The Freedom of 50: Ultramarathon Thoughts

In 115 days, I’ll be running my first 50-mile race, the Marquette (Michigan) Trail 50. 

It’s an 11-mile loop, followed by a 20ish-mile loop run counterclockwise, then clockwise. The race features beautiful views of Lake Superior, which you can see from one of the four mountains you climb… twice.

Sugarloaf Mountain

Sugarloaf Mountain

Just typing that makes me want to lie down.

I’m also really, really excited about it.

I signed up for Marquette on the suggestion of a friend during a very stressful time in my life, when all I could see was the situation I was mired in. Running 50 miles seemed impossible to me—it kinda still does—but it felt important to hit that Registration button. It felt like an act of hope that life would not always be consumed by the crisis at hand. And even if things were still unspooling in that part of my life, signing up was a kind of stubborn defiance: as important as that situation was, and is, I refuse to let it consume my entire life. I need something that is just for me. Many people say not to make any major life decisions when you’re in the midst of extreme stress or grief. For me, the grief was a major factor in the decision. Have you read Mary Oliver’s The Journey? There was this wild sense that in signing up for this race, I was saving the only life I could save.

After I committed to Marquette, I realized I should probably do a shorter ultramarathon before tackling a 50 miler… and yes, I get the humor in the phrase “shorter ultramarathon.” So this Saturday, Lord willin’ and the Potomac don’t rise, I’ll be running the North Face Endurance Challenge 50K here in DC. 

The Potomac Heritage Trail

The Potomac Heritage Trail

That K makes a big difference. I mean, 50K is no stroll on the beach, but it’s 31 miles, not 50. Once you’ve run 26.2 a few times, you can kiiiiiinda get your mind around running 5 more. Still, these two races are the first things I’ve signed up for that I can honestly see myself not finishing for some reason or another. I could get injured. I could hit the wall. I could have tummy troubles, or botch my hydration. I could simply go too slow and not make the time cutoffs—ultramarathons have strict cutoffs along the way, and they will pull people from the course who aren’t keeping the minimum pace. This is probably the biggest risk for me. (A Boston qualifier I ain’t.) I have many friends, good runners all, who’ve had these things happen.

To all of that I say, “Bring it on.” There’s something invigorating about striving for something that’s potentially out of reach. 

People often say about marathons, “Respect the distance.” You can train and prepare, but the marathon will do what it does and you are not in control. This is even truer at ultra distancs, and especially on trails rather than roads.

I need the reminder that you can get ready and trained up and do your best, and what happens next is not entirely up to you. And if things go haywire, it doesn’t necessarily mean you did it wrong or weren’t good enough. It’s just the way life works sometimes.

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You may know the number 50 as the number of jubilee in scripture, the time every fifty years when debts are cancelled and enslaved people set free. I got a bit obsessed with this numerology—50K, 50 miles—to the point that I made Freedom my word for 2019.

On one level, it seems contradictory. Where is the freedom in getting up early, sacrificing leisure time, running up to 50 miles in a week? Isn’t there freedom in letting go, doing less? True. This is a major time commitment, not just for me, but for my family. The training has been hard, harder than any other training I’ve done. I’ve fallen multiple times. I’ve stumbled on roots. I’ve gotten muddy and (temporarily) lost. I got bitten by a dog on the very route I’ll be running in a few days. I rolled my ankle a week ago. 

But it’s also beautiful out there. There is freedom on the trails. You have to stay loose and flexible, yet focused at the same time. 

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When you’re running, you can’t be managing the family calendar, or finding someone’s lost sunglasses, or emptying the dishwasher, or working. You can only do one thing: relentless forward progress, fueled by one’s breath, mile after mile. There is freedom in that—freedom from multitasking, or performing; freedom from doing anything other than an activity that brings mental and physical well-being to so many of us. 

By saying yes to this, I’m surrendering to a mystery that’s beyond me. And while the falls and the bites and the bad stuff happened to me, none of it defeated me.

I’m reading one of Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs novels (a current favorite) and ran across this quote:

“When a mountain appears on the journey, we try to go to the left, then to the right; we try to find the easy way to navigate our way back to the easier path. But the mountain is there to be crossed. It is on that pilgrimage, as we climb higher, that we are forced to shed the layers upon layers we have carried for so long. Then we find that our load is lighter and we have come to know something of ourselves in the perilous climb.”

Yes. This is a pilgrimage.  

Maybe the ultimate freedom isn’t in what we pick up along the way. It’s in learning what we can do without. I have this feeling, this hope, that that freedom is waiting for me out on the trail this weekend.

The Comparison Trap

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On a recent Saturday I had the chance to fill in for a running coach friend, overseeing a training group she’s been leading. These were mostly new runners, some of whom are training for their first 5K or 10K, out for their weekend group run and looking for guidance and encouragement. I mainly coach individuals, so it was great (and a little daunting) to stretch my skills and try something new. 

I ended up sticking with the brand-new runners—as in, this was their second week of training: run 90 seconds, walk 2 minutes, repeat for 25 minutes. It was gratifying to go at their pace, remembering a time when that was really, reallydifficult for me—as it was for them that day—and reflecting on just how far I’ve come. (Marathon #4 in four weeks!) Who knows where this process will lead them, but it was joyous to contemplate what’s ahead of them, and hold out hope that they will gain as much strength and empowerment from their journey as I have from mine. Or, perhaps, that they tap into that strength and empowerment in other ways.

The next day, those lofty happy feelings came crashing back to earth when I read a Facebook humblebrag from another runner who ran her very first 5K the day before… and placed in her age group.

Sigh. 

After almost eight years of running, I’ve seen great personal progress, but remain stubbornly on the slow side of average. And on my good days, I’ve made my peace with it. Talk to a runner long enough, and pace will usually come up in conversation, but often it’s the least interesting part of a run. How you felt, what you saw, the peace of mind, the pleasure of putting one foot in front of the other, or even pushing yourself—these are the measures of a good run. Getting out there is what matters most... and if you’d told the seventh grade me, who gasped and seethed her way through the mile in PE class, that one day she would voluntarily do mile repeats at the track—at 5 a.m.—you would have gotten a big eye roll.

On my worse days, though, the comparison trap grabs me in its sharp, unforgiving jaws, holding me in place as the voices of Not Enough ring out: You’ve been at this for so long. Why aren’t you faster? You’re not a real runner.

Later that same weekend, my 10 year old, James, decided to put together one of the Raingutter Regatta boat kits we had left over from Cub Scouts. Margaret, always up for arts and crafts, joined him. Now, what you need to know about James is that he always opts out of the Raingutter Regatta. Hard to say exactly why, but I think our tender-hearted kid, who marches to a different drummer, doesn’t really care for this event, in which children go head to head in competition for the best boat, along with all the trash-talking that goes with it (however good-natured that chiding might be). 

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So I was touched by this spontaneous act of creation. It wasn’t about designing the best boat and winning the race. It was simply about having some fun on a Sunday afternoon: no evaluation, no benchmarks. 

Our world has an abundant supply of yardsticks, and no end of volunteers to wield them with perverse glee. Some of us are better at disregarding those evaluations than others, and social media sure doesn’t help. I don’t blame the new runner who dominated her age group; she should be happy and proud! My reaction wasn’t about her; it was about me: a sign that I need some self-care, some perspective, some kindness toward myself. Goals are great, but radical self-acceptance is some of the best fuel out there to help achieve them. (And if you don’t achieve them, you’re still beloved of God. Whew!)

Yesterday this Anne Lamott quote came my way: “Expectations are resentments under construction.” The comparison trap is most potent in an atmosphere of scarcity: for one person to win, another must lose; their good fortune is my misfortune. But the trap also snaps tight around us when our expectations are out of whack—when we’re too focused on “should,” when we grasp at unattainable and punishing ideals rather than loving what is.

You are a wonderful work in progress… and you are already who you are meant to be, right now. And so am I.

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Monday Runday: Houston Marathon Recap & Race Review

This is incredibly long--epic races deserve an epic recap--so I've organized it into sections for better scan-ability. How We Got Here: The Grudge Match

I signed up almost three years ago for the 2016 Houston Marathon, excited to run through my hometown. Then I developed a stress fracture and had to cancel. I’ve since completed every major race I had to defer that year, including the Marine Corps Marathon, but this was the last piece of the puzzle—the final grudge match.

Houston is a relatively flat and fast course, with great support, so I’ve been training hard for a big personal best. My previous marathon PR was at Marine Corps in 2016. It was only my second marathon, and it was hhhhhhhhhot that day. So I had a lot of room for improvement, especially if conditions broke my way.

After Hurricane Harvey I was even more excited to run in the Bayou City. I didn’t register for the race as an official charity runner, but I did sign up to raise money for the Houston Food Bank, which was and is instrumental in supporting people impacted by Harvey. I raised almost $700, and it’s not too late to contribute.

Taper Town Be Crazy

My running friends know I’m an obsessive weather-stalker before a race. Houston’s weather is a complete crap shoot in January—it can be 70 and muggy or perfect PR conditions. Amazingly, all the weather models began to coalesce around the latter—race start in the 30s, warming to about 50. I was super excited, but that meant no excuses not to go for broke. I remembered one of my favorite mantras: “If it is to be, it is up to me.”

Taper madness began last Tuesday after a race-pace run, a workout I’ve done eleventy times this training cycle without incident. Soon after I finished, my leg started aching at the exact spot of my injury 2 1/2 years ago. I felt it while walking, climbing and descending stairs, and sometimes, just when sitting.

The taper must have a way of knowing what our most vulnerable spots are. Intellectually, I know it’s very rare to reinjure a stress fracture site, especially during taper when your training volume is way down. But of all the aches and pains that could have flared up, this is the one that would throw the most doubt into my race preparation. Last time I felt that ache, it meant a 3 month-break from running and starting completely over. In consultation with my coach and friend Lena Steiner, I decided to rest the leg for the remainder of the week—no running, nor exercise of any kind really. The next time I would run was Sunday at marathon start.

My leg ached off and on all week, driving me nuts. I had several pity parties, and one big bout of imposter syndrome (“Why did you ever think you could do this? You come this far, only to whiff it in the last few days? You’ll never be a ‘real’ runner.”)

Like I said, Taper Town be crazy.

I woke up Friday morning and decided I had to “go until no.” If the injury flared up during the marathon, I would immediately walk off the course, because no race is worth what I went through last time. On the other hand, it might be the race of a lifetime. It was PR or DNF and nothing in between.

In retrospect, the injury scare invited me to “hold it lightly,” tune into my body, and embrace the mystery of not knowing what would happen. And also appreciate the simple joy of running. I get to do this.

So… I readied myself:

(I got a LOT of “Go ‘Stros!!!” in that outfit. Excellent life choice on my part.

Race Day

Mom had come into town, along with my daughters, and they were an amazing pit crew, assisted by my brother, who lives in Houston. Mom dropped me at the race 90 minutes before start—plenty of time to visit the portapotty 2-3 times, as is my custom. *cough* It did mean an early alarm though:

I’ve always been very motivated by music, but I’m racing headphone-free now, and I love it. I was a little worried I’d get bored by myself during a whole marathon, but it turned out to be fine. Instead I used the music to get pumped up ahead of time. I sat on the floor for about an hour beforehand, channeling my inner Michael Phelps:

OK not really, but I was FOCUSED. My last song before turning in my gear:

Around this time, Robert sent me just the GIF I needed: