We all have “ultra” situations in our lives.

I recently took part in an “ultra” marathon. While marathons are always 26.2 miles, ultras are races of any distance longer than this (the Leadville Trail Race in Colorado, for example, is 100 miles). They’re usually raced on trails, often over mountains in isolated areas. And because the terrain they cover can be uneven and peppered with impediments such as rocks or roots, running them is more technical and runners must be comfortable with rugged conditions. This means the crowd that takes part in ultra races are more the flannel-sporting, beanie-wearing sort and less the match-your-running-shoes-with-your-sparkly-headband kind (I enjoy both kinds of runners, by the way, and keep both sparkles and flannel in my closet). The ultra race I participated in last weekend was a 50-kilometer (or 31-mile) grunt through woods, up mountain trails, in the mud, with rain, snow, and hail beating down from above. I was on my feet for over nine hours (more than twice as long as the winner of the race), and mine is the last recorded finish time–but I did finish.

I’ve had several days now to recover and reflect on the race. As always, I try to mine the metaphors from my running experiences because running has become my best teacher, my most faithful source of consistent wisdom, but what I keep coming up with is: “Dang that was hard!” And then it occurred to me: That sentiment IS the metaphor I must integrate into the rest of my life.

Let’s face it, we all have “ultras” in our lives. You have four children, for example. Three of them are regular, run-of-the-mill marathons (you put in long, hard hours and even navigate big hills along the way, but it’s doable even if it’s slow-going sometimes), and then you’ve got one ultra kid, the rearing and raising of whom is much more mountainous, rugged, and messy. You’ve got to spend money on special equipment, stop for long periods at the aid stations to regroup, and get comfortable never knowing what’s around the next switchback.

Marriage, I think, is an ultra relationship. Friendships can get hairy and take a great amount of effort and commitment to maintain (especially the life-long kind), but there’s nothing like marital partnership to test your mettle. I was talking on the phone the other day with a non-runner friend who’s worked hard on her marriage for 20 years, reading books on communication and attending marriage counseling consistently. She said, “My marriage is my ultra-marathon. I’ve made the commitment to stay in this race until the finish line, no matter how many rainstorms I face.” Mind you, plenty of runners in a race as hard as an ultra marathon make the choice to drop out. People get hurt barreling down steep, rocky trails covered in mud. As always, you need to know when taking a DNF (Did Not Finish) is the wisest, healthiest decision. If you don’t stop to assess what to do when you’re hurt (in a race or in a marriage), you may risk permanent damage.

And what about serious illness? Isn’t living with illness ultra living at its most difficult? When you’re fighting for your very survival, alone inside of a body that isn’t healing itself or that is chronically aching, you have to tolerate extended periods of terrible discomfort, often only hoping that there is a favorable finish line out there beyond the forest.

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