Alpenhorn at the beginning of Western States 100. Photo: Erik Schulte
By Erik Schulte
Running is not a team sport. Yes, you can be on a running team, in high school or college, or if you are successful, into your adult life, but on the whole, running is a lonely, selfish endeavor. Miles are logged, personal goals are intently focused on, obsession reigns. As a self proclaimed introvert, this sport fits me. Hours spent alone in the mountains bring me energy and joy. I often, half jokingly, admonish friends who try to get me to do something as a group by exclaiming, “Erik doesn’t play team sports!” I like that about me, and I like that about running. Nonetheless, I would argue that no one can exist alone, no matter how introverted they claim to be. For one reason or another, whether it be evolutionary or culturally, we are clan animals. Humans have and will always seek to band together. The need for one’s community, to me, seems to be primal one. Not to mention that those we find ourself assimilating with help us to resonate with something larger and more profound than just our own self centered delusions of grandeur.
For most of the winter months ultra runners are solitary creatures. We revert back to our home trails and smaller local community. Some of us dabble in other sports such as skiing or cycling to stave off the winter monotony, but we are only visitors in these otherwise foreign realms. As the days grow longer the collective of mountain and ultra trail runners begins to stir. The snow slowly melts off of the upper reaches of mountain ranges, and as such we return to our more adventurous lives. We dust off our calendars, the dates are set and plans are made, and the summer racing season arrives. Some of these races are smaller than others, but some bring not only fellow racers from around the world, but fellow spectators and lovers of the sport. These latter events are what I have come to describe as the gathering of the Tribe. These gatherings are usually events that have a deep rich history in the sport and have contributed the the shaping of the overall culture of ultra running.
The start of the Uphill Challenge race on Friday morning. Photo: Altra Running
This past weekend I found myself at one of these central gatherings. I woke up to the sun filtering through the windows of my pickup truck. Pushing open the hatch of my camper shell, I peered into a scene of crisp morning air, mountain peaks rising up on all sides, and six or seven other fellow campers standing near their campers drinking coffee readying themselves for a day of revelry. I had parked my truck in a back parking lot of the Squaw Valley Resort along side a creek and accompanied by a number of other car campers looking for a quiet place to find some rest. We were all there for the Western State 100 Mile Endurance Run, some to race, some to run, and some, like myself just to enjoy the community.
Hannes, on the second lap of the day. Photo: Erik Schulte
On Friday morning, amidst the nervous buzz of pre race jitters I joined some of the fellow spectators for a free uphill race. As per usual, the three miles of runnable uphill brought hard work and a quick painful experience. At the finish, I met with two friends, who had also run the race, to trot up a little farther to the nearest peak before heading back down to the village. We talked and joked, bolstered by our recent shared struggle, ultimately picking out the best route to take back down the hill. Once at the bottom, I ran into Hannes, a good friend who lives a few states away, and enjoying the opportunity to share more miles, I opted to join him for another lap up into the hills. Each footstep shared with another person builds a connection not as easily found in other parts of life. A shared run, or struggle as is most often the case, creates a bond and a mutual ease that is otherwise not readily available in the confusing hustle and bustle of my normal life.
Our community is built around movement, and whether or not we were the fastest runners of the day, having company in a normally lonely environment is always a gift.
In the end, we are all there for the happenings of Saturday morning. I woke before the sun, and there was a pre-dawn buzz in the valley as those who are about to embark on a100 mile journey through the Northern Sierra waited anxiously for the 5:00 start to come. I too was anxious to get running, as I intended to join a small hoard of spectators at the top of the hill, just three miles away, to welcome the runners to the Escarpment at Squaw Valley. It is the high point in the race, and as the first rays of sun washed over the day each year the racers are met with clanging cowbells, cheers, and encouragement for their journey ahead. This year was no different. The energy of the crowd at the top of the hill was infectious and I couldn't help to enjoy the scene as runners crested the pass welcomed into the Sierra high country, met, this year, with a man in lederhosen blowing and alpenhorn. From there the race travels down the western slope of the Sierra Nevada Mountains en route to Auburn, CA, some 97 more miles away. Once the last runner passed, the tribe traveled back down, hopped in their cars to travel along the course, as they do every year, to bare witness to the pain, the struggle, the triumphs, and the defeats of the day. These are the defining aspects of our sport, and these are what comes to define us as its participants. This is what we as ultra runners live for.
The Tribe gathering at the top of the escarpment. Photo: Erik Schulte
This tribe is our community, our church, our group of like minded individuals.
We share stories, make deep connections on runs using little or no words, and we find ourselves amidst groups where no one gives a sideways glance about a 6 hour run through the mountains. We revel in the presence of those who have similar shared experience, and we breath a little easier because of it. We are bolstered by the community, encouraged by other people’s race performances, and by our communal tenacity to push in search of our limits.