Spotlight: How An Ultra-Running Dad Makes It Work
The Western States 100, is “the world’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile trail race.” Some people call it insane, others dream of doing it, and many of us are somewhere in between. Meet Sean Harrington, a finisher of this year’s race, who remembers seeing a TV special on the race when he was in middle school, being in awe that people could complete such a massive physical and mental challenge, and filing it away in the back of his mind. Twenty-something years later, he finished the race this past weekend — climbing 18,000 feet, descending 22,000, and making the famous 24-hour cut-off in order to receive the famous silver belt buckle (yes, all that for a belt buckle). Here’s his brief take on ultra marathon running — and how to fit training time into a busy life.
What inspired you get into ultra running?
I loved running from a young age, but never imagined I’d get into ultra running. When I was 26, my dad passed away from cancer, and I wanted to do something huge in his honor. I searched for a crazy physical event I could do to raise funds, and came across Marathon des Sables (MDS) — a 6-day stage race across the Sahara in Morocco. I signed up for it, ran it that Spring, and got hooked on the challenge of ultra marathons.
What ultra marathons have you competed?
I’ve done about a dozen, the most epic being the Marathon des Sables, Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, and the Western States 100.
What’s the most challenging part of running an ultra?
Surprisingly, the biggest challenge is mental, not physical. You need to think in short-term time increments when you’re in the race. “When am I getting to the next aid station? How much elevation do I need to gain until I get there? How long will it take?” The only way to get through a race is to break it into smaller, more manageable chunks. Like most things in life, I guess.
How much do you train during a given week?
I don’t train as much as people might expect. After all, I’m not trying to win — I’m trying to be competitive, but live a normal life. I want ultra running to be part of my life, but I don’t want it to define my life. My biggest weeks are 70-80 miles, and some weeks are only 30-50 miles.
What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten in a race?
Kentucky Fried Chicken. I took it from the volunteer table at mile 85 of a 100-mile race. It tasted amazing, and I’ve never felt better in the home stretch of an event.
How do you manage training and family time?
I fit in workouts either really early in the morning, or after the kids are in bed. I plan to get a big chunk of my miles done on the weekend, and in order to do that, I get up in the dark most Saturday mornings and am out the door by 4:30am or 5am. This gets me home to swap out with my wife so she can get a workout in, and then we all meet up for lunch. I also run at night sometimes — I come home from work, eat dinner and put the kids to bed, and head out for a run with a headlamp.
What do you hope your kids learn from watching you train and compete?
I hope they learn that fitness is a gift, and it’s a really important part of life. I also hope they’ll learn that good things in life come with hard work. And if they’re lucky, they’ll grow up thinking they can do anything they want to do in life.
What advice do you have for parents trying to fit workouts into their busy lives?
Sign up for an event. Make a plan. Get a coach. Find friends to work out with. Figure out what will help you stick to your commitment, and do that. For me, if I don’t have an event on the calendar, it’s much harder to motivate to rise early or run late.
In the spirit of a wellfesto, what’s one commitment (outside of running) you are making in your life right now to take care of yourself?
I’m working to eat more fresh fruits and vegetables. Thank goodness for the Vitamix.
When it comes to designing a healthy life, a lot can be learned from the extremes. Although we may never live at the extremes ourselves, people like Sean can inspire and teach us to find and push to our own limits, wherever they are.
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