Pain. It shows up in many forms. From the constant ache of an aging body and well used limbs, to the acute stab of a fresh injury or illness. From the lingering lethargy of emotional fatigue, to the soul crushing weight of depression. From the heart-racing fear of constant anxiety, to the incapacitating collapse of a panic attack. From small daily disappointments and failures, to life altering losses and disasters. Our pain can originate physically, emotionally, psychologically, in every way imaginable. But it almost always is interpreted by our brains as a physical manifestation in some form. We feel it in our core. It’s a constant reminder we are human and we are alive.
In the modern world we tend to avoid pain. We consider it a four letter word (yes that kind). Something to be removed from our life, handled, fixed, or at least covered up and shoved aside. And so we turn to numerous devices in our quest to remove our pain. We spend thousands of dollars on prescription drugs and treatments. We rest and rehab, avoid movement or activity. At times we turn to illegal drugs to numb our pain, both physical and emotional. We drink, sometimes a lot. We work, often more than we should. We workout, again at times more than advised. We literally run away from our pain. We log on. We binge watch shows. We control food, we let food control us. We gamble. We party. Everyone chooses their own vice. Pretty much everything that can hold us in an addiction is in some way related to the existence of either physical, emotional, or psychological pain and our desire, our need, to manage it.
In a fully authentic voice, I must admit that I am constantly in pain. I have been an anxious child who grew into a highly anxious adult. I have faced bouts of depression, especially surrounding our miscarriages and just after my son was born. I have felt the loss of our babies so acutely that I physically puked, and mentally caved into myself. I have struggled with the pain of sleep deprivation when my mind literally will not let me sleep. And throughout my entire adult life, I have constantly had something physically hurting, from a rib, to an elbow, to an ankle, to a foot, to a knee. It doesn’t matter if I run or stretch, strengthen or massage, or just rest. Something will always hurt and I am having to learn to accept that. Rarely does it hurt enough to limit my movement or change my gait, rarely does it keep me from heading to the road or trail. Whether this constant pain is a manifestation of my anxiety, or a marker of my body’s high reactivity to discomfort, I am still searching for answers. But the constant aches and pains help me in many ways to push through other pains, one pain replaces the other I guess.
My personal coping method with pain involves running more miles than many consider humanly possible, spending hours, and at times full days on the trail. A body exhausted from hard work is free, it is relaxed, it doesn’t have the energy to worry or stress, it is home in itself and at peace. At least that is my truth. Yes, running ultras creates its own kind of pain. Pain from fatigue, pain from constant motion, pain from niggling injuries or overuse. But those physical pains are something I can understand, I can wrap my mind around them. They make sense. I have pushed my body and therefore I will hurt. They put other pains in perspective, or at least drown them out for a time. They keep my mind more focused on the present.
Everyone has their own prescription against pain. You could argue that some are better, “healthier,” than others. Certainly, I would not advise hard drugs or excessive alcohol as a healthy coping mechanism. But is constantly seeking praise from others, or being so plugged into social media that you don’t see those in front of you healthy? Is allowing food to control us in whatever form, whether excess or restriction, healthy? Is working, or gambling, or sitting in front of the TV, day in and day out healthy? Or more personally, is running for over a day healthy?
Everything in moderation, they say. Balance is key, they say. But the world is a painful place, and the human experience is defined by pain. Pain is not in moderation, it is not in balance, and so we often self-medicate in ways that are equally weighted. Maybe, when we recognize how we smother our own pain, we can give more grace to those who struggle to cope in ways we would not choose and do not understand. And maybe in that grace, we can find a connection with others that helps us all live a more fulfilling life, less controlled by our pain. We cannot escape it, we cannot remove it. We can only learn to continue on with our pain, not let it cripple us, but move forward. Learn to find joy, not in spite of pain, but maybe because of it. Because of what it teaches us, because of what we learn about ourselves, and because of how it changes us, hopefully into a better version of us.
On a humid and hot July Tuesday in Texas, I set out to run one hundred miles, alone. One hundred miles on the nearly 10 mile loops of the local mountain bike trail at Erwin Park in McKinney, Texas. One hundred miles without aid stations, time cut offs, finish lines, or buckles. One hundred miles just for me, for my sanity, for redemption…
Earlier in June, I had tasted the sting of my first Did Not Finish. At mile 64 of the San Diego 100 I called it quits. My DNF was due to many factors it is true, failure to fuel adequately leading to fatigue, miscalculations on pace leading to miles in the dark with prescription sunglasses to see by, a missed flag leading to a mile off course. But in all honesty, when I came into that aid station at mile 64 with five minutes left to cut off, when I needed to rally and turn back up the mountain and forge ahead, when I needed to find my fire, my fire had burned out. Mentally I was gone, and I had been for some time. And so I turned in my bib, I stopped, I took the out.
After San Diego I felt incredibly unfinished. Physically, I was in better shape than I had ever been, as is proven by how good I felt after the race. But mentally I had broken. I needed to prove to myself that I could finish one hundred miles, and I wanted to prove to myself that my mind was stronger than I let it be in San Diego. I knew I still had a race in me, I was feeling marvelously good for having run 65ish miles. I figured if I took a week off to recover, a week of easy running, a week to train, and a week to taper, that I could try again in a month without having a big training cycle. I had promised my family I would be more available this summer after San Diego, and I didn’t want to dive right into another training cycle to prep for a fall race. I wanted and needed a break, as did my family, so I wanted to capitalize on my current hundo fitness. But I had exhausted our race budget travelling to San Diego with my crew. I couldn’t afford to travel to another race, even solo. Finding hundred mile redemption seemed impossible. And then while running one day, I concocted a stupid bat-cr*p crazy idea of running a hundo… alone… at Erwin Park.
Each summer my son goes to stay at grandma’s for a week with his cousin. This year, grandma camp was set to be the week of July 9th, exactly one month after San Diego. Since I work from home, my schedule is flexible. I figured I could run July 10-11 and take the minimal amount of time from my family, as my son would be at grandmas and my husband would be at work during the day. Erwin Park was a logical choice. It was close and easily accessible, being less than 20 minutes from my home. I could park in such a way to split the almost 10 mile trail nearly in half, giving me frequent access to supplies. During the week it wouldn’t be too overrun with bikers. And since there are camp grounds near the pavilion, I could reserve a camp site so I wouldn’t be breaking any laws by being there overnight. Plus the city park employees would leave the gates to the park open if someone had a campsite reserved, which would allow any pacers I could find to come and go throughout the night.
Because that was my husband’s one big requirement for this to work. If I did this, Chris wanted people to run with me all night. He understood my need to do it, he thought I was crazy (he thought it, I knew it), but he supported me. But he wanted me to be safe. Running alone for all day and night, without aid station volunteers, check ins, and cut off times to keep track of you on the course could be very dangerous. To be safe, I promised to check in with him after every loop during the day, and to have someone running with me all through the dark. If I couldn’t have someone with me all night, I promised I would give up my crazy idea.
I honestly didn’t know if I could find enough people that would be available to run through the night on a weeknight. I figured that would be the end of my scheme. People had to work after all, not everyone had the flexibility that I did, or the intense need to make this work in spite of work schedules. But I consulted my coach, Greg, and I sent out a call to all of his athletes (we call ourselves Team Ninja) to see who might be able to run. I was so floored by the response! I had so many people wanting to help! So I created a group event on social media and invited everyone who had volunteered and a few other runners from my own friend circles. Before I knew it, I had more people wanting to run than I had shifts available. I would be having multiple runners with me most of the night… I have never felt so grateful for and so in awe of the running community!
The organization of this run really is the long story, the running seems relatively short. On that warm Tuesday morning, I packed up my car with 3 coolers (1 for food, 1 for fluids, and 1 just for ice) and every pair of trail shoes I own (plus Birkenstocks just in case!). I headed to the trail and started running. My coach had ridden the course on his bike with his wheel odometer so that we had exact mileage for a full loop and for a shorter half loop. We didn’t want me to overshoot my mileage by 10% trying to appease my watch, which frequently lost a half mile per loop with switchbacks and tree cover. Each loop I came in and recorded the loop and the time, serviced my needs from my car/mobile aid station, texted the group keeping track of me, and headed back out alone. For the first 39 miles, I only saw a few bikers and one highly irritated red hawk on the trail. A Slurpee delivery from a friend in the afternoon was the first friendly face I saw all day.
By mid-afternoon, the clouds were growing thick and dark and starting to sprinkle. My Achilles do not hold up well to mud, and I didn’t want to risk any more damage than necessary for my unofficial hundred. Chased by the thunder I heard to the south, I pushed the pace coming in from the last trail loop so that I could switch to the pre-measured section of gravel road we had set aside as a contingency for weather. I was so focused on getting back to the car that I nearly ran head first into Greg, who had biked out to check on me. At my car, we treated a few blisters, and headed back out.
After a gravel loop, the weather seemed to clear, without any real rain. The trails were still dry. So I picked up my first “official” pacer, Bryan, and we ran one more full trail loop, finishing just as dark settled in enough for head lamps. The rest of the night I ran shortened, five mile loops, giving me bite sized portions of the trail to mentally conquer. I was paced by so many friends: Jill, Pam, Jen, Cathy, Fiona, Lisalynne, Kelly, Kara. I often had two and sometimes three pacers on a loop. And it was a full on party back at the camp site! They had tents and pizza and drinks. When I would come in everyone would flock over to help, tending to my every need from rolling calves to filling bottles and stuffing my hands with food.
I’m not going to say it was easy. Running a hundred miles never is. And by this point I was shuffling, and then hiking, more than running. By dawn most people had left. Although many had taken half days, or opted to work from home, so that they could come support my stupidity, most understandably had commitments that pulled them away as the sun rose. Cathy got me in to the camp site at a little over mile 79, and I had finally succumbed to tears. The entire loop I had thought I only had 16 miles left and I just couldn’t wrap my head around 21. It was my lowest point, my only time to doubt that I would finish.
But my friends took care of me. My husband had brought breakfast to the trail. He basically told me to not come home until I was done, no matter how long that took. It may sound harsh, but it was just what I needed to hear. I sobered up and headed back out with Kara for two more laps while everyone else had to leave.
It was in my last loop with Kara that I felt the blister on my pinky toe burst. Not really pain at first, but a stinging followed by oddness. We hobbled in near mile 90 and tried to doctor it the best we could, but it was a complete mess of tissue beyond repair. On the next loop with Fi I rallied a little, actually running some even though my mileage was in the 90s! But then almost instantly my left foot seemed to swell beyond the shoe. I could barely walk and even resorted to going sock-footed as we came in to the car. Greg and Chris were back as we came in. I couldn’t wear shoes on my left foot anymore. So Greg taped my Birkenstocks onto my sock feet and my husband and I headed out for the last loop. He had never run more than a 5k, but he wanted to do this with me. I was amazed.
It was slow going that last loop in sandals, but peaceful. I knew I would finish, it was just a matter of when. We walked and talked, Chris caught me up on his day. He told me how proud he was of me. He encouraged me. He was everything I needed and more. It was so special to share that time with him.
We finally made it around the loop and Chris started texting Greg and Fiona that we were getting close. As I came into the parking lot near the car, Greg and Fiona held out a paper towel ribbon for me to break. And then it was done…I finished. It took 33 hours, but I finished.
There was no fanfare, no big finish line. Just the four of us and a chair. One of my night time friends had left champagne for mimosas, so we shot a cork across the campground and then had to go find it. We toasted. Greg surprised me with a custom-made buckle. I was completely floored. I cried more than I did at my first hundo. I didn’t do this for a buckle. I did it for something much deeper and simpler. But that buckle meant so much. It is my favorite.
And that’s it. We went home, we ate, we slept. Life moves on. But for now I am at peace. Erwin Park 100 was everything I hoped and so much more. And it’s because of the trail running community. Every single person who came was amazing. Every single one of them sacrificed so much to be there for my crazy idea, with no reason to do so other than a love for running and for each other and for helping others test their limits and achieve their dreams. I am so thankful I got to spend these miles with so many of my favorite people. This “race” will stay with me a long time, perhaps always, as my favorite…
This week Chris gifted me with a night away, just me, a chance to unwind without anyone needing something or expecting anything from me. For me, as a stay at home mom with a husband whose busiest work and travel schedule is during the summer, the months from June to August are both a blessing and a curse. I love spending time with our son, travelling to see family, playing Legos and board games, reading books, having mornings to cuddle instead of rushing out the door for school. I love having the ability to stay home and make these summers truly “breaks” from our normal schedule. I desperately want to be fully present every minute… I know that these summers are flying past me and I can’t get them back. Soon, summers will be spent shuttling him around to friends and activities. Soon, he won’t want mom as his best friend.
And so I want to be the mom who plays all day, constantly engaged with her child. I start the summer with plans: running track together in the morning (the boy wants to learn to run), cooking together, playing games, making crafts. I don’t plan every minute or every day, I know that is not realistic. But I do plan to be fully engaged each day, pouring into him and spending his precious few childhood summers together.
Last summer I needed to train over the summer, my first hundred in September meant many hot miles. My son spent much of his summer in camps so that I could find the time to run. But this summer he asked for less camps, more time at home, more time with me. I planned my race schedule to accommodate, racing early in the summer so that school-less weeks would be during taper or recovery, with miles scrapped together as I could find them. Even with my DNF at San Diego, and the impromptu redemption solo hundred a few weeks later, I kept my miles to times that impacted him the least.
But I am an introvert by nature, and time in my own head makes me the most settled, the most me. What starts as a bonding summer vacation soon leads to me pulling away, worn down by the unending togetherness that summer break brings. I feel suffocated by the constancy of our closeness, the never ending words, the always present neediness. I long for a few hours away, time to think, to run, to write. Time to be alone.
It breaks me to voice these thoughts out loud. I feel they make me a terrible mom, even though I know that is a lie. Each morning we cuddle when he wakes. We spend the day reading, playing board games or games he makes up, watching movies or reading books, doing chores together or running errands. I take him to fencing lessons, we walk the dog, and recently we run together. We spend much of our day side by side, and I desperately try not to look at my phone, or to snap too loudly for minor infractions. But I find my mind pulling away, my focus wandering. I get frustrated at what I am not doing: not training, not writing. And then I hate myself for not being more fully present, getting so lost in the things I’m missing that I miss the boy in front of me. Each day is a cycle of immense, unfathomable joy at cuddling and being and doing with him and an equally deep, desperate hole of needing space and quiet, solitude and me.
All week I have been looking forward to the opportunity to go to a hotel, have some time by myself, write, read, and sleep without a 7-year-old presence. It sounded like heaven, it got me through the long days. But it’s funny how when the time away finally arrives, it hurts as badly to leave as it does to stay. I crave this time in my head. I have dreamed of it, planned what I would write, how late I would read. And now here I am, sitting in this room, music of my own choosing playing softly, a blank screen blinking in front of me. And all I want is to be back with my boys, back at home sitting on the couch playing video games and eating pizza. All I want is to cuddle the younger boy at bedtime and take a nighttime stroll with the older one, chatting about our days.
My heart is in two pieces, one so firmly rooted in my family that I feel broken when I’m away, the other so desperately seeking my sense of “me” that I chafe under the daily-ness of home. I want the every day to be enough, the ins and outs of being home with my son, raising a family, caring for a household. I know my work with him is important, the most important thing I could do right now. The being there, being home, being present, is the best thing I can give our family right now. But I struggle with the desire to be more, to seek the extraordinary in running, in writing, in travel, in life.
And yet, summer is only a few short weeks. School is just around the corner, even if cooler temperatures are a distant dream for us here in Texas. I know that with school will come schedule and structure, earlier bedtimes and drop offs, hours where my son and I each go our own way. School is easier, I can be both me and a mom, a more unified and balanced whole. I am ready for school, even while my son insists he is not. Ready for the reprieve school hours will bring. But this is the last summer he will ever have as an almost second grader. We have four more summers before middle school, seven before high school, eleven summers before college and dorm rooms and moving out. Summers quickly go, never what we plan and never as “real” as I hope. Our summers together are slipping away before I can even learn how to properly hold them, sand running through my fingers. And as intensely as I anticipate school, I wish I could learn to keep summer close, and never let it go.
“The challenge of ultrarunning is 90 percent mental, and the other 10 percent is all in our heads…” (Ray Zahab)
Going into the San Diego 100 mile, I knew I was fit. I had logged more vertical, more tough weeks, more consecutive training days, than I had ever before managed to string together in a training cycle. I had climbed for hours on the treadmill, slogged up and down hill repeats on the toughest climbs I had available, ran in heat, shuffled under a weighted vest, performed endless lunges and step ups to fatigue my quads, ran spring tune up races over the hilliest and most technical courses I could, managed the niggles that show up with high volume training. I felt I had done everything possible to prepare. Physically I was stronger than ever.
I arrived in California with my crew the day before the event. All week my preparation was focused and methodical, but somehow devoid of excitement. I told myself this was because I was ready… I knew what I faced this time… I had run 100 miles before… this was nothing new. But my crew picked up on my apathy. When asked if I was excited I truthfully answered I didn’t know. I was clinical, detached, crossing off the to do list for the next day . But not excited… I felt nothing about the miles ahead.
My even mood gifted me with the best night’s sleep I have ever had before a race. I felt unusually fresh and rested race morning. Last minute preparations went well, and soon we were running lightly to the first big climb, less than two miles from the start. The morning started cold, enough so that I shoved my hands under my tank to keep them from turning blue, but the June day heated quickly as the wide-open ridgelines and cloudless sky poured the sun over us.
The first thirty miles rolled by without incident. I had been warned that San Diego was rocky and sandy. I thought I had known what that meant. But after two big climbs and corresponding rocky descents in the first seven miles, and miles of rolling hills through open desert ridgelines, I developed a new understanding of sand and rocks, and a renewed appreciation for their challenges. Still, I met my crew at mile twenty-nine in good spirits, dealt with a few blisters, and headed back into the endless heat, rocks, and sand.
The Noble Canyon section of the course is notoriously technical, with long descents over fields of loose rock before climbing back up in the still hot afternoon. My mood shifted descending into the canyon, as I cursed the rocks quite loudly into the air. But then trail smoothed into a fun, steep jeep road where I could fly as I sailed into the bottom of the canyon. By the time I made the aid station at the canyon floor I was giddy with excitement for having the “tough” part of the trail behind me. I have always been a better climber, and felt I could make up time on the next section. And yet, I had already made my first major mistake… lack of fuel. A small mistake initially, but one that would continue to plague me for the rest of my race.
Climbing out of the canyon it was still hot, and still rocky. I tired quickly and longed to take a nap under the rare shade that we passed. I had never been this tired in a race, never felt so fatigued that I just wanted to sleep. Looking back, I realize I had failed to fuel adequately for at least a couple of hours by then, but in the moment I didn’t understand that my dwindling energy was probably due to fuel. I dug myself in deeper as I barely ate anything and trudged ahead, continuing to slow even on easier terrain. My crawl out of the canyon had pushed me later than planned, and I only had my prescription sunglasses with me as night fell, making me skittish of the dark trail. By the time I reached my crew at mile forty-nine, I was exhausted, seriously under-fueled, and panicky from running with limited sight. I wasn’t even half way and I wanted to quit. I wanted out. I was done.
My crew managed to talk me down and get me back out on the trail, this time with a pacer. But my heart was never back in the race. I told myself if I at least made fifty miles that would be enough. When fifty came and went, so did my motivation. I hiked and shuffled dutifully behind my pacer. But I didn’t push, I didn’t try. I have hit lows before, but never have I given up during the low. Until San Diego. I knew this was just a low, I knew it would fade, but I didn’t want it to and I didn’t care. I didn’t want this anymore.
We missed a trail marker and wandered off trail for about a mile. Over fifteen minutes lost. My mind told me “this is it… you can’t recover now… you will miss cut off.” And I believed it. I mean, it was my mind after all. My husband calls it “little kid honest.” I could trust my mind, it wouldn’t lie.
I made cut off. At mile sixty-four after almost eight miles and over 2,000 feet of rocky descent through overgrown single track, we made the aid station with five minutes to spare. Five minutes to regroup, refuel, and head back up the trail we had just come down. Five minutes during which the volunteers promised they would turn me around and have me going, that they would let me head back out even if I was running a little behind. Five minutes before using my climbing skills and pushing back up that 2,000 feet with a mere 19 minute mile pace. And I can climb. I am good at climbing. I had passed people climbing all day.
But I didn’t make that climb. I didn’t regroup and refuel. I didn’t dig deep and find my fire and push back out of that aid station with an “ah hell no” determination. I quit.
I stood for five indecisive minutes, crying about wrong turns and low energy, darkness and rocks. But in reality the decision was made when I let myself think fifty miles was enough. The decision was made when I let running in the dark leave me panicky. The decision was made when I gave myself an excuse: “I got lost for a mile and lost too much time.” The decision had been made for so long, had been repeated so many times in my head, that there never was a decision to make at that aid station at 2 am. And so I turned in my bib, I quit, I went home.
It’s funny how when our mind fails, it gives us the excuses we need to be mediocre. Our mind is the only buffer between ordinary and greatness. That night at the bottom of the trail, quitting seemed so inevitable. In my head there was no way I could continue to make cut offs. The trail was too technical, the climb too steep, my legs too sluggish. I just didn’t have enough time. But by the next morning I understood that my problem had never been time. It had never been the trail, or the climb, or my legs. It had always been my head, my head and my heart. When it came time to push on in the face of challenges, to dig deep and keep moving, when it came time to find my fire, I found that my fire had burned out. In all honesty, I am not sure I even remembered to light it.
San Diego had never been my race. It was a race that fit with my schedule, where a friend was already running, at a time that my crew would be able to travel. It was a race that made logical and logistical sense. But it was never a race I drooled over. It was never a race I dreamed of. I never wanted it so badly I could taste it. Any marathoner can grind out a 50k. Heck, I think I can even gut out a 100k at this point. But you can’t just grind out 100 miles. Your legs, your strength, your logic, your planning, they won’t get you to the finish. At some point you need your head and your heart. You need a fire so deep that you keep moving… even when it makes sense to stop… even when everyone tells you its ok to quit, that some portion of greatness is good enough… even when you know they are right. You have to want it so badly, so deeply, that you can taste the bitterness on the back of our tongue. For only if you want it that deeply will you keep going when everything says to stop.
San Diego was a logical race, but it wasn’t my race. And this small distinction is the difference between a finish and a drop. I learned this the hard way. But I wouldn’t change San Diego, my DNF taught me so much more than a finish ever could. Before San Diego I wasn’t sure I wanted to run another 100. I thought I would prove I could handle a big “hundo,” be done and move on. But San Diego taught me that I will run another 100, and I do not want to turn away from that distance and the challenges it brings. It taught me I need to pick my races more with my heart than with my head. It taught me that I need to follow my passion, chase experiences that excite me. You never know what a race, or life, will give you, but even in failure there is success. San Diego wasn’t a failure, it was a successful lesson in racing 100 miles… You have to want it so bad that you can taste it…
This post was written back in May, but for reasons due to technical issues with my website and many time constraints, I have only recently managed to get it live. Much has happened since this post was penned, as I DNF’d (did not finish) at San Diego 100 and pushed on to run a redemption run of my own making in the weeks that followed. As I unlayer the stress and intensity of such high volume training, I am finding my writing is returning. There will be more soon! But for now, here is where I have been…
I am not even sure where to begin. I have been silent recently. I haven’t written anything in months. When I started this blog I fully intended to write regularly, post at least every other week. And I did for several months. Even when I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, I made myself sit down and write a little each week. After a few false starts a topic would just “fit” and the blog post would pour out, as if it was already written in my head and my fingers just had to find the right trigger to pull out the words. Writing wasn’t always easy, but it was fun, and I found I craved my writing time. It was comfortable to carve out time to write, I needed the outlet, and I relished the process.
And then in January I signed up for the San Diego 100, a race through the mountains outside San Diego that will be held in June. I was starting to feel the itch to race again, and I knew I wanted another shot at a hundred, a “real” hundred, one with mountains and climbing and technical trails. A friend of mine was considering the race, and the June time frame seemed ideal. It would mean my training would be over before my son was out of school, no sweltering training runs in 100+ degree heat, no juggling schedules to fit in a long run between summer camps. I could train through the spring, run the race, and then be free to enjoy summer with my boy with no pressures of training schedules and workouts. I had also already planned to race the Tinajas 100k in March, which seemed a perfect stepping stone to a June hundred. So after getting the thumbs up from my ever supportive husband, I sent in my registration with my qualifying hundred finish time, and shot a text to my coach about the “slight” addition to my spring training plan.
In the early weeks of training, my mileage was low enough I still found time to work, write, run, and be a mom and wife. But that changed quickly. I was increasing my volunteering responsibilities at my son’s school, at the same time that I worked on spring and summer travel plans for clients, tried to be engaged in family, and found my mileage inching ever upward. More mileage, more challenging workouts, more climbing, more strength work, and more self-care body work to keep everything in working order for the next workout. Though I am a relatively low mileage ultra-runner, I do a variety of workouts that eat up time, and as time slowly disappeared into increasingly challenging workouts, I found myself scrambling to fit in my other responsibilities. Writing, never a necessity in the day to day schedule, was the first to fade away.
At first I missed the writing process. I had ideas tumbling in my head, but never the opportunity to explore them. When I did have a bit of time to sit, I needed to be rolling out kinks in my muscles, or heading to bed for extra rest. Staying up late to write just wasn’t a wise or viable option. Sometimes I even resented the workouts that took me away from a chance to write, I questioned why I was doing this to myself again, and what I was sacrificing for this opportunity to race, was it worth it. Eventually, I found the training rhythm, head down, never look beyond the next week, the next workout. I found the pleasure in pushing myself again, in trying new things (hello to 9000+ elevation gain in a week of training), in the sense of getting stronger and more confident in myself. And as the training consumed me, as I committed to the process and the goal, the urge to write faded. Before long, I looked up to find I hadn’t thought about writing in weeks, and I hadn’t even realized it was missing.
I said once that writing for me is a way to process, to take the mashed up parts of life and make sense of the ebb and flow of ideas and emotions that pull at my attention each day. Without writing, I don’t feel whole, I don’t feel like I can put things in place and move on, a stronger and more balanced person. And that is true. But I have also said that running for me is a physical manifestation of the same process. When I run, my mind calms and falls into a pattern, where it can sort and organize, recombine and discard the many thoughts in my head. Running is writing, my body as the words, the trail as the paper. They are two parts of one whole. And while this processing, this meditative mental organizing, is always necessary for me to feel healthy and calm, the exact outlet is not specific. Trail running and writing both draw from the same pool, and the volume of the pool seems to be finite. When I am running less, the need to write is overwhelming. When the miles tick upward, that drive to write dwindles. Part of it is the limited capacity of time, that is true. But if I am honest with myself, running pulls from the pool of creativity that drives me to write.
I am not saying I shouldn’t run. I do love it so much. I also know that running lower mileage does not have the same effect on my writing as does high volume training. But I am learning that if I want to train for these long ultras, at this time in my life with the demands of a young family, writing will have to fade for a while. So while I may have been silent these last few months, I will be back. Training is drawing to a close, summer is calling. And with the summer will come lower miles, and a renewed energy, and rediscovered need to write.
I am often asked how or why I run the distances I do. These ultras I undertake are by no means standard fare for the average person’s fitness goals. Out there for hours and hours in varying conditions, the longer ultras are a test of willpower and mental stamina more than strength or speed. Sure, any marathoner can gut out a 50k, and with some technical trail work they may even be fast. But little of that matters 10-12-14 hours plus on the trail. Speed will only get you so far.
I am by no means fast on trail. I am careful, calculated. I don’t bomb descents, technical terrain slows me more than many others. I can power hike up a steep incline with the best of them, and hit a good clip on runnable terrain. But what carries me through isn’t my blazing fast splits, it is the simple determination not to quit. I know when I go into a race, I will keep moving forward in all circumstances until I either miss a cutoff, or am in so much pain that I physically cannot continue at the pace required to stay ahead of cutoffs. There is no escape hatch for me, no giving up. I am all in.
This post examines how I run an ultra. I give all the gritty details: what I ate and drank, how I paced, how I passed the time, how I managed the terrain, how I pushed through lows. I am not alone in how I handle these challenges, every ultra-runner does. We each have our own style, our own tricks that work for us. And we are each an experiment of one, as I have heard it called, constantly trying new things and analyzing the results to see how to improve over time. For a while now I have written a “race report” like this after every ultra I do, putting in writing the wins and the struggles from each race. Writing out the race helps me process the lessons learned, but also gives me somewhere to look back and see how far I’ve come, to pull confidence from the times I overcame and pushed through in all circumstances. Usually, I just share this with my coach, my husband, or a few close ultra-running friends. I guess I thought that no one from the “real” world would care to read of the exploits of an average ultra-runner.
Yet recently, I have had people ask me about the hows and whys, I thought maybe this post could be intriguing to some. So if you would like to hear the exploits of my latest adventure, please read on! If you find the details boring, that’s ok too…
I’ll write something more interesting soon.
(As a side note, I tried to explain trail running lingo where appropriate. But if you have questions, please ask!)
I went into the Tinajas 100k on March 3rd, unsure about my training and my mileage, but determined to be smart, pace appropriately, have fun, and learn a lot. I wasn’t really nervous. I knew there was nothing more I could do training wise. I did the most I could while trying to rehab my Achilles, which were still bothering me from the Yeti 100 Mile. My mileage was lower than I have ever had it be going into an ultra. Both my back to back long runs and my single long run efforts were shorter in time and distance than I have previously reached. But my weekly mileage was reasonable given the increase in hiking and weighted vest fast walking that I had incorporated this training cycle. My elevation training was actually on point, as I found hiking vertical didn’t bother me as much as running flats, and I had actively sought out inclines whenever I could. I knew my Achilles were strong from the daily eccentric heel drop routine that I had incorporated in December. And the core and hip strength work I had been doing near daily meant I felt stronger than I have ever felt when hitting my higher mileage weeks. I had also focused the last several months on running by heartrate (HR) almost exclusively. At first it was a way to keep myself in check as I recovered from Yeti, but I found that I liked just switching my watch to HR and letting pace fall where it may. I found that as my body adapted, my HR for easy runs got lower at the same pace, and that when I kept my HR low my Achilles didn’t bother me as much.
I knew going into Tinajas that I would need to keep my effort easy if I hoped to cover the distance smartly. So I decided that I would leave HR on my Garmin for the race. This would most likely drain the battery faster than putting the watch in UltraTrac mode, but I wanted to be able to monitor my effort for the first 50k so that I didn’t go to fast, and then if the watch died in the second half I would be so tired I wouldn’t be pushing the pace anyway.
Tinajas is an unsupported trail race put on by Tejas Trails in the beautiful Colorado Bend State Park. Unsupported meant that I needed to plan what I would eat and drink and space it between my drop bags and the aid stations (AS) where my crew could access me. The race itself would only provide water and ice, no food or volunteers at the aid stations. I talked a lot with a runner who had completed the race the year before to learn about water crossings and where to stash dry shoes and socks. My coach knows that I understand my fuel needs by now, and he pretty much let me plan my drop bags and aid station needs on my own.
I would have 2 crew during the race. Fiona (Fi) would crew me from the start, navigating to aid stations during the day and pacing me 20 miles at night. Cathy would join her in the afternoon on Saturday, continue to crew both Fi and I through Fiona’s 20 night miles, and then would pace me the last 7 miles to the finish. My crew was very experienced, having crewed and paced me at previous races. I knew I could depend on them, and I knew I had packed and planned for every contingency I could imagine. I came into race week enjoying taper, excited about the race, not the least bit nervous. I had done all I could and what would happen would happen.
Fiona and I drove down Friday afternoon in time to get my bib and place my drop bags at the aid stations before the race briefing at 6. After the briefing, we went into Lampasas to settle into our hotel and get dinner. I spent the evening rolling and taping my calves, and was in bed watching TV by 10:30. Although it took me a little while to get to sleep, I was easily asleep before midnight and got a full 5.5 hours of sleep before my alarm on Saturday. I woke up feeling good and ready to play on the trail.
I tried a new breakfast for this race of refrigerator oatmeal (oatmeal, applesauce, cinnamon, Nutzo Power Fuel nut butter, and water in a mason jar). It worked quite well paired with some of the cold brew that I had brought for later in the race. I topped off with a bottle of 3Fuel (a carb, protein, and fat drink made for endurance athletes) mixed with some extra BCAAs (branch chain amino acids) 30 minutes before I started running. When we headed downstairs to the hotel lobby, we found that the staff had started the breakfast bar early for the runners, so we grabbed a few egg and cheese burritos to stash in the cooler for later.
The solo 100k runners were the last to start the race. Due to a course miscalculation, the race director (RD) had added a short out and back section the day before, to get the mileage dialed in just right. In order to avoid traffic jams, he had the 50k and relay 100k runners start at 7:30, while the solo 100k runners started at 7:45. This meant there were only about 25 or so runners milling around the start line when I arrived. A few last-minute reminders from the RD and we were off.
The one mile out and back was on perfectly flat dirt road. I focused on my HR and had to keep pulling myself back as others took off at the start. In under 11 minutes I was back at the Start crossing the timing mat and headed back out, this time for the actual course. After the half mile of flat again, we turned onto the trail which rose off to the right and immediately plunged into trees and rocks. A large part of the first 3 miles was runnable, but it was broken up with 9 river crossings and numerous scrambles that broke your stride and slowed you down. I kept it easy, letting others pass me, until I fell behind a young man named Brandon who seemed to be going a pace I could lock into. We ran the last 1.5 miles or more together, chatting until we came into the Lemon Ridge Aid Station (AS), where he got out faster. I took the time at Lemon Ridge to change socks (both my Injinji liners and my compression socks) and shoes. My feet were soaked from the water crossings, and I knew that the rest of the course was supposed to be dry, so I felt it was worth the time to start completely fresh. Fi managed to meet me at this AS, so she helped me restock and I headed out pretty quickly.
The next section of trail was still fairly runnable, with some more rocky sections. I kept my watch on HR and just tried to run comfortably. It was during this section that I met Michael. He was keeping a steady, easy pace of running and hiking that fit well with my plans. We started chatting and stayed together for the next 10+ miles. We hit the Windmill AS between mile 8 and 9 together, where I introduced him to Fi and downed one of the egg burritos. We didn’t linger, and after refilling water, were back on the trail in no time. We kept a steady pace through the next very runnable dirt road section coming into Gorman Falls AS at mile 13ish. Michael had fallen into a run/walk that kept my HR low, but I was starting to pull ahead on the running segments. He was slowing. We came into Gorman Falls AS with me slightly ahead, but by the time I refilled my Nuun bottle and took some 3Fuel, he was ready to head out with me. We stayed together for maybe another half mile, but I kept looking back and seeing him drop farther behind. Eventually I decided I needed to run my own race. I waited until Michael was close enough to tell him I was going to go on and I’d see him later, and then I headed out truly on my own. I did see Michael several more times during the next 8 miles as we navigated the most technical sections of the course. I came into each of the points of interest (Colorado River overlook and Gorman Falls scramble) slightly ahead, but he was right behind me. I was ahead, but within eyesight of him coming into the Tinaja AS, one of two aid stations inaccessible to crew over the next 10 miles. He helped remind me to sign the book with my bib number (we had to sign in at every aid station and point of interest to prove we didn’t cut the course). He caught up to me again on one of the steeper rocky downhills (I’m still not a good downhiller in technical terrain). But I soon lost him on the climbs. By the time we reached the Conference Center AS around mile 21, where I paused a little longer to eat a few cookies, I was well ahead. I saw him for the last time as he came into the aid station while I ran out, and then I didn’t see him again for the rest of the race, even on the out and back sections. I know he must have slowed if I didn’t see him there.
The section from Tinaja AS to Conference Center AS is where I struggled the most mentally. It was getting warmer, I had been running for over 6 hours, it was the most technical section so far, and I hadn’t seen my crew since mile 13. And yet, I kept strong by thinking it’s ok to be feeling this way, it’s just a low and the low is justified given how long I’ve been running, the terrain, the heat, and the loneliness. That I just needed to keep moving and get to see Fi. That the next time I came through this area I would have someone with me. That this low would pass. Instead of bringing me down, I was able to work through it, accept it, and move on. It was a huge breakthrough for me!
Moving beyond Conference Center AS the trail opened up to some very runnable dirt single track along the Colorado River. It was beautiful along the river, with cliffs rising above us on one side. We could see fishermen and houses along the opposite bank. We crossed over the narrow rock jutting over Gorman Cave and then followed the single track to a sharp right turn up the climb to Cedar Chopper AS. The climb was not terribly steep, but consistent. It wasn’t as technical as the section we had just been through before Conference Center, but there were definitely rocks. After levelling out a few times, only to climb some more, this out and back section of the trail finally levelled off into a non-technical loop around the top of the hill, with the Cedar Chopper AS at mile 24ish about half way around the loop.
By the time I reached Cedar Chopper, I was fighting a mild headache. The day had stayed mostly overcast and humid. By no means hot, the low clouds were feeling warm as the sun peeked out briefly in the early afternoon. The humidity made it feel like a heavy blanket. I had been drinking water from my pack and refilling my front bottle with Nuun at every aid station, plus subbing in Base Salt. But by the time I reached Cedar Chopper, I think I was a little dehydrated. Fi made sure I took 3fuel and an Oral IV for hydration. She had a turkey sandwich for me to go. I signed in, knelt briefly to roll my calves a little, and then headed out, munching on the turkey and cheese. I would see Fi again at the Start/Finish where she would have grilled cheese and pickle soup.
The journey down from Cedar Chopper was much easier than up. Not as technical as the previous descents, I made better time, although some more confident runners still passed me. Once down from Cedar Chopper, we were dumped back on a dirt road where I was able to pass some of the runners who had passed me on the descent with an easy paced run/walk. I would run counting to 100 and then walk counting to 20 or 30 and repeat. It kept me engaged and gave me bite sized chunks of running to focus on. In the last couple of miles, we turned back up another rocky hill to Lemon Ridge. A 50k runner fell in behind me on the climb but seemed to like my pace and never tried to pass. I was feeling better as the sun had gone back behind the clouds and it was cooling slightly. We came into Lemon Ridge together, where I barely stopped to sign the book. Past Lemon Ridge AS we entered a short out and back section again before branching to the left on the last few miles into the Start/Finish. This last section was more technical and rocky again, with more descending, and the 50k runner passed me for good. I was tripping a lot more by now, and it frustrated me. This is when the cussing out rocks began, and I am sorry to stay it stayed around until the end. Finally, after several steep descents filled with rocks, I made it to the dirt road that led us back to the Start/Finish and 32 miles.
At the Start/Finish, it took me a little while to find Fi and Cathy at the car. They had the camp stove set up and were heating my pickle soup (it’s so good!) and cooking grilled cheese. I downed a fresh grilled cheese and sipped some soup while cussing about rocks. I told them my right foot had a hot spot under the toes, but I didn’t want to deal with it until Lemon Ridge AS, as I knew I was about to head back out through the 9 river crossings again. I also said I didn’t want to take my trekking poles until Gorman Falls AS, that I didn’t think the trail warranted them until we hit the tougher climbs and more technical sections. After we refilled my water and Nuun, I headed out.
I jogged the half mile back up to where the trail turned toward the creek crossings. The scrambles were slower this time, and for some reason the creek seemed higher. I am not sure if it was, or if I just chose my crossings more poorly. At one crossing I stepped wrong and sunk my entire right shoe and ankle into mud, with water almost to my knee. But nothing was too treacherous and I took it slowly. It was beginning to mist now, but the ground was still fairly dry. I had to hike more than run, even on the runnable sections, because my pinky toe on my right foot was killing me with every toe off. I knew I had to take care of it at Lemon Ridge AS and not put it off any longer. As I finished the last segment before Lemon Ridge, light was starting to dim, and I was glad I wouldn’t have much longer to the aid station as I had left the Start/Finish without my headlamp.
My stop at Lemon Ridge took even longer this time than the first loop. I changed into dry shoes and socks again, but we also took the time for Cathy to drain and bandage my blistered right pinky toe. I took my headlamp and a long sleeve, downed some 3fuel, and then Fi and I headed out for the trail. We made it to Windmill AS after dark, where we found Cathy waiting. I had another grilled cheese and some water. But in the dark I forgot that I was supposed to grab my jacket out of my drop bag and carry it with me. Since I saw Cathy at the aid station (which I hadn’t planned on), I didn’t think to go over to my drop bag. It was warm, and we headed out trying to make good time over the runnable dirt roads between Windmill AS and Gorman Falls AS. It was only days later that I remembered I was supposed to grab the jacket at Windmill and take it with me, giving it to my crew at Gorman Falls AS if I didn’t need it, as I was planning to leave my drop bags at the end of the race. Oh well, it was just a jacket.
Fi and I made decent time to Gorman Falls AS in the dark. I was still feeling pretty good, tired, but nothing out of the ordinary. I was able to hold a good run/walk pattern and we kept some miles at 15 minutes or less as we passed a few runners. The dirt trails were starting to saturate with the mist that had become increasingly heavy since Lemon Ridge, and at times the mud would build up on our shoes and then kick off. But usually it just made the ground tacky and our shoes didn’t become too heavy.
Coming into Gorman Falls AS, Cathy noticed my hands were significantly swollen. They had been swelling for a while, and now I could barely clench my fists. We decided I should cut back on Nuun and only drink to thirst, as I was probably overhydrating now in the cooler temperatures of night. I still hadn’t used my long sleeve, but I traded it in for my rain coat as it had been misting for hours. At times through the night the mist would be thick enough to almost look like fog. Since I was still quite warm, I tied the coat around my waist in case it started raining in earnest. I also picked up my trekking poles to use for the rest of the race (around 17 miles). I had some 3fuel and soup and stashed some snacks for the crew inaccessible 11 miles ahead of us. We took a little longer at Gorman Falls AS than we wanted to due to the confusion over an injured runner. One runner was telling us that there was an injured runner at the Conference Center AS up ahead. We couldn’t figure out what he wanted us to do about it as we were hours away from that Aid Station by foot. As we started to leave, a car came through asking us to move cones so they could get an ambulance up the fire road. Cathy shooed us on, saying she would take care of the cones. Halfway up the trail I remembered I wanted to trade my watch with Cathy so that I could have a fresh battery, as the hours of tracking HR had drained my watch to nearly nothing. We headed back, made the switch with the watches, and then finally got on our way.
It was as we headed out of Gorman Falls AS that I finally let myself calculate what pace I needed to keep to finish the race. I had a little under 17 miles, and over 10 hours to do it in. I knew I could finish if I just kept moving forward. Heading out from the Aid Station I knew we faced the most technical portion of the course, lots of rocks both loose and fixed, flat “tombstones” that were becoming slick with mist and mud, more climbing and descents, and the slippery smooth rock slide down to Gorman Falls. As we got closer and closer to Gorman Falls, I let my anxiety about the slippery rock descent play with my head. The trail seemed to stretch further and further, like the falls would never come. I should have stayed more focused in the moment, but I let my anxiety about making it down the rock run away with me for a while. In the end, the falls were not as bad as I had built them up in my head. The rock was slicker than during the day, but not overly so. I was moving slower, and holding the rope that ran along the rock kept me grounded. I made it down and up without incident.
We moved past the falls, and the Tinaja AS. I barely stopped at Tinaja other than to sit briefly. I wasn’t hungry and had slowed my drinking significantly so I didn’t need to reload. I noticed at Tinaja that my hands were much better, nearly normal size, which seemed to confirm that I was overhydrated earlier in the evening. I continued to drink by thirst through the rest of the race, and only take Nuun sparingly. My hands never swelled again. I ate only half of Fi’s energy bar at Tinaja since I wasn’t hungry, and we moved on to the technical trails to Conference Center.
The trails to Conference Center AS were even slower than the first loop. Less than a half mile out of Tinaja AS I felt my right Achilles hurting. The slipping and sliding over mist-slicked rocks and uneven footing seemed to have finally caught up with me. The Achilles combined with the technical climbing and descents through the hilliest part of the course slowed me to what was at times just under a 30 minute pace. And about halfway to the Conference Center I found that my half an energy bar had worn off. I was starving. But I insisted I could wait to the aid station as I thought we were close. The trail seemed to stretch on and on, and with each turn that didn’t lead to the aid station, I grew more and more angry. Fi just let me vent, but I know she probably wanted to knock me upside the head and tell me to just eat one of the cookies I had in my pack. She could tell when I felt good because I would make conversation, but when I fell down the rabbit hole I would either get quiet, or start cussing everything in sight. Fi has paced me enough that she knows this by now though. Finally we reached the Conference Center, where we took a little longer to sit and eat.
I knew that after the Conference Center AS we had relatively flat, dirt single track until the climb to Cedar Chopper. My good spirits returned and we even ran a bit along the river as we made our way to the climb. I found I could run the flats without aggravating the Achilles, it was the slippery rocks that were bothering it. When we reached the climb, it didn’t seem as bad in the dark as it hard earlier in the day, maybe because we were moving so much slower. We made it up and around to Cedar Chopper AS, where I sat while Fi went to find Cathy at the car (she was napping until we arrived). It took Fi and Cathy longer than I expected, but I relished the ability to sit for a while. However, the wind was picking up outside the tent and the ever-present mist had turned into actual rain drops. I didn’t want to stay around too long if a storm was brewing. Another runner was in the aid station debating if he should continue. He had been throwing up bile and only covered 5 miles in 4 hours. I believe he decided to drop, but I am not sure. Fi and Cathy returned to the aid station tent with a grilled cheese for me and Cathy outfitted to run. I changed out my headlamp for a fresh one (my waist lamp had died hours ago and I didn’t want to trust my first headlamp to last much longer. As a side note, I need to get a better waist lamp). We headed out with me still eating the grilled cheese. I was anxious to get going and keep ahead of the storm.
Coming down from Cedar Chopper was slippery, as it was sprinkling. But the rain never progressed beyond that. By the time we reached the flat trail at the bottom the rain had tapered off to mist again, as it would stay for pretty much the rest of the run. We climbed slowly up to Lemon Ridge AS for the final time. My stomach turned in the miles between Cedar Chopper and Lemon Ridge and I had to make a few pit stops along the side of the trail. A mile out from Lemon Ridge I was out of wipes, and just trying to make it to the aid station before I had to stop again. We made it to the aid station, where I grabbed some more wipes and opted not to eat. I knew I only had 3 miles left. If it had been a 100 miler, I would have forced myself to take in some calories. But I knew I could make 3 miles. I had been well-fueled all day, eating 3 grilled cheese, a turkey sandwich, an egg burrito, numerous sweet potato cookies and gingersnaps, half a pouch of bacon jerky, half an energy bar, a gel, at least 1 honey stinger waffle, half a thermos of pickle soup, several cups of cold brew, 4-5 bottles of 3 fuel, and probably more that I don’t even remember. I had taken in and kept down more calories than any other ultra I have run. So I let myself trust my protesting gut and not eat anything for this last 3 mile push. My stomach settled, and I didn’t have any more pit stops.
The 3 miles to the Start/Finish with Cathy were my slowest yet. I think I averaged 30 minutes per mile. It was rocky again, and the heavier sprinkles from earlier returned at times. The path was slick and starting to get muddy. Not terrible mud that would build on your shoes, but enough that you had limited traction on rocks. My Achilles on both legs were complaining now, and I was walking very gingerly trying to avoid aggravating them any more than necessary. I knew there was a steeper descent before we levelled out to the final half mile, and every time we went downhill, I thought we were almost there. Cathy kept counting down the tenths of the mile, telling me we were not there yet. But I hoped against hope that she was wrong. She was always right.
Somewhere in the haze of the last two miles we saw our only wildlife for the night, a huge jackrabbit, standing on its hind legs and looking right at us. In our headlamps the rabbit appeared white with glowing red eyes. He stared us down and the ran toward us before veering into the woods. I made the comment it must be Bunnicula, and Cathy laughed, catching my reference to a book from our youth. Finally, we reached the flat trail again. I thought about running, but I knew it wouldn’t make that much of a difference. At this point I could walk almost as fast as I could run on the flat ground, and my Achilles were not happy. So we power-walked to the lights of the finish line, which glittered through the trees looking deceptively near. Finally we could hear voices and clapping and see the timing clock. It didn’t register with me then, but it must have said 5:30ish as I passed.
I stopped and stood just past the timing mat. They told me I had won 2nd female, and I was shocked. I knew it had taken me over 21 hours on the trail, much longer than I had hoped after my first loop before my Achilles started to hurt. But it seems while I may not have been fast, I didn’t stop, and that was what mattered that day. There were numerous DNF’s, and because I kept going while others turned in their timing chip, I came in second woman across the finish line, 5 hours after first place.
We sat for awhile in the tent with Brad, the RD. Then about 6 am we headed back to Lampasas for food and bed. Breakfast was being served when we arrived at the hotel, and we were famished. So we ate, showered, and then crashed for 3.5 hours before we had to check out of the room and head home. My feet had started to swell, as they usually do after that many hours on the trail, but I found I actually felt really good. Good enough to drive the 4 hours home.
I learned a lot from this experience. I fueled with more solid fuels than ever before, using 3fuel as more of a supplement rather than my main calorie source. This seemed to work well, as I took in more calories during the run and have not been famished in the days following the race. I also paced much better. Watching my HR in the early miles kept me honest and focused on the long effort. This meant I was running and running easily much later into the race than usual for me. I could have run longer than I did if my Achilles and ankles had not finally succumbed to the slick rock. My legs still felt strong. I also took the time to connect with other runners during the first portion of the race. I have the habit of zoning out into my own world if I don’t know anyone around me. I don’t make small talk. But connecting with runners and running with new friends helped the early miles breeze by, and it gave me someone to cheer for as I saw them in Aid Stations. I kept my mind out of dark holes better, at least until the deepest of night. I pulled myself out of a few lows by reminding myself things would get better, and by giving myself a carrot to keep moving toward. I also conquered the most technical ultra that I have undertaken to date. This race was so much more technical than Bryce, the previous king of this title. Bryce was sand, elevation and altitude, Tinajas was constant rocks which became increasingly slippery through the night. But I survived and finished well ahead of the cut off that was given. Although I will need to improve my ability to cover rocky terrain to have hopes at a less generous cutoff. I also need to find shoes better suited to slick rock. I had been warned that Speedcross, while good at most things, do not work well on wet rock. But I took the chance given they are my favorite shoe and I did not have the time to really break in the pair of Sense Ride’s that I had picked up a week before the race. I need to spend some more time working with the Sense Ride and exploring other shoes. Less slipping may have kept the Achilles happier. All in all, I truly had fun the first 50k, and survived the second. I am so happy I had the opportunity to run this race, and that I had these women to share it with. It really was an awesome girls weekend, in our sick and twisted kind of way!
There is a picture of me as a young child, making mud pies in my grandmother’s garden. I am two, maybe three, half nude and covered in mud, my face intent upon my creations. The sun shines brightly and I can still imagine how the warmth must have felt on my bare skin, how the mud stuck to my fingers and belly. I sit there, absorbed in my work, blissfully unaware that I should be wearing a shirt, that my hair is matted with my baking, that my tummy is round, most likely with handfuls of Mamo’s haystack cookies. At that age the idea that my body is inadequate, that I should feel any shame about how I look or what I eat has not yet entered my joyful, simple world. It is just me, the sun, and the mud, and the joy of a day making mud pies.
I don’t remember exactly when I started thinking differently about my body. It came in bits and pieces I guess. A magazine image here, a comment there, ill fitting styles that I “had” to wear, arbitrary sizes not based upon my height, or my earlier-than-others sprouting curves. I was taller than everyone else by 5th grade, it took years for the boys to catch up. The clothes other girls wore didn’t work on my sprouting hips and breasts. Bits and pieces, tearing down the innocent confidence of a girl as she too quickly became a woman.
I do remember being told I looked 3 months pregnant, I remember the exact weight I was at the time. I wasn’t heavy. Not that it matters, but I weigh more now than I did then. I was 12 or 13 years old and that was the first time I consciously started a diet.
Many other diets followed, eating lots of soup, filling up on puffed rice crisps, anything low fat, anything low calorie. Lying about how much I ate at lunch so that I could make excuses for how little I ate at dinner. I wasn’t a coordinated kid, so I avoided sports. But controlling what I ate gave me the outlet I wanted, it allowed me to be in control, and it carved my maturing body down to a younger shape. And when I came back from being very sick in 8th grade, and a teacher told me I was looking thin, I was thrilled. I hated that being well, having a normal appetite, might make me fill out again. There was a sick pleasure in looking 2 sizes too small, and I relished it.
At the time I didn’t see it, although now I look at those pictures and cringe. All knees and elbows, a too large shirt belted tightly into my shorts. Paired with my naturally thick hair, made thicker by early 90s bangs, I look like a bobble head. Gangly, where just a few years before there had been curves. I remember thinking I needed to loose just 5 more pounds, and then 5 more after that. I am not sure where the bottom would have been.
I don’t really know how I turned around. To this day I can’t pinpoint a specific change. I remember visiting the doctor and being aghast at the weight he said I should weigh. No one said anorexia, but I think we all knew. I remember my mom immediately buying me any food I would mention that I wanted, an ice cream shake, pizza. It was a fairly quick road back to a healthy weight, still thin, but healthy. And once I looked healthy, people stopped worrying, stopped pressing me to eat. They moved on, but I knew I wasn’t cured. It was a much longer path back to a healthy mindset.
Most of high school and college I ate, and I looked healthy. The physical effects of an eating disorder had subsided. But mentally I still struggled with disordered thoughts around food and my body. I obsessed about every calorie, I measured and calculated. I stressed about a pound gained or lost, my mind was constantly filled with food and restriction, weight and “goals.” I started running in college, but it was not joyful or stress release or a way to challenge myself. Running was a way to make up for last night’s binge, to punish myself for the second brownie, to maintain an ideal thin.
And I thought this was normal. Most girls I knew talked about food to the extreme. We all concentrated on eating “healthier,” which was code for loosing weight. We removed whole food groups. We lamented our poor self control, even as we devoured salads and baked potatoes to an extreme. I was normal, I thought.
However, I was starting to find my way back, even then. When I moved to my first apartment, I experimented with cooking and baking. I still didn’t know much about nutrition other than calories, but I was preparing my own food and enjoying eating. As I graduated and moved into the adult world, I began to educate myself on carbs, protein, good fats, macro nutrients, and truly sustainable, healthy eating. I still counted calories, but I focused on fueling my body nutritious whole food within those calories, instead of calories alone. And yet, I still would be plagued with gnawing hunger, and guilt over being hungry when I had already eaten “enough.” I would hate my body for asking for more than I had decided it needed, and I would play my food choices over and over in my head.
It took years, but I slowly learned to stop counting calories, to trust my body, to eat until I was full. For so long I had eaten what my mind calculated I needed, not what my body asked for. It took a long time for me to trust my body to say when it needed food, and when it had enough. But as I learned to listen, I found the gnawing hunger that had followed me for most of my adult life faded into distant memory. And I found a satiety in good foods that I had never known growing up.
I read many books about nutrition and intuitive eating, I learned to love whole, natural foods and not fear fat. And by the time I started running again, I was well on my way to peace with food. This time when I ran, I ran for joy and the challenge, to see what I could do. And I ate to fuel my running and my recovery. I ate what I loved so I could do what I loved.
My body has changed as I let go of food control, but not as much as I feared. My curves returned, but now I love them. My weight stabilized at a natural set point. A point at which I can eat, and run, and be active, and just live without worrying about maintaining a certain physique. It fluctuates, 5-10 pounds up or down based upon my training. But never far. I am heavier than I was when I was told I looked pregnant as a young teen, but now I feel sexy and own it. On days when I feel sluggish and fluffy, I know it is hormones, anxiety, and stress, and not really my body or my looks that are bringing me down.
I wish I could say I never struggle with thoughts about food. That I never think about the calories in a meal, or that I never feel a twinge of guilt. I would be lying. I am lightyears beyond where I was 10 years ago. I try to make choices that will support my body through the miles I ask of it. I indulge, I splurge, probably more than most. But sometimes I still hear that little nag in the back of my mind, telling me I don’t deserve food, that I must earn what I eat. Telling me that I must control everything that goes into my mouth, that I must obsess, and count, and analyze, and weigh, and stress about food until the food controls me. And yet I’ve learned to recognize that voice for the liar that it is. That little voice may sound reasonable, seductive even. But I know that voice will only pull me down a rabbit hole of anxiety and self-harm. A place where the joy in life and love, family and friends, is tainted and discolored by a hazy filter of food obsession. And so I label that voice as a deceiver, not a friend, and I do my best to turn away, to trust my body, to trust my soul. To trust instead the quiet voice of the preschool mud pie maker, a voice growing ever clearer, whispering of a full belly… full heart… full life.
I used to dream of writing the great American novel. I remember one of the first dates with my husband, the one where you talk about your hopes and dreams, and where you see yourself in 10 years. I said I wanted to write, and at the time I meant fiction. I wanted to be the next J.K. Rowling. Creating characters that spoke to people and setting them on adventures that took my readers away from reality and yet somehow taught them how to really live. Rowling may be British, but I identified deeply with her personality and her writing. I wanted to speak to the human spirit through my prose, as she does. I wanted to become a part of American vernacular.
For years I started a chapter, then stopped. Massive writers block, deepening insecurity, and an utter lack of inspiration keeping me from ever getting past the first few pages. A sense of the magnitude of what I wished to write made it impossible to actually write anything. None of my characters felt “real,” none of their trials truly challenging, none of the plots lines were immersive or transportive. I took a few classes, and although I could arrange words on paper well enough, I could never find the inspiration to transform those words into another world filled with characters you could call friends. I waited and waited for my train ride inspiration, to be struck with an idea so strong, a story so important, that it was as if the boy wizard strode into my life fully formed, as Rowling reports he did so many years ago. But that moment, that inspiration has never come.
And yet, over the years I have found that the writing I am drawn to is less and less fiction, and more biography, prose, and commentary on a well-lived life. Maybe it is the rise of an internet culture, where blogs and articles make up a majority of our interaction with words. Maybe it is my fascination with others who hold similar passions: runners and writers, women and mothers with a wry wit and a desire to explore all facets of themselves and life. The pull to not take life at face value, but to delve deeper into what it means to be human. And to find within ourselves stories as dark and deep, and as exciting and challenging, as we ever find in a novel. Maybe it is simply the consolidation of time, these days my reading is squeezed between drop off and pick up, laundry and meal prep, and the ever-changing demands of modern life. Balancing being a mom, wife, housemaker, runner, writer, and more, leaves little time to get lost in an epic novel. I don’t have the luxury of reading into the wee hours for “just one more page.” It’s easier to consume my written material in bites and pieces read in the moments between. And yet in those moments I can find writers of all ages and all paths of life that write because it is who they are. And in their writing they are so much more.
I identify with these writers, whether they are speaking through a self-made blog or a published book. Their words ring true to me, and teach me that being a writer is more than the great American novel. There are more ways to contribute to a thought-driven, literary society. I may never create evocative and impactful fiction, but I can express myself in a way that explores the human spirit. I can write in a way that is meaningful to those around me. I can contribute to a written culture that extends back centuries and pushes forward into the digital age, changing its venue but staying true to the nature of word craft. I can still write, even if my words never appear on a printed page, bound between covers. And maybe someday, if I write well and often, what I write will be more than just a blog, more than just words written (hopefully) well. While I may never write the great American novel, or any novel for that matter, maybe my writing can still offer something to this world that no other writer before me has done. And in doing so, I can be a writer worth reading simply because she has something to say.
I have been listening to Ed Sheeran a lot recently. I became aware of him a while ago, Chris first introduced me to his music when we watched a recording of his performance at Wembley Stadium. When ÷ came out last year I immediately downloaded the entire album. I listened to a song here or there for a few weeks and then put it away. But then on my solitary trip to the Wild Hare 50k in November, I played the album on repeat throughout the 5 hour drive each way. The ebb and flow, the highs and lows, each song burned into my brain. And while some songs did not reach me at first, by the end of the weekend I had fallen in love with every nuance, every detail, every rise and fall, the journey of the album as a whole.
I am not the type of person who keeps music constant in the background. I am perfectly comfortable with silence. I write in silence, I work in silence, I run in silence, I cook and clean and go about life largely in silence. Silence is comforting to me, it is peaceful. And yet, sometimes the strongest form of silence is that in the middle of a crowd, tucked in the corner of a coffee shop as the hum of voices fades into nothing, soothed by the footfalls of others as we run stride for stride, words unspoken. These are the places I typically feel most at home. Silence outside to balance the noise inside my head.
I suppose that has been the largest challenge in parenting for me. The constant noise, the constant chatter, the inability to disappear into silence on my own terms. I love my son, I love hearing about his day, learning what is going on in his head, listening to the sweetness of his voice, memorizing the sound of his breath. But I cannot control the silence anymore, it is no longer mine to claim when I wish. It has gotten easier as he has aged, with school and activities taking large chunks of the day. He is busier, he is gone more, and I find my silence more readily, but still on his schedule. The crazy thing is now I have more access to my solace, my time alone, my quiet, I find I miss the baby, I miss the constant togetherness, I miss the noise. Such is the fleeting nature of life I guess, you can’t miss it until it’s gone.
And that brings me back to Ed Sheeran. For such a relatively young singer, his lyrics hit so deep. I was shocked to learn I am more than 10 years his senior. How can someone so young write with such an old soul? The mix of pain and joy wound deep into his songs is overpowering at times. He is unapologetic in his truth and in his perceptions. And he touches upon the beauty that is bound to the trauma of life so inexplicably and so well. I have now listened to all his albums, cover to cover, if that is the correct term. And while individual songs stand out to me in + and X, ÷ resonates in its entirety. The album is a journey, from pain through love, to joy, and back again. The songs rise and fall, ebb and flow, never leaving you high or low for too long. But he starts and ends with pain, while the beauty falls between. You can hear he has grown in this album, he has found bits of himself he hadn’t known were lost. He returns to his roots openly in “Castle on the Hill,” but more quietly in songs about his grandparents and love. The anger in X has tempered, it is deeper in some ways, but more settled, a part of him, reforming him, and making him stronger and wiser. He is not the same now, and his songs are better for it.
Ed Sheeran still plays on repeat in my car. Mostly ÷, although sometimes a few of my favorites from earlier years. I know all the lyrics by heart, and as a visual learner who does not learn songs by ear easily, that tells you something. Life is beauty, but it is also pain. Raising a child, shaping a marriage, sorting out who you are and who you were meant to be, it all comes with a price. In the end, life isn’t about avoiding pain, it is about learning to find joy in the struggle. Ed Sheeran may not have known all the life experiences I have faced to date, and I may have skipped many of the paths he has traveled. But to me, his music paints the perfect ebb and flow, truly touching upon the poignant balance of pain and joy that makes up life. And so his songs play again, replacing the silence I used to crave, on repeat.
Today is our anniversary. 14 years ago we committed to love and honor and cherish each other until death do us part. 14 years ago we celebrated with friends and family, buoyed on a sense of destiny and rightness. 14 years ago we set down the road of marital bliss, convinced we knew better than anyone else how this thing called love should work.
We, as a society, go into marriage with a sense of certainty: this person, this time, this place, all of it was meant to be. We see everything in life as leading up to that moment, spend entire paychecks on a ring, months or even years planning everything to perfection, and then celebrate with an ornate ceremony and massive party. But the everydayness of life is what makes a marriage. The ins and outs of each morning and night, the little kindnesses, the small moments, the tiny generosities of spirit that make up a happy life-long bond. The constant turning toward each other, choosing each other that keeps love alive through all the daily stresses that batter us down. As so many have said before, marriage is not a destination, it is a journey.
I am no novice to a journey. Really, an ultramarathon is just that, a journey. A journey that many find unfathomable, that’s true. But all it requires is one foot and then the other, over and over, moving as best as you can with as much energy and positivity as you can find in that moment, and not accepting a way out as the answer. And when you do reach the finish line, you find it wasn’t really about the destination all along. It was always about the highs and lows, the times you felt you couldn’t continue one more step and somehow found a way, the times the struggle gave way to a euphoria so high it erased all pain, it was always about the transforming power of the journey.
14 years later we have journeyed far. We’ve changed jobs and houses, buried grandparents and watched our parents age. We have celebrated with friends as they married, and watched helpless as they drifted apart. We have travelled for work (too much) and for pleasure (never quite enough). We supported each other as we forged through graduate degrees, each in our turn. We struggled through 3 miscarriages, to find the euphoria of having our son. We faced my post-partum depression, to find the intimacy of a marriage rebuilt out of pain. We felt the lethargy of a relationship adrift in a sea of schedules and plans, goals and busyness and the disconnect of dreams not completely shared. We have experienced the passion of finding each other again, learning we were there for each other all along. At times it has felt too much, too hard to push forward. But we committed 14 years ago to never accept a way out. And so we continue, one foot in front of the other, together.
Marriage is a journey, and it has its highs and lows. It is not about the end destination, it is about the transformation we undergo as we move through life together. My husband and I have had our fights, we have had our times we pull away, when we wonder “if.” But 14 years ago we committed to love each other, no matter what. And so we turn toward each other again, we work our way back to each other. We give kindness, we find generosity. There is passion, oh yes. But at the end of the day, it is intimacy that keeps us strong. The intimacy of knowing a person sees you completely, all your faults and your strengths, and still loves you. The peace of knowing you can let down the armor your put on each day to face the world. The comfort of knowing no matter how ugly life gets, the other person will be there with you, beside you, holding your hand.
Marriage, like an ultramarathon, ebbs and flows. At times you don’t know how you will keep moving. But if you keep putting one foot in front of the other, the pain will fade, replaced by beauty and joy. You can never hang onto the highs, they will always fade to a new low. But if you keep moving forward, the highs will come again, and again, until you look back and see more beauty than pain.
Tomorrow we celebrate 14 years, years that have brought us more joy, and more pain, than I could have imagined in that church so long ago. But I still turn toward him, lean into him, love him, more today than the day before. Love him more because of the journey, not in spite of it. The journey has changed us, its true. We are neither one the person that the other married. We are transformed by our shared experiences. We have evolved through our struggles, our reaction to pain. We have turned away, only to come rushing back to each other, pushing ever forward, together. I know our years together are a drop in the bucket to some. That we will look back in another 14 years and see how much further we have come. But I also know that as long as we keep turning toward each other, moving forward together, choosing “us” together, we will find the joy is not in the destination. It is the journey.