I have a brother who is a runner.
“My name is Rychen Jones, I am Whitney’s older brother and I’m a marathon runner and ultramarathon runner.”
A couple months ago, I was in Massachusetts, Rychen was in Oregon where he lives, and I got a message from him: “Want to come pace me for the last lap of my 50-miler on the 27th?”
“How far and what pace?” I responded.
“It’s miles 43 to 50, so not fast.”
I am not a runner, so the correct answer for me was “no”, but I thought, 50 miles? Why would anyone ever do that?
“Can I do a story about it?”
Like Rychen said, he’s older than me, by about a year and a half. And whether it was high school basketball, or driveway Wiffle ball games, or who could eat more pancakes or who could race their bike to the top of the hill first, we turned everything into a competition.
Rychen is no less competitive now than he was when we were young. Without our sibling competitions and without organized sports, three years ago Rychen turned to running. It started with the local 2 1/2 mile run on the Fourth of July, then he moved on to 5Ks and 10Ks, eventually marathons, and now I’m getting messages saying that he’s running 50-mile ultra-marathons.
“I’m never going to win a marathon, I’m probably never going to win any race to be honest,” Rychen said. “So the competitiveness then becomes how hard and how far—on a given day—can I push myself, can I push my body. And it basically becomes a lifestyle because of just needing to exercise this competitiveness that, for whatever reason, I’ve been born with.”
Most mornings it’s this need to compete gets him out the door for his early morning runs before 5:30 a.m. That day, it got both of us out the door by 5 a.m., headed to Champoeg State Park. I set up camp along the trail as Rychen headed out to the course.
“We’re in a heavily treed park, pitch dark the first lap and most of the second lap you can’t see anything,” Rychen said moments before the start. “So by the time you finish 12.5 miles, the first quarter of the race, the sun’s just barely coming up.”
With an audio recorder attached to him, Rychen provided commentary during his race: “Just about up to the aid station here…I just gave in and had a doughnut hole…a chocolate doughnut hole with glaze on it.”
“When I crossed half point at 4 hours 15 minutes, I figured I was probably 30, 35 minutes ahead of pace. I knew it was going to be a good day.”
“So the rain is starting to pick up a little bit, a little bit heavier now. The trail is getting awfully wet and muddy, a lot of standing water on it.”
“Between laps five and six, end of five beginning of six, was a tough point because you know…for some reason the difference between two more laps and three more laps … for whatever reason, seems big at that point,” Rychen told me after the race.
Out on the course, he occupied himself by singing Joe Esposito’s “You’re the Best”.
“’You’re the best around, nothing’s going to ever keep you down, you’re the best.’ Oh, there’s a squirrel. Just about stepped on a squirrel.”
“So between laps six and seven, it really started raining again and I was struggling with how to stay warm,” Rychen recalled.
“Stay focused concentrate on what you’re doing.”
“In my mind I can tell myself, your legs are still moving so you can keep moving.”
He ran through the rain, breathing deeply.
“There’s going to be tears at end of next lap, I’ll just tell you that right now. Just seeing everybody here is going to be…”
Cheers come up as he approaches finish line. Amid cowbells and clapping come cheers of, “Good job, Rychen!”
Rychen had just spent the last nine and a half hours running 50 miles and that 10 seconds of “Yay! Good job!” and the clapping—that was the extent of the celebration. I still had to ask, “Why do you do this?”
“We’re back to the why question,” Rychen said. “Ultimately, it must fulfill some desire that I have whether that’s to prove to myself I can do it. Maybe it’s just the competitiveness and the question of how far I can push myself.”