“When you get to the end of all the light you know and it’s time to step into the darkness of the unknown, faith is knowing that one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.” – Edward Teller
At every race, I learn something new. But 100-milers have a way of magnifying those lessons into life-changing revelations that can change the course of your running career, or even your life.
Before this weekend, I thought I had to run a race to learn anything from it. But this year at SD 100 through pacing, crewing, and helping at aid stations, I learned more in 24 hours than I have at any other ultra race I have participated in.
I’ll save the smaller lessons and observations for a separate post, and write here about the two big-picture, eye-opening epiphanies that I can’t get out of my head.
These insights affected me so profoundly that they will change the course of my running career.
But first, some background:
My Duties at SD 100
My original plan was to cheer and support our friends and their crews. Perhaps take some pictures and video and be of help wherever we were needed. We figured if anyone’s pacer had bailed or dropped out, we could be ready to take his or her place at the last minute.
When I posted my plans on Facebook, Michael Miller referred me to Jay Danek from Arizona who had room for a pacer. I was reluctant to commit to pacing, but Shacky was extremely encouraging. Shacky had paced before and had such a great time and learned so much. He thought it would be a great experience for me.
I was scared to fail. When I’m running my own race, I’m ok with failing. But risking someone else’s race? That was completely different. What if I held them back? What if I messed up? This was their 100. I didn’t want to screw up.
I exchanged some emails with Jay and he seemed really laid back and experienced. I told him how slow I was and he wasn’t worried at all, assuring me that he wouldn’t be moving fast when I saw him (from mile 72 to 87, with a big climb at the end).
I agreed to pace him. Then I did some further research on his running page and realized that he ran his FIRST 100-miler in 19 hours. Holy shit.
I also learned that he was currently on a running streak (running every day). He had run for over 500 days and aiming for over 900. AND—his minimum distance each day was 4 miles. He was running 100s during this time, and training for them. So every day he would run between 4 and 100 miles.
A few weeks ago, I tried a 120-day running streak, and couldn’t keep it up after my first 100. The limit was 1 mile per day, and I thought THAT was a big deal.
I picked up Jay at the Sweetwater aid station, ran him through Sunrise 2, then on to Pioneer 2. The first leg was a gradual incline on a smooth terrain. The next leg was more technical and steeper. We finished both in the dark.
Runners like Jay race with a different perspective. I don’t want to say “in a different league,” because that sounds too elitist. He’s not an elite, though to some he may appear to be. I do believe he shares more qualities with elite runners than he does with a runner like me, and this intrigued me.
Here are the two things I observed at SD100 that will change my running focus:
1. Love of Running vs Speed
Jay is a fast runner, but his passion for trails and for ultras is also unquestionable and contagious. This surprised me a little. I knew he enjoyed running, but I didn’t think that on those miles in the middle of the night he would be as excited about trails as he was. He was so positive that at times it wasn’t clear which one of us was the motivator.
This made me think.
As back- to mid-pack runners, we often use the excuse of having fun and enjoying the trails as an excuse for why we’re not fast. We use this as a crutch for why we aren’t pushing ourselves or training hard to explore our limits. And even worse—we sometimes judge faster runners by assuming they don’t love or appreciate trail running as much as we do.
Although there may be some marathoners who perhaps don’t have the same passion for trails as some slower-paced ultra runners, you can’t make those judgments on a 100-mile race.
Anyone who runs 100 miles more than once does it because they love it. There’s simply no other incentive to do it. If someone can run 100 miles FAST, it’s because they took their time to train and get better at it so they could run more 100-mile races. They love the distance. They love the trails. And they ARE having fun.
If you have any doubt this is possible, watch this:
Just because someone runs fast does not mean they are suffering or hating life.
And again—the 100 is such an equalizer in the sense that EVERYONE suffers at some point.
My big AHA moment was:
It’s ok to train hard. It’s ok to run fast. It’s ok to get better at this. I don’t have to be slower or drop to a DNF to inspire others. I can improve myself. I can run stronger. And I can still love running.
Here is my second epiphany:
2. Women and the 100
The first woman to finish SD 100 ran an impressive race and competed head-to-head with the men. Then all the other women were so far behind her. This made me think about the role of women in 100-mile races.
There has been a dramatic increase in women who have tried ultra running in the past few years. Shorter races from 5Ks to marathons are nearly dominated by women, but the 100-miler has yet to see many strong women stand up to compete.
Although there are some strong female 100-mile runners, you can count those names on one hand. Even the elite female names you DO know may not have succeeded on the 100.
100 miles is no joke. The women who have run them well are viewed at a higher level, out of reach to the general running population. They seem super-human and their performances appear unattainable to us.
But they are human. And they did attain their goals. And there’s no reason why we—who love trails and love ultras—could not succeed either.
The 100-mile distance needs more women competitors. Not just finishers. Competitors. We need women to face it head-on. To train hard for it. To master it. And to inspire other women to do the same.
We need more women finishing sub-24. Sub-20. In the top 5 finishers. In the top 3. Not just on looped courses—on trail 100-milers.
The 100 is still a virgin race as far as strong female performances. And humbly, I’d like to take this on as a personal challenge.
Based on my own running career, it’s extremely premature. But so was my first 100. And my hope is that it will encourage other women who are better runners than I to step up to the plate. Let’s get some competition going and give the boys a decent challenge. It can be done.
As of now, I have not yet completed a trail 100-miler, but I have two on my schedule this year. I know that it will be nothing like the timed or looped races I’ve started with.
I’ve had two 100-mile attempts, and finished only one (my first). The second one, I somehow expected would be easier since I had already completed the distance. It most certainly was not, and I dropped after 55 miles.
That’s what I love about the 100. It does not get easier. It always takes your entire force of will and physical stamina to complete. Right now, I’m not in ideal ultra running shape. Yes, I can finish an ultra. But I cannot compete in an ultra.
I want to change that.
I’ve done the run-slow-and-take-pictures-and-smell-the-flowers thing. I know now that’s not the only way to enjoy an ultra. I know now I can love trails as much as I do, and still run faster.
Although I have had respectable performances, I know in my heart that I have never really pushed myself. I don’t really train.
Watching the runners this weekend and pacing Jay (who finished in 22 hours), I felt that I was given permission to step up my training. I know now I can take it more “seriously,” but have just as much fun and run just as carefree.
My biggest fear in doing this is the elitist vibe that comes with getting faster. Our human tendency is to put fast runners on a pedestal and imagine that we cannot ever accomplish what they have. But that’s not true. I hope to prove that this is attainable for anyone who is willing to work hard.
My greatest hope is to inspire women to run 100s competitively. To build a female presence in 100-miler trail races. I hope that people will see my progress and think, “Well, if SHE can do it…” then rise up to kick my ass.
I hope that next year there are two women at SD 100 fighting for the finish, not just one female who blows all the others away. I hope it’s a nail-biting performance. I hope they are head-to-head. I hope the aid station volunteers track them and take bets. And I hope those two women are the best of friends. That’s what this sport needs.
I love the 100-mile distance. I want more women to love it. And I hope this can be my small humble contribution to enhancing a tiny niche in the great sport of ultra running.