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The 5 Stages of Ultra Running Grief

We’re coming to terms with the five stages of ultrarunning grief—the good, the bad, and the very ugly. Whether you've run an ultra before or you're gearing up for your first, read on for some insights into how awful + awesome it will be.

People who don’t run ultras don’t understand why people who do run ultras put themselves through so much misery. To be fair, an ultra is indeed miserable. It’s a grueling, graveling, grievous form of self-torture reserved exclusively for folks who have one or two screws loose.

But here’s the thing non-ultrarunners don’t get: the grief is good for you. Insert all the tropes you want about endorphins and “weakness leaving the body” and elation at the end of the pain-cave tunnel. It’s trite but it’s true. Nothing compares to running an ultramarathon. It’s the most up-close and uncomfortably personal encounter you can have with the entire spectrum of human emotions. Along the way, you’ll seesaw and rollercoaster your way through happiness, confusion, distress, awe, and yep—grief. Oh, most certainly grief.

Here, we’re coming to terms with the five stages of ultrarunning grief—the good, the bad, and the very ugly. If you’ve run an ultra before, you’ll know this ol’ song and dance all too well. If you’re gearing up for your first, read on for some insights into how awful and awesome it will be.


A woman trail running down a mountainside trail.
No, no, no, no, no, no, no.

Your alarm buzzes at five a.m. It’s still dark outside. Your partner is sleeping blissfully next to you. You’re confused why you’re waking up so early on the weekend. Then you remember: Ohhhh yeah, I signed up for this stupid thing months ago in a mad-dash moment of inspiration and adrenaline. Now, you can hardly believe you were so foolish. The bed is the epitome of comfort. The world beyond this cotton cocoon is cold and unforgiving. You fight with all your mental faculty against the sad reality that this is something you’re willfully doing. But the thing about reality—it always wins.

You rise from your bed—finally. You eat a mushy bowl of oatmeal sludge that you made the night before. It has too many bananas. There are always too many bananas. It barely goes down. You chug three glasses of water. You’re more bloated than a hot air balloon. Eventually, you leave the house, get in your car, drive an hour in the dark to the trailhead. At least there’s no one else on the road. But still, you ask yourself why you’re willfully doing this. Things only go downhill (and uphill) from here.


You arrive at the trailhead and one of two things happens: 1) Either you can’t go to the bathroom, or 2) You really have to go to the bathroom, but the lines at the trailhead porta-potties are longer than an REI Garage Sale. 

In scenario one, you know this means trouble. “If I can’t go to the bathroom now, I’m definitely gonna have to go during the race,” you think to yourself. You curse the colon gods, knead your belly like its pizza dough, drink coffee and water then more coffee, use your hydration vest like a makeshift squatty potty at your feet, and still the release won’t come. 

In scenario two, if you’re lucky enough to make it into the porta-potty without incident, next comes the grunting symphony of fifty other runners all doing the same thing you’re doing, mere feet from one another. As an added insult to injury, there’s also an attractive runner right outside your porta-potty waiting for you to finish. You hold the door open for them as they enter behind you making a polite yet horrified face. This is the absolute worst, you think…. It isn’t. 


Two trail runners out on trail at dusk
This is no biggie.

The race begins. You cross the starting line in a shuffling peloton of 100+ other runners elbowing, snorting, and hocking loogies. Again, one of two things happens: 1) Either your legs feel like lead, or 2) You feel like a feather. Both are bad news.

In scenario one, the first 3-5 miles are uphill. They’re always uphill. Why are they always uphill? You start bargaining with yourself. “Just take it one step at a time,” you say. “Maybe the lactic acid will work itself out.” One foot in front of the other. At least until that next ridgeline. If you just make it to the next ridgeline, you can reevaluate then. The next ridgeline comes, and now your lower back is mutinying along with your hamstrings. The next bend in the trail, you think, just make it there. The bend arrives, and now your Achilles tendonitis is flaring up. The bargaining phase of ultra-running grief is forever like making a deal with the devil—you never come out on top.

In scenario two, the first few miles are downhill. They’re always downhill. Why are they always downhill? This is going to be a cakewalk, you think. Ohhh, you sweet naive little child. You go out too fast. You know you’re going too fast, but you can’t stop yourself. Your brain begs your legs to slow down. Your legs speed up. You look at your watch at mile two of thirty-two (or worse, 50, or even worse, 100), and you’re an entire minute per mile under what you promised yourself. You’ve once again received the short end of the stick in your bargaining deal with the devil.


For the first third of the race, things are mostly fine—all things considered. Maybe your legs are heavy or you’ve gone out too fast, but by in large, you’re at least still feeling optimistic. The second third of the race, things change. Your body breaks down. Your hip flexor is shot, making any lift of your leg (kind of important in running) nearly impossible. Worse than your body breaking down is your spirit breaking. 

You look at your watch. You calculate how far you’ve come and how far left you have to go. Once your weary mind stubmles through the algebra (Rate x Time = Distance, remember?), you come careening down “Realization Road” and slam headfirst into “Depression City.” There’s no way out. Each mile now creeps by as fast as the Lambert Glacier. Time is an inchworm. Mental fortitude is a memory. This isn’t fun anymore. Maybe it never was. But now it’s definitively unfun, the antithesis of fun, the existential candle snuffer to fun’s flickering flame. 


Two trail runners on a mesa, with the sun setting in the background
Acceptance = nirvana.

From the deepest depths of despair, there’s an ember. The faintest of glows. By no means a full-fledged phoenix rising from the ashes, but maybe, just maybe, a glimmer of hope. Your body is beyond pain now. It has entered a transcendent state in which there’s neither suffering nor sense of self, an out-of-body weightlessness despite how heavy and plodding your actual body might be. This is more than a second wind—second winds come and go. This is nirvana. Unadulterated ultra-running nirvana.

The miles begin to peel off like an overripe banana skin. You cruise through the final aid station. The end is near. You can feel it. You can visualize the finish line. More importantly, you can visualize chairs, sweet wonderful chairs. And couches. And beds! 

It’s this moment right here that keeps ultra runners coming back. It isn’t the views or vistas, the starting lines or finish lines, it’s not even the community or camaraderie. It’s the stage of acceptance in ultra-running, when you realize this is all there is. It’s this moment, this precipice of human emotion, where you’ve battled demons and slayed nagging voices, and come out the other side a hero. In less squishy terms, yeah—it’s probably just endorphins. But boy are these endorphins worth the cavernous stages of grief! 


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