Paying it Forward: The Heartbeat of the Ultramarathon

What do ultramarathons really consist of? Long hours on the trails? Yes. Some suffering? Most likely. Community and kindness? Almost definitely.


Written by 2021 DBR Ambassador Tyler Rauch

While not a rule and rarely emphasized, there is a certain kindness that comes with ultrarunning. Regardless of skill level or background, the sport brings out the best in people, often while they are at their worst. Almost undoubtedly, someone has selflessly helped you and in turn, you’ve probably been inspired to do the same. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing this first hand through my own trials and tribulations and as a result, every race has been worth the price of admission. In my opinion, paying it forward is and always will be the true heartbeat of the ultramarathon. 

Paying it Forward: A Rookie in Leadville

While living in Chicago in 2012, I read Born to Run, immediately jumped into ultrarunning and circled Leadville on my calendar. 

Assuming I was well prepared to run a distance I had never run, at an altitude I had never been to, with nutrition I didn’t practice with, I laced up my road sneaks and toed the Leadville 50 starting line. What on earth could go wrong?

Around mile 30 I was bonking hard and, as I’m sure many can relate, bad cramps at elevation can make for a long 20 miles. Thankfully, I found a local pacer who had been dropped by his runner. He saw my discomfort and handed me a pack of salt tabs. They completely turned my day around.

About ten miles later, I found him huddled on the side of the trail struggling for air. Turns out, he was an asthmatic and didn’t have an inhaler. As luck would have it, as a lifelong asthmatic, imagine my surprise when I (the ultra rookie) actually had something to offer in return (in the days when sharing an inhaler was acceptable, of course).

We waited for each other at the finish for a quick hug and a high five, but I never got his name. That day, I realized that ultrarunning was bigger than a cool story in a book and much bigger than any sort of community I had ever been a part of before.

I was hooked.

paying it forward at leadville

Paying it Forward: The Final Seven Miles

Before I knew it, I was living in Detroit and toeing the starting line at another 50-miler. While it’s no Leadville, I still prepared like it was (salt sticks in tow).

During this particular race, with multiple distances and a relay option, I found myself running with a small running club who had me on track for a personal record. Unbeknownst to me, however, they were running the 50k and I still had a long day ahead of me.

Gassed from my 32-mile push and without my new friends to keep me moving, it was a struggle watching the relay teams sprint by, decked out in costume, in great spirits, and much closer to the beer at the finish than I. 

With about seven miles left and feeling totally dejected, a gentleman who was a self-proclaimed couch potato was starting his final leg of this relay and asked for my name. He then, dressed as a super hero, said “OK, Tyler. We’ll finish this thing together.” 

Our comfortable trot and conversation made all the difference. I felt like I had someone who needed me as much as I needed him (after all, he didn’t want to fall behind a guy with 43 miles under his belt!). We chatted, and he never let me stop to feel sorry for myself. 

When we crossed the finish line I thanked him properly with a cold one. Ultra #2 had once again delivered.

Paying it Forward: A Full Heart

As the years progressed, I found myself, while still living in Michigan, making the trip to toe the inaugural start of the Eastern States 100, two state lines away. 

Knowing it would be the first distance that I would need a legitimate crew and pacers, I made a few phone calls to friends who either regionally or athletically could fit the bill. Offering free lodging and a chance to see me suffer, everyone was a resounding yes. As a result, I ended up with the most selfless group of humans out there. 

Ranging from professional lacrosse players to a recent marathoner, a stranger I met on the course at my last race, and a former collegiate track/cross country runner, my crew was complete. 

At one particular point, while slogging through the woods in the middle of the night, my pacer pulled out his phone and played a video that he had prepared. It was made up of friends from college and back home all wishing me well. As the race progressed and I slowly deteriorated, I still found comfort in every leg of the race because of who I got to spend it with.

I DNF’d several hours later after missing the cutoff at mile 75, but my heart was full with gratitude for those who made the trip, spent the night in the woods, and sat on the sidelines only to see me not finish. For about 72 hours, everyone had operated as one big team.

DNF aside, I learned an incredible amount about the spirit of people and the depths they will go to see you reach a goal.

Paying it Forward: Perspective

Even after ten years of racing, my mindset on the sport continues to evolve. When someone asks for advice, my #1 is to tell them to start by thanking everyone (then, of course, to always drink the chicken broth). 

You may end up being a pack mule, shoulder to cry on, or simply a voice of reason, but in the end, remember that your small role is contributing to the great good of the sport and, ultimately, the heartbeat of the ultramarathon.

paying it forward, ultramarathons, dirtbag runners

Tyler Rauch, 2021 DBR Ambassador, is a husband, father of two, and has been running ultras since 2010. A native Floridian, he and his wife moved around the Midwest and Northeast over a 6 year period, but are now happy to call North Carolina home. When he’s not running or working around the house, he’s playing hockey or outside with his kids!