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Darkness: How ultrarunning can strip away our emotional barriers

Deciding to run an ultra for the first time is understandable. It’s a big challenge. While the personal reasons underlying the decision might not be readily apparent, even to the runner, it’s really not that difficult to communicate the essence of the challenge: to prove, to ourselves or others, that we have the fortitude to push through the limitations we once imagined, defy the odds and endure hardship.

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Once the challenge has been met, signing up a second time is a different matter entirely. The repeat offender likely has a pre-disposition to binging. Or addiction. While by no means an inviolate law, there’s no question that a large number of our fellow ultra runners have felt the symptoms of withdrawal and agitation after a big event. I find it unlikely that 10 to 20 hours of hormones coursing through our body leaves us with only DOMS to show for our efforts.

I love the feeling of strength, independence and fluid freedom I get from trail running and ultras. Yet the more events I run the more I come to fear the comedown. Knowing the Black Dog is waiting at the front gate for you is intimidating. Other than drugs and surrounding ourselves with loving distractions, often the only thing that helps us cope is going out for another run. Mind boggling and incredibly frustrating for an injured runner.

I ran the Northburn100 a few months ago, a 100mile race in the mountains of New Zealand. It was tough. I crossed the finish line after 34hrs, physically fine but emotionally desolate. The RD calls it a “look of Anguish”. I’d say Anguish is too energetic. Thinking back on Northburn, and other gruelling Ultras I’ve run, I’ve became increasingly aware that this post-event emotional roller coaster is just as much a part of running Ultras as are the training, camaraderie, palate fatigue and physical endurance. Even when we smash the goals we set for ourselves, the feeling can be bittersweet.

It’s exhausting work exploring the depths of our darkest emotions. When they’re freshest, thoughts smash around our skulls like possessed plant equipment. We feel like there’s a broken record playing up there, our thoughts playing some sick game of psycho-somatic Hide and Seek with our clenched and twisted guts. Coming out of an Ultra, it’s safe to say we’re fatigued. The exhaustion lingering from the event washes away our self-defences and this conscious scraping-back of the Soul further erodes our reserves allowing unbidden thoughts and feelings to threaten the already threadbare fabric of our sanity.

But what becomes of us if we shy away from the introspection? Does denial simply buy us time while these emotions ferment in our subconscious? Or am I being melodramatic? Maybe spending a day or two ignoring these things is just what they need — dismissal, pure and simple. Then again, perhaps the real benefit of endurance sport isn’t physical, but spiritual; that enduring the ceremony and imbibing the potion of hormones our body releases puts us into a state so receptive to self exploration that it would be damn near sacrilegious to ignore it. There’s certainly been no shortage of writers, poets, artists and musicians who’ve found the Black Dog to be their greatest muse.

There are even a handful of groups around the peripheries of more mainstream cultures that have taken this metaphor literally. The Marathon monks of Mount Hiei are known to seek enlightenment through extreme ascetism and physical endurance in running. In their quest for enlightenment they will run 40km a day for a 100days before requesting permission to continue their quest for another 900 days, the whole project taking them 7 years.

The Lung-Gom-Pa runners of Tibet likewise achieve enlightenment and a connection with god through running as a form of meditation. While the connection between physical and spiritual is here quite apparent, there are countless other cultures that extol the virtues of endurance, fortitude and a tolerance for both adversity and hardship. While these may seem physical in nature, they are most definitely spiritual.

While I’m far too familiar with the darker end of our emotional spectrum to suggest that the Dog might be Man’s Best Friend, rather than being a downside — something to fear and dread — perhaps the come-down should be appreciated, if not welcomed. As Kahlil Gibran wrote in The Prophet, “The deeper that Sorrow carves into your being, the More Joy you can contain.”


Patrick Watson – Lighthouse

Band of Horses – The Funeral


Footage was shot using a GoPro Hero3 Black Edition provided by





  1. Belinda

    An incredibly accurate and beautiful post. Thank you for writing this.



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