Why running? Why trails? Why ultras?
Bell Ringer 50k
Montgomery Bell State Park - Burns, TN
Every runner has a different story. A reason why they started running, sure, but, more importantly, a reason why they continue to run. Mine is nothing special, but I’ll give you the short and sweet. I didn’t run cross country in high school. I wasn’t recruited to a Division I collegiate program. In fact, I didn’t discover running until graduate school. Simply enough, I was living in Louisiana, far from my New England roots, spending hours a day in a small room by myself. It was the nature of my program, and I knew what I was getting into. With no climbing nearby, I quickly realized that I needed to find a way to get outside, so I started running. A quick mile or two to the nearby campus lake was enough at first, and when signage for the local half and full marathons in December went up, I distinctly remember thinking, “that’s silly. Who would do that?” My short runs turned into 4-mile loops around the lake, then twice around the lake. Once I had completed a 10-mile run I knew I was ready to sign up for that very same race I had scoffed at mere months prior. The goal was just to finish, and, a few months later, I did exactly that. I sat on the couch the rest of the afternoon and was sore for days.
However, throughout the training process, I had discovered valuable training secrets - who knew that running in heat and humidity was harder? What are gels, and more importantly, do they work? Why do runners carry around those foam roller sticks? Am I supposed to stretch? This has and will always be my strategy - trial and error. I’m an independent soul at first, and my own research and discovery are some of the most powerful tools I have.
After moving to Nashville, I sought out another half marathon. I trained with more intention, the goal being to improve on my previous time. My roommate casually mentioned a running group in East Nashville that met down the block from our house. I began running on Wednesday nights with East Nasty, one of Nashville’s largest running groups. That turned into Saturday long runs with a pace group, and my first running community was born on the roads and greenways of my new city. Running with other people felt amazing - we talked about shoes, gels, and pooping. You know, runner things!
Training went great, I felt strong, and had the guts to dream of surpassing my initial time goals. Well… when race day came around accompanied by extreme heat and humidity, and I got dropped by my pace group and had to come to terms with the slowest half I’d completed yet, training runs included. I was horribly disappointed. However, I had several more crucial growth moments and questions answered through trial and error. Why do runners pour water over their heads? What are those wet sponges for?
Most of all, I wondered, why do I need someone to set up a start/finish line to tell me to run 13.1 miles? I am capable, my body is capable, and I can run a half marathon any day of the week if I want to.
So, the next weekend, I ran another half marathon, but this time it was by myself and for myself. I got that time goal I’d trained for with a few minutes to spare. I also vowed that I was finished with road racing. The sheer number of runners, the immense occupation with pace, and the pounding of pavement wasn’t for me. I sought out another running community, the Dirtbag Trail Runners. Trails made all the sense in the world to me. Time spent outside in nature, no traffic, and constantly changing terrain makes keeping your “road pace” impossible.
I wasn’t doing any targeted training, but I had signed up for two fall trail races, a 9-miler and a 25k in December. Throughout the summer, I ran simply for the joy of running. Touring across the Eastern half of the US gave me the opportunity to go on exploratory adventure runs in nearly every city we played in. My weekly mileage inadvertently skyrocketed, and every chance I had, I was out in Percy Warner.
It wasn’t about the miles, it was about the time spent outside, either by myself or with my newfound trail running community.
I was first exposed to ultrarunning when I stumbled upon a vlog posted by a runner who had attempted the Barkley Marathons in 2017. It jogged my memory as I had watched the Netflix documentary of the same race in graduate school before I even started running. Funny how things come full circle. I fell into a deep hole watching countless race recap and training videos. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Finally, I got so restless that I laced up and PR’d my 10k time.
Training through the late summer and early fall taught me a lot about hydration and nutrition, both crucial elements to success in trail and ultrarunning. I felt strong, was enjoying the runs and the conversation, asking every question I could think of, from proper foot placement on technical descents to power hiking form and hip strengthening exercises. Runners far more experienced than I embraced my enthusiasm and willingness to learn. I planned to run my first 50k in the spring, and to train through my 25k. After all, who says that race has to be the first time I run 15 miles? I am capable, my body is capable.
I was determined not to sign up for a 50k until I had completed 25k. My training partners joked on runs, “so, I’ll see you at Bell Ringer 50k?” After hours spent on the trails together, they weren’t convincing me anymore. I was convincing myself. I love running, I love trails, and I love spending time outside. It was all downhill from there (not literally, though!).
Why start by limiting yourself? Nothing in my short running history has indicated that I can’t complete this. In fact, I’d proven time and time again that I was in control. I put in 800+ miles between May and December, allowed myself a two-week taper (which was the worst), and knew that the work was done. It was time to play.
At 4:15am on December 9, my alarm went off and I ran an ultramarathon.
Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. I had spent the day prior organizing my hydration vest, planning out my nutrition and hydration, packing my drop bag, and laying out my cold-weather clothes. My favorite tried-and-true Smartwool crew cut socks, Spring Energy electrolyte mix, Pro Bar Bolts in the three best flavors, and my secret weapon: baby food. You read that right - baby food is just pureed fruits and veggies, and as a plant-based eater, it is essential that I fuel with as much real food as possible. Plus, it comes in convenient squeeze pouches easy to stuff in the front of my vest. Ultrarunning is basically just an eating contest, since you are calorie-deficient from the start and it only gets worse if you don’t stay on top of your calories.
At the risk of making 31.5 miles seem trivial, the first 15 miles felt comfortable. They should have - I had trained that distance many times. I ate decently well and the course support from my training group kept me smiling with their goofy smiles and poop emoji onesies. Miles 15, or the 25k/50k split is where I began running alone. I didn’t see anyone until the mile 20 aid station, and they came in just as I was finishing half a banana and a few swigs of Coke. I never drink soda, but I knew the quick-releasing sugars could do wonders.
For me, the race was always going to be 24 miles long. At mile 24, I would see all my training partners at the last aid station. At that point, there would be no question that I’d finish. I struggled through miles 20-22, where I passed an aid station with nothing on my mind but a hot cup of coffee. They offered me cold pizza. I declined, knowing that the energy I needed was just a few miles ahead. When I appeared at the bottom of the last climb into the mile 24 aid station, I saw my ultra mentor Becca, in her full camo snow pant overalls absolutely lose her mind and start screaming my name. I came up on all my training partners, who dropped their beers and rushed to ask what they could do, what I wanted to eat. I asked for coffee, something hot to drink. At mile 24 of my first ultramarathon, I had the most amazing hot chocolate. It was everything I needed. Becca stared at me until I sucked down a baby food, and sent me on a quick 2-mile out-and-back. I knew I’d pass through them again, and left saying “see you in 20 minutes… eh, 30 minutes!” I split a sub-11 mile 25 and Becca forced 200 more calories in me before pushing me out of the aid station. Three people passed me as I enjoyed time with friends, knowing it was the last time I’d see anyone until the finish.
I worked my way on, careful to observe 26.2. My first marathon! But, that wasn’t my goal today. A nice man at a road crossing assured me it was “5 miles of easy running to the finish.” I can do easy running. I can do 5 miles. The extra time spent eating at the aid station paid dividends as I caught up to the three ahead of me. We estimated that we had probably 2-3 miles until the finish. Soon enough, a sign in the ground indicated ~½ mile to the finish. The guy behind me said, “2 ½ miles?” I quickly corrected him “NO! Half a mile!” I knew two things about the finish: stairs, and one final hill. As we hit the last stretch of trail, I saw the stairs. Simultaneously, a training partner screaming at me in an Olaf onesie from across the lake. I had been in front of these folks for 25 miles. I wasn’t letting them take it away from me at the end, especially after I’d caught up to them. I made my pass on the bridge, knowing I’d have to take the stairs two at a time to finish the job. That one last hill was a total pain, but the result was worth it: alone in the finish chute, being encouraged by one of my training partners, and finishing my very first ultramarathon.
So, why running? Why trails? Why ultras? I have learned more about my connection to myself, to nature, and to my community through training for and running trail ultras. Much like climbing, the trail running community is a small but fervent bunch. We may be a bit crazy, but we aren’t stupid. Is running ultramarathons crazy? Yes. Is it stupid? No.