Over the past week or so, I’ve been doing some major doubting of myself and my ability to complete my upcoming ultra-marathon. I am intimidated by my own reckless ambition for ever signing up, and I am daunted by the training schedule, the long runs, the hilly trails, everything this race entails.
I mean, even the words “Ultra Marathon” are intimidating. It’s a phrase that sounds exclusive and elite. The words conjure up images of rail-thin career distance runners wearing backpacks and hats with flaps, looking parched, exhausted and famished. I picture the guy who writes books on the subject, covers 50 or more miles weekly and probably has a BMI under 16. Sorta like the dudes in this picture.
An ultra marathoner is cut from a cloth much finer than mine. I’m not even in the right league. Take my frame for example: I’m short, heavily-muscled and far from runner-skinny. I run slowly and by any ultra marathoner’s standards, I don’t run very far before I tire out and want to go home. I’ve never even completed a marathon, and mostly because I don’t like the training schedule. Aside from my love for running and my penchant for going big (or going home), I really have no business showing up at a 50k this May.
I have a few friends who are training for the same race as me, and for a couple of them, this will be their first ultra too. And because I don’t really know my ass from my elbow when it comes to proper training, I watch them. I watch their base mileage climb to twice that of mine, and I watch their long runs reach 14, 16, 18 miles…while I’m still floundering over this weekend’s 10 mile run (that I should have done last weekend…but didn’t feel like it). It scares the hell out of me when I think I’m doing fine at something, and then I see someone else hustling their ass off toward the same goal. Makes me think I’m missing something.
The day that I signed up for this thing, my attitude was so positive. Maybe too positive, maybe not. I mean, I may have fellow racers running 40 miles per week already, but I also know people who ran their first 50k after never having run more than half marathon distance. I suppose that when I clicked the “Sign Up” button that day, I was thinking of them.
I was also thinking of my character. I’m a bit of a risk taker when it comes to difficult goals, and so far every time I jump face-first into something impossible, I succeed. Not only do I succeed, but I usually blow my expectations out of the water altogether. Among other things, I became Captain of my cheering squad the first year I joined; I won a half-boat college scholarship with one essay; I tried out and got a good part in a college play during my hardest academic semester; I created an acclaimed installation in my college’s art gallery that seemed way too much to accomplish; I accepted a full-time job doing 90% Photoshop work when I barely knew Photoshop, then became better at it than anyone I know; I went from graphic designer to art director in four years time, and did well at it even though I thought I didn’t have nearly enough experience; and I ran my first half marathon 9 months after learning to run barefoot. I’m not good at everything, but I am good at accomplishing my hardest goals, and often when it seems like I shouldn’t be able to.
Right now it’s about three months out from the 50k, and I’m still intimidated by the thought of running anything more than 10-12 miles. Other than at the 50k itself, I don’t have a whole lot of desire to go that far. Especially not by myself, in the deeply wooded trails of the New Hampshire winter. Those trees can get damn lonely.
So I figure I’ll either find a way to somehow throw aside my fears and loneliness on the trails and get those miles in before the race, or I won’t and I’ll have to wing it that day, hoping for the best. After all, I’ve done a lot of winging it in my life and so far it’s worked out pretty well.
And I have the most amazing people to turn to in these times, those who have cautioned and those who have inspired. Some don’t even realize how much they do for me. Take Vanessa Runs, for example. She is running her first 100-mile ultra this weekend, and she wrote about it today, in a post called “Final Thoughts on 100 Miles.” In it, she said something truly amazing:
I know that 100 miles is not a distance that belongs to the elite. One hundred miles is just ground and earth and mud and space. It belongs to all of us.
When I read this, I pictured Vanessa instead of my usual mind-devised, underfed and overblown elite ultra marathoner. I pictured a regular person in a plaid skirt and visor, holding a simple water bottle and trekking up the pretty hills of San Diego County. I know Vanessa runs about a million miles a week but still…it gave me some hope. And it made the ultra marathon mine. Mine, as much as hers, and as much as Patrick Sweeney’s or Shelly Robillard’s.
Sometimes I wish I could take someone else’s words and wear them in my running shoes, write them on my hands or hear them in my iPod – because words like those are something to run on. Twenty minutes after I read Vanessa’s blog entry I went out for an amazing 4 mile run that felt like 2…and I knew it would only be a matter of time before I can make 14 miles feel like 7, 20 feel like 12. And I thank her for this.
I will also thank Jason Robillard for daring me to sign up for this race, but not until after I cross that damn 50k finish line. And it may not be the finish line of this 50k, it could take a few attempts…but I know it will eventually happen. And I look forward to that day.