Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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Born to Run Ultramarathons 50K 2013 Race Report

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Balancing a wooden bowl of avocados, a folded lawn chair and a Solo cup full of margarita in my arms, I followed my good friend Caity and her two kids toward the center of the campground, where folks were selling stuff and Luis Escobar was up on a bandstand announcing contenders for the next round of ball races. I stopped on the way to chat with Pat Sweeney. Little Guadajuko, the ghost dog of the Sierra Madres, walked by us behind his mistress, the one and only Maria Walton.

I remember wondering how this could even be real. The series of events in one’s life are often entwined and complicated, but my route to this place was so linear that it seems almost fictional. It was probably true for most of us here at this 2013 Born to Run Ultramarathons event. One day, for whatever personal reason, we all picked up this book written by a NY Times journalist, entitled Born to Run. We read it, we fell in love with the story of Micah True and his Raramuri, and then we fell in love with the idea of running an ultramarathon someday. Many of us actually ended up running them, too. For me, that book placed a pivot point in my life so deep and strong that in three years time I’d ended up finally following my longtime dream to live on the west coast, wearing a pair of Luna Sandals, running a 50K race with a tribe of wild, beautiful, like-minded human beings and creating friendships with my own personal superheroes. And I credit that book, most of which I read during vacation on a beach in Bermuda, for the entire succession of events that brought me to that very moment, and that bowl of avocados.

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Before that moment, I hadn’t done anything that could be considered camping since I was probably fifteen years old. So, to make a 5-6 hour solo drive up the California coast and pitch my own tent on a ranch with no shower outbuildings or running water of any kind…well, that was kind of a stretch for me. And as this fact arose in full-color about a week prior to the event, I almost decided not to show up at all. A big part of me was intimidated by the “ick” factor caused by not showering for three days, and the knowledge that, as compared to the rest of the runners attending, I am totally a “city girl.”

And let’s talk about my training. Yeah, exactly: what training? A bunch of hill runs, a solo-ten miler here and there and a couple half marathons is probably not what most of these ultra runners would consider a good 50K training plan. But I went anyway, and I’m really freaking glad I did because I learned a shitload of important things about myself.

What did I learn? Well one of the things I learned is that I don’t need to train my head off to complete a 50K race, and in fact it’s probably a bad idea. I learned that finishing this kind of distance is 30% about adequate fueling, 10% about training and 60% about mental fortitude and a good attitude. Last year I spent 6 months running long in preparation for my first 50K. I suffered and toiled and even though I finished, I was mentally exhausted and totally over running even before I crossed the starting line. I didn’t eat enough all day, I indulged in negative thoughts, I whined, I cried, and I almost quit twice. And then afterward, I didn’t even feel like running again for a solid 8 months. All that training? It did jack shit for me on race day.

For this ultra I didn’t “train” at all. And that wasn’t even a strategic thing, really…I just didn’t feel up to it so I didn’t do it. Instead I joined a local hashing group and stopped taking running seriously. I ran gnarly technical trails on crazy steep hills with a bunch of insane beer drinkers, I ran several days in a row without fretting about it, skipped several days in a row if I felt I needed it, ran as slow as I wanted to and ran as fast as I could when the mood came over me. I signed up for a couple of half marathons for the hell of it, and really I just enjoyed myself. I even stopped wearing my Garmin watch because I didn’t care how fast I ran or whether the run was 4.0 or 4.2 miles long.  That is the attitude I brought with me to the starting line of the Born to Run 50K, and it’s the attitude that carried me, with much fewer tears this time, down the finisher’s chute.

And speaking of the start, this was the most unique one I’ve ever been to.

cows2

*   *   *

Three gunshots pierced the quiet morning in quick succession, followed by the most exuberant mariachi music you’ll ever imagine wanting (or not wanting) to hear at 4:15am. In my damp tent on the hard, cow-pie spotted soil of the ranch, it barely felt I had slept a wink all night. I took a moment to release myself from my margarita-and-dancing-induced fog. By the time I managed to unfurl from the warm sleeping bag and meander over to the porta-johns, there was a line four people deep, all toting their own roll of toilet paper…you know, just in case. It was still dark and everyone moved like slow mutants, a strange contrast to the upbeat yipping of the mariachi singers.

Once the spikey tune of Voodoo Child started to ring through the camp, I was back in my tent dressing for the race. It was about 45 degrees and overcast so I chose capri pants, a long sleeve shirt and a handheld. Then I shoved as many calories as I could down my gullet: a banana, a pre-made protein smoothie, and some iced coffee to stave off the caffeine withdrawals. Krista Cavender, Jacobus Degroot, Caity McCardell and Tracey Longacre got themselves ready in their own camps all around me.

At 6:00 Luis gathered up the 400-person crew of 10-mile, 50K, 100K and 100-mile runners, went over the course markings, and made us repeat Caballo Blanco’s famous pre-race oath:

“If I get lost, hurt or die…it’s my own damn fault.”

With that done, another gunshot cracked through the air and we were off. Just like that. Excited runners whooped, hollered and yipped back and forth across the pack for the whole first mile. Unlike every road race I’ve ever participated in, where the runners are separated by race distance, lined up according to pace, and the fastest ones elbow each other for room behind a straight line drawn on the pavement, this was just a jumble of happy people all starting together as one, worrying not who was in front, running with dirt on their feet and huge fucking grins on their faces. The feeling of the crowd was wild, colorful and raw, and I felt completely at home in it. I was living inside my own poem that was written for Caballo. This was his world, and what a world it is!

Dust ascends on the horizon
A deep, rumbling thunder without rain
The sound of rampant hearts, a legion
Earthly, feral and unconstrained

Crista1Photo courtesy of Crista Anna Scott.

*   *   *

The first ten mile loop flew by, and I finished it pretty quickly. I don’t even know what I can say about that first 1/3 of the course, except that it just felt great. I had to wait out the first four miles until my body warmed up and got with the program, typical for me, but after that I was fine. The chilly air kept me comfortable, the two dozen or so runners around kept me company, and all my months spent on the hills of SoCal made the inclines on this first loop barely noticeable.

The ranch was wide and hilly with gorgeous, leaning oak trees spotting the gold-colored fields.  I chatted, laughed, heck I even sang: I ran by a chick who was singing a tune from the Muppet Show and I just had to join in. At this point I didn’t actually plan to finish the entire race, but I wasn’t worried about it yet. I just ran, and I smiled. When I finished the first loop I went back to my tent to change into lighter clothing, drink some Gatorade and eat something.  And to my surprise I noticed I still had so much energy left that it was as if I hadn’t even been running yet. What a wonder proper fueling does! So when I was done changing into my INKnBURN skirt and cotton tank, I just got up and started the second loop. Easy-peasy.

By mile 12 the racers had spread out enough that I was running solo, and I found myself a little off course. I backtracked for a bit and then saw a girl running up the road toward me. In my relief I yelled out, “Oh good, I’m still on course!” right about the same time she was asking me, “is this the right way?” There were a dozen cows standing on the trail and blocking the markers, but when they heard us talking they shifted away. We found the markers and continued on together. I expected her to fly on past me but we were running at the same pace, so we started chatting. Turns out that she was the same girl singing the Muppet Show song back at loop one, and we didn’t know it yet but we were going to be each other’s motivation for the remainder of the 50K.

Evy-Lynn1The famous Barbie Aid Station. Photo courtesy of Evy Lynn

Her name is Crista Anna Scott, and she’s from Ventura California. She writes a blog called Run, Eat, Create, Repeat and she had just received her Master’s Degree the day before the race. She wrote her thesis on ultra running, and this was her first 50K. And, she didn’t really “train” for this race either. I mean, it couldn’t have been a more perfect match-up. We spent the entire second loop running, exchanging stories, laughing, missing turns (oops) and backtracking, being halted by cow stampedes, and pondering the invaluable glory of downing Coca-Cola during a long race. We didn’t really notice that we were tired, we didn’t care if we were slow (we totally were), and we didn’t even talk about the steepness of the hills we were climbing. If I believed in that sort of thing, I would say the universe sent me a buddy to reflect back to me all the positivity that I wanted to have about this race. Whatever it was, I couldn’t be more grateful, especially during the third and final loop.

Twenty miles in, I was getting tired. But it was really only a half-marathon kind of tired, so I was still a bit bouncy. Back at the tent I refilled my water bottle, grabbed a Luna bar and stuffed a bunch of gels into the pockets of my skirt. I met up with Crista and her friend Alexis (who decided to join us for the last lap) and we continued on together. We ran for probably two miles but then slowed to a comfortable, speedy walk. I had been ignoring it successfully for the last few miles, but my IT band was now starting to give me some real pain. And I knew exactly what it was: too much slouching early on in the race (likely during the aforementioned first four mile shuffle) had me over-striding for long enough to cause inflammation that was slowly getting worse as I continued on. It was too late to fix it with a form change, so my only choice was to walk for a large portion of the last loop and hopefully finish without causing any lasting injury. I was a little peeved because I had fixed my IT band issues over a year ago and I should have known better than to cause it to come back again – but for the most part I didn’t let the disappointment bring me down.

It was tough to walk. Every other body party was still on board to run. My feet were tired but okay. My hips were sore, but they liked running better than walking. However my knee only had a little left in her so I decided to save it for the last push at the end. I think Crista wanted to run more, too. But she refused to go on without me so we resorted to speed-walking through the fields as the sun grew hot in the clear, cerulean-colored sky.  We avoided the subject of our physical struggles and instead passed the time by singing. Rather loudly and badly, too. We covered Disney tunes, The Beatles, Tom Petty, Michael Jackson and the Steve Miller Band, and the wind passed our noise to the racers walking behind us, who laughed amiably whenever a voice cracked or we all forgot the words at the same time. Eventually we arrived back at the Muppet Show song (“mahna-mahna”), and by then we’d been dancing around on the trail like fools and had forgotten all about our sore feet for nearly an hour. And now we only had about four miles left to go.

The power of music, indeed. Someone should write a master’s thesis on that.

The last four miles were long, and my knee was starting to hurt significantly, but at this point I only remember the pain intellectually. Emotionally, I was all-in. Before, I had all but planned to drop out of this race, but while it was happening I didn’t spend a minute considering it. Each time I came back from a loop my mind was on fueling for the next one, instead of stopping or taking a nap. During the moments when I was the most tired, I was thinking about what I’ll do differently for my next 50k, instead of swearing off ultras for the remainder of my life. Rather than worrying over how exhausted I felt in the moment, I remembered one of my favorite things that my friend Vanessa wrote a while back in her blog, about ultra running: “One foot in front of the other, forever.”

amuletAmulet hand-made by Akabill. Mahalo!

*   *   *

So the final thing I learned about myself during this race is that I’m stronger than I usually give myself credit for, and I’m more beautiful than my eyes let me believe. Sure, today I may be looking at photos of myself during the race and lamenting my recent failures at weight loss – the one thing that, if successful, would have helped me finish the race much faster – but my body, at its current weight and training level, still took me across the 50K finish line. And has done it twice. However much I complain about my round tummy or my flabby arms, my body is strong, and my will is even stronger. It’s unfortunate that my eyes have trouble seeing the beauty that my heart feels for these chunky legs that carried me for 31 miles, and it’s a dichotomy that troubles me every day – and possibly it even hinders my weight loss goals. But I sincerely hope that my motivation to run this race again (and do it better next time) will naturally help to reconcile this conflicting double-vision body image that I struggle with, and that next year I’ll come back with both kinder eyes and a lighter body. It’s probably about time those two made up, anyway.

mencrista Taken with Crista and “Skirt Dude” (who handed out all the medals) right after finishing the race.
Photo by Michelle Amber Evans.

Thank you to Luis Escobar for putting on a race that to me is the ultrarunning adventure Mecca: I can’t wait to do it all over again next year. Thank you to Crista for your companionship: you were like my North Star! Thank you to Guadajuke for letting me pet you: your presence alone imploded my symbolism-loving mind. Thank you to my friends who made it to the race, new and otherwise: you continue to inspire me in ways I never see coming. Thank you to those who believe in me and especially to those who don’t: you give me strength beyond your understanding. Mahalo nui lo!

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Think Running is Boring? Then Go Find Some Trails.

Like most people who don’t run much, I used to think that running sucked because it was boring. Back then I would gut through a couple miles on a treadmill twice a week and talk to my friends about how much I hated it. Then once the hamster wheel got so monotonous that I would work through my lunch break just to avoid it, I took my boring two-mile lunch hour outside. I liked running outside better; there were cute dogs, hills, some good people watching. But it didn’t take more than a couple years before that got rather boring too.

So I took my runs to different places; I ran around my neighborhood, sought out a different lake near my office to jaunt around during lunch, started going after work, got myself a dog to run with. In that time I started running barefoot/minimalist and grew to love it. I even mapped out a 10-mile loop around my town to train for my first half marathon.

But, soon enough, that got boring too.

It wasn’t until I signed up for my first spring 50K race last winter that I learned exactly how not to get bored of running. How? Well, you gotta run trails.

Because the 50K I’d signed up for was on trail, I knew that I probably should start training on them. And at first I wasn’t even sure I understood why it was so important; I mean, running is running, right?

Wrong.

What I discovered during my training is that trail running is a totally different animal. And trail running can turn you into a totally different animal. All of my ultra-running friends know this, but almost everyone else does not. Running trails can turn you from a lazy-ass who jogs around the block on the weekend just to work off Friday night’s beers and pepperoni pizza, to an ultra-marathoner who gets up extra early on Sunday mornings just chomping at the bit to get a few hours of undisturbed miles in. In other words, running trails has the potential to change your mind about running entirely.

Recently, I had a revelation of sorts. It was about 11 o’clock on Sunday morning and I was running down some rough, gnarled New Hampshire trails with my best friend, Kathy. We were aiming for somewhere around 10 miles, and we were already at mile 8. A couple miles back, we had turned off the main trail onto a 3-mile long fire road we’d never run before. It was unmarked, rocky, hilly and so narrow we had to run single-file. At a few points the terrain was so rough we couldn’t run without falling on our asses, so we walked. We tripped over vines and roots a lot. At one point I kicked a rock the size of a basketball that I should have seen but didn’t. Kathy laughed. In fact, we were both smiling and laughing pretty much the whole time, despite the fact that the rain had washed off our bug spray and we were being eaten alive by mosquitos and I-don’t-know-what-else.

At one point during this run I looked up from my feet and noticed that we were traveling in a scene of utter beauty. The trees around us were tall and magestic, with all their branches way up over our heads. The undergrowth was lush and so bright it seemed to be lit from within. Everything was a shade of green so ethereal that it could never be replicated by any hi-def computer graphics in this world. This place, not more than 12 miles from my home, was timeless and magical, really something to behold.

I will say with complete honesty that I have never enjoyed a run so much in my entire life (one or two have come close, though, and they were also trail runs). When it was over I wasn’t tired, and I barely noticed that my hamstrings were sore and that there was a half pound of dirt in my brand new trail shoes. In fact, probably the only reason we stopped was because we were starving and tired of batting away the swarms of insects. After our feet were freed from our filthy shoes and the bagels and juice were gone, I think we both felt a little let down that the run was over.

That morning held all of the reasons I love to run. And I think more people who profess that running is boring should try running trails. I mean, try it in earnest. And I’m talking about real trails, too: winding, hilly paths of dirt that challenge your balance, not just those stick-straight and flat ones cut artificially into the land.

If you hate running, I think the right trails can change your mind. And here’s a few reasons why:

Trail Running Brings You Closer to Nature

Yeah, you’re probably thinking this one’s too obvious; of course, you’re not only going to be close to nature, you’ll be in it. But I’m not just talking about spacial geography here. I believe there’s a little part in all of us that needs to feel primal, animal-like. Many of us have lost that intrinsic part of ourselves, and running trails can bring it back.

This may sound corny to some of you, but when I’m flying over rocks and roots, splashing through puddles and sliding around in mud, I can feel the rich and layered history of my ancestors. Trail running calls to a side of me that is purely instinctual, a side which understands the movement of the wind and the growth of the trees. I feel the hunter and its prey, I hear my steady breath, I trust my legs. Running in nature is meditational in a way that doesn’t feel forced, but totally natural. Afterward my body sings and my mind is at ease. It’s better than years of therapy.

Mental Distractions Become Unnecessary

Used to be I had to have music in my ears on every run. In fact, I have skipped runs altogether, turned and gone back home because I forgot to bring my iPod with me. True story. And if you think running is boring, you probably have your head plugged in at all times too.

Well, all that changed once I started running more trails. And it wasn’t like I stopped bringing music with me out of some hippy/purist sensibility to never run with it. I stopped bringing my iPod because it was a distraction to my run, and I didn’t want to be distracted. At some point I found the music irritated me, made me feel clumsy and blocked off from the experiences of my surroundings, which were renewed and different every second. I think it’s a lot like when you’re driving somewhere new, and once you’re close to your destination you turn off the radio so you can concentrate. You don’t need your ears to find the right place with your eyes, but somehow the noise still becomes an obstacle to your concentration.

With no extraneous sound pumping into my ears I can monitor my form, enjoy the sounds of my dog’s panting and happy frolicking through the underbrush, and take in everything around me with all five senses at once.

Another point I want to make is that running trails can be just as much a mental workout as a physical one. This makes it a lot harder to get bored. During the tougher trails my mind is on overdrive, constantly measuring distance and making thousands of calculations on where to land and how to maneuver around rocks, brush and roots without falling. It’s so much fun! And when I’m not watching my feet, I’m taking in all the minutia of my surroundings: the flowers growing just off the trail, the variation of trees around me, the way the sun casts shadows in the soil…my scenery changes every second, and I don’t need any other diversions to help me enjoy my run.

Trails Strengthen Your Feet, Ankles and Legs

Mental advantages aside, going out on trails can have a huge impact on your physical strength as a runner. When you’re traveling on smooth paved roads, your feet touch the ground in the exact same spot each time, without variation, for thousands upon thousands of strides. Roads may feel easier than trails, because in many ways they are. There’s just not much there on roads for your body to contend with or learn from. No wonder you’re bored.

Trails, on the other hand, tear up your muscles by making all of them work harder to keep you upright and moving forward. On such varied terrain, each and every landing is different from the last, which keeps your proprioception wide awake and in a constant state of practice and adaptation. The day after your first trail run your ankles and calves will likely be on fire for the first time in ages. And yeah, that’s because you actually used them the way they were supposed to be used. Muscle imbalances solved. How novel.

But Trails Are Easier on Your Joints

Although I have no real prejudice against running on roads for speed or for an easy short jaunt, I will say I have noticed that over longer distances (greater than 8 miles), trails are much easier on my hips and ankles. The constant, consistent pounding of the pavement makes me sore and achy the next day, while I’ll typically feel just fine the day after running the same distance on trail. I believe the lower impact on dirt and natural land, combined with the variable foot landings, is what makes all the difference.

No Traffic, No Fumes, No Noise

Sure, I tend to run in places where I’ll cross paths with a lot of cyclists, dog walkers, other runners and even folks on horseback (and, further down the path, piles of horse crap). But I prefer it to all those honking, fuming hulks of loud metal that populate all the roads on my dangerously sidewalk-scarce hometown. It’s pretty hard to relax into a nice run while you’re dodging oncoming cars and trying to keep your confused dog from running you into traffic. Besides, I don’t really think I want 20 people at a stop light to see me blowing snot rockets into the bushes, anyway.

It’s Better for Your Dog, Too

Like to run with your favorite canine? That’s wonderful! And I mean it. All dogs need plenty of exercise and not enough people take the time to do it (especially my neighbors). But physical exertion isn’t the only thing that makes a simple walk so fulfilling. Dogs need a mental outlet too. Just like us, being cooped up within the same four walls day in and day out can drive a dog to tail-chasing. And walking the same route around the block is just as monotonous to them as it is to you.

Dogs live for running in the woods, just watch yours once and you’ll understand. Whenever I take my Boxer, Oscar, out for a trail run, he embodies the mere definition of happiness. He is exuberant and beautiful. He holds his tail up higher, he bounds bigger, and he acts, well…like a dog is supposed to. When there aren’t a lot of people around I let him off his leash so he can chase squirrels up trees, pick up sticks to carry with him, sprint and stop and then sprint again (a running pattern that is more natural for dogs than our near-constant steady pace). I let him cool off and have a drink in the natural ponds. When we get back home Oscar is usually exhausted, panting and drooling up a storm, and I know he loves me for it.

Oscar smiling after a nice long trail run.

I will admit that I do find road running to have its merits, and I spend a good deal of time on them. But if you don’t run, or don’t run enough because it’s boring to you, then really…try running out in the trails sometime. Just don’t forget the bug spray.

*nevermind the fact that at about three miles in, some bug bit or stung my forehead and drew blood. I cleaned it off and ignored it for the rest of the run, but by the time I got home, my entire face had swollen so much that I looked like Sylvester Stallone at the end of Rocky 2. Lesson learned: early morning rain makes bugs come out in droves, not hide in shelter as originally thought.


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Why I Might Not Run a 50k – Yet

As it stands, I am no more than a mediocre distance runner.

I am a better than bad distance runner who has made friends with some really good distance runners, and has subsequently been caught up in the exciting culture of the ultra marathon. Ultra marathoners, especially ones of the barefoot variety, are these fascinating, motivating, awe-inspiring and infinitely friendly people – who will tell you without a doubt that you can do what they do. Even if you have inadequate training and you are a mediocre distance runner like me. They are like running salesmen, and they’re really good for your self confidence.

And if you love to run, like I do, the ultra marathon culture is catchy. Every day it seems like a new person signs up for a 50k after having never run, for example, more than the distance of a half marathon. And these guys make it look so darn easy, which is why I signed up for a 50k, in a moment of sheer go-big-or-go-home insanity. Jason tells me that it’ll be easier than I think. Vanessa tells me I can finish it no problem. Pablo tells me that the training for his first 50k was no more strenuous than a few back-to-back 8 mile “long” runs, and he did fine.

I think the problem is that it’s easy to overestimate someone else’s endurance capacity if you’ve never run with them.

Here’s what I mean. Yesterday I ran 10 miles with Heather and Brad. They’re much better than mediocre distance runners. It’s an eye-opener when you’ve always done your long runs alone or with someone who is on your endurance level, and then one day some friends take you out on trails (when you’re primarily a road runner) that beat the shit out of you by mile seven, while they’re still floating uphill like gazelles. And they’re older than you.

Today I am seriously considering dropping down from the Pinelands 50k to the 25k. And not because I don’t think I could do the 50k. I probably could, simply because if I’m signed up to run 50 kilometers that day, I’ll finish if I have to crawl across the line. But I may not enjoy it. Pineland, Heather tells me, is 100% steep, rolling trail hills. Just hearing that makes me think of being totally unprepared last year for the Great Bay Half Marathon, because it had these ridiculous hills – and I’d only ever trained on flat roads. I finished just the same but it was so emotionally defeating that I didn’t run for almost a month afterward.

Despite the fact that I would love to become an ultra runner and be part of this culture, I think perhaps I’m just not ready yet. There are some hard, inevitable facts in my way. The first and biggest one is that I am overweight. The same effort it takes me today to complete 10 miles could probably get me to 16 or 18 miles if I was at the correct weight. Actually, forget anything else – that’s really the only thing holding me back. If it was easier for me to train, then I’d be less afraid of bigger distances and back-to-back long runs. I honestly believe I have the same insane drive as everyone else, which is why I fit in with them so well. I just don’t have the fitness to back it up.

And that’s what it really comes down to. I signed up for the 50k because I want to run it, because I love running that much, and because I’m the same kind of person as all of my crazy ultra running friends. The only difference between me and them is they’re not overweight and I am. And until I’m as fit as them, I’m just not going to be able to effortlessly make the huge jumps in distance that they routinely do.

I hope nobody takes this as me being self-depricating. It’s really not – this is way past a self-esteem issue. This is simply a logical conclusion that I am at a performance roadblock, and I must get past it if i’m ever going to become a better than mediocre distance runner. I am sad about the thought of setting aside my 50k goal, it feels like giving up and I almost never give up on things I want.

But I also don’t ever settle on being mediocre.


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Having Second Thoughts?

Picture stolen from Vanessa Run's blog

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.


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So I signed up for a 50k Race…I mean, how hard can it be?

Thanks to Vanessa Runs‘ awesome helpfulness, here’s my answer:

Yeah, you read it right. Back-to-back long runs. Thankfully, the real commitment to craziness, according to this schedule, doesn’t start for a whole month (thanks to a smart commentor, Jason Fitzgerald, for catching it – because I thought it was this week – yikes!). But, I mean…did you see week 11? That’s 24 miles on Saturday and then 10 on Sunday!

Gulp.

Okay, okay. Maybe this isn’t so out of bounds. I did want to increase my weekly mileage this winter anyhow. And I can (hopefully) run without hurting myself if I go nice and slow. I mean, I’m not going to win the race anyway, so forget that. But because I’m REALLY slow right now, I can work on speed during the week, along with some lifting and strength workouts.

I will admit something, though. I am not holding myself to the full 50k, if it becomes unreachable to me that day. I promise not to beat myself up if I have to stop after the first of the two 25k loops (and then beg the race director to let me pretend I’d signed up for the 25k, to avoid a DNF). With that said, if I spend these next four months training my ass off and manage to not get hurt, then I can’t see why a marathon wouldn’t be possible. And once I get to a marathon….well, what’s five more miles? Right?

But I am not completely obtuse. I know that most people train for years and years to get to ultra-marathon status. They run these things with serious goals in mind, besides beer and social networking. They are lithe and strong, they have earned their runner’s bodies, they can easily run a mile in under 7 minutes, and they haven’t eaten ice cream in at least 18 months. And most importantly, yeah so they’ve already run at least a few 26.2’s.

But me? Well, I’m a slow-as-fuck runner who averages between a 10-12 minute mile (these days it’s 12, and sometimes worse), I’m overweight, short, and I haven’t picked up a free weight in…at least 18 months. And I’ve never run more than 13 miles in my entire life. And that one time that I did? I didn’t even do a great job, I ran down a hill wrong and busted my IT band.

And I worked hard for that half mary. Busted my ass, even. I lost weight, worked my way up to three 10 mile long runs and one 11 miler. But since that didn’t seem to work for me much in the end, I think maybe this time I’ll go about it in a completely different way.

Oh, I am going to train. I’ll try my best to knock down all those back-to-back long runs. I’ll start doing strength training to even out. We’ll see how it goes. But if something starts to hurt? I’m going to stop and rest. If it starts to feel like a job? I’m going to stop and rest. If I can’t get all the miles in? I’m going to spend more time at the gym doing strength training. I’m not going to stress about it. I’m going to call these next four months of training The 50k Slacker Program. The way I figure it, I may actually be the least experienced person at the whole race, and my completion of it will be out of sheer dumb will, kind of like Forest Gump running cross country. And because I’m going into this just to have a good time, I’m going to let my Slacker attitude prevail, all the way.

So with that in mind, I have 5 possible goals for this race, in descending order of successfulness:

  1. Finish the 50k and drink my first beer as an ultra-marathoner (take that, disbelievers!)
  2. Finish the 25k and have time for more beer
  3. Drink Jason Robillard’s share of the beer while he runs 50 miles
  4. Drink beer with a bunch of cool barefoot running people like a total slacker
  5. Walk around barefoot drinking beer and wearing somebody else’s cowbell around my neck (they give away a cowbell instead of a medal, how cool is that?)

No matter what happens, though, I will come away from these four months fitter, lighter and stronger than I am today. So even if I don’t complete a single one of these goals on May 27th (although I’m pretty sure that walking around barefoot with a beer in my hand won’t be much to tackle), the Pineland 50k will have done me a whole lot of good.

So what’s to lose, right?

(except dignity, self-respect and the ability to stand?)


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The Runner I Am

It’s Thanksgiving night. As I sit in a quiet house, belly still full from pounds of comfort food lovingly prepared by family, head still spinning from those hours of catch-up conversation and several glasses of wine…I’m remembering how just before this day last year, I decided to train for my first half marathon.

I think last winter, the project of training for such a long distance (for me) was the most memorable and fulfilling thing I accomplished all year. And I have decided that I am going to do it again, and I am going to start training tomorrow. Now, when I say I’m training for “the half marathon”, I don’t mean that I have signed up for any races yet (I have one or two in mind, sure, but that’s beside the point). Nor do I mean that I have printed out any sort of training program with the ridiculous intention of starting it four months before spring race season (though I do find training programs mildly helpful as a guide for safely ramping up mileage). What I mean is I want to get myself mentally and physically back there again — to the place of running in the cold winter days and loving it, piling on the mileage and being thrilled about my ability to complete it. But this year, naturally, I want to improve my outcome. I want to have a better race. I want to pay closer attention to my eating habits and be lighter come race season. I want to improve my form. And most importantly, I want to enjoy it even more than last year. This year my resolution will be to quit all my whining and run smiley, even if it kills me. Okay…that was a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the idea.

Because, someday, I want to be an ultra-marathoner, and hopefully by then I will have become the runner I want to be.

And what is that?…the runner I want to be. What kind of runner am I now? Do I even qualify as a runner? These questions have been spinning through my mind for a very long time now. Then just the other day I read an article* by Kate Kift (the creator of the Run Smiley Collective) called “What is a Runner?” And it had a bit of an effect on me. Not too much of what she said surprised me, she and I are on the same page about most running-related topics – many barefoot and minimalist runners are. But she concentrated quite a lot on how others label us, and to me she seemed to paint the “runner” label as sort of trite and one-dimensional. But that’s probably because she has so many other hats, occupations that fill out her life, that she’d much rather be associated with them instead. And that’s totally cool.

But lots of people think of Kate Kift as a runner, myself included. Doesn’t she think of me as one? What about all these other runner people that we consort with?

Perhaps some of these amazing barefoot runner personalities don’t think of me as much of a runner. I can’t run fast – my fastest mile ever is barely under 9 minutes (and that was just a one mile run, no hills, on a really good day). I’m neither a Vegan nor a Paleo dieter. I’ve never run farther than 13 miles, nor have I run more than 21 miles in a week. I don’t have a slim runner’s body. Up-and-coming minimalist shoe companies aren’t tossing any free trial pairs into my mailbox. I don’t write books about running, and my blog doesn’t usually generate more than 50-60 hits a day. Being the fence-gazing, super-ambitious chick that I am, I think I’ve been stuck on all of this a little too much lately. I’ve got all this useless anxiety about my place in the world of barefoot and minimalist running. I can’t stop wondering: should I even be calling myself a runner, counting myself amongst these crazy badass barefooters, writing articles on the subject as if I’m some kind of authority? What do I even have to contribute, that one of these guys can’t bring a hundred times better?

But many of my friends, coworkers and my loving husband (i.e. people who don’t run) call me a runner. Some are even generous enough to say I’m a good one. I relish in the label. Know why? It gives me an identity. A place to exist in the world of my peers. And their role for me doesn’t include parameters like speed, distance or miles per week. They just see that I do something I enjoy, and they applaud and appreciate me. When they hear I ran 8 miles on Saturday their eyes get big and it makes me feel like a rockstar. It brings me back to the first days of my long training runs last winter, and how big my eyes got when I saw the mileage on my Garmin. “Yes, I really did it, and I am awesome!” I would gush at myself. I was proud. It was enough then. Why shouldn’t it be enough today?

So when it comes to whether I’m a runner or not, whether you are a runner or not, it really is just about perspective. A runner isn’t a person who gets endorsed by shoe companies, or who is an authority on the subject of good form. It isn’t the woman who ran the longest ultra marathon, or the dude with the fastest 10k time. A runner is simply a person who runs. But I’d like to add: a runner is a person who loves to run. This is the runner I am. I shouldn’t forget that this year.

*Also read Kate’s follow up article on Jason Robillard’s site: “Definition of a Perfect Runner


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100-Up Challenge: Week 2, and Some Inspiration

I won’t lie – I skipped a few days this week. But on the days that I didn’t skip, I worked in the 100-Up Major this time. One word: wow. They don’t call this major for nothing. Perhaps I’m not the most athletic minimalist runner in the universe….well okay, I’m definitely not. So maybe this was harder for me than it will be for you. But the first day I attempted the 100-up Major, I nearly fell over after 7 reps. I wish I had it on camera! It was like a slow listing to the right, and a few more reps I would have landed on my ass. I think part of the problem is that the only time I have during the day to do these in peace is first thing in the morning, and my joints are not exactly in tune yet. Not to mention my ankle ligaments that still need some time. At night my husband is home, and for some reason I am not really that comfortable bouncing around the living room with him watching. Maybe it’ll be less embarrassing once I’m more graceful at it. Maybe.

So the 100-Up minor does a lot for my hip muscles. The 100-up major? Had me sore in the following places the next day: shoulders, upper ribs, lower abdomen, hips, calves, shins and the arches of my feet. I mean, not since the pushup have I worked so many muscle groups all at once. Not to mention these are all the parts that get the most tired and sore after my long runs, so these are the perfect muscle groups to be targeting. I’m thankful that it’s only 100 reps, too, because it’s difficult to keep up. It’s harder than running, and I think that is why W.S. George found this exercise helpful. If in practice you work harder than you’ll need to during the test, then you’ll pass with flying colors.

I am hoping that a good dose of this exercise will help my ankle strength and prioperception, as well, something I definitely lack.

How are your 100-ups going?

And on another note, I wanted to pass along a link to this video that I saw this morning on Run Barefoot Girl‘s blog. Shelley Viggiano, an ultra runner, creator of the famous Mind the Ducks 12-hour Run, and truly an inspiration herself, shoots video of her husband on his  first 100-mile race. By the end of it I was feeling a lot of different emotions, among them pride, happiness and nothing short of absolute inspiration. Now, more than ever, I feel as though at some point in my life I will become an ultra runner. Maybe not 100 miles, but hey…a girl can hope.

From the description it seems a lot of folks had already seen this two-part video, but if you haven’t, it’s really something to behold.

Burning River 100-Mile: Part 1

Burning River 100-Mile: Part 2