Above: The author in 1993 at France's Le Defi Mondial de l'Endurance, ("The World Challenge of Endurance"), including the sprint finish after 53 hours, 28 minutes!

Planet Ultra: It's Just An Attitude

By Chris Kostman

Originally published in City Sports, October 1993; Over The Edge, July 1994; ULTRA Cycling, Vol. 4, No. 4, August 1995.

One word explains the difference between ultra athletes and the rest of the athletic masses: attitude. This is not an ego thing, though. Rather the ultra attitude merely reflects a shift of perspective which catapults the traditional, limit-setting athlete into the realm of Planet Ultra, a place of wonderment where absolutely nothing is insurmountable. Hence the scores of ultra events world-wide, gravely misunderstood by those who don't participate, but gleefully entered and conquered by those with the attitude.

Want to be a great ultra athlete? Here's what a few years with the attitude can provide:

  • Desire. Ultra athletes are simply better at Wanting things. Scientific estimates range that ultra racing is anywhere from 50 to 300 percent mental. Whether it's samurai-like focus or heavy metal distraction, ultra athletes need some way to keep their mind occupied.
  • Experience. Several years of far-flung experience in the world of outdoor athletics will render you ever-adaptable, Gumby-like. Little or nothing will scare you, too. This means paying your dues, plain and simple, for as RAAM Director Michael Shermer once noted, "there are no free lunches in an entropic universe."
  • Expertise. A really strong background in a singular athletic pursuit will give you an edge, or at least an amount of confidence, not only in that sport but in others, too. (Example: truly great cyclists can "write off" the cycling portion of an ultra triathlon. 336 miles on bike, you say? Big deal, I say.) Plus there is a universalness to outdoor athletics that transcends the imaginary barriers between different sports. My strong cycling background is a real bonus to my snowshoeing and scuba diving, and vice-versa, for example.
  • Wisdom. A spinoff or byproduct of the above three traits, wisdom can grant patience, preparedness, nutritional know-how, savviness of your body's finer workings, even biomechanical and ergonomic shrewdness. Once again, it comes with time invested in regular training and racing done with a high level of awareness.
  • Genetic Advantage. The only trait of a great ultra athlete than can be adopted literally overnight, genetics do determine some amount of success in every aspect of life. But that's life, literally.

That bag of tricks, filled to overflowing with desire, experience, expertise, wisdom, and maybe even genetic advantage, is all you'll need on Planet Ultra. Are you ready for the journey?

Hope so, for ultra endurance races conjure up many images--not all pretty. And few in the sporting world can fail to opine about this unique breed of sporting event. They're known by many names: gruelathons, endurance challenges, sleep deprivation contests, or just simply, ultras. They're seen in many lights: tests of perseverance, rights of passage, or metaphors for life; others just call them stupidthons. Ultras certainly grab the lion's share of adjectives as well, ranging from such descriptives as awe-inspiring, mind-boggling, epic, outrageous, monumental, herculean, majestic, or gargantuan, to such disparagements as ridiculous, crazy, looney, foolhardy, mindless, or pointless. Invariably, the disparagements come from those who haven't participated in an ultra, while the glowing praise comes from those who've put themselves on the line and ended up having a transformative, transpersonal experience. Ultras truly can only best be observed and appreciated from the inside, it seems.

Though the types of ultras vary incredibly, from cycling, running, swimming, and triathlon, to skiing, climbing, sailing, and skating, there's one truism in the world of ultras that is rarely, if ever, let known to the general public: ULTRAS ARE FAR, FAR EASIER THAN YOU THINK!

Yes, ultra races are infinitely more doable, more approachable, more accessible, than any and all would imagine. A conspiracy does exist, though, that would have the world believe otherwise, but it's time for that wall to come crumbling down. Now trust me, I know of what I speak. Having raced and successfully finished everything from 100 mile snowshoe races to 3,127 mile transcontinental bicycle races, I know what the Ultra World is like. While such events under my belt might suggest otherwise, trust me when I say I'm just an Average Joe, not a Superman. So if I can do it, so can you. It's that simple.

Case in point: In May of 1993 I raced Le Defi Mondial de l'Endurance, ("The World Challenge of Endurance") a triple Ironman distance triathlon held in France. It involved 7.2 miles of swimming, 336 miles of cycling, and 78.6 miles of running, all back to back to back. My background is primarily in cycling, including the Race Across AMerica in 1987, but I have also done two Ironman Triathlons and a variety of running and snowshoeing races. Still, I hoped to be a contender in Le Defi.

Things didn't exactly pan out. Leading up to the race, my workload was insane, I traveled incessantly, and finally I got sick and coughed for three weeks straight prior to winging over to Europe. So I skipped the Big Sur Marathon, my one big training run that I had planned to do. I also avoided the pool for the most part, for the chemicals seemed to exacerbate my breathing problems. I didn't even ride much, something I can normally do come hell or high water. A week before leaving I rode the Grizzly Peak Century, a hilly 100 mile bicycling event. The result? The slowest, most pitifully lethargic century ride of my career. In other words, I went to France without any recent training miles and in the kind of shape that comes from over a month away from exercise. Can you spell "muscle atrophy," boys and girls?

But I stayed sure of myself, calm. I didn't let my rapidly changing world waylay my focus or desire. Instead, I regrouped and changed my goals. Instead of going for broke and putting it all on the line during the race in an attempt to win, I'd stay within, pace myself, cashing in every piece of wisdom and experience that I've accrued over the last decade plus of outdoor adventuring. Surely that 12 year investment wouldn't let me down, I hoped.

My turning point was the second morning of the triple. I hadn't slept in two nights, having been racing non-stop for almost 48 hours. Jogging along about 60 miles into the run, I found myself falling asleep on my feet, while moving. Afraid I'd fall on my face and twist an ankle, perhaps having to quit, I finally decided to sleep. A twenty minute nap snapped me out of it, but I had another rude surprise in the making: I was reading the time of day wrong on my watch, having forgotten that my stopwatch was running. Ready to cruise into the finish after my nap, I learned that I had over two hours less time than I thought I had. There'd be no cruising for me.

And...it worked. In a field limited to 32 invitees, I managed 17th, in a 100 meter sprint, no less. (German ultraguy Gunter Teichmann and I tied, despite our best efforts at the sprint. Can you imagine sprinting after all those miles? It goes with the territory, though, with the ultra attitude, that's all. See photo above.) Along the way, I experienced every kind of emotion from anger, frenzy, paranoia, and hurt, to warmth, calm, love, and empathy. It was a year's worth of feeling, for sure, but more than anything, It Was Fun. More fun than I've ever had in any other 53 hour, 28 minute, and 40 second block of time, in fact.

Why fun? How about camaraderie and new friendships, jokes and laughs, hype and hoopla, autographs and fans, teamwork and sense of community, plus explorations both spiritual and terrestrial, for starters? And nothing builds confidence and faith in the universe better than digging down deep within, expecting to come up empty, and finding that pot of gold at the other end of the rainbow.

My pot of gold was no dream during my 20 minute nap. Getting up, I put the hammer down and you know the outcome. Along the way I slowly but surely tapped into a universal, primeval energy. The Force was with me and I knew it, breathed it, felt it. My pot of gold had been within me all along. It was that realization that explains, to me, why I do these races. And that is worth far, far more than any 1st place trophy.

So get that attitude, my friends. And look me up on Planet Ultra when you get there.

For another article about my 1993 Triple Ironman experience, click here!