Making an Ultrarunner

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“Maybe not thriving…but surviving.”  That was the best Facebook status I could come up with after my first venture into ultramarathon running.  Back in May, I had trained for the Madison Marathon with team DetermiNation, and after the race, my friend and teammate Meghan Ross mentioned that she was interested in running an ultra.  Because I was on a post-marathon high, and felt I had a decent foundation after training for the marathon, I eagerly said I would train for it, as well.  She told me she planned on training for the North Face Endurance Challenge near Madison, and I asked her what the distance was.  When she said 50, I said, “50k?” and was met with the response, “No…50 miles.”  Despite my doubts about being able to complete such a long race, I agreed to start training…how much worse could 50 miles be than running a marathon?  And how different could trails possibly be than roads?  Thus began my extensive education.

I won’t lie…training was rough.  I researched a few plans online and found one that seemed reasonable; the weekly mileage didn’t seem ridiculous, but the focus was on completing back-to-back long runs on the weekends.  This seemed to be pretty consistent among all the plans I found, the idea being getting accustomed to running on fatigued legs.  The weekend runs were also written in terms of hours instead of miles…I had to adjust to the idea that the focus here was not speed; rather, time spent on my feet.  And believe me, my feet started to feel it.

Fueling up at an aid station.

Aside from the difficulty of running hours upon hours on the weekends, it was hard to factor that much time into an already-busy schedule.  I know many readers can commiserate with trying to juggle a full-time job (for me, working in a lab as a graduate student), a workout schedule, and a social life.  In addition, my boyfriend lives seven hours away, so I also had to consider working my long runs around weekend visits.  As most of you might guess, it’s difficult to find a four or five hour chunk of “free time” during the week that you can fill with a missed run.  The heat this summer didn’t help. I often had to get up around 3:00 AM on the weekends just to avoid running in 90+ degree temperatures.

Needless to say, when people asked what I was up to over the summer, my response was generally, “Working.  And running.  A LOT.”  However, I started to get really excited about the race when I officially signed up for it and completed my first weekend of nine total hours of running.  I was starting to feel ready, and my body seemed to be adjusting fairly well to the steadily increasing mileage.  It became a fun game to watch people’s responses when I told them I was training for an ultramarathon; they ranged from shock, to disbelief, to horror.  “You must mean 15.  No one would run FIFTY miles.”  “Why in the name of all that’s holy would you run that far?”  “You’re insane.”  “Bodies just weren’t made to endure that.”  My favorite was when I was talking to a friend of mine from Puerto Rico, and she responded, “So…about halfway across Puerto Rico.”  Yup. I guess that about hit the nail on the head.

With a few weeks left to go, I started to get nervous.  Why hadn’t I gone out to Kettle Moraine to practice on the trails?  Why hadn’t I stuck to a more rigid diet to try to drop a few pounds to make the running easier?  Why hadn’t I started by running a 50k before trying what now seemed like an insane distance?  Why, why, why…?  The list went on and on.  I also made the mistake of reading a few blogs that contained information like, “The right compression gear for preventing temporary vision loss during an ultramarathon” and “What to do when you run into wildlife on the trail.”  Needless to say, I felt underprepared.  My mom tried to calm me down by asking, “Sweetie, what’s the worst thing that could happen?”  Here’s a tip:  Don’t ever respond to your mother with the nonchalant response, “Well, I could die.”  That did not go over well.

Ensure: The drink of ultramarathoners.

With a week to go, I poured over the race materials and started to pack my bag (during ultras, you’re typically allowed to have a bag delivered to one of the aid stations to have on hand during the run).  First aid kit, blister kit, change of clothes, extra pair of shoes, Vaseline, Clif bars, Gu, Ensure…I kept adding to my list until my bag was about ready to pop.  Looking for advice, I also frequented Berkeley, my favorite running store, and talked to Rolando, to whom I am forever indebted for his advice.  Among the gems of wisdom he imparted were: 1) Walk the hills. (“We’ll see!” I thought…more on that later).  2) Don’t drink water while going uphill.  3) If you ever see people go one way and the trail go the other, follow the TRAIL.  People get lost. The trail will lead you in the right direction.  4) Don’t run for a time. Run to finish.  5) Enjoy the food.  6) There will be times when it will literally be all you can do to put one foot in front of the other.  Do that.  Put one foot in front of the other. Then do it again.  And after a while, the pain will pass.  7)  (My personal favorite) If you give your body an out, it will take it.  Don’t tell yourself that stopping’s an option if you’re feeling terrible.  Tell yourself, “I will finish…even if I’m the last one.”  I left Berkeley terrified, but trusting that if Rolando said I could do it, I could.  Right before the race, a number of my friends also gave me cards and gifts, most of which were encouraging signs or my favorite foods to recover after the race.  It was probably some of the greatest encouragement I’ve ever received in my life, and I laminated one of the messages to tuck into one of my pockets during the race.  It might give me some strength when I needed it the most, I reasoned.

My boyfriend Rob drove to town the day before the race and took me to Kettle Moraine so that I wouldn’t have to drive home after running 50 miles…add him to the list of people to whom I’m forever indebted.  After picking up my packet, we downed a carb-loaded Panera dinner, and I re-read the race material for the 500th time.  I paced and watched America’s Next Top Model to try to calm myself down, then tried to sleep before getting up at 2:30 for the 5:00 start time.  When morning rolled around, I got dressed, greased my toes (a necessity, I assure you), put Body Glide on every inch of skin I could reach, slapped on my Garmin, and made sure I had about 4 Clif bars and a few Gus on hand.  The aid stations had an incredible menu, but I had heard horror stories about them running out of food, so I didn’t want to count on anything.  Rob and I met Meghan in the lobby, and we drove out to the start site while it was still pitch black outside.

When we got there, I felt slightly better in that I was surrounded by around 220 people that were just as insane as I was, if not more so.  We huddled around heat lamps because the morning was chilly and I almost died when DEAN KARNAZES stood up to give us some last minute words of wisdom.  I couldn’t even hear what he was saying, but who cares?  It was DEAN KARNAZES.  Then, all of a sudden, I was kissing Rob goodbye, and we were off.  “We’re about to run 50 miles, Meg.”  She gave a whoop, and we started our slow jog out of the starting area, following the bobbing headlamps in front of us.  We were on the road for a couple of minutes before getting into the trails, and I was doing ok.  No turning back now.

The finish line!

So here’s the thing about trails. There are hills.  BIG hills.  On the first hill we encountered, I quickly disregarded the advice to walk, and I started charging up at a slow jog.  I realized, however, that I was starting to pass people and that EVERYONE was walking.  Meghan and I looked at each other, and I could tell we were having the same thought.  “Let’s take a leaf out of their books,” I told her.  “I’m pretty sure that if we’re passing people on our first ultra, we’re doing something wrong.”  She agreed, and we took cues from the other runners as to when we should walk until we started to get a feel for the trails.  I would say that the highlight of the race came when we heard a “Hey, kids!” behind us, and after I yelled back, “Morning!” Meghan and I both gasped because, you guessed it, it was DEAN KARNAZES.  He could have yelled out, “Hey, idiots!”, and I think I would have been equally excited.

I could regale you with tales of the trails, but here’s what happened in a nutshell:  we ran.  And ran.  And ran some more.  I thought the race was over when at mile 12, I took my eyes off the trail for a split second then found myself flying face-first into the dirt.  It’s a miracle that I didn’t break anything; Meghan asked if I was bleeding, and I said I didn’t think so.  I shook myself off, wiped the mud off my face, and kept going.  I was embarrassed until I heard a woman we had met earlier yell from behind me, “Hey ladies!  You missed my spill back there!  At least I missed the pile of horse crap.  WOOOOOO!!!”

This last statement leads me to my next observation about ultrarunning:  the people are AWESOME.  I met some of the most interesting people I’ve ever come across, and on the trail, you have plenty of time to get to know one another.  You pass and get passed by the same basic group of people because everyone hits highs and lows at different times.  Meghan and I split up after the first 20 miles then occasionally ran with each other when we would meet back up at aid stations.  It was never lonely; most of the people I met were curious if this was my first ultra, asked what I did for a living, gave me words of encouragement, and sometimes begged me for words of encouragement.  It felt like a family, and one that I liked a lot.  It didn’t hurt that the trails were BEAUTIFUL. I couldn’t get enough of the scenery, though after my mile 12 spill, I kept a better eye on where my feet were.

These feet were made for running.

All of the highlights aside, at mile 40 I hit an absolute low point.  Rob had been amazing, following me from station to station, holding up signs, taking pictures, and asking if I needed anything.  I had been ok up to this point…but when I reached the mile 40 aid station, my eyes started to well up.  It was hot, my body was in agony, my feet felt like they had been beaten by a sledgehammer…and I still had 10 miles to go.  “I would cry, but I don’t think there’s any salt left in my body,” I complained to Rob.  I followed up with the incredibly astute observation that “Ultras are hard.”  Poor guy…I don’t think there’s any good advice you can give someone in that situation.  I had gotten myself into this, and now I had to get myself out.  So I followed Rolando’s advice. When I left the aid station, I literally chanted, “Left, right, left, right, left, right” to myself for 5 miles.  I walked when I needed to, as my legs just weren’t cooperating.  And it was strange, but after about 4 miles of this, I started to catch another wind.  How on earth this was possible? I know not. All I know is that Rolando was right once again.

At the last aid station, I felt amazing.  Well, as amazing as one can feel near death.  Meghan was there, and at first I thought that she had finished and was coming back to encourage me.  That wasn’t the case, she had waited for a while at the aid station to recover more before the last stretch.  I downed a couple of cups of soda to get caffeine in my system, ate my 200th PB&J for the day, and grabbed a handful of Skittles that were congealed from sitting out for too long.  I almost fell over laughing when Meghan remarked, “Wow…these really do taste like the rainbow.”

Officially ultramarathoners!

At that point, I have no shame in telling you that we walked.  For four miles, we walked because our legs were just shot.  We also had a near meltdown when we found out the race staff had miscalculated the mileage, so we weren’t as close to the finish as we thought…but after some profanity and hand waving, we continued on our way.  And let me tell you something, when we were about a quarter of a mile from the finish, the feeling was surreal.  We started a slow, painful jog because we could hear cheering in the distance.  We rounded a corner and saw Meghan’s mom cheering for us, and we picked up a little bit of speed.  On the last turn, I saw Rob and my friend Angie standing there yelling, and I thought I was going to lose it.  I just about collapsed into Rob after crossing the finish, and Meghan and I grabbed each other in a bear hug.  Fifty miles.  We had just run fifty freaking miles.  It had taken eleven hours, but we had done it.  We ate some of the food, got our post-race massages, and enjoyed the overall finish line mayhem, but everything just seemed surreal.  I think that I’m STILL waiting for it to sink in, a week later.  Would I do it again?  I think that I’ll leave the possibility open. There are some other things I’d like to accomplish first, but I think that the greatest thing this experience proved to me is that anything seems possible.  I’ve never pushed myself to that kind of level before, and even though my body is aching as a result, it gave me more confidence than I ever remember having.  That goal marathon time seems within reach, and finishing my PhD doesn’t seem as daunting.  Even if ultras aren’t your thing, I think that breaking out of your comfort zone in any capacity is the key to moving forward…running just happens to be my outlet of choice.  And as for Meghan?  I woke up to a text on Sunday morning:  “I think I can break 10 hours next year.”