“I still cannot define precisely my joy in running… Who can define happiness? To some, happiness is a warm puppy or a glass of cold beer. To me, happiness is running in the hills with my mates around me.”
- Ron Clarke
One hundred miles. This distance that has been on my mind ever since I started running. Years ago, I was a newbie taking on my first race, but I was secretly thinking about this day. The 100.
In fact, every race and every distance I’ve climbed has been with 100-mile intentions. But I was always afraid to talk about this goal because:
- I didn’t always have a strong support system.
- I knew it sounded stupid for a newbie to be talking about 100 miles.
- None of the other newbies could relate to me.
- Nobody really believed I could run that far and I knew there was nothing I could say to convince them.
I was intrigued by distance, not speed. But because I wasn’t fast, nobody took me seriously as a runner. Here are my unimpressive stats:
- I have never run a 5K faster than 25 minutes.
- I have only raced three half marathons.
- My half marathon PR is about three years old at 2:04.
- I have only raced three marathons. Total.
- My marathon PR is only a 4:20.
- Out of the first three ultras I raced, I DNF’d two of them.
- I have never raced a 50 miler.
My point is: I can run ultras, so you can run ultras.
I have seen people finish ultras who are overweight. Senior citizens. Children. Teens. People who haven’t trained at all. People who have never run a marathon. People who registered by mistake. Sometimes people who don’t even really LIKE running.
We idolize speed more than we should. Speed is nothing without endurance. We admire the stereotypical “runner’s body” and we know in our hearts that we may never look that good. So we resign ourselves to shorter distances, shorter training runs, and a defeated approach to running. That is a mistake.
The ultra is an equalizer. It strips away the mystery surrounding the athletes we love, and it puts us on their level. It lets us shake their hands and pace alongside them.
Where marathons force you into corals based on your speed, the ultra slaps you on the back and says, “Stand wherever the fuck you want. Your chance is as good as any of these other poor suckers.” And when you believe that, you know you’re an ultra runner.
My love for distance was something I fed privately at first. Unlogged, unaccompanied long runs by myself. I’d disappear while it was still dark and everyone was asleep, sneaking back in as they were just waking up.
Nobody really knew how long I was out there. I’d run marathon distances on my own, or I’d cover 10K loops over and over. Or I’d disappear into the woods for hours.
When my ex-partner heard that I wanted to run my first ultra followed by a marathon the next day, he looked at me visibly upset and said, “What do you want to do, run 100 miles someday??” I was taken aback because I hadn’t discussed that distance with anyone. I didn’t even know he was aware of 100-milers. But he said it with such disgust that I knew it was a goal he would never support me in.
Still, 100 miles seemed like an unreal fantasy for a long time, kind of like the way we think of winning the lottery. It was a daydream. I wondered what kind of person I would have to be to complete 100 miles. What kind of mental focus I’d need, what kind of endurance, and what kind of people I would have to surround myself with.
In San Diego, I met the those people. Other ultra runners, other trail runners, and other 100-mile finishers. People like the Robillards and Shacky and Pat Sweeney all saw it as the next logical step in my running career. And so I started believing in myself.
This weekend, I wanted 100 miles for validation. All that time training in “secret” made me feel underestimated. I wanted to prove that I WAS the runner I imagined myself to be. That I wasn’t being reckless or “over my head” – that I really had it in me to do this. I wanted to prove that my years of running injury-free weren’t a fluke. That I knew my body, and I wasn’t a newbie anymore.
Although I’ve felt like an ultra runner for a long time, I didn’t have the stats or races to back me up. I was ready to show what I could do.
As race day approached, my confidence in finishing this distance grew. I expected that it would be more of a mental challenge than a physical one, and I expected that I would struggle with sleep deprivation. Neither of those things were true.
In fact, nothing that I expected to happen actually happened. And the things that I never saw coming were what I struggled with. Here is my story:
The Rocky Road 100 Miler consisted of seven loops: six loops of 15 miles total, and an additional 10-mile shortened loop. The course was an out-and-back in a well-groomed gated community.
The trail was a wide gravel walking path running alongside the road, separated from the street by a pretty white fence. Gorgeous homes towered over us on the opposite side.
The course was mostly flat, with small rolling hills. The hills closer to the turnaround point seemed to get steeper. Every block, we’d have to step off the curb, cross a road, and hop back on the curb onto the trails. The trail remained open to the residents.
There were three aid stations, each about 2.5 miles apart. Two along the course, and one at the turnaround point. There was one more aid station at the start line, along with most of the drop bags.
Lap 1: Miles 1-15
Shacky and I gathered at the start line chatting with a lot of great runners. We were thrilled to see so many familiar faces. I met the record-setting Yolanda Holder and Xy (Dirty Girl from Dirty Girl gaiters), a few other blog readers, some prominent Marathon Maniacs like Ed, and many of the runners we had seen at Across the Years. It was like a big reunion.
The race started in the dark. I wore my VIVOBAREFOOT Neo Trails (my favorite trail shoe) and my InknBurn Out-n-Back shirt with a black tennis skirt (cheaper than running skirts). Shacky wore his Luna sandals and his kilt. He got a ton of attention and comments about his footwear and outfit.
I stuck with Shacky for the first few miles, and then I let him drift ahead. We were both excited and although I was conscious of starting out too fast, I didn’t feel exerted by our speed. We were running steady, even on the hills. I carried a handheld and was careful to keep drinking.
Both Shacky and I had a big early dinner the night before and had been up since 3 a.m. Neither of us had been hungry in the morning and I was afraid that if I forced myself to eat, I would feel nauseous. So I figured I’d rely on the plentiful aid stations at the race to get some food into me in the early miles.
I focused on paying attention to my surroundings. I noted every curb, every street sign, every landmark that I could remember. I wanted to know when I was nearing the turnaround point, when I was close to the finish, and where the aid stations were.
Sharp right turn. Barking dog. Orange grove. Big mansion. More oranges. Pillars.
On an out-and-back, landmarks are a strong motivation for me. I run from one landmark to the next, and when I see something familiar that I know is close to the finish, that motivates me to push harder.
To be honest, I didn’t even know this was an out-and-back until the race started. And I thought it was six loops instead of seven. I actually didn’t know much about this race at all. While some runners like to plan out every detail of their races, for me it’s better if I know nothing at all. It only causes me to stress about things I can’t control and plan for things that will never turn out.
Instead, my training for this race consisted of learning to fly by the seat of my pants and adapt to anything. I’d wake up in the mornings, grab the doggie leash, and run outside with Ginger just as I was. No shoes, no bra, just jammies and dog.
I wanted running to be as natural to me as breathing or peeing in the morning. I didn’t want to overthink my running, and I didn’t want to overthink this race. I just wanted to go out and do it. My only strategy for this race was:
- Keep moving.
- Don’t sleep.
I don’t know that it’s a strategy I would recommend for everyone, but it’s one that worked well for me on this particular race.
I had never really experienced a gated community before. I wondered how the race director managed to have a race put on here every year. It seemed like it would be a tremendous inconvenience to the residents. Extra garbage, tons of traffic, people invading their pretty path and making their dogs bark at all hours of the day and night.
Shacky and I tried to imagine under what circumstances the race director might have been able to secure this location. Maybe he lived here. Maybe he had a secret lover who lived here. Maybe he had an ex-wife who ran off with his entire fortune, then felt bad about so she let him have a race here every year. Because she bought the mansion on the corner with his money. Yeah, that was probably it.
Shacky saw one real estate agent posting an Open House sign and I chuckled to think of the poor prospective buyers who might be under the impression that this was a community full of insane ultra runners who never sleep. The real estate agent didn’t know there was a race going on, so Shacky inquired whether the property had a pool, and told the agent that if it did, he would be interested in a tour. Sadly, no pool.
I got to the first aid station. A porta-potty and a little table with drinks and cookies and chips. I glanced over, looking for the sandwiches and generous buffet-like spread that I was used to. But all I saw were cookies, M&Ms and chips. Hm. Maybe they had all the good stuff at the next station. I kept running.
Two and a half miles later, I saw the second aid station. I stopped to drop off my sweater since I was working up a good sweat, and I also wanted to look at the food. That’s strange, no sandwiches here either. Just more cookies. I grabbed some Oreos and headed back out, a little confused. Where was all the food?
At the turnaround, I was starting to get hungry. And worried. I knew I need to eat, but there was no real food here. Chips, M&Ms, and cookies. I felt a slight panic. I didn’t bring any food. I just assumed that all ultras had…. you know, food.
I was drinking a ton but that was my main source of calories, and it wouldn’t take me through 100 miles. Would it be like this the entire race? After the panic, a twinge of frustration set it. What kind of lame-o ultra was this?? And how the hell hard is it to slap together a PB&J sandwich?
I grabbed chips, cookies, and bananas. I couldn’t force down any M&Ms – candy and running don’t mix for me. I wanted to kick myself for not eating breakfast, but I felt the race had also let me down.
I worried about Shacky because he hadn’t eaten either, and I knew he hated the cookies and chips even more than I did. As it turned out, he choked down “a really disgusting bar” back at the end of the first loop when he realized there was no food he could eat. This would not be the first issue I had with the aid stations.
Since the path wasn’t closed to residents, we saw several locals walking around and asking what we were doing. One lady caught me as I was about to turn to finish a loop, and asked how long the race was.
“Um… one hundred miles.” Her response was a blank, wide-eyed stare.
“Well, I think there’s a 50 miler and a marathon as well,” I tried to make it seem more normal
“Which one are you doing?” she asked.
“One hundred miles.” Blank wide-eyed stare again.
“Do you sleep??”
“Um… no, I’m going to try to stay awake.” I shrugged. There was pretty much no way to make this sound normal now.
“I ran a marathon and I thought I was awesome!”
“That’s great!” I tried to sound enthusiastic, but I don’t think she believed me. She wished me luck, and I think she walked away feeling less-awesome about her marathon finish. I hope she tries an ultra someday.
Read Part 2: Miles 16-30, minimalist shoe issues, and an experienced 100-mile finisher gives me a stern warning.