A 100 Mile Journey

I don’t remember consciously deciding to run a 100 miler. I knew about them of course. I remember reading about Western States and Badwater 135 in a book years ago. Reading about people who run all day and night, only to keep running the next morning. People who forged rivers, ran up mountains, and crossed the desert in temperatures that could melt shoes.  I remember thinking those people were crazy.

Back then I ran, dabbling in 5ks to half marathons. Always looking for a faster pace, a new PR. I had my sights set on a someday marathon. Someday when running hurt less, someday when I was stronger, someday when I had more time, someday. Eventually, someday came and went and I ran my first marathon, not as strong or as fast or as perfect as I’d have liked, but raw and real.

Around the same time, I ran my first trail race, a 20k in the gorgeous Palo Duro Canyon. Trail racing was different than anything I had experienced on roads. Disconnected from time and pace, we ran free and fun, dancing over rocks and gliding along a stream. Aid stations were heaven, offering bacon, salted potatoes, pecan pie, and cookies, overflowing with coke and (unofficially) margaritas! What was this place? Where running was joy and food flowed freely. No gels or chews, no pace bands or looming mile splits. I ran through scenery that made me forget my tired legs, and I consumed way more calories than I burned. I was instantly in love.

A year later, I had worked my way up to 50ks, but I still mainly ran road. I hired a coach to train me for a road marathon. At the time, my goal was Boston. But while very competent at training road racers, my coach’s passion was trail and ultras. I watched in awe as he ran and finished the iconic Leadville Trail 100 the fall of 2016. The first seed was planted.

While training for my second 50k, I started running weekly trail long runs with a friend. A friend who had completed multiple 100 milers. She regaled me with her stories of adventure, taking me under her wing, running at what I now realize was a conservative pace for her, making me feel like I could do it too. Another seed.

I struggled through my marathon training. Even when paces came easy, it wasn’t fun. Mentally it drained me, physically it beat me up. My husband mentioned he preferred me when I trained for trail races, I was more relaxed, I had more fun. He hated marathon training. Another seed.

Somewhere along the way, an idea began to bloom, an idea that had once seemed so foreign, so impossible. I enjoyed trail running more than roads, I seemed to have a talent at staying upright on trails. My preference for running with intervals was perfectly suited to trails. I never found it defeating to walk or hike as did some. Maybe I could go farther, maybe I could go longer? Maybe 100 miles wasn’t as crazy as once thought?

I started to look at buckles. If I did run 100, I wanted an awesome buckle. I registered for my first 50 miler. I ran trails any chance I got and I played with training time frames, would a fall or spring race be best? When I found the Yeti 100 mile buckle, it was the most glorious thing I had seen. But the race was earlier than I had wanted. It would require heavy mileage in the heat of summer, when my schedule is already stretched thin.

And then over Thanksgiving, my friend from the trails texted me to say that the race was open, and selling fast. She had snagged a spot, but within minutes the race sold out. Not really thinking everything through, not understanding what I was undertaking, I signed up for the wait list. I didn’t have long to wait. Within hours I was in. I was running 100 miles in 2017.

Training for 100 miles is not really that much different in method than training for 50k. The difference is in numbers. You run, a lot. You work on strength and mobility. You roll and stretch. You sleep and eat. All so you can run, a lot. Your back to back long runs get longer, your weekday runs now hit miles previously seen as long runs. You race a few shorter (relatively speaking) distances. You experiment with running trail in the dark. You eat, you sleep, you stretch, you eat again. And you run, a lot.

As I trained, I tried to keep my head down, lost in the details. Each workout, each interval, that was all. I didn’t look up, didn’t stop to take it all in. Just kept plugging away. The weeks slid by, summer faded to fall (even though in Texas that means nothing). Taper, and the crazies it brings, set in.

The Yeti 100 mile was to be some sort of weird girl’s weekend, with 3 racers and their pacers and crew traveling by van half way across the nation. We arrived in Damascus, Virginia the Thursday before the race, in time to settle in and receive the last epic words of wisdom from the race director. Race morning came, as always, too soon, cool and clear. We huddled at White Top station, 34 miles from the town of Abingdon along the Virginia Creeper Trail. And then we were off, plunging down the first 17 miles to Damascus.

I’ve written and re-written versions of the next 28 hours and 41 minutes. Nothing really feels right. Detailing aid station by aid station my journey over 100 miles helped me process, but does not make for interesting reading. Events that seem integral to me personally, in actuality are only trivial tidbits strung together through the hours. I started too fast, ran well for 25 miles, began hurting and slowing for another 25. By mile 50 I slowed to a hike, and I continued to hike as the pain ebbed and flowed for the next 30ish miles. I rallied and ran off and on for another 10, before the pain reduced my run to a death-march to the finish. Somewhere between the pain and the constant motion, I found I could keep going, even when I wanted more than anything to sit down, to stop. 28 hours and 41 minutes later, my first 100 mile journey culminated in a hug and a buckle, and a long drive home. It was over and gone, somehow both too long and not long enough.

When you work so hard for something, dedicate so much time into the planning and the striving, the training and the sacrificing, it can be hard to move beyond it. So many months of my life were centered around running 100 miles. My training, my nutrition, my recovery, all of it so forefront for so long. Afterward, I have found a mixture of intense satisfaction and pride, and an immense sense of loss, a void once filled by the challenge, now left empty by uncertainty. I know I want to run 100 miles again. I do not think I am done with the distance, I have learned so much and have so much more I want to do. But I know the sacrifice this dream required of my family. And trying to find balance again with a life lived fully outside of training is a goal I am committed to for them and for me. For so long, running has been life. It’s time for life to be more than running.

Why?

Why?

I get that question a lot. Why do I run? Why trail? Why ultras? Why 30, 50, 100 miles? Why now, when running these distances takes me from my young family so much? Why, when pushing these limits can hurt so much? Why do I need to do these things kinder people call unfathomable and inspiring, but the more brutally honest term crazy, insane, and just plain stupid.

My husband asks this question frequently. He straddles the line between kind and honest. I know he is proud of me, but he does not doubt I am also crazy. But then I sometimes wonder myself if I am more crazy than most. Sometimes I don’t wonder, I know.

In general conversation, I quip that I started with the 5k and just kept going. I usually get a laugh, some shaking heads, and a quizzical look that sizes up my sanity. Most people ask a few questions about logistics: did I really run all night, do I stop at all, do I eat, do I sleep? And then they move on, bored or just dumbstruck by something they can’t actively understand. Only my closest confidants, my husband and a few friends, really want to hear about my adventures. Only a handful care to be regaled with the stories of the highs and the lows, the mental and physical struggles, the pain and the pleasure of moving when you thought you couldn’t move anymore.

Ultra-running is a lonely sport. Hours and hours on the trail, nothing but the squirrels and your own head to keep you company. Quiet and solitude. And when you return to the real world, you are still isolated and alone, standing among but not part of the crowd. No one fully understands what happens to you out there on the trail, and most people don’t even really care.

Even when you run with others, eventually the conversation wanes. Running for hours side by side will do that to you. And you are left with the camaraderie of bodies moving through the wilderness. A solitary togetherness.

To some this solitude is frightening. They cannot fathom the time spent in their own head. But I crave it. The time to let my mind float, wandering through thoughts like a dream. Thinking but not thinking at the same time. My thoughts and emotions move through me, not tethered to sentences or structure, not burdened by propriety. Out there on the trail as my body glides along single track, stumbling on roots, twisting over rocks, my mind is no longer confined by schedules, relationships, responsibilities, and rules. Slowly, the stresses of the day surface, and my mind, unencumbered by conscious thought, moves through them, putting each in their place. Moving past the day, words flow through me with my breath, forming and reforming in my head as I drift in and out of day dreams. My best writing happens then, on the run, my body as the words, the trail as the paper.  As the hours pass and my body tires, my mind quiets, everything fades to the background, everything becomes the run. My feet, my breath, the air, the trail. Nothing and Everything encapsulated in one eternal moment. And it is enough.