One of the main drivers behind my desire to run ultras is curiosity. Come to think of it, the main driver behind most everything I do is curiosity…
After reading Born to Run about 7 years ago, the book that introduced me to the concept of both trail running and ultra running, I became fascinated with the topic. I was living in Atlanta and ran mostly road, topping out at about 5 miles. I had no idea that I would move to Boulder or run ultras. By the time I decided to move out to Colorado, I was completely captivated by trail running and trail runners – I had visions of bumping into Scott Jurek every time I went for coffee and becoming BFFs. Well, I have run into him several times, but I’m pretty sure he just thinks I’m a creep… Turns out he’s not the only trail runner in this town and I’ve made a good few trail friends here, most of whom can confirm that I’m not a creep…
In every book I’ve read about ultra running (n=4.2) there seem to be two main themes. One of which is testing mental and physical limits. In part, I feel like I have the temperament for running ultras even if I don’t have the body for it. I have 69 vertical inches and 2240 ounces of human meatsuit to launch forward roughly 105,600 times in order to complete my next ultra. It’s not going to be fast, but I’m stubborn and hate starting over. I carry all my groceries up the stairs in one trip. I quit smoking after 10 years without ever picking it back up because I’m stubborn. I took up jogging with a running buddy who’d never smoked because I suppose pride played a role as well.
I started thinking about how the smallest mental trigger can overcome what feels like a physical limit. I’ve experienced such pain heading toward a finish line that I don’t know how many more left-right-repeats my brain can trick my body into – and then the moment I see it, I find the energy to sprint. That alone tells me that if I have the mental motivation, I have the physical ability. As I was headed toward the mile 25 aid station, I passed a guy jogging uphill but then slowed to a walk on the downhill. From behind, I heard him say “come on sister” and all the sudden I had the energy to run. I ran when I felt like I couldn’t because of a few simple words from a stranger who understood what I was going through. I would’ve cried, but in that moment, I learned that crying and murderbreathing are incompatible, so I chose murderbreathing.
The other common theme you hear about in ultra running are the “lows”. I still don’t know what that means, even having officially run my first ultra. Granted it was only 32 miles, and 32 miles isn’t THAT much further than 26.1 and 7500′ of vertical gain isn’t THAT much more than 5500′. Running at an average altitude of 8-9000′ isn’t THAT much higher than 6-7000′. But put them all together, throw in about 90% loose rock with no sturdy footing and there is plenty of opportunity for lows.
Right around mile 22 is when things started to go south. I was grinding up a hill, seemingly on the path to Mordor based on the heat and the terrain, when I encountered a hiker. Meanwhile, two runners who kept passing me, sitting to rest until I passed them, only to pass me again, were coming up to pass me for perhaps the 37th time. As they were making the move, the girl yelled out a chipper and encouraging “good jobbbbbb”. I am 100% sure that it was well-intentioned, but in my state of seething anger at the loose rock, all I heard was “out of the way, fat-ass – me and my beginner friend here are passing you for the last time because you suck!”
When people talk about their lows, there is usually mention of crying. No, I was not crying, I was seething mad and had no outlet for it because I was in too much pain to work it out physically and was not quite low enough to not care about how crazy it would seem to scream obscenities at the rocks beneath my feet. Screaming obscenities and murderbreathing ARE compatible, in case you’re wondering. So instead, I audibly mumbled “fuck you you stupid fucking rocks, I’m so fucking sick of you” – repeatedly, which probably made me look just as crazy as if I’d shouted at them and would’ve been better off just getting it all out at once.
A half-mile later when that hiker with what looked like a 50lb pack passed me, I got even more mad. Then the final straw came when I rolled my ankle and the following “conversation” ensued:
Me: “OWWWwww! FUCK!”
Hiker: “Are you ok?”
Me on the ground: “yes, just rolled my ankle”
Hiker: “you’ve gotta be careful”
Me: “yeah I know, I’m just fatigued”
Hiker: “that’s when things gets dangerous”
Me: “yeah, no shit!”
…and then I sprinted off on my freshly rolled ankle because fuck if I was going to be slower than the guy carrying a 50 lb pack through a not-even-close-to-remote-state-park.
Then another well-intentioned hiker had the misfortune to come across me about a mile later. I was struggling up more hill when I saw the horror on her face as she witnessed whatever was on mine. In an effort to make herself feel more comfortable in the face of my suffering, she blurted out “you’re almost there – there’s not much more uphill ahead of you”. Little did she know… I still had Windy Peak ahead of me. The reply that spilled forth was “oh, I have a whole lot of everything still ahead of me”.
Poor girl. Granted that wasn’t necessarily a mean reply, but is sure as shit wasn’t a friendly one. I can’t stand unsolicited “motivation”. What drives you is not the same as what drives me and if you don’t know me or grasp the concept of eudaimonic happiness, then shut your pie hole and leave me to my suffering.
But these are the things I want to learn about myself – see what I am made of and ultimately to find my opportunities for growth. What I’m made of is anger as a first line of defense against fear, judgement and rejection. I have some personal evolution to do before I can suffer with a smile 100% of the time, but I think I’m well on my way. I’m not convinced that everybody gets there, but I was smiling on the inside, deep down, knowing that I had the privilege to choose this kind of beautiful suffering.
Even though I’ve just dedicated roughly 84% of this post to my three angry miles, you might be surprised to learn, as was I, that most of the lows took place OFF the trail, after the race was over. It’s the part that I’ve never read about and that nobody talks about and that really caught me off guard.
The race was Saturday and it was the highest high yet. Then Sunday came and I experienced a low like I haven’t felt in quite some time. I felt purposeless, but without legs that could take me to regain my purpose out on the trails. I was alone and lonely in the silence of the post-race blues. Throughout the course of the week, I replaced running with food and that hasn’t done much to help my situation. Now, a little more than a week later, I went for my first post-race run on Saturday, which was GLORIOUS, and hiked South Arapahoe Peak on Sunday. I’m starting to feel better, but my pants are a little tighter and my mileage is a little lower, so it’s time to hit some 40 mile maintenance weeks in preparation for my A+ race taking place in just one month.