Being an Ultra Runner: I Don’t Get It

In the weeks before and after my 100 mile race people told me the race would change my life…that I’d walk way from the it a different person with a new perspective on life. I was warned that I’d see my own soul while out on the trail and that I’d have to deal with it, whether I liked it or not. More than once I was told I could not let the reality of my personal life creep up and unhinge me while running. None of this ever happened.

DSC5014-LNearing the Summit of Mt Werner in the first few miles of RRR100 [PC: Paul Nelson Photography]

I’ve heard ultra runners from many different backgrounds talk about how the races change them, forever. That they got out on the trails and faced down demons they didn’t know were lurking in the shadows of their minds. No demons came wandering out during my race. I’m not saying I don’t have demons…I’m just saying they didn’t show up during my 100 miler or during any of my other runs. At least not yet…

I don’t get it. I don’t understand what these runners are talking about.

Maybe it’s because it was my first 100 miler? Maybe I didn’t push myself hard enough? Didn’t train hard enough? Didn’t want it bad enough? Didn’t suffer long enough? Didn’t puke on the side of the trail? Didn’t biff it on muddy trail? Didn’t chafe or blister or bleed? Didn’t battle adverse weather? Maybe I’m just haven’t earned my ultra cred yet?

A fun run at North Table Mountain…in January, gotta love Colorado weather! [PC: @lgsmash]

Maybe I was just cocky and over-confident but I never doubted my ability to cross that 102.5 mile finish line. Once I started that race my only option was to cross the finish line – unless my body truly blew up, which it didn’t…in part because I did everything in my power to avoid that. I never got to a head space where I wanted to give up. Sure, I wanted the 100 miles to be &#$*% over but I didn’t want to give up [and I have given up before…Dirty Thirty showed me that misery].

I didn’t walk away feeling like a changed person — instead I walked right back into real life where the 100 mile race was just an excuse for a few more hours of sleep and an extra 800 calories each day. I ran 100 miles, now it’s time to go back to work, to pay my bills, to do my laundry.

Am I doing this wrong?

I have watched videos and read snippets of many people talking about their life changing ultra experiences and all I can think is…that’s not me. I can’t relate to that. If that’s what it takes to be an ultra runner then I’m not an ultra runner. I am just a runner that doesn’t stop at 26.2 miles. And, truthfully, I am completely okay with that. I have fun being this person, I mean, she’s kind of awesome, IMHO.

…so awesome she makes a complete fool of herself while picking up other people’s dog poop bags. #trailkarmaFTW [PC: @mtnsandmiles]

I’m okay with being “just a runner”. I just run, because running is fun…and because my body + mind let me. And sometimes I sign up for races just to see how far my body will let my  mind take me when I’ve put money + ego on the line. That’s why Arizona 200M is happening – I’m not chasing demons or seeking out misery, I’m after that exhilarating sense of accomplishment that comes the instant you cross the finish line!

When Running Isn’t Easy

When we sign up for races, no matter the distance, we think about the good things – the finish line pictures, the free beer/food/swag, the fun we have eating all the food while training, the time we spend with friends on the trails, the badassary confidence boost after nailing it on track day, the exhausted elation that comes after your final run of peak week training…the good stuff, the warm fuzzies, the happy smiles.

What we choose to ignore are the sucky parts. The alarm repeatedly going off before the sun reaches the horizon, the frigid/scorching training runs that flat-out suck, the heavy legs after a long run, the ravishing hunger that refuses to be satisfied, the achy muscles that remind us how out of shape we are, the runs that drag on forever and ever and ever, the stomach issues that pop up at the most inopportune time…all the crappy things that would immediately talk us out of ever racing again if they stuck around long enough to be considered.

Running isn’t always easy. Hell, it’s rarely easy peasy, it’s always demanding our effort and self-discipline.

That said, if it was easy we’d probably get bored with it and move onto something else, like becoming a Juilliard-level ballerina or professional gymnast [two sports I find fascinating and terrifying]. So I guess I’ll suck it up and stick to running, even when it does kind of make me want to chop off my feet and donate them to starving alley cats.

Me, Cheryl, Logan + Katie…before the sufferfest started!

This past weekend slapped me in the face with just how miserable running can be…but it also reminded me of all the reasons we push through the miles that make us want to quit at life. It really is the hard runs that give your miles purpose! On Saturday morning I met a few IRL + internet friends at the NCAR trailhead in Boulder with plans to run/hike/scramble up Bear Peak and Green Mountain. We had our traction attached to our shoes, the route was loosely planned out and our summit donuts were safely stashed in our packs…off we went.

The tippy top of Bear Peak – roughly 3.2 miles + 2,500 feet above the NCAR parking lot!

It started out as a fun, chatty run as we all got to know each other the you do while scampering along trails covered in snow, ice and mud. We hit the summit of Bear Peak in good spirits, even as we ducked behind rocks to avoid the gusting wind. We snapped a few #summitselfies and decided to save our donuts for the Green Mountain summit. We bailed off Bear Peak and headed down the Bear Peak West Ridge Trail…and this is where the run got interesting.

Group #summitselfie – we’re kind of awesome, can’t you tell?!

In my defense I had never been on this trail and it really did make the most sense logistically, even looking back it was the right decision. However, no one was prepared for the brutality of the wind…and when you mix that wind with steep, rocky switchbacks and icy snow the descent got tricky. Everyone went into survival mode and did our part to bail off the mountain as quickly as possible.

IMG_20150117_101017792Scrambling off Bear Peak, before we dropped down to the left into an insane wind storm!

The 40+ mph winds shoved us against the mountains as it froze our fingers and noses in seconds. Our traction was great on the snow and ice but clanged against the rocks. We noise of the wind whipping between the trees and against our gear made it impossible to hear each other…not to say we couldn’t communicate. It only took one glance up a switch back to see Cheryl’s bright red glove flipping me off. When I asked her about it over pizza post-run she claimed she “had both middle fingers up the whole way down, just so you’d see how much I hated you when you looked back”. Yup, I excel at making friends on the trails…

Spoiler: Cheryl did catch me…but she did not stab me, although I’m sure she considered it!

While it was cold and miserable I could do little more than laugh as I tip toed and stumbled my way off the mountain. I was literally swearing and laughing at the same time most of the way down the mountain. Even on the runnable stretches I was tripping myself as the wind slammed into me mid-step. It was insane…but we survived and felt like badasses when we made it to the windless safety of the trees!

We never made it up Green Mountain, instead we opted to head down Bear Canyon and add a few miles on along the Shanahan Trail, telling ourselves it would be more runnable. It was…but we still hiked the ups and when our extra 3 miles turned into an extra 6 miles I crashed through mood swings that ranged anywhere from “oooh, the weather is so great, I love running” to “all I want is french fries, I hate the world”. This is what we call character building, right?!

Wisconsin…this is for you, welcome to Colorado’s version of January!

Looking back, this is a prime example of how long runs can be terrible and awesome all at the same time. While I actually enjoyed the insanity of the descent off Bear Peak, Cheryl hated it…and when I wanted to lay down and whine on the Shanahan Trails everyone else seemed to be loving life and the weather.It was during these final miles that I was reminded it’s not all about muscling through – you need calories and stable blood sugar levels to actually enjoy yourself. I spent the last hour or so telling myself to stop whimpering and eat…it worked!

I rarely wear GPS watches…but when I do they better tell me nice things, like how I’m a rockstar… [gotta love the Bia Sport watch!]

Taking the time to dig some food out of my pack was worth it – being a few minutes behind the rest of the group meant I got to eat, which lead to a much better mood + pace in less than 10 minutes. Food [or maybe just sugar + caffeine?] is magical like that. This is the stuff I need to remember when I suffering alone through the first 100 miles of the Arizona 200M!

As much as I’d love to offer up Boulder trail secrets I don’t have any, I use this website to plan – Boulder Open Space Interactive Map

And because I’m a glutton for punishment I headed out to play on the pavement Sunday morning. Had the weather been the least bit fickle I may have bailed but when it’s January and you have the opportunity to run in 50-60 degree temperatures you get your butt outside! Which is exactly what I did…after two hours [yes, 2!] of dilly-dallying around the house.

Was it worth it?! Heck yes! It felt good to just run on clear, nearly flat pavement after a day of hiking + dodging ice on single track. My legs were tired and heavy but in a good way, not a broken way. Yea, yea, yea…I passed my Bia watch more often than necessary to throw mental temper tantrums…er, stretch. But I’m glad I got my butt outside to play and sweat in the January sunshine – it was my second day of running in shorts + tank top, I really do love Colorado! If all goes well today I’ll have another sweaty shorts day to brag about!

Running shouldn’t be easy…and I hope I never take it for granted.
I like the challenge, the suffering and the sense of accomplishment that comes with survival!