Content Warning: Extreme exercise
Words: Emma Padner (she/her)
Recently, I did my second hill-walk in Scotland and didn’t summit a single Munro. The summit was merely a fiona, a summit grade which, let’s be honest, no one cares about. Despite absolutely no view from the top, due to intense fog and rain for the entire hike, it was a lovely day. I still felt connected with nature and at peace when I got back to my flat. So why would I want to do anything more difficult?
I’ve always had an affinity for the extreme; training for longer races and hiking mountains that take me on more difficult climbs. I’ve run a handful of marathons and ultramarathons and bagged nearly 20 Munros since moving here in September.
I remember when I first learned about ultramarathons. I remember when I first learned about the culture of Munro bagging. I called both ridiculous and insane (at least publicly). But, in the back of my head, something whispered, ‘I could do that’.
Growing up, I spent most of my time outside; playing in my yard with grass-stained knees and skinned elbows until it got dark on summer nights. As I grew older, I turned to activities that kept me outside: running and hiking, mostly. They started out as normal hobbies, I promise. Being outside gave me a full heart and a clear mind. But soon it mixed with my internal competitive nature. When it comes to pushing myself, my thoughts always wander: ‘how far can I go?’.
“Ultra” experiences allow you to access the full range of human emotions within the span of 24 hours – and it’s a privilege like no other. Running for hours on end fueled by Oreos and ramen noodles, chasing nothing but personal betterment, changes something inside you. I chase that same feeling when walking long hikes across difficult ridges in the fog and pouring rain. There’s something about Scotland that gets my blood pumping: the oranged heather splashed with green hues of boggy grass begging for someone to fall knee deep into the marsh.
When you’re on the trails for hours or days, there’s a kind of peace and pride you feel every time you prove to yourself you can go a bit further. When, “just another step” ticks off another mile and you feel yourself get stronger as you climb, something shifts. Everytime I reach a finish line, or a summit, the relief, excitement, and pride I feel makes the journey worth it.
So, what is it about nature that keeps the drive alive?
Facing the weather, especially in Scotland, is always a challenge. Sometimes you get to the top and you can’t see a thing. It’s cold, you’re wet, and there are hours before you’re inside with a warm cup of tea. The outdoors demands our respect and accessing remote areas takes commitment. Sometimes nature is so threatening, it forces you to quit before you’re ready to give up. With nature there’s no competition, but an added obstacle.
In 2018, researchers in Poland surveyed more than 1,500 runners split into two groups: people racing 50km or longer, and people racing marathons or shorter. Those in the ultramarathon group were driven less by health, competition, or psychological coping, and more by life meaning and personal motivations. I think that it’s a similar drive for those who attempt to bag all 282 Munros, or challenge themselves in any extreme sport. It’s less about a checklist, and more about a way of life. No one does the extreme because it’s easy or simple. Some days, it’s not even fun to be out there. There is a desire to prove oneself mentally and physically, especially when it’s pouring with rain, or snowing, or the wind is knocking you off course is motivation in itself. Running ultramarathons or hiking for days, you gain less from the view at the top and more from the contentment born from the journey and mental grit proven by the finish.
I remember chatting with another runner one day. She told me of a profound experience she had during an “ultra” experience. One morning after a gruelling night where her mind played tricks on her, hallucinating visions of the shadows of the woods, it wasn’t the picturesque views of an early morning sunrise, but the sound of the first bird chirping that brought her hope, peace and a feeling of groundedness. These experiences, for me, are a search for peace and personal growth. The feeling of running through the night in the woods to only be relieved when the sun cracks through the horizon – the daily celebration of existence – that is the peace for which I am searching.