Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Life is an ultramarathon.

Don’t miss any cutoffs sitting in the aid station.

Those of you who know me well or have been around this blog for a while know that I am an ultramarathon runner. I seek out trails and races well beyond the 26.2 mile marathon distance. While this may seem out of reach, I am learning that seeking a finish of a long race isn’t much different than seeking satisfaction, growth and happiness in life. Therefore to me, living life, loving my people, learning and growing and reaching for personal goals is really just its own ultramarathon.

This came to a head for me recently when I was really struggling personally. I texted a friend who knows me well and knows ultramarathons well. The following exchange took place:

There is a documentary (one of many) that documents the journey of running a 100-mile race. There is a scene where the man running is sitting in the aid station tired and torn. Exhausted. Pushed beyond his current ability. His people are rallying around him giving him aid and working to build his spirits. He is unsure he can go on. Then he says:

“Just give me 60 seconds to feel sorry for myself.”

His friends surround him, encouraging him, keeping their eye on the clock and are ready for him to get back up and finish the race when he's ready.

The draw of an ultramarathon is the unknown. It’s the idea that we train for months for a distance that seems so incredibly out of reach that while we hope it is possible, we know there are so many factors that can derail any well prepared for race. We get to that start line anyway, because the excitement of finishing something big and bold is bigger than the risk of not finishing. The chance we might fail is the draw that keeps us curious about how far we can go.

The draw of life is similar. There is the unknown. There is the ever present fact that life is fleeting and no matter what we do, we and everyone we love are going to die. It is a fact that as much as we may try to escape it, is hard truth. Why would anyone even bother then, right? Maybe because the excitement of having a life that is beautiful and meaningful is worth the risk of pain that ultimately comes when you put your heart out into the world.

We know the world is a terrifying place, yet we explore it and try to understand it and make friends and go places and get into cars and fly on planes knowing that at any moment we could experience some kind of accident, be in the wrong place at the wrong time or be diagnosed with a horrible disease. All of this could be enough to make us want to stay locked up in our homes, missing out on life. But we don’t. We know the chance we might fail is the draw that keeps us going to see how far in life we can go.

Occasionally though, life throws us something truly painful. We are going along in our world living life and something happens that stops us in our tracks. A loved one gets sick. A friend dies. An innocent animal is targeted for an unknown reason. The world becomes too heavy.

Sometimes in a race, there is an injury. Nutrition is off and fatigue sets in. The weather doesn’t cooperate. The course is more difficult than you thought it would be. 

In either case, we seek aid. We sit on our friend’s couch or call our person or cry to our partner. We make it to the aid station and believe we cannot go on. We stop moving forward and are frozen in our grief. We have a choice. We can get up and keep going, or we can sit in that comfortable place and stop. 

Life is an ultramarathon.

A few months ago, someone in my neighborhood shot my cat with a .22 caliber weapon. That same week, a childhood friend died from ALS, leaving behind 4 children and a loving wife. Also in that same week, a key member of our team at work left to pursue a fabulous new opportunity for her and her little family. It was all just so heavy, and I was so incredibly sad. For my cat, for this world we live in, for my own capacity at work and ultimately for the understanding that this world we live in is heavy and hard and full of so much pain. It was more than I could take. I needed aid.

My friend sent that text to me in response to my desire to “just feel sorry for myself for a little while longer”. I knew I wouldn’t be there for long, but I wasn’t ready to get up yet. It is safe and comfortable there in that aid station. Sitting still and feeling all the things and wanting to hide from all of the pain in this broken world. But my friend knows me and knows I cannot stay there forever. He reminded me not to miss any cutoffs sitting in the aid station. Don’t avoid the aid stations, they are there for a reason, but don’t stay there too long either, if we do we will certainly miss out on something beautiful that life has in store for us.

I had a virtual happy hour with a group of amazing women about a month after that text exchange with my friend. I mentioned that I stopped listening to podcasts, I stopped going to my new therapist and just stopped moving forward. I wasn’t depressed, I was resting. One of these amazing friends mentioned gently that I seemed to be sort of stagnant. That I was retreating into my safe place and maybe that’s okay for a while but I probably shouldn’t stay there too long. It reminded me of the text my friend sent me. I shared the words with my girls and they were so taken back by the profound meaning in those words, they said it should be my mantra.

Life is an ultramarathon. Go out there and run it. Get dirty, get hurt, get out in the world and see what happens. Get aid when you need it, just don’t miss any cutoffs while sitting in the aid station.

Saturday, March 6, 2021

Running 100 Miles: Take One

Spoiler alert, I didn’t finish 100 miles during my first attempt. I experienced some pretty severe knee pain that took me out at mile 65. Nevertheless, the 21 hours I spent on the beautiful Lake Ouachita Vista Trail are filled with big and tiny moments alike, all of which made this experience one of the most unforgettable of my life. 

So grab a glass of wine or a nice cup of hot tea, put your feet up and get ready to hear the stories that go along with when I almost ran 100 miles.

The trip really began the week leading up to the race when all of the scouting and timing and planning of the aid stations took place. If you imagine how much goes into planning weekend away or a weekend of camping, planning for 34 hours in the woods with everything I might need in a Rubbermaid box, it definitely takes some planning.

I created this pace chart to help with timing…

…and put all of the food for each aid station in zip lock bags like this.

A lot of this is setting up my crew to be able to help me get what I need at the aid stations and get out as quickly as possible.

I share this mostly to show the planning that goes into a race like this. It should be noted, I did not enjoy this part of the race experience. We got to Arkansas on Thursday evening since the race started at 5pm on Friday. Most of the day Friday I spent actively trying to relax. Everything was packed and ready, Nate knew the plan, my friends were ready with their plans and while I was definitely nervous about the day, I also knew that as soon as I got to the trail everything will be fine.

And of course that is exactly what happened. My friend and I who trained together planned to run most if not all of the race together. We took off for the race and were full of smiles and ready to embark on 100 miles.

The first 10 miles were kind of tough. My buddy and I didn’t say too much and finally when we did, we shared that we just couldn’t get into a rhythm. I wondered if I was eating too much. I rarely start a run at 5pm, so slamming 200-300 calories/hour after a full day of eating seemed to be causing some trouble. I backed off the eating and switched to water and it really helped.

We got to the first aid station way ahead of schedule, and it was great to see Nate and the boys. It was a quick turnaround and back out we went. It was nice to settle into a groove and the next 10 miles went by pretty well. But the nearly 2 days of straight rain, the insane amount of creek crossings, the ridiculous elevation and the constant mist made these overnight miles really challenging.

The next 20 miles were more of the same. If I learned anything from this experience of long slow miles it is that everything is temporary. If something hurt or when I struggled, it is so easy to quickly go to thoughts of wait I am only 25 miles in, how am I going to make it 90+ if I am already having this problem? But then before I know it, that thing has passed and I’m feeling strong. Everything is temporary, so you have to ride the roller coaster and enjoy when things are going well knowing it won’t last, and when things are hard, just keep going. Because that probably won’t last long either.

One thing I couldn’t seem to shake were my sore feet. I decided at mile 40 or so that I was going to change my socks and shoes at the next stop. I wanted my shoes with a little more cushion and the socks were constantly soaked from so many creek crossings. I love a good rainy run but man, without the opportunity to dry out my feet were really getting sore.

We got to a section that was 2 miles straight up, and 2 miles straight down. This was one of the toughest sections and was really challenging especially in the dark. This course was an out and back and while I tried to stay present and not go too far into the future, I have to admit it felt daunting to imagine doing that section again at mile 87.

At mile 42 I got fresh socks and shoes and felt a million times better. I was like a new woman! For three whole miles until we came to another creek. I stood there with my head down ready to cross and just really didn’t want to get my feet wet again. But I did. There really wasn’t another option.

As things were tough through the night, all I kept thinking was how amazing it was going to be when the sun came up, and I was right. There was a moment right around dawn when I stopped and looked around and took it all in. The mist, the rising sun, relishing in the absolute beauty that is in the forest. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. I had been awake for almost 22 hours by this point and was maybe 45 miles into the race. 

Nate had the job of bringing me my hot tea at the morning aid station, which was at mile 47. I’m not sure I can put into words how wonderful that cup of tea was! I was surprised by how good I felt given the fact we had been running all night. My mental game was so strong. I had moments of doubt when my foot would twinge or when I let myself go too far into the future, but as long as I was able to stay present and deal with the bit of trail that was in front of me, I was golden.

Leaving that station would lead into the biggest stretch of miles between aid stations, and I knew I wouldn’t see Nate and the boys again until mile 58. I was still feeling strong and ready to take on this section that we expected to be the most runnable of the course.

I’m not exactly sure when it started to happen, but sometime shortly after a no-crew aid station at mile 50, my knee started to hurt. It was my left knee too, which unlike my right knee has never given me any problems. The pain came on fast and strong, and I tried all of my tricks that used to work on my right knee to no avail. 

This is pain I know well. It is pain that I know will not go away. My friend tried hard to stay positive and give me tips to turn it around but I knew there was no way I could run. We power hiked and were making pretty good time but these were the miles that we were supposed to be making up for lost time on, and that just wasn’t happening.

He suggested I listen to music so I did, then we stopped on this bench and laughed because the fog was so thick we couldn’t enjoy what we knew was a beautiful view hiding in the dense fog. Shortly after he and I agreed that he needed to take off ahead of me to ensure he wouldn’t fall too far behind and miss cutoffs. I succumbed to the truth that I was likely not going to finish this race.

I got to Nate and the boys at the mile 58 aid station limping from a painful knee and blistered heels. I had fully convinced myself I was going to stop after 100k (62 miles), but when I saw the boys and decided to pick up my pacer, they talked me into going back out there and seeing what happens. It was nice to have some hope that maybe things would turnaround. 

When I was sitting at the station I took off my socks and saw two nasty blisters on my heels. I taped one up and the other needed to be popped. My pacer said something about finding something to pop it with and I said no, I got it, and proceeded to tear a hole in the blister with my fingernail. I taped it up, put my socks and shoes back on, grabbed my trekking poles and hit the trail with an avocado sandwich in hand a my pacer by my side.

After the race, Nate told me that he and the boys got in the car and my 9yo said “soooo, did anyone actually see mommy pop the blister?” Apparently the grittiness of the ultrarunning world was a little more than my sons expected 😆

There was an aid station at mile 62, which would have been the 100k mark and my new goal, but there was no crew access. So if I dropped there, someone would have to drive me to my family at another aid station. I looked at my crew when I realized this and I said with gusto “I’m not getting a fu*king ride off of the trail. I will make it to mile 65.”

The 4 miles from 58-62 were really difficult. My knee had completely blow up and I couldn’t run at all. The downhills were excruciating and each step was more and more painful. Mentally though, I felt great. I was smiling, I was chatting with my pacer and while I had been awake for nearly 30 hours or so I was out of it but not delirious…yet.

At about 12pm Saturday at the mile 62 aid station I sat down for only the third time since 5pm the night before. My pacer had convinced me to let the station folks k-tape my knee to see if it would help. They gave me a peace sign necklace and pin and sent me on my way.

We made our way down the dirt road and came to a road crossing. We saw a vehicle coming and paused. That vehicle slowed to let us cross and I waved to say thanks. The person driving rolled her window down and waved. I look intently thinking I recognized her but I’m in a forest in Arkansas and have been awake forever, so I don’t think much of it. 

Then the car door opened and she got out. So did the passenger. Suddenly I realized that it was two of my very dear friends and it clicked that they drove all the way to Arkansas to see me race. I was overcome with emotion and burst into tears. 

I wrapped my arms around one of them and then the other and cried. I know people love me. My brain knows it but in that moment I felt a level of friendship love in my heart that I don’t think I’ve ever allowed myself to feel before. 

These two women drove hours to get to me, to support me and to show me they believed in me. They told me how proud they were and I cried and said I didn’t think I was going to finish. They didn’t blink. They said it didn’t matter. They were miraculously in the absolutely perfect place at the absolutely perfect time. 

So many things had to happen to place us in the same place at that moment. They were on their way to a restaurant that said it was closed but they wanted to see for sure. At the last minute I decided at the last aid station to have them tape my knee to see if that would help. I didn’t know I needed those hugs from these women in that moment, and thinking back it still brings me to tears. They had been texting me all day from Arkansas, and I had no idea they were right there with me. The whole time.

I spent the next 2 miles having periods of crying over the craziness of seeing my girls in the middle of the forest. My buddy had taken off ahead of me and it was an out and back and I knew I would run into him eventually. When I did he was grinding up the hill toward us and I was so happy to see him looking so strong. I hugged him and said I was proud of him and wished him the best for the rest of his race. He was working so hard and looking so strong, I just knew he was going to finish.

It started to thunder and I really wanted to get to the aid station before it down poured but I just couldn’t move that quickly. I had slowed down to a 25-minute pace and couldn’t run at all. I made it to the mile 65 aid station about 45 minutes before cut-off. I would have to manage the next 35 miles at a 20-minute mile at a minimum to finish on time, and I couldn’t run. There was really nothing to consider. Stopping was the only option.

It took me a while for my head to catch up with the idea of stopping. My adrenaline was in full effect and my whole body minus my knee wanted to keep moving. It took hours for me to settle down.

We went back to the cabin and I showered and tried to relax. Friends had been sending me positive and uplifting messages all day, which was so incredibly wonderful. Each time a message showed up on my watch I felt the love. It really helped push me through. I updated friends that I had dropped and tried to rest. But I just couldn’t do it. Not with my friend still out there trying to grind out 100 miles.

I told Nate I really wanted to meet him at the next aid station so Nate helped me figure out what time we thought he would be there. I know I surprised him when I got there and it was so great to see how strong he looked. Plus I got to see the second best part of a race like this, the view from the crew. I have crewed this friend and others at long races and honestly it is just as much fun as racing. 

Also, my girls were in Arkansas! I called them and told them where to meet us at my friend’s mile 87. We hung out on the side of a highway in the misting rain for a while when he came and went through the station. I was having some serious bouts of delirium. Each time a car drove by the light would reflect in such a way that I thought a car was parked on the side of the road, then it was gone. None of this was scary and it was actually kind of cool. It was hard to tell what was real and what was my eyes playing tricks on me. My girls also got me the best little care package. Goodness I just love them so much 💗

He had 13 miles left and we knew it would be about 4 hours or so, so we went back to the cabin and I got a couple of hours of sleep. This was about 9pm on Saturday and I had been up since 8am or so on Friday. 

Nate’s alarm went off at 12:30am and he checked the tracker and saw my friend would finish around 1am. We drove to the finish line and got there with about 10 minutes to spare before he finished. Seeing him finish was a really great end to a pretty great day.

Sunday was to be our last day in Arkansas so we tried to make the most of it and drove to Hot Springs to see the sights and grab lunch. I was sore, but it was manageable. The blisters and sore knee was the worst but otherwise I felt pretty great considering I just ran 65 miles.

We ate the most incredible pizza, played mini golf, explored the town and made the most of our little mini vacation. I was feeling pretty good about the whole weekend and enjoyed this time with my little family.

Then Monday hit and everything changed. The deep disappointment set in. I had a really good hard cry in the shower and just felt so incredibly sad that the race didn’t go the way I hoped it would go. My head was positive and realistic and knew I had to quit and not finish, but my heart was so sad.

Like everything else about this experience, that feeling didn’t last long either. Bottom line is, it’s just running. We trail runners see a distance we want to try and cover and we sign up for the race. We toe the line with no idea how the whole thing is going to end up. It’s uncertain and unpredictable and no matter how hard you train you cannot be sure how it will end up. To me, that’s part of the draw. If we knew the outcome was certain, it would lose its desire.

The nearly unattainable is that much sweeter when it is attained. Or so I have heard 😊

If I learned anything on this adventure it is that the 100 mile distance is well within my reach. I’ll face it again later this year filled with more experience and more training and hopefully a buckle in hand. And maybe even a new-to-the-sport crew! Nate and my girls now have a new interest in crewing and pacing an ultra. I should have warned them that it is definitely addicting and contagious!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

Am I ready to run 100 miles?


Here I am, heading into race week deep in the throes of the taper crazies and I have to ask myself … am I ready to run 100 miles?

Back in August of 2020, after weeks of talking and considering, my friend finally talked me into signing up to run 100 miles. As I signed in to UltraSignup, found the race and clicked through all of the prompts to register, I was filled with invigorating excitement to be reaching for something well outside of my comfort zone. It didn’t take much time though before I was met with an enormous amount of self-doubt.

You see, as a runner there is nothing quite like signing up for the next distance. As an ultrarunner, that often means the next stretch goal is pretty lofty. New runners often follow the route of 5k, 10k, half marathon, and full marathon. An ultramarathon is anything beyond a full marathon or 26.2 miles.

By the time I was sitting there in my car with my phone in hand, with UltraSignup pulled up and ready to take the plunge I had completed a handful of 50k races and one 50 mile run. I suppose I could have signed up for a 100k race but I instead went right for the big one and signed up to run 100 miles in 34 hours.

When I first started trail running and would run with seasoned ultrarunners, I would hear them talk of their 100 mile race plans and adventures. I couldn’t even imagine what would make someone want to run 100 miles. It was so far away from anything I ever thought I would try to do. If I’m being completely honest, I don’t think I had ever believed I could do something so big and challenging. Sometimes it takes a friend to convince you that you are strong and that anything is possible if you commit and put in the work.

So that is what I have done. Miles upon miles of training. Hours and hours in the woods, grinding out intentional practice and training growing stronger and more confident at each mile.

It wasn’t all fun though. Deciding to try to do something I have never done before is a level of vulnerability that consistently made me question myself and my ability to really achieve this big stretch goal I was working toward. All these hours on the trail were hours away from my family. Hours squeezed in before a workday. When training ramped up there were plenty of times I cried on the trail, questioned my reasoning and made me wonder if all of this was worth it. Never once though did I think about stopping. 

Each time I questioned myself and my reasons behind running this distance, I was met with something that helped me center myself and appreciate what this journey means to me. I am learning that staying comfortable where success is certain and failure is unlikely is predictable but it sure isn’t very much fun. 

I listened to podcasts and audible books and sought out as much information as possible about dreaming big, preparing for the unexpected, living a life of intention and not only learning but really integrating the fact that everything we have ever wanted is on the other side of fear.

Between when I signed up for the race and today, I have ran over 1200 miles. Each mile was intentional with the long-term goal of 100 miles in mind. Some miles were easy and fun and lighthearted, and some were a full struggle ending with tears as I trudged back to my car. Running into friends on trails and keeping so many solo to avoid catching covid as I inched closer to race day. These 7ish months of training have been an adventure from the start. An intense journey to see what I am really capable of.

Some things I learned during the 1200 miles of training include:
  • Something always hurt. Yes, always. Thankfully it was never an injury so I just kept going.
  • My husband and my boys are always my biggest supporters and cheerleaders.
  • More than anything, I am so incredibly grateful for this body that continues to rise to what I expect of it.
  • I love trail running. I mean, I really love it. Running connects me to the world and the ground in a way that I never expected. You know how at the end of the movie Almost Famous when the bandaid tries to explain what it's like to love one tiny piece of music SO MUCH that it hurts? That is how much I love running in the woods. So much it hurts. Or maybe that's just because of that first point up there 😄
  • Fighting with a friend can actually strengthen a friendship, if it is built on trust and respect.
  • I love to eat lots and lots (and lots) of food. Especially Anna-safe pizza and Chipotle.
  • Gratitude is the antidote to pain. If something is painful, look for the gratitude, it's there. I promise. 
No matter how the race plays out, this journey to get to the starting line of my first 100 mile race has filled my heart with so much joy. Spending time working toward something I believe in, that builds me up and helps me grow as a person, a partner, a parent and as a friend will forever be one of the very best things I ever decided to do for myself. 

I’ve put in the work, now all I have to do is get in the arena and finish this damn thing.