As some know, I set out this year to embark upon my first real longer attempt at an ultra-marathon-the 50 mile (mountain) distance. Now, I must say this lightly and respectfully as I fully acknowledge that the definition of an ultramarathon is any distance longer than the standard marathon of 26.2 miles. I’ve completed many 50k’s and I do NOT want to diminish by any means the feat it takes to run that distance, or the marathon, or the half marathon or a 5k race-it is simply ALL individual and it is ALL relative. I’ve witnessed too often self-deprecating clients and friends that downplay any running distance and achievement. There is no extra bonus or glory in running 50 miles versus 5 kilometers. However, as one might imagine, running 50 miles in the mountains (or frankly anywhere) proves to bring its own unique hurdles and limitations that shorter distances do not. One could also downplay 50 miles in the scope of 100 miles or 200 miles…but that starts to get into some real delicate and edgy thinking.
In the most straightforward of words, here was my experiment (N of 1) this year: Could I complete running/racing 50 miles in the mountains safely and sanely? Those three ingredients were my variables, and that is what I will unpack in my memoir here. It’s raw, it’s real and it’s entirely my own experience, not to project it out on to anyone else.
Spoiler alert (boy, I’m tired of that overused saying)…Yes, I was able to do all of the above, but it took some interesting days, weeks, and moments which I intend to unpack here.
A quick dive into my background, much of which someone interested could ascertain from my website. I’m 44 years old and have been an endurance athlete (sometimes a junkie) for over twenty five years-different disciples, distances, and racing styles, at the elite level, the professional level and the recreational level. I’ve had many successes and many failures-I’ve experienced the highs of huge wins and the lows of injuries, and disorders-eating and anxiety. Over the last ten years, I’ve been on the path towards health and recovery while also embracing my love of activity, sport, and the outdoors. I continue to promote that one can be in both worlds…despite a colored background in disorder. For a bit less than a decade now I’ve turned my personal interest into my profession, as I work therapeutically with other athletes who also seek the integration of wellbeing and activity.
I’ve ran many races of varying distances and terrain over the years, but through my own recovery work, I’ve purposefully steered away from the longer ultra distances simply because I wasn’t sure if it was possible to maintain a personal level of mental and emotional stability while running more and more….more vulnerably stated: I have a personality and biology oriented towards addiction and perfectionism. Therefore, in the past several years I’ve always been a bit more concerned that long ultrarunning could very well be my drug of relapse, of addition, or could trigger a re-emergence of my sneaky eating disorder that seems to take constant care and maintenance. It just felt too slippery and scary…until last January.
I’ve been delighted in so many ways that athletics and the discussion around potential mental health implications or underpinnings has become much more en vogue these days. Although I read many articles and blogs, restating exact data and stats is not what I choose to bring to this piece of writing; however, I’ve read many articles and listened to podcasts linking a correlation between endurance athletics and higher rates of mental health disturbances or issues. One article used the term neurosis, but I like to steer away from that narrow diagnostic term. In everyday lingo…us runners, bikers, skiers, have a greater propensity towards mental health issues (NOT everyone, mind you) and therefore and logically going the other direction, many of us use our sport or activity as an outlet for mental and emotional coping…some to an extreme level and “neurotic” level. This is not a good, bad, right or wrong-it’s just something that I know and have to keep in check with myself. So that makes up the “sane” part of my experiment.
Now for the “safe” part of my experiment. A year and a half ago, I had my first major surgery-complete left ankle reconstruction-ligament, tendon, bone repair. It was a big one. My excellent surgeon told me that I would certainly run again, but would need to be very diligent with my self care and physical therapy. The days of just going and and trashing my ankle/body were done-if I wanted to run again and with any seriousness I would have to be doing various pre and post therapies. “Deal!” I said before getting sliced open. Ugh.
In a strange sort of way, that surgery was a blessing in disguise as it did two major things (beyond the ankle) to me. First, it gave me a long and sustained and much needed break from activity that was incredibly long overdue and so needed-it felt like a complete operating system reboot, no pun intended as I was in a therapy boot for a long time. But secondly, it completely shifted how I wanted to approach running or a complete psychic overhaul with sport. I prioritized health and wellbeing way more than race results or miles or speeds. It made me realize that it is and was okay to LIKE the training process, the getting faster, even a smidge of competition but that feeling balanced, in my body, and healthy was more important. It seems to be commonplace that often going through difficult things can be the reset needed-it gets us closer to ourselves and our loves and can be the best way at slicing through ego or personality. That certainly was the case for me.
So 50 miles, safe and sane…I had my work cut out for me. I try to break my experience down into how the race actually went and then how the training actually went…and what triggers inevitably started coming up.
Before I discuss how the actual race/run turned out…it feels important to say that even in weeks leading up to the day, I wasn’t sure if I was going to participate-namely, because I was working through some of my old tendencies and felt like I needed to be true to myself-the only way I was going to run 50 miles was if I could be true to what I set out to do. With the support of my coach and friends, Sean and John-I was made to believe that I could in fact do what I had wanted…they couldn’t have been more right.
The race was magical-(sorry for the cheese but that’s what it felt like) the past four months of hard physical, mental, and emotional preparation all lined up more perfectly than I could have ever imagined. And when I say mental and emotional prep-please remember that it wasn’t about grit or suffering-I well know how to do that, but it was about keeping in check neurotic and negative impulses. My body felt strong the entire ten hours. Sore and tired, as expected but strong and capable. Even through a bout of nasty cramping around mile 40 (thank you, pickle juice) my body felt completely capable, never a niggle or compromise-how strange to say but even after running 50 miles I felt like I had more to give. But that was the plan all along that Sean so skillfully gave me, hold back-run steady, run happy. My old ways would have been to turn-myself-inside out no matter what. One of my old coaches used to tell me to go so hard that I finished the run bleeding out of my eyeballs, nice. Fine for then, not so much for now. I did get a bit tempted by other runners, males in particular, that seemed to want to race me-but I stayed the steady even course. The irony is that I finished in 3rd place, on the podium in my first 50 miler! And not just any 50 miler but one that had a large respected field of runners. It seemed so hard to believe…how could it be that I could run so well and so long from such a different and healthy place?? Mission accomplished…the running gods certainly showed up for me that day and led the way.
And now for the gritty part-the day to day and week to week training…this is where I felt like I had the most work cut out for me to stay true to my intention. The race part was pretty simple-the training is where my edges got challenged-a lot! My good pal, Sean, and veteran ultra guy was my coach and for a very good reason. I didn’t need a training plan, I’ve been doing this stuff long enough that I know the basics of physical adaptations, even at longer distances it’s not really rocket science to me. I also know how my body responds to different training zones and stressors…but what I really needed from Sean was a person that could number one, give me a training plan (duh) but also talk with me and connect with me emotionally to then scale the plan. This is where coaching magic happens. I cringe when I see too much emphasis put on numbers, or data in a coaching relationship, as all of that becomes a mute point without the human aspect. We are not robots. Sean was and is privy to my background, the good and the bad, and was instrumental in scaling (and supporting me) over the four months. It seems like I ought to write an entire separate blog post(s) to discuss how I work with clients and myself-from a nervous system lens so I may be throwing some new terms out as I discuss what transpired over these many months. Generally speaking (sort of) what I had to keep in check each week, and often day to day was this elusive balance between training stimuli (miles and intensity) and my overall autonomic nervous system state-was I in fight/flight high activation too much? Meaning, was my system getting too cranked up?-Naturally running requires an amount of getting cranked up…but was it too much? The answer for me was: it changed week to week and even day to day…and certainly did NOT line up with a training template.
Some weeks I felt a natural sort of tiredness, fatigue that came from the training, but mentally it felt exciting, my emotions felt calm and there was a general sense of enjoyment of the process. Then as quickly as those feelings merged, the next week (or the following) I would feel anxious, nervous about miles-apprehensive even. I would feel edgy and even irritable..I would (and this is me being 100% honest) feel fed up with “having” to run six hours up in the stunning San Juan mountains on a beautiful summer day (strange, huh?). This would start to become my cue that I was pushing past what was actually okay for me. It was strange as my mental and emotional state seemed to give me more feedback than even my body’s fatigue level. This was so important to pay attention too. For me, I would experience a general buzzy anxiety that would run through my body and veins when I was doing too much (this translates to high a dose of activation in the sympathetic nervous system-geeky, I know). When this would happen the only remedy was to back off, sometimes rest or just do activities that would counter the buzzy activation: a walk with my dog, an afternoon of gardening instead of running, laying down and taking a nap (oh, do I love that). I’m making it sound as if it was easy to know what was going on-but I need to be clear-IT WAS SUPER HARD. It took a ton of “paying attention”. I would spend time feeling the anxiety and spinning off into old patterns of self deprecation, some body image thoughts, and some very old patterning would try to knock at the door: PUSH HARDER, RUN MORE. Yuck. Another interesting tendency that surfaced was wanting and craving to drink a beer or hard cider after a long training run. Now for me-this is strange. For some, it’s not a big deal and I’m not at all poo-poo-ing it. But for me, I’m a lightweight-I like booze a tiny bit in uber moderation-any more than that makes me feel horrible. So to crave it was a red flag. Sometimes I gave in, and sometimes not, the headache and lack of sleep following the giving in sucked.
Optimistically though, as the days turned to weeks, and then months…I felt a strange sort of “okayness” with the process…it was as if being so highly attuned to myself gave me some relief and namely because I would take action when I felt off. I rested when I needed to, I didn’t let the old patterns dominate. The push back really didn’t happen. I can honestly say that I rarely compared myself to anyone else. I felt soothed in knowing that if anything I was staying true to my intention and staying true to wanting to be healthy (and happy) even through the muck. It was through that perspective that about a month before the race-late to mid August I believe, I admitted to just a few folks (thanks, Liz for listening) that I just wasn’t so sure I actually WANTED to run the race. I knew well enough to just hold that thought, sit on it, and see how the subsequent weeks would end up. I say this in full authority and authenticity: I allowed myself to have an “abort mission” button the entire time-even in the days leading up to the race. That button was in my reach. But the irony was, as I rested more and continued to work on feeling the grace and joy of running, the impulse to bail became more and more distant. In the two weeks leading up to the run what started to emerge and grew stronger and stronger each day was a curiosity and excitement about running 50 miles in the mountains. It was such an amazing feeling-gone were feelings of nervousness and inadequacy, or competition. When I finally towed the line, lined up with a group of my good friends and comrades that I had shared a summer of highs, lows, and miles with, I felt a deep sense of joy and connection. This may all sound so embellished but I assure THIS WAS MY EXPERIENCE. The only last tidbit I’ll add in was what I very intentionally set out to do while running for ten hours: I made it a plan to say something positive or supportive to every single runner I passed, crossed with, or ran with. That seemed to carry me through and keep me focused on the true joy of GETTING to run that far for that long, not HAVING to run.
So that was my experience with a bigger ultra. Would I or will I do it again? Yes-I sure hope so, but I know from here out that my intention will continue to remain the same, and I may be able to refine the process more and more. It would be foolish to think that I’ll have this same type of race experience all the time or even once again, although it would be nice. I think the real take-away for me is that it is actually possible to do this kinda stuff from a good place, it can be a nourishing experience (strange word to use I know) but at the same time-it takes a lot of attention and willingness to do it differently…and it’s not always a neat pretty process. Lastly, it also means that I don’t try to do this too much, trying to replicate this experience quickly or frequently would surely be the catalyst for a backslide.
After a few weeks now of not running, I ran a simple four mile trail loop yesterday and it felt like heaven. It’s not the numbers or miles…it’s the experience.
Thank you to everybody that supported me and I dedicate this blog post to my late friend, Eric…
Thanks for the smiles and miles.