Signing 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.
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.
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.
Although 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.