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.