Getting the Guts to Sign Up For an Ultra Marathon

Guts to Sign UpSign­ing up for your first long race is tough, whether it’s a 5k or an ultra marathon. I played the same game of hem­ming and haw­ing each time I stepped up my rac­ing dis­tance. Hell, I was still so scared after my first marathon that it took two years before I signed up and ran anoth­er one. After that sec­ond marathon, how­ev­er, I real­ized I was not only over my fear – I want­ed more.

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Iden­ti­fy­ing my hunger for a big­ger chal­lenge was easy enough, but I had no idea what exist­ed out there beyond a marathon. Then, a good friend rec­om­mend­ed the book Ultra­ma­rathon Man: Con­fes­sion of an All Night Run­ner, by Dean Kar­nazes. I devoured it in a day, then read it again two days lat­er. It wasn’t Kar­nazes him­self that I loved so much, it was the sub­ject he opened my eyes to – ultra­ma­rathon­ing. Tech­ni­cal­ly, an ultra­ma­rathon is any run­ning or walk­ing race longer than the tra­di­tion­al marathon of 26.2 miles. Most ultras round off to the near­est 50, so they tend to be 50k (31 miles), 100k (62 miles), 50 miles or 100 miles long.

The pain of a marathon is a lot like child­birth. Peo­ple always talk about the mem­o­ry of the pain fad­ing over time – but I don’t know what the hell those peo­ple expe­ri­enced, because I’ve been through both and I would soon­er for­get my first name than the agony I endured in either. It was the very real, very live, mem­o­ry of this pain that stopped me from sign­ing up for an ultra­ma­rathon imme­di­ate­ly in 2008.

I read book after book on the sub­ject, heav­i­ly favor­ing the short sto­ries of per­son­al expe­ri­ences from peo­ple of all ages and fit­ness lev­els who com­plet­ed ultras. The more I read about 60-year-old men and their wives run­ning these extreme races togeth­er and fin­ish­ing alive, the more I was able to con­vince myself I could do it too. I don’t know how many times I scoured the inter­net and found an ultra in my area, decid­ed to sign up for it, and went for a long run to cel­e­brate just pri­or to sign­ing on the dot­ted line. I’d come back from my 10-mil­er exhaust­ed and con­vinced I could nev­er run 20 more miles on top of what I just did. No way.

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I cycled through this thought process for two years, but no mat­ter how many times I talked myself out of it, I couldn’t get rid of the desire for more. I knew I’d even­tu­al­ly give in and just do it – I just didn’t know when.

It hap­pened in 2010. I had just com­plet­ed a dif­fi­cult year of train­ing for my first  — and soon after, sec­ond — half Iron­man triathlon and recov­ered from mul­ti­ple stress frac­tures in my hip. I was in the best shape of my life and more moti­vat­ed than ever before. Plus, I now had an amaz­ing hus­band who blind­ly said, “sure” when I asked if he’d sign up for a 50K with me. I’m not sure he even knew how far 50K was at that time.

A mere two months lat­er, we found our­selves freez­ing at the start line one blis­tery Novem­ber morn­ing. Eager to warm up and get things going, I took off at the begin­ning, tick­ing off 7:30 minute miles for the first 10 miles. It was fun and felt great, but it was a severe­ly stu­pid mis­take. I burned out and hit my wall at mile 19, leav­ing me limp­ing and near­ly cry­ing in pain through those final 11 miles. It was pure tor­ture, and only my stub­born­ness of not want­i­ng to admit I’d quit kept me mov­ing for­ward. I fin­ished sec­ond to last. I’m not sure who I actu­al­ly beat, but I’m pret­ty sure that guy must have died on the course because I nev­er saw any­one behind me.

lmAlthough the race could eas­i­ly have been viewed as a mis­er­able fail­ure, I was sur­prised at how sat­is­fied I felt. I didn’t care what my time was or how long it took before I was walk­ing nor­mal­ly again. I had fin­ished. I cov­ered 31 miles in a sin­gle morn­ing. I was an ultramarathoner.

Once I had mus­tered the guts to try an ultra dis­tance once, I saw that I could do it and didn’t even hes­i­tate the sec­ond time around.  Two years lat­er, I returned to that race and won the female divi­sion. My win­ning race wasn’t what took guts, how­ev­er, it was get­ting to that start line in 2010.