I dragged my body around the course once more, giant blisters burning with each step. My brain was numb from the monotony of the loop course, and every muscle in my body ached, even the spot inside my ears where my headphones rested. I cursed the clouds threatening the desert sky; my race plan hadn’t called for rain and a downpour would squash what was left of my spirit.
My goal was to run the full 100 miles of the race, which was to be completed by stringing together a series of of 1.05-mile laps around a loop course in Arizona. My race spanned the final day of December and the first day of the new year. It was my first attempt at a 100-mile run and though the idea of a loop course seemed daunting for its repetition, it was less intimidating and isolating than a traditional trail ultra.
But by the time the second day of my 48-hour race arrived, the novelty of the race had worn off. I’d hoped Arizona would send me some of its winter warmth, but the temperature continued to drop and the sky looked foreboding.
Tired, cranky, and with my willpower meter nearly empty, I found the appeal of my tent and warm sleeping bag increasing with each lap.
As the end of the old year approached and my race clock began to tick down, I grew convinced I wouldn’t make it. I rehearsed the explanations I would give to family and friends, the reasons why finishing the race and achieving my original 100-mile goal was no longer plausible.
I shifted my focus to finishing 100K, or 62.1 miles, instead. It was only one lap away, nearly in my grasp, and that was good enough, wasn’t it? Even if I quit early, I still would have ran nearly 20 miles farther than I’d ever run before. Wasn’t that a worthy accomplishment?
But I couldn’t convince myself to stop. So, reluctantly, I kept running.
. . .
“. . .when my friends suggested I try the cross country team, I laughed.
“Why would I ever, voluntarily, run?”
I grew up a reader, not an athlete. I was known to run away from the ball during soccer games, and my friends asked me for help with their homework instead of asking me to join their intramural sports leagues. While kids played kickball during recess, I consulted my dictionary for new and unconventional words for that week’s spelling challenge. And when my friends suggested I try the cross country team, I laughed. Why would I ever, voluntarily, run?
Several years later, after I married, my husband and I adopted two Siberian huskies. They were incredibly active, and walking didn’t seem to give them the workouts they needed. But when my husband was deployed for military service for long stretches of time, the responsibility of exercising with them fell to me.
So, slowly, I began to run.
I first heard of ultra-marathons in 2009 when I read Christopher McDougall’s “Born to Run“ — a book that was topping bestseller lists. I thought the people running these were crazy. My husband thought they were on to something. He’d always been a runner, but his running career was interrupted by reconstructive knee surgery and his work in submarines, which offered few, if any, opportunities to stretch his legs. But as he transitioned to the civilian world, his passion reignited, and he began training for progressively longer distances.
By default, I became his crew. The more I saw of the ultra-runner community, the more it appealed to me. I was drawn in by everything from the diverse range of participants to the supportive environment.
But one aspect of ultra-running that especially appealed to me was moving the course from the track to the trails. Growing up, I’d understood running as road racing or loops around a track. Shifting the experience to dirt and bringing in surroundings of trees, wildlife, water, and mountains, turned running into an entirely new experience for me.
I began pacing my husband on several of his 100-mile races. Shortly after that, I completed my first 50k.
I’ve run thousands of miles since then, yet I still don’t see myself as a “runner with a capital “R”. I’ve always thought of “Runners” as people who are fast, who chase personal records, and who structure their lives around running instead of structuring running around their lives.
Most of my training miles are squeezed into open slots of time in between work, vacation, laundry, and real life. On top of that, I have a habit of signing up for a race a month or two past the ideal training start date, leaving me without the time needed to put in the proper training mileage.
For the 100-miler I was currently running, my longest training run was 18 miles.
But I have an insider knowledge: Anyone can run ultras. I’ve seen a wide range of humanity at ultra races: an 8-year-old; a woman with a prosthetic leg; an 87-year-old man. These examples are proof that it’s possible for anyone who is motivated to make it happen.
My motivation is multi-faceted. I run because I love the outdoors. I run because it’s my favorite way to explore a new area, especially when I can run through empty streets, watching a foreign city wake up with the sunrise. I run because it keeps me healthy and feeling strong.
But running ultras is different. Ultras demand more from you mentally than they do physically. Ultras don’t require you to be fast, to have a runner’s body, or to wear expensive gear. Ultras don’t even demand that you run; walking is often more efficient.
Ultras only demand that you push your boundaries.
“. . .I’ve always thought of “Runners” as people who are fast, who chase personal records, and who structure their lives around running instead of structuring running around their lives.
“Most of my training miles are squeezed into open slots of time in between work, vacation, laundry, and real life.”
Every ultra I’ve run eventually puts me into the position where my mind and body tell me to stop before the finish line. And while it’s hard to accept in the immediacy of the pain, exhaustion, and frustration, this moment — the moment where I decide to keep going — is why I run ultra-marathons.
It is in this moment that I realize who I am and what I can achieve.
. . .
I sat in the medical tent, looking at my watch while two EMTs cleaned my feet and wrapped my blisters. I had 38 miles to go and the rain clouds still threatened misery. It was December 31, and I’d promised myself I would continue through midnight, starting the new year running.
I re-laced my shoes, grabbed a snack and a shot of pickle juice, and played some inspiring tunes. I put my head down and told myself to just move forward.
I found my third wind. I hadn’t expected this strange surge of adrenaline, but it picked me up and made me feel like I still had something to give. After hours of trudging along on tired, damaged feet, I was able to jog, even singing along to the music that pumped through my earbuds.
Over the next few hours, I covered more ground than I expected. I traded hugs with aid-station volunteers. I walked and shared motivation with others on the course.
“. . .while it’s hard to accept in the immediacy of the pain, exhaustion, and frustration, this moment — the moment where I decide to keep going — is why I run ultra-marathons.”
As the clock struck midnight and fireworks exploded across the wide Arizona sky, I crossed the 90-mile mark. Exhausted, but knowing I still had nine hours before my race clock ran out and only 10 miles to go, I crept to my tent for a short nap.
I woke three hours later, paranoid of missing my cut-off and wanting to begin before the rain did. It was dark and the course was quiet. I alternated between jogging and walking, covering about four miles in the early hour.
Then the skies opened. Knowing I was nearly there, I zipped up my raincoat and pressed on, rain soaking my shoes and giant puddles covering the ground. Counting down the miles left until I reached 100, the darkness began to fade.
As the sun emerged and rain ceased, I crossed the finish line for the last time, officially earning my first 100-mile belt buckle. After the effort expended, it felt like a dream, but my aching feet and legs reassured me that it was real. I had finished, but my new year began with grateful tears and amazement of completing what I thought was impossible.
About the author:
Holly is a Colorado and Montana-bred freelance writer who loves travel, the outdoors, and stories of adventure. She particularly enjoys trail running, backpacking, any kind of snow sport, and SCUBA diving. She writes about her outdoor adventures, pursuit of intentional living, and love of reading at her blog and is also active on Instagram.