Adding “Ultra” Challenges To a Fine Life

Category: Fine Life

I still seem to learn most valuable lessons by “doing,” instead of only studying. This is why I attribute so many life lessons to the marathons I’ve run. You cannot “study” a marathon; you actually have to train for it and run it. Any challenge that feels beyond our current limits will likely teach us valuable lessons that transfer to other roles.  I’ve learned lessons about what it takes to face my limits, the merits of training, rest and repetition, and how to keep going when I feel I cannot. I feel these kinds of lessons have improved every aspect of my life, including my law practice. As my comfort level with marathons grew, I became curious about accomplishing an “ultra” marathon. Even the word “ultra” associated with anything, signals that it is beyond the normal comfort zone–“going beyond others, transcending limits;” a clear marker that learning experiences will be part of benefits, not just physical training. Who wouldn’t want to have an “ultra” version of many aspects of their life? Service to others (family, community, and clients) diet and exercise regime, social and climate issues, to name just a few. Clearly, an ultra distance run would take me out of my comfort zone, providing a challenge I had not yet faced. But I also hoped that running an “ultra” marathon would teach me more about how to be “ultra” in my other rolls.

Technically, an ultra-marathon is any event with an official distance beyond 26.2 miles. But, in the running community, the “lowest” distance really considered an ultra is a 50K (31 miles). That did seem like a long way to run. And, on top of the distance, most ultra-marathons are trail events, instead of road, meaning you’re dealing with a lot of elevation change, rocks, etc. It was clearly new and challenging territory, which is exactly what I needed–and exactly why I still kept putting it off.

Then, in March of 2019 (for Arizona), the world changed. In comparison to the true tragedies that accompanied the Pandemic, it is a small thing, but among the many activities that were shut down were the running and endurance events. Even when precautions started to ease, most marathons could not start again because, among other things, participants are often loaded onto buses and taken to the starting line, and then wait in close proximity, in large groups, at the starting area. There was no good way to do that responsibly.

But, here is the silver lining on this dark cloud: As restrictions eventually eased, some ultra marathons were able to open before the regular marathons could. This was true for various reasons. First, the ultra-marathons tend to be on wilderness trails, with fewer spectators. Second, there are more of them that start and end at the same place–making busing the runners unnecessary. Third, they are usually much smaller races, with a few hundred runners instead of a several thousand.

This alternate Pandemic universe channeled me into my first ultra-marathon. The Mesa Marathon, which had been held in February of 2019, right before the shutdown, was never really scheduled for 2020, announced that it was back for February 2021. This event is a major draw for my running friends here in the East Valley of Phoenix Metro, so we all registered and trained for it. Then, within a few weeks of its scheduled date, the organizers had to pull the plug–the Pandemic restrictions still made it impossible. So, many of us were scrambling for something (anything) to do with the training we had already done. And we found a great alternative. The Pemberton Trail 25K (15.5 miles) or 50K (31 miles) at McDowell Mountain Regional Park (near Fountain Hills). It was even the same day the Mesa Marathon would have been held.

I registered for the 50K (my wife, for the 25K) and was suddenly (and excitedly), facing my first ultra distance. I put in the training and prepared for my first 31-mile event–on trail. Like with my first marathon years ago, my main goal was to finish the distance. Because it is a trail run, my second goal was to remain upright as much as possible. Tripping on these desert trails is easy, common, and quite painful. I did not exactly light up the course, but I genuinely enjoyed the run, finished with energy, and stayed upright the whole time. And, most important to me, proved that I could do something I had never done. Beyond (my) range or limits. An Ultra!

Did I find that spark of new confidence, by running further than I ever had? Absolutely. Life changing? Time will tell. I have now one more experience to draw from in a deep well of gratitude for life’s lessons when I have my own bouts with motivation, focus, discipline, stress, etc. When facing other ultra challenges (we all have them), I have another life experience to draw upon.

For me, challenging myself with endurance activities helps me develop the resilience to push through such resistance with additional mental resilience. I know I take these lessons and apply them to other important roles, like family, service, and law. For others, there are certainly other paths that don’t go through trail running.

One thing for certain – to be “ultra,” in anything requires effort (oh, and plenty of hydration), and that effort gives us confidence to push through the resistance that accompanies any worthwhile endeavor. I hope my Fine Life experiences help you find your own.


  • Kevin Fine
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