 km trail run up a hill and around this great area called the Dehesa del Generalife. Other than the uphill suffering, it went great and it was much more interesting than just the usual city runs – maybe I was onto something?
Right after that, I was browsing Facebook or Instagram and an ad popped up for a running race in the Sierra Nevada mountains close by – The Sierra Nevada Ultra, an insane race up the mountains in July. Of course, going from running sub-10 km distances to ultramarathons would be too big of a step in 5 months, but the idea of running a race like this at some point did appeal to me.
My First Half-Marathon
Literally 3 days after that trail run which was already many kilometers longer than what I’ve run in at least the last 5 years, I thought it was time to try a half-marathon. Of course, I was not going to wait around for a race to be organized in the city, so I just put on my running shoes, went out and ran 21 km. My only goal (like for many first-timers) was to run it in under 2 hours. I didn’t really pay attention to my time, I just kept up a good pace throughout. At the halfway mark when I checked my phone I already realized that I may be a bit faster than that. When I arrived at the finish line, I realized that I did it in under 1 hours and 44 minutes! While it is not an earth-shatteringly fast time, it surprised me that I was in such good shape – just for comparison, the average US male competing in half-marathons would run it on average more than 20 minutes slower. Of course, the fastest times are waaay faster. There are a few superhuman runners who can do a half-marathon in just under 1 hour, which just blows my mind!
The Sierra Nevada Ultra
This running race in the Sierra Nevada stayed in the back of my mind for a while. Eventually I realized that it has multiple distances: the craziest ultramarathon distance of 100 km, a medium distance of 60 km and a marathon distance, “only” 40 km. Running 40 km up a mountain, with about 2500 meters of elevation is still quite insane. But a lot more doable than 100 km…
So, I just kept on training, running more trail runs, intervals, a few more half-marathons and for the first time in my life, put myself on a proper training plan. I decided that screw it, I need a tough challenge in my life and I will complete the marathon distance of the race! Regular marathons just seemed too easy (HA!), why not add a mountain-sized chunk of suffering to it? Said the guy who still never ran more than a half-marathon on flat land… And why would I want to run 40 km? Well, I don’t really know. It sounded like a dumb idea, so of course I signed up!
Sierra de Huétor Trail
After signing up for the race in the Sierra Nevada, I thought it was time to see if I can run a longer than half-marathon distance, since I’ve never done that. Of course, why not throw in some elevation to make it more fun? So, one cold morning a few days ago I found myself on a local bus in my running gear, before sunrise. I got off in a small village called Cogollos de la Vega, which sits just at the foot of the Sierra de Huétor mountain range.
The moment I got off and the door of the bus closed behind me, it started to rain. I thought that it might just be a shower, although the clouds looked pretty bad – it turned out to be 3 hours of heavy rain, occasionally developing into a full-on torrential downpour, with of course some cold wind, lots of mud and low visibility. Of course, I decided to do what every sensible person would do and set off regardless, to run the distance that I was planning to run. In the next two and a half hours, I ran over 23 kilometers, with an elevation gain of almost 1000 meters, through the cold and rain, over the mountains that are normally incredibly beautiful, yet now I could barely see any of them. After arriving to Víznar, I started stretching in the bus stop, only to realize after 15 minutes that the next bus back to Granada is over 2 hours away, which meant I had to run to the next village to catch a bus back. So, with that, plus running to and from the bus stop in Granada, I ran a total of over 30 km!
And do you know what is the craziest thing? I loved it! Why would anyone in their right mind enjoy 3 hours in the cold torrential rain, covered in mud, running up and down mountains? Even if there was plenty of suffering, I genuinely enjoyed it. You may think it’s a rather perverse, masochistic type of joy, but it is really about pushing the limit of what I can do. I went from running sub-10 km distances, to running more than 30 km in three months!
Mindset & Grit
Running distances like this is as much about mental strength as it is about fitness. There is really a huge sense of achievement when you put one foot after another for a long period of time , even when it sucks and then you finish what you set out to do. I could have gotten back on the bus when it started raining. I could have stopped during a half-marathon, because my legs are tired. But I didn’t.
While I can’t talk about myself as a really tough runner (don’t worry, I’m working on it) this topic really reminded me of a book that I just finished. It’s Angela Duckworth’s “Grit”, which is a fascinating read and I would really recommend it to anyone who is interested in the psychology of achievement. It’s a study about what it means to be talented and what it is to work hard. Without giving away too much, I can say that hard work with a passion and the ability to get back up after failures – which she calls “grit” – will always beat talent in the long run. And anyway, what we call “talent” is often just a hell of a lot of practice that we don’t see that person put into their craft.
In a sense running these long distances is a way for me to build grit, to become tougher, but I also do it because I really enjoy it. Hiking is still a huge passion of mine and a large motivation behind all of the training is to be able to hike faster and longer. A more concrete goal is running the 40 km version of the Sierra Nevada Ultra in July. But goals are pretty useless by themselves, so I have a system – a proper training plan, tracking my progress, etc. And honestly, it is not just about ticking off a goal. I simply enjoy the meditative nature of just being outside, in nature and pushing myself.
Here you have it – call me out if I don’t run 40 km up a mountain in July! It is my current goal to aim for, which guides my training, but who knows what I’ll do after that? Maybe I’ll hate running forever after finishing (I don’t think so) or maybe I’ll sign up for the 100 km race next time – or maybe something more sensible in between? We’ll see!