Am I still an Ultra runner if I’m not Ultra racing? 

 Mmm mud. Photo: Adam Ciuk

Mmm mud. Photo: Adam Ciuk

  • 2013: Three 50km races
  • 2014: Five 50km races, one 50 mile race
  • 2015: Three 50km races, one 100km race, one 70 mile race
  • 2016: Two 50km races, one 100km race, one 120 mile race
  • 2017: One 100 mile DNS 

In the past five years I've raced 18 ultras and had one DNS (did not start). Except I haven't actually raced anything since 2016. Which means that I actually ran 18 ultras in four years and then dropped off the face of the racing planet unintentionally. Oops. But why?

My first-ever Ultra race was in August, 2013. I signed up two weeks before, woefully unprepared, and had my ass handed to me. And yet my first thought as I crawled across the finish line was “when can I do this again”? By the time August 2014 rolled around, I’d run seven 50km races, possessed with more enthusiasm than common sense. I equated quantity with quality, and it wasn’t until I started training with Gary Robbins that I started to understand the concept of pacing and recovery. In other words, I chilled the fuck out, and started focusing on racing smarter, not just more. 

 Aww, baby ultrarunner Hilary at Orcas 50km. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

Aww, baby ultrarunner Hilary at Orcas 50km. Photo: Glenn Tachiyama

In the following 12 months, I ran another six ultras, but strategically — separating them into “A” and “B” goals, with the “B” goals thrown in as I built up my base fitness from 50 km to 50 miles and finally 70 miles, at Fat Dog 70 miler. By doing so, I avoided race fatigue, using the races as training milestones heading into my goal race of the year. I ended up taking first place female at that race, which pretty much affirmed that I was doing something right. The following year I set Fat Dog 120 miler as my goal race, and found myself again racing less as my races got longer. 

 My first winning of a thing! Very exciting. Fat Dog 70mile, 2015. Photo: Brian McCurdy

My first winning of a thing! Very exciting. Fat Dog 70mile, 2015. Photo: Brian McCurdy

With longer races, too, came the need for more recovery time. After Fat Dog 120 miler, I just felt wiped. I needed some down time, and it took me a solid three months to even WANT to run again. When I did start running again, it was while trying to juggle the demands of the hectic graphic design program that I was enrolled in, and I decided to limit my racing to one giant goal race and spend the rest of the year training and focusing on school. You see, it isn’t just the races themselves that are demanding. Hidden costs included the time it takes to get to the race, the actual race, the return trip home, the cost of accommodations and travel, and the time spent tapering and recovering for the race (typically two weeks before, two weeks after, and much longer when they get over 100km).

So for 2017 I made a conscious choice to only pick one race: the Cascade Crest 100 miler. I trained my butt off all summer while juggling full-time school and work, sacrificing sleep and fitting runs in even when I felt like a walking zombie. Six weeks out, I remember feeling that I had actually pulled it off — I felt stronger than I’d ever felt before, I’d logged quality miles and higher-than-ever amounts of elevation gain, and I was so excited to actually line up at a start line again. 

 Putting those miles in the bank. Photo: Adam Ciuk

Putting those miles in the bank. Photo: Adam Ciuk

And then, about half an hour after I finished thinking those things, I broke my big toe while bombing down from the Whistler alpine. One classic Hilary faceplant, and bam. Goodbye 100 miler plans. See ya later Cascade Crest. I have to admit, I found this one a pretty bitter pill to swallow. Not only was it my first DNS, but I just felt that I’d put so.much.time. into training (and away from school), and it seemed cruel that after all of that sacrifice I wouldn’t have anything to show for it.

 I never do anything by half measures. Photo: Stephen Wilson

I never do anything by half measures. Photo: Stephen Wilson

Frustrated and unable to run, I booked a one-way ticket to Nepal right after my school program ended in October, and switched focuses from running to climbing and trekking. Between when I broke my toe (late July) and when I got home from Nepal (mid-December), I ran exactly 3 times. TOTAL. 

 Professional pack mule, I am. Nepal, 2017. Photo: Chris Brinlee Jr

Professional pack mule, I am. Nepal, 2017. Photo: Chris Brinlee Jr

I began questioning during that period whether I could actually still call myself an ultra runner - I mean, if I wasn’t ultra racing, what would I tell people I was working towards? It seemed so underwhelming to simply talk about being a trail runner, without having some sort of epic goal on the horizon. And then I realized how ridiculous that was. My love of trail running has always come from the adventures I’ve had, not the races I’ve done. And even though I didn’t get the chance to race in 2017, I still got to go on all of the incredible runs that formed my training — which is the best part of ultrarunning anyways.

A few weeks ago, I photographed the Coastal Challenge, which is a 235km six day stage race in Costa Rica.  As I watched each runner cross the finish line after six days of battling epic terrain and facing their inner demons, I realized something. Being an ultra runner has nothing to do with how much racing I am (or am not) doing. It has everything to do with understanding what it takes to finish these epic endeavours, be it a race, an FKT, or just a "hard for you" challenge. There's a camaraderie that comes with those shared experiences that is incredibly special.

 SLOWLY EVOLVING INTO A RAISIN. PHOTO: GERARDO VILLALOBOS

SLOWLY EVOLVING INTO A RAISIN. PHOTO: GERARDO VILLALOBOS

Races make excellent goalposts. They can provide training incentive, help us push farther than we otherwise would have, and provide progress markers. However, they do not define us as runners or what we are capable of, and they are but one piece of the puzzle. In the same way that "getting obsessed with training data (hello Strava users, I'm looking at you) to the point where you can't enjoy your run unless you are logging it for the world to see" isn't healthy, I think it's important to find balance with racing and running. In a sport notorious for overtraining and burnout, balance = longevity. Races are exciting and rewarding, sure, but ultimately why do we run? We run to see how far we can go, and for the love of it. 

FYI: I'll be lining up at my first ultramarathon start line since 2016 this August at Cascade Crest 100. Wish me much luck and no broken toes!