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.

It Takes a Village: My Stupid Crazy Solo Hundo

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…

San Diego 100: You Have to Want It So Bad You Can Taste It…

“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…