In his collection of ongoing essays Have fun out there or notmy friend Outdoors Columnist Brendan Leonard writes, “Like anything worth doing, long-distance running is 90 percent boring bullshit and 10 percent wonderful.” It’s hard to disagree. Leonard, who started running ultras in his mid-30s, has a knack for chronicling his Type Two exploits in a way that’s both earnest and wryly self-deprecating. He affectionately refers to other ultrarunners as his “fellow idiots.”
But there’s more to this than just gently teasing people whose idea of a good time is spending 24 hours in the wild eating gels and trying not to throw up on their hokas. Leonard’s writing is a reminder that runners’ bizarre rituals and obsessions often reflect something more fundamental. For example, in an illustrated essay, he explains why he does laps around a parking lot at the end of a run to round up the miles on his GPS watch. For him, it’s not just an obsessive way to boost his Strava stats, but a form of psychological protection to keep his life from descending into chaos and unproductivity. The idea is absurd – and completely understandable for other runners.
I spoke to Leonard about what got him into ultra running, how I found the balance between having fun and “fun,” and why we shouldn’t be smashing participation trophies.
OUTSIDE: You start your book by stating that it wasn’t until you started doing ultras in your thirties that you really got into running? What was the appeal?
LEONARD: Ultramarathons are really tough, but for me there was a feeling of: normal people do these things. I never thought of someone like David Goggins, who ran a ridiculous number of miles, as a highly successful superhero – a non-human who exists on a plane above us all, like LeBron James or Michael Jordan. That made it seem like I could be one of those people who do ultramarathons. When I first started refereeing these races, I looked around the starting line and while there were a few elite people, it was mostly just regular people out there who were jerks trying something really hard. I find that really refreshing. I was looking around the start line of an ultramarathon and I thought, if you took this group and put them up somewhere in front of an audience and said, These people are very impressive athletes who are going to run 100 miles, the answer would be like: For real? These people? Including me. It’s such a great thing for everyone because it’s literally all about dogged endurance and doesn’t necessarily require real athletic talent. You don’t have to look like a gazelle when you run, you just have to persevere.
Before you became an ultrarunner, you were a climber. One of the essays in your book describes an episode in which you witnessed someone fall badly and then your desire to continue climbing waned. Has ultrarunning become a replacement for climbing? Do the two pursuits scratch a similar itch?
Yes, I think ultrarunning has all the pain and suffering of rock climbing without the constant fear. I love doing difficult things, but I just never got strong in climbing or had good technique before trying things that were difficult for me. So I spent a lot of time having a lot of fear and apprehension about the things I was going to try. So it became less and less fun and more and more of a scary thing. And that incident really showed me that I could fall 25 feet on one of those climbs and land on my face. It was a very instinctive thing to sit there and watch this boy and realize that maybe he’s not going to make it. He was fine in the end, but when you see that reminds you that you can fall and there are those incidents where something small went wrong – a missed knot – and someone died or got really messed up is. For me it was worth it for a long time, but not anymore. Also, I have a pretty exhausting day at work, and walking for an hour or two is a great way for me to get away from it all and really get some rest in my life for a while. Laufen became a place for brainstorming and thinking.
In your book you express that running often brings with it a lot of boredom with a few moments of happiness every now and then – an assertion that I could also say about writing, by the way. Can you explain that in more detail?
There’s a saying: do what you love and you won’t work a day in your life. It’s not total bullshit, but honestly I gave a graduation speech a few years ago in which I said if you love, say, 30 percent of what you’re doing and tolerate the rest, you win. I don’t think anything is 100 percent fun except eating pizza and a few other things. And usually the things that are 100 percent fun aren’t that rewarding. When I say: That was a great run! That usually means that if I’ve spent two hours on the trail, I’ve probably had three or four minutes to really be present and think: Wow, that’s an amazing view! or, Listen to the birds! or, The brook is babbling! I’m not out there thinking these things all the time.
In one of your essays you mention that you host a podcast where you like to ask your guests how they can get better at running without necessarily getting faster. How would you answer this question?
Oh man, that’s really my whole approach to running: having fun without focusing on speed. I think that’s more of a trail and ultra running mentality. If you’re into road running, I can see that going faster is the most interesting thing, but trail running, for me at least, has always been a means of exploration. I don’t know if I’m getting better at it, but the way I’ve “improved” myself is that I’ve not only gotten the fitness, but also the mental tools to go 25, 30 miles easily walk I set out on my own to explore a new area, whether it’s a hiking trail on the outskirts of town or a rim-to-rim race in the Grand Canyon. The whole goal for me was to see if I could get through these things.
In some circles there is animosity towards the ‘participatory athlete’, someone who is more interested in experience than in performance. Some of your essays seem to refute this idea. Do you think that’s fair to say? Have you ever seen yourself as a champion of the participatory runner?
Yeah, I guess I’m just all for more people living more fulfilling lives. I don’t want to be the person who tells other runners they’re somehow doing it wrong — although it’s a really good way to get clicks on stories. I just feel like everyone is out there for a different reason. I’ve run a few marathons. I don’t generally try to run very fast; it’s more of a tourist activity for me. It’s just fun to go out and see a city. I’m not trying to brag or anything but running a marathon isn’t the greatest thing in the world to me right now and there are people out there who are just fighting and it’s their first marathon and greatest thing they’ve done athletically . And maybe they do it in someone’s memory or for some other reason. I think in sport we tend to focus more on the elite, but if we do that we can miss a lot of the joy of a lot of people who are out there just to do it. One thing I love about ultrarunning is the way the person in last place sometimes gets more cheers than the winner – especially in the really long races. One of my Favorite clips of all time was when Gunhild Swanson finished about four seconds before the cutoff in Western States. She was 70. And in the clip, people go crazy. I think the Western States Belt Buckle is the hardest-fought contestant’s trophy in sport. People who say, “Fuck participation trophies, if my kid gets one I’ll give it back,” I say, What do you want? Would you rather have your child sit on their butt at home? I’d rather they go out and live a little.