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February 21, 2013 Comments (15) Musings, Training


I’ve heard it time and again over the last decade that I’ve spent in ultra running: “Ultra ruined my marriage/relationship.” This statement has always fascinated me. Mostly because of, dare I say, how incredibly false it is. In this article I’d like to offer my own, non-expert opinion to the true issues our relationships face when we become ultra runners, the real reasons (perhaps) your marriage/relationship failed, and some tips to help you and your partners prepare for your involvement with a selfish and time consuming activity.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of Sherpa John and do not necessarily reflect the official opinions or positions of any other individual(s) associated with or employees thereof. The information provided by Sherpa John is provided “As Is” and is devoid of warranties and guarantees. In reading this article, you accept that your own thoughts, beliefs and opinions may be challenged, questioned or dismissed; and the opinions expressed here may not actually be the opinion of Sherpa John himself, but a mere feeble attempt to inspire you to question your own opinions and positions; and offers a deeper insight into our Trail and Ultra Culture. Thus, an open mind is greatly appreciated and a terrible thing to waste.

What Really Caused The Breakup?
Those who use ultra running as their excuse for a relational divide, are simply just searching for excuses. It’s kind of like trying to explain a DNF to your running buddies. You spend hours, days, weeks…trying to find closure through your intricately thought out tale of woe. When the fact of the matter is you either didn’t train well enough, you didn’t have a suitable plan in place, or you didn’t want it bad enough. The same can be said for failed relationships. You either “didn’t train well enough, you didn’t have a suitable plan in place, or you didn’t want it bad enough.” I’m no marriage counselor – nor a psychologist at that – but, I’ll openly admit to having spent copious amounts of time in the offices of both such persons. The real reasons your relationship failed could most likely be found in those offices. However, leading experts say that the leading cause of relationship tension is a lack of communication or issues regarding money.

Stop. I said the word. “Money.” This is where most ultra runners try and connect their sport with the cause of a breakup. Ultra running is expensive. You spend money on gear, races, travel, etc.  and for your non-obsessive spouse who doesn’t see the need or urgency to run in such events, those expenses are hard to justify. Thus, arguments are sparked around the topic. But trust me, it’s not the running that is ruining your relationship. Running is free. Even ultra running…is free (I’ll explain later). It’s truly the lack of communication and a mutual understanding of your desires – The communication that comes along with signing up for and training for ultras.

Let’s face it. Over time, people change. All of us change. Our priorities in life are constantly evolving. So are our desires and goals. Check this stuff out if you’re interested: Belongingness Theory and Social Identity Theory.
Now, I don’t have enough time to go on and on about the two theories I’ve mentioned above. So if the stuff really interests you, you should take a look and do some extensive googling. You might learn something cool. In the meantime, I’ll offer a short synopsis of both.

Belongingness Theory explains that “humans have an inherent desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves.” Now, decades ago Maslow explained our 8-Basic needs and this was on it.. as well as self-actualization. Self-actualization, which is ultimately what we experience on the way to the finish line of an ultra. Right?

Social Identity Theory explains much the same thing, except it goes on to describe our desire to create an “In-Group” and an “Out-Group.” For example, Road Runners vs. Ultra Runners. Or, our new desire to categorize ultra runners based on the type of ultra they’ve completed. We do this to increase our level of self-esteem and social status within our groups.

What the heck does this have to do with our relationships? This: It is nearly impossible for our relationships alone to satisfy our life needs. Our marriages/partners do not give us a social identity. (Unless you’re say, Melinda Gates.) So we spend time away from our immediate relationships and instead in these “other” relationships, ultra running, to satisfy those needs. This puts an incredible amount of stress on our relationships because we are just as, if not more passionate, about our ultra running as we are our own families. Think about it. We have these two theories to explain those ideas a little more to us in a way we can understand it from a psychology stand-point. Now, how do you think our spouses feel about how ultra fits into our lives vs where they fit in?

So does Ultra running cause our break-ups? No! I’ll explain further.

Do I have the right partner?
This is a tough question but ultimately, it should be asked. Do I have the right partner? Like I said before, we all change in life. As do our goals, needs, wants, desires, interests. The trick, I figure, is finding a partner who is willing to go through all of that change with you. So here is the kicker – they’re willing to support you in ALL of your goals, needs, wants, desires, interests, etc. This is where the real breakdown takes place for ultra runners. Our sport is a selfish one. It is time consuming and at times, monetarily consuming. It’s not something that most of our life partners understand. “You want to run how far? Why not be normal like everyone else and run a marathon?” The right partner would support you through whatever distance you aspire to run. They’ll be your number one cheerleader. They’ll help you where they can and they’ll support you 100%. If they are not willing to do so, or if they constantly nag you and try to get you to quit ultra running, then are they really someone who understands and supports you? The answer to that question, is why the relationship ends. NOT the running. Ultimately when we’re all done running ultras, we’ll move on to some other hobby. That hobby will come with it’s own set of goals, desires, wants, etc. You’ll be just as engrossed in that hobby as you have been with Ultra and it will satisfy the fill in the blank parts of the definitions of Belongingness and Social Identity. Will you blame that hobby for failed love too?

So let’s switch gears. How can we craft a plan that allows us to love ultra running and our spouses.. and allows our spouses to love us?

Plan for Success
I am going to give you some quick advice on how to create your own plan that fosters the idea that your relationships and your desires to run ultras are in concert with one another.  It’s nothing hard but ultimately, creating this plan takes as much dedication as your desire to reach the finish line.

1.) Lay it all out before hand

  • Set up a family meeting, or dinner with your spouse, and explain to them what your goal is. “I want to run this 50 miler…if it goes well, I imagine I’ll want to move on to 100s.”
  • Then tell them how you plan to get there. “The training plan requires a lot of running. I’ll need to run 5 days a week, at least. The weekday runs aren’t bad, it’s the back to back weekend long runs that are time consuming.” You need to explain, in great detail, the amount of time you’ll be away from home to complete your training. This is only one part though, as you’ll really need to show them your training plan, explain the time commitment, and the onus is on you to craft a plan that works around your relationships commitments. For instance, those weekday long runs may require you to run at 4am before you even get ready for work! Or perhaps your 10 mile run this Wednesday is 5 miles in the morning and 5 miles at night. You can get in your training while still keeping your relationship in mind and this will win you points!
2.) Ask for help and support
  • But don’t just ask for it. Come up with a plan that includes your spouse. How can they help you train? Maybe they’re going to follow you, leisurely, on a bike while you run 30 miles on Saturday.
  • Come up with unique ways for them to help you in training. For those with little kids, come up with fun ways for them to track the number of miles you’ve run in training. The excitement that goes along with this can really add some needed energy to your task. For example: Start counting your training miles on a map of the US and have your kids follow your accumulated progress across the virtual country.
  • Encourage your spouse/partner to run too. Everyone knows America could stand to get more active. Be a part of that, not a statistic. If it’s not their thing, get them on the bike. Still a no go? Encourage them to seek out their own hobbies and interests during the time you’re running. There is no need for you two to do everything together.
  • If you’re still struggling with the above, the final bit I can offer is the biggest. Explain to your partner and/or family that “the absolute biggest help you can be to me on this journey is during the event.” If you’re running a race that welcomes crews or support during the event. SIGN THEM UP. Get them to be your pit crew on race day. They’ll need to train with you to gain knowledge of your needs and desires come the day of the event and ultimately, your success relies on the assistance they provide you.

It’s not much, but what I’ve outlined above revolves around one very basic, yet incredibly important, component of successful relationships. COMMUNICATION. There is no smoke-screen or half-truths. It’s all laid out, from beginning to end, before you even start. If your partner isn’t on board, questions your sanity, tries to change your mind, etc…then it’s time to ask that question again. “Do I have the right partner?”

I’ve been lucky. My wife and I had been dating for 3 1/2 years before I ran my first ultra. I’ll never forget the day I explained to her what my aspirations were. Her first response was, “But you can’t even run a mile.” Her second was, “Well.. let me know how I can help you get there.” That’s when I knew I had the right partner. In 2010, I ran the Western States 100. We married the weekend before, and Western States was the start of our honeymoon. She is my crew-chief, knows my needs better than anyone, and is as good a crew person as I’ve ever had. She supports me mentally and physically and she has a very deep understanding of what Ultra Running means to me. Do I have the right partner? Yes! How do I know? Because when I told her I wanted to learn how to play banjo, she bought me a banjo.

Ultimately Running Is Free. All of this comes down to our basic needs to belong in social groups and our ability to communicate with our partners. We don’t need to pay exorbitant amounts of money to run an ultra.. JUST GO DO IT. Run a free Fat Ass event or create your own. You’ll have fewer answers to give at home. But please, stop blaming ultras for your failed relationship.


15 Responses to Ultra-Relationships

  1. Trevor h. says:

    Good work. Seems very true that time, money, and communication are the big three. Like you, I have got a great wife who is supportive of my goals, but still has needs of her own that I have to be considerate of. And small kids in the house also are a priority. I can run my whole life, but my boy is only ginning to grow up once, and I am not going to miss that just to get a few more miles under my feet. Priorities, people.

    • Ultrawidow says:

      I would like to know what you do for her. You have only been talking about yourself and how generous you are getting her involved in your dream. Are you available for her dreams?

  2. […] Must read: Sherpa John dissects ultra relationships. […]

    • Wheeler says:

      So happy for you and your relationship, really. Picture however how a non-athlete who when I ask about time for “us” the response is I should come swim, bike or run (all her hobbies/love.) I love waking up with my spouse but spend 330 days a year alone in the AM. As it gets to within 6 months of the next full triathlon I now get to spend mornings AND nights alone as she does training both before and after work. We keep hearing how we should be more supportive, isn’t it supposed to be a two way street?

  3. leeapeea says:

    I couldn’t agree with you more. Replace “Ultra Running” with anything, really, and you could blame the “thing” for a failed relationship. Or, you can point it out as something that makes your partnership stronger. Following your passions makes you a more passionate person, which will only benefit a good relationship.

  4. Perhaps folks blame ultrarunning for a failed relationship because they lack the fortitude and integrity to accept what may be their own personal shortcomings? It would be so much easier to believe a partner simply didn’t understand one’s need to participate in an ultra lifestyle than admit you may have contaminated the relationship and ignored to red flags waving in your face.
    I’ve tried explaining to my wife why I run. Many times. She even tried her hand at it for a while but no bueno. I think she may have a degree of appreciation as to why I do it but she still thinks it’s kinda dumb to run 100 miles. Even dumber to spend a day just pacing a buddy in a 100 miler. But the sitting down ahead of time and working out a plan for an ultra does work. You know, like you said, actually communicating. But us trail dorks must be watchful to not become too selfish with our time. Those around us appreciate our attention and time on the weekends.

  5. velocycling says:

    If you treat your marriage, like ultrarunnering and only show up for long runs or the race then for sure you will DNF it. It is the daily and weekly consistcy in the the process that is ultimately brings success in both…

  6. […] […]

  7. Alon says:

    Dear Sherpa John,
    Since you are advising people on relationship (e.g. under DO I HAVE THE RIGHT PARTNER: “The right partner would support you through whatever distance you aspire to run. They’ll be your number one cheerleader. They’ll help you where they can and they’ll support you 100%.”), would you mind sharing with us YOUR relationship success and failures? Are you married? Kids?

  8. Olaf says:

    It’s such a selfish act to want to have someone support you completely, as you say, and not expect it to affect relationships. The amount of time that’s needed to do the runs usually requires sleep during the day or going to bed very early. If you have little kids, it means the spouse has to take care of the kids while you run. Every weekend is devoted to scheduling around long runs. Life is devoted to your training. If you have two small kids, you’re out running so they can’t go to the pool because two kids require two sets of hands to make sure they are safe in a pool. It goes on and on. This is a very selfish sport. I love my spouse and supported the effort but at the end of the day, my spouse crossed the finish line, got the accomplishment, felt the strength of success. I loved that success but I had nothing from the accomplishment, it wasn’t mine.

  9. Jim davis says:

    Being married to an ultra runner is simply a lonely experience. You get all the responsiblities of being married, but your spouse is always gone or too tired to do anything.

  10. Tracey says:

    at 5:56 pm

    What a load of shit… the article obviously written by an ultra runner… what about when after 14 years and just before he turns 40 and is going through a mid life crisis…running is everything… family doesnt matter… obsessed more with his Garmin and his lycra than picking his kids up from school or even making an effort at home.. self obsessed self sufficient and arrogant.. looking down his nose at the average normal wife who pushed him towards his dreams .. supported him.. went to the half marathons and the full marathons and the 30 milers.. the 50s and the 100s… dragged 2 young kids around the world.. utmbs… three peaks.. scaffle pike… and do on…and for What! To be shit on.. distracted by his Instagram followers and fellow gob shites who think more of themselves than anyone else… carried away by an obsession and a need for attention from any tom dick or Garmin…
    Self obsessed.. egotistical… and disrespectful following ans seeking approval instead of a life with his wife and three children.. who but me suped up ultra runners…who look down there nose at everyone…
    I hate the day my husband became one…I don’t know who he is anymore and if that makes me square than so be it… my life and my children’s life deserves better…
    As much as I am proud of him for doing so well… it has ruined him and my marriage…

    • Another Ultra Widow says:

      Tracey did your marriage survive? I just can’t see how mine can. It’s like ultra runners are a bunch of drunks at the bar bitching about the wives who hate them drinking. It’s addictive, expensive, exclusive and outrageously time consuming. It’s not conducive to having young kids. It’s an escape and a high and as far as I can see this author isn’t alone in the ultra community in this hero’s journey entitled BS.

  11. Erik says:

    Great article John. I can relate and your point that you can “replace anything with UltraRunning” rings true – it just seems more accepted to pin the failure on something like being a work-a-holic. As much as I’m out running, I know men who spend just as much time watching football and that too seems accepted. Your spouse does however need to learn to embrace your passion and not simply tolerate it!

    I’ve followed your posts and races for year new and hope to someday join you out west!

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