Why I Stopped Running Ultras – Stepping Off The Hedonistic Treadmill

It’s been over 3 years since I ran an ultramarathon.

That might be surprising to some of you – especially those of you who have read some of the many ultrarunning articles I’ve put out in that time, or checked out the Ultra Runner’s Playbook.

In between, I took an unplanned break from distance running.

Last year I ramped back up to marathon distance events, and was preparing for my return to ultras in 2020 – until the world changed and every race on my calendar got cancelled.

So what’s up with the big break?

It’s taken me a long time to process and figure out how to write about this, but here it is.

Like everything in life, there are a few factors that contributed to this.

But essentially…

I got caught up with chasing new – longer – distances, faster times, and better results.

Each race had to be a new challenge – a new personal limit I was pushing against.

I got hooked on a hedonistic treadmill.

And in the end, I stopped enjoying my races. I was burned out.

Chasing Ultras – My Background with Ultrarunning

The Story of My First Marathon - Stanley, Falkland Islands 13
finish line of my first marathon

After my first full marathon in 2012, I was hooked.

There are probably many reading this who have experienced something similar.

Growing up, I’d always been vaguely sporty but never athletic or excelled in one particular discipline.

Then I gradually found out I could run far.

Whether it was my physiology, my willingness to commit to hours of training, or some inherent appeal – probably a bit of everything – I found the process of running far pretty rewarding.

Each new distance was a new frontier.

And after my first marathon, I was hungry for more.

I ran a few more marathon distance events, but they weren’t enough anymore – I wanted to keep pushing the boundaries.

What did I do next?

I signed up for a 6-day, 250km self-supported ultramarathon across Madagascar.

It was a classic case of setting yourself an audacious goal. I trained for 9 months – spending every single Saturday and Sunday bagging long hikes / runs to prepare myself.

The race itself – which I need to write about some day – was insanely challenging and rewarding, and remains my favourite running experience of my career.

At several points I was on the verge of pulling out, but as each day passed and I was still in the game I became more and more determined to reach the finish line.

Despite bringing the wrong shoes (don’t try to run your first ultramarathon in minimalist shoes) and suffering for the whole week, I finished in a respectable middle-of-the-pack position.

Why I Stopped Running Ultras - Stepping Off The Hedonistic Treadmill 1
200k into the Madagascar stage race

That race was like a furnace, forging my drive for running crazy ultras.

So what did I do when I got home from running the 6-day Madagascar ultramarathon?

You guessed it.

I signed up for another.

First came Sri Lanka – another 6-day stage race – followed closely by several others (Cambodia, Namibia, and Spain).

I began to pepper in other ultra events in between the stage races, and soon I was running ultras every other month.

Racing To Win

stopping ultras
Running in Sri Lanka. Photo credit: GlobalLimits

During this string of ultramarathons, I naturally got better.

I got faster, my body adapted to the distances, and I developed some strategies for performing better.

In Cambodia, I unexpectedly bagged 1st place male at the end of a 210km stage race.

A couple of months later, I came first in a 100k race in Gujarat, India.

Then I sneaked onto the podium at the 2016 Racing The Planet Namibia race, bagging 3rd place in a field of over 200 ultra-runners – probably my proudest result.

Why I Stopped Running Ultras - Stepping Off The Hedonistic Treadmill 2
Namibia podium

But the podium spots were a double-edged sword.

The next time I’d toe the start line, I’d just be thinking about the competition – and getting to that podium.

There was an expectation on me – whether from others or just myself – that I was going to do well, and if I didn’t then I’d disappoint.

At the same time, something weird happened – I lost all enthusiasm for training.

In the final 6 months of that period, I barely ran further than 10k during training – I found run training to be dull, frustrating, and unfulfilling.

I justified the lack of training by saying I ran enough ultras that each race was preparation for the next, but the truth was that I was falling out of love with the sport.

Things came to a head on my final multi-stage race in 2016 – another 6-day, 250km race. I spent most of the week trying to defend a 5th place position against another runner (I’ve no idea why), and my slowdown in training meant I was digging deep – and uncomfortable – for much of the race.

After that race, I scuttled home and quietly mothballed my running career. For the first time in 2-3 years, I had no races on my calendar – and was glad.

The Unintended Break

I never had any grand plan to step away from ultra-running, I just knew I needed some time away from it.

Intentionally or otherwise, I found other pursuits. I started hitting the gym more regularly, and going to other fitness classes.

Life changed – my partner and I changed cities, and moved into a small apartment in the middle of Madrid. At the time, access to good running routes wasn’t something I was thinking hard about.

Work got busy. I signed up for an 18-month MBA. And in my free time, I beavered away at building Marathon Handbook and became a certified running coach.

During this period I still used running as a means of exercise and escape – I’d run 5-10k a couple of times a week, maybe do the odd 13 miler to prove to myself I still could.

But frankly, I had no interest in committing to another race.

The idea of another ultra was daunting. Not just in terms of training, but in terms of living up to the level I’d reached previously.

If I went back and ran again, how would I feel if I went from a podium finisher to a middle-of-the-pack runner?

It was easier just to avoid the issue – my enthusiasm for ultras was at a low, so I let sleeping dogs lie.

Beginning Again

That period lasted for a good 3 years.

There were several personal factors that contributed to it’s length.

I became busy with other things that were rewarding.

Running far wasn’t as accessible and appealing as it had once been.

I was a bit gun-shy, not ready to get back on the horse.

But slowly, things have come around.

We moved out of the city to an area packed with trails. I finished the MBA.

Last year, I started to reintroduce regular run training into my weekly calendar. I topped the year off with a marathon, and felt great at the end of it. That feeling of pushing my personal limits was back.

marathoneveryyear2019

I began doing regular long runs, tentatively dipping my toes back into the water. My biggest concern was pushing myself too far or hard, and losing my enthusiasm.

I scheduled a couple of races onto my 2020 calendar . . . then COVID hit.

In some ways, it’s not been a bad thing for my running journey – it’s allowed me time to re-establish my running base on my own, without the perceived pressure of running events. I’ve started going for weekly long runs. I did a Sober October during which I stuck to a Keto diet. I’m slowly getting ready for more ultras.

The Hedonistic Treadmill

Distance running attracts a certain type of person.

They like to push their boundaries.

They like to suffer for hours on end, to reach some far off goal.

And after that, they love to find some even more audacious goal to bite off next time.

I got caught up in that game – chasing the podium, chasing finishing times – and it slowly sapped my enthusiasm for running.

It eroded the reasons I ran in the first place.

It all became about ego – about beating my previous results, rather than enjoying the run and doing my best.

I could feel it happening at the time, but I didn’t step off the treadmill – and instead it pushed me past my limits.

Now it feels like I’m rekindling that enthusiasm, but with a new mindset.

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson

Thomas Watson is an ultra-runner, UESCA-certified running coach, and the founder of MarathonHandbook.com. His work has been featured in Runner's World, Livestrong.com, MapMyRun, and many other running publications. He likes running interesting races and good beer. More at his bio.

2 thoughts on “Why I Stopped Running Ultras – Stepping Off The Hedonistic Treadmill”

  1. i was running 4 marathons a year for 3 years. i used to sign up for 1 marathon race a year and 3 marathons solo and unsupported. then i felt like i was losing that fire so i told myself to have some routine change, so i bought a 1 mile training plan. before i started the training, just by reading the plan, i was a little intimidated. the mileage is less but it looked a lot intense than what i was used to. i slowly adapted to the “less mileage,more intense” training. i found new speed gears and got new 1km and 1mile personal best by just running the workouts alone. when i finished the training plan, it was so satisfying that i wanted to jump in to another training cycle right away but i reminded myself that it could lead to another burn out. i decided i will follow it with another marathon training and will alternate between those two distances for a change of pace and keep it interesting. now 2weeks before i start my training, i am once again a little intimidated looking at the training plan that i was so used to,but i know i will adapt to it once i start. and when races start again, i plan to sign up to a 100k and will use your 100k training plan.

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