Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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Obstacle Races and Ultrarunning: A Horrible Match Made in CrossFit Hell?

I started running for real about three years ago. And by “for real” I mean three years ago I announced to the public world that I am a runner, and I did this by signing up for my first race (does that sound too much like I’m comparing my running life to the way more meaningful “coming out of the closet”? Hm. Is that weird? Whatever, nevermind). I started with 5K’s, then 10k’s, and then eventually I moved up to longer races and I have pretty much stayed there ever since. I guess you could say I evolved into a distance runner, or at the very least I found my sweet spot. Which, by the way, is somewhere between “pretty slow” and “fucking really slow.”

But of course, staying anywhere for too long is never enough these days. You’ve always got to be striving to finish faster or go longer. A couple of years ago, while I was still doing my best to pin down a better half marathon time, the ultramarathon snuck up on everyone and became the new thing. Plain old 26.2’s just didn’t cut it anymore (unless you’re a road runner, and I mean, who wants to be one of those? Ugh*). The new standard went that you didn’t know what it was like to really love running unless you’ve run a trail race that’s so long you needed to change your shoes, stop to poop more than once, and consume full meals during the running of it. But once you ran your first ultra, you were from then on deemed an “ultrarunner.” Oh yes, that nifty, arbitrary term that has absolutely no real meaning. And once you’ve earned it then maybe, just maybe, you could even call yourself a real runner. Anything less than that was sorta washy.

So of course, I just had to have it. In due diligence, I completed my first ultra marathon. And then I ran another…you know, for posterity. Did I run them for the privilege of being able to call myself a runner? Maybe, who the hell knows.  After all these years I’m still not even sure where walking ends and running begins, anyway.

But no need to get stuck on all that baloney: because the whole expectation has changed once again. Have you noticed? Now it’s all about the obstacle race. I for one blame the trendy, LuluLemon-outfitted, meteoric rise of the CrossFit workout. Now, CrossFit is all about obstacles. Machines. Heavy weights. Upper-body strength. Anaerobic exercise. Grunting. In other words, being a CrossFitter is the exact opposite of being a runner. And obstacle races, well…from the looks of ’em, they are the CrossFit of races. Or, wait…maybe they’re the race of CrossFitters? Either way they totally confuse me, because 5K obstacle races are everything that a 5K race…isn’t.

I have a handful of friends who make an enormous deal out of “running” obstacle races. I’m happy that they are getting off the couch and being active (even if they are only ever being active as such, on the day of the race). My friends, like most other obstacle race enthusiasts, seem to have taken the act of climbing walls, crawling through mud pits, jumping over small fires, carrying buckets of water, hanging from ropes and knocking down dozens of burpees, and packaged it up into their definition of “running.” As in, “BillyBob and I are running the Spartan race next weekend.” But the message is totally faulty. Because from what I’ve gathered about obstacle races, the skills required to finish them have very little to do with the skills and training required to finish, say, the regular old 3.1 miler. In a 3.1 miler, you run. And you don’t stop, for the whole time. In an obstacle race, what little energy devoted to running is just for the purpose of getting from one obstacle to the next.

spartan

So why do so many obstacle race enthusiasts identify as “runners”? Has the obstacle course addict now become the new “runner”? Has CrossFit completely rearranged everything about fitness, encompassed it, right down to our beloved foot race? Have obstacle races taken away the hard-earned and much-coveted, bemedaled glory of the distance runner?

One might say yes, it has. But I reject that, gosh-darn it! Obstacle racers are not, in and of themselves, runners. They are obstacle racers, who participate in obstacle races. They may be strong, they may be badass. They may be able to do twenty more pull-ups than me (which is to say they can do…well…twenty pull-ups). But one thing they can’t do as well as me is train like a distance runner! They don’t spend long hours logging miles on their feet, they don’t obsess about pace and fueling, or sacrifice entire weekends for the long run. I declare that obstacle racers belong to the CrossFit Team, not the Runner Team.

Indeed, if you Warrior Dashers, Mud Runners and Spartan Sprinters want to prepare your bad asses for an obstacle race, you’d be much better off doing something like, oh I don’t know, 100 burpees a day. And then some deep squats. And a lot of grunting, too. You obstacle racers should stay over there with the kettle balls and the chin-up bars, and let us runners keep our race medals and our GPS watches and our useless upper bodies. Guys, there’s just no room for any kind of crossover**. You’re either one of them, or you’re one of us. I mean, seriously, I’ve never met an ultrarunner who does 100 burpees a day for fun. Have you?

(Shut up, Vanessa Runs)

I propose we all henceforth agree that obstacle racers shall call themselves “CrossFitters” (or some preferred variation of), instead of “Runners”. Because with all the man-made, non-runner-friendly contraptions littered all over the course, calling it a CrossFit race is much more fitting than calling it a Sprint or a Run. Or at the very least, if you want a true crossover, you should allow for the individual interpretation of the race by each participant, based on their preference and skillset. I mean, think about it: as a runner, using my very well-rounded*** runner’s logic, I would argue that the best way to complete the Spartan Sprint would be to…well…sprint. Sprint past, around and between all of the obstacles. A real “runner” would never climb over walls because that would just eat up precious seconds from our PR.

So don’t call it a sprint. Don’t call it running. Call it racing, if you must…but it would be even better if you found some other term. Maybe you could just settle on something more accurate, like hustling, or maneuvering. Or how about scampering. I’ve always liked that word, scampering. Nobody uses it anymore. I think we should bring it back.

*Before you get your panties in a bunch, I should let you all know this post is meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Get off the treadmill/rowing machine and laugh, people.
**Yes…still jesting. This is supposed to be fun, no whining allowed.
*** I know what you’re thinking: my logic is airtight thus far.
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Review: The Summit Seeker, by Vanessa Runs

summitseeker

Vanessa Rodriguez doesn’t look like your typical 100-mile ultra marathon runner. She isn’t wiry-thin and excitable. She is quiet and diminutive, with dark Central-American skin, muscular legs and black hair that falls lazily into several small, still-kinky dreadlocks. Sometimes she runs 100 miles in a week, sometimes maybe twelve, and sometimes she walks her dog Ginger or does yoga instead. She doesn’t use training plans. She doesn’t monitor her heart rate or record her running splits. Vanessa does not run with the front of the pack. Often, she doesn’t even know for sure how far she ran or how long it took her to finish. For these and many other reasons, Vanessa is not only a dear friend of mine, she is also my favorite ultra runner of all time.

The Summit Seeker is a story about this incredible runner. It is comprised of several snippets that, when bound together, open a wide window on the life, love, pain, joy, grit and heart of this woman who has grown from a lonely, introverted child into an inspiration for all those who cross her path. Its title is derived from the nickname she has given to the home she now shares with her boyfriend Shacky, a punchy little Rialta RV. It is also a rather tidy definition of Vanessa’s mantra for life: always seeking the highest point, always looking up and traveling toward a better, wider and more beautiful view on things from above. A view that one can only enjoy after overcoming the most difficult of climbs.

The best thing about this book is that it is so frank in its storytelling, so raw in its honesty that you will undoubtedly find yourself somewhere in its pages. Maybe it’s the neglected grade school aged girl charged with feeding and caring for her younger siblings, or the young woman whose first months living on her own found her lost in an unexpectedly stifling marriage. You might see yourself running all the many miles it took her to gain enough distance from her own inner darkness so that she could finally see the light of change. The story of The Summit Seeker is in all of us, and that is why it will inspire you, challenge you and perhaps even change you, as much as it did for me.

You don’t have to be an ultra runner, or even a runner at all, to gain something from Vanessa’s story. But who knows? You might just want to become one when you’re done reading.

The Summit Seeker by Vanessa Rodriguez is currently available from Amazon.com in several formats: Paperback Edition Kindle Edition, for Kindle/Kindle App or Smashwords version for Nook and other eReaders. You can also request a digital signed copy from Authorgraph.com.

What are you waiting for? Pick up your copy today and help support Vanessa Runs as she takes on her next adventure!


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How the Ultra-Marathon Killed the Runner

tired

I just walked in from my weekend long run. Well, what was supposed to be a long run, anyway. The plan was for eighteen miles all by myself on the pavement and trails of my new pretty California neighborhood. I wanted a new route so I planned three rounds of a perfect 6 mile loop with my ever-faithful running partner, Oscar the boxer dog.

That first loop was great. Nicely paved sidewalks and lots of different trees. The sun was out but the air was cool and crisp with a few leaves crunching underfoot, so it felt a bit like autumn in New England.

The loop ended at the start of my street and when I reached it, I kept going on to the second loop. I was feeling fine, legs still strong, and I was deep in the zone. I thought, if this was the end of my run I’d finish so strong, with a happy heart and positive thoughts about the experience. By the time I finish this second loop I’m going to be much more tired, and probably feeling less happy. And what about the third loop? How will I feel after 18 miles – will I never want to run again? Then I thought, if this was the marathon that I have coming up next month, I’d get to this point and still have a 20-miler ahead of me —

And that’s when I stopped dead. And I asked myself: For what reason am I doing this to myself? Why am I ruining a perfectly happy, gorgeous fall 6 mile run? To train for a marathon? And then what, another ultra? What exactly am I trying to accomplish here?

I looked down at Oscar and said out loud, “This is stupid.” He looked up at me, panting, with his huge brown eyes and a bit of drool hanging from his adorable jowls, and seemed to agree. So we turned around right there, and we walked the last mile home. When we arrived my Garmin watch said 7.56 miles. I remember a time when that was far enough to make me feel accomplished. Why isn’t it enough anymore?

The answer is this: because I became an ultra runner. And that just may have been the biggest mistake I ever made in my running life.

Last year at this time I was training for a 50K. My first ultra-marathon. I always loved that word. Ultra-marathon. The term alone sounds like a feat of royalty. In the running world, being an ultra runner holds such a high esteem. I wanted that for myself.

At the prodding of my well-intentioned group of trail running buddies, I signed up for the Pineland Farms 50K and started training with gusto. My short runs got longer and longer, and my weekend runs quickly went from 8 to 12 to 15 miles and longer. I ran as much as I could, and in the beginning I relished the piling on of miles. New personal distance records were happening almost every week for me, it was such a great high. But as my training wore on it got more dreaded and strained. During the last two miles of my final training run before the race, I wanted to cry. And I never wanted to run again. I was bored, mentally drained and desperately lonely.

Not surprisingly, the 50K itself went much like those last few training runs, only it was much longer and much more awful. I nearly threw in the towel twice, and if it wasn’t for the charity of my friend Sheree run/walking me in those last five miles, I couldn’t call myself an ultra runner today. I crossed the finish line, and I got my medal, but oftentimes I wonder, did I really accomplish anything that day?

It’s possible the only thing that 50K managed to do was murder my running mojo. And I’m talking murder of the gruesome, bloody and screaming variety, with the Texas Chainsaw Massacre score playing in the background.

All I wanted to do was earn a shiny new status as an Ultra-Marathon Runner, to exemplify my love for the sport; to take my strength and determination to a higher level; to qualify my place in the trail running world, among all the other serious trail runners that I count as friends, acquaintances and role models. But after that race was over, all I ended up with was a worn spot on the couch where my ass never left for weeks.

In the last 8 months since that race I have slowly begun to run a fair amount of miles again, though rather inconsistently. Some weeks I get to 27 miles, some weeks I barely break 10. I still dread any distance longer than a half marathon. Also I have gained over ten pounds because I have continued to eat like I’m running lots of miles each week, even though I am not.

I signed up for a marathon in January because I thought it would make me train again. That the thought of an upcoming race would ramp up my motivation. But it’s actually done the opposite. Because I have to run to train for this race, I don’t want to run at all. To be completely honest, I don’t even want to run this race and I’m contemplating the best way to sell my number to someone so I don’t waste the entry fee.

I used to be such a happier runner. When I first discovered the point of running with good form, I enjoyed the process of learning it. Then that joy transferred to the joy of adding mileage to my previously embarrassing weekly runs. And then the joy only grew. I learned how much I loved running 5, 6, 7 miles at a time. How much I enjoyed the silence, the time spent with my dog, the pure exertion. I began to lose weight, look stronger, feel better about myself. Back then, I was only running half the weekly distance that I am now.

Today on the seventh mile of my run I realized that somewhere along these last few months I’ve lost all the reasons why running made me happy before. Before I started running for this reason or that, for training or for some arbitrary weekly mileage number or for accolades from other runners.

Today I realized something very interesting: that running makes me happiest when I am doing it for no reason. No reason at all.

If all this time I had been running just that little 6-mile loop, three, maybe four times a week, I could have been easily racking up 24 mile weeks, avoided burnout, ended every run with a smile on my face, lost 8-10 pounds a month, and never had to attempt a grueling 20 miler, ever. If only I could have been satisfied with that.

If only I could have decided earlier that just because I look up to some of my more talented running friends, doesn’t mean I have to be just like them. If only I could have kicked that feeling a long time ago, the anxiety over being left behind in the dust by all of those fast and fit ultra runners, while I plugged along on my happy little 6-10 mile long runs. If only I had the fortitude to smile and wave at them as they left me, perfectly content to log my own miles, at my own pace, in my own way. Bon voyage.

But I didn’t. I didn’t have the courage to say “not yet.” Or even, god forbid, “not ever.” No thanks, it’s not for me. Instead I left my happy running place, under the guise of “discovering my limits.” I trained hard. I dug deep. I learned my limits, and I chased the dream. And in the process, I also managed to chase down and kill my own love of running. Not exactly the outcome I anticipated, although in hindsight, I really should have seen it coming.

Last night while I was home by myself, I watched a documentary film called Happy. I’m glad I did, because I found it quite moving and insightful. It’s a film delving into what it is that makes people happy on a universal level, and I highly recommend it. One particularly interesting point it makes is that people are ultimately the most happy when they can do things with intrinsic value to them, when they can get into a zone while doing these things, and often, when they are doing something for no real reason at all, other than the desire to do it. Playing a game, relaxing with a good book, going for a run. The movie goes on to talk about the importance of intrinsic values (sense of community, good deeds) over extrinsic ones (money, status) in a person’s happiness, and the surprising definition of wealth and well-being to some of the happiest people on earth (spoiler alert: it’s the Danish).

What this film taught me is that I need to curb my extrinsic feelings about running (an ever-growing desire for recognition, accolades and status from others in the ultra running community), and nurture my intrinsic ones (personal growth, self-motivation, volunteerism) instead. I need to kick off the shackles of training commitments and ever-looming pressures to sign up for races that are too far outside of my current comfort level, and go back again to my roots of running for no reason at all.

I need to go back to chasing only happiness, because I know that’s when I’ll finally start feeling like a runner again.


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Training for a Race by Not Running: A Study in Counter-Intuitiveness

So, I’ve been hearing a lot of the following things lately:

  • If you do nothing but running, you’ll suffer from muscle imbalances.
  • Train better for running by weight training.
  • Running makes you better at running, but Crossfit makes you better at everything (eye roll).
  • Do Burpees.
  • Do squats and lunges.
  • Do deadlifts.
  • You want to run better? Faster? Then you gotta stop running!

And on and on with the ridiculousness. If you know me at all, you probably know how annoying I think Crossfit is. Nothing against you people who love it, I just…don’t. I really just dislike all that chest-beating, grunting, beastly, anti-runner dogma that seems to emanate from so many of Crossfit’s devotees. In some ways it seems pretentious and showy to me. And not to mention I just hate the idea of having to be inside a gym to work out.

For awhile most of that strength-training noise was coming from the Crossfitters exclusively, which makes sense because most Crossfitters think they’re better than runners. But lately I’ve been hearing more and more support of these crazy ideas emanating from the ultra runner crowd.

I know, it sounds totally counter-intuitive, right? Train for a run by not running? But it really seems to have worked for some of my ultra runner friends, especially the more injury-prone ones. For instance, my friend Krista trained for her first 100k without ever really doing long runs. And my friend Christian does Crossfit workouts almost every day (at least he does them at home) and hasn’t run more than ten miles since probably last spring (nor has he written a single blog post, I might add). But they both do quite well when they get to the starting line, despite spending over 90% of their workout time in the weight room.

Let me say this right now: I will never do that non-running crap. I run. I do it because I love it. And I mean I really love it. I don’t even see distance running as exercise, it’s simply something I want to do. It’s part of my lifestyle. Giving it up altogether in lieu of squat thrusts and 100-Burpee-a-Day challenges would be totally idiotic and counterproductive.

But…

I think there is something to be said for all-around strength and muscle competency. I mean, right now I can’t even do a pull-up. Not even one. Not even with 50 pounds of assistance. And I mean, if you think about it practically, such a lack of upper body strength could potentially translate into a major disadvantage for me in the event of a zombie attack. Sure, I could run pretty consistently until most of them lose interest or manage to die, but what if I have to climb a rope up to a third story building to avoid them? Right now I’d be totally screwed.

Yes that’s right, I measure fitness by one’s relative chances of living through a zombie attack. Don’t judge.

I’d totally live longer than this chick in a zombie attack.

So, here’s what I’m getting at: I have signed up for the Raptor Ridge Half Marathon on October 14th. That’s three weeks away. And because of all the uproar of this move, I really haven’t been training the way I should. I haven’t even run longer than seven miles in over six weeks. But that doesn’t even worry me. Thirteen miles is not much of a feat for me anymore. The problem is that a vast majority of the race involves climbing one giant hill, going back down, and then turning around and coming right back up. And since I have spent the last 9 years running on almost completely flat roads and rail trails, hills and I really aren’t friends yet. In order to complete that half without DNF’ing or dying (which would also result in a DNF), I’m going to need a major strength and endurance overhaul.

Which is why I signed up for a butt-crack ‘o dawn, weekday morning Boot Camp.

This isn’t my class, but yeah. It’s dark at 5:30am. Prime time for a zombie barrage. Just sayin’.

So for four days per week, from 5:30-6:30am, I have been paying someone to force me to run up over picnic tables, sprint and grape-vine across baseball fields, run obstacle courses, lunge, squat, do pushups, situps, burpees, tricep presses, and so on, until I’m slightly nauseous. I’m curious to see how it will affect my speed and endurance, and I am even more curious to see whether it’s going to matter if I ever do any real-deal long runs before Raptor Ridge.

In addition to Boot Camp, I plan to spend as much time as I can doing hill repeats up God-Forsaken Hill (my nickname for the crazy steep hill that sits directly in the center of Buena Vista park, right across from my neighborhood), running up and down Raptor Ridge and the hills at Lake Hodges with my buddy Kate, and cross-training by riding around on my bike. Which I haven’t done yet, but I will…I swear.

So I guess, in my lack of recent mileage, I’m about to learn how much I really need to actually run in order to be able to run better. Will I become a cross-training believer, or will I regret not running more? I’ll let you know in about three weeks.

So, what’s your take on the whole “cross-training as race training” theory?


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The NEW New Goals

One thing to know about me is that while I’m really good at setting goals, I’m not always too spectacular at keeping them alive. Kind of like if you bought a really pretty bonsai plant for your house and then only watered it for a week. Some goals are just impossible for me to complete without first getting bored or otherwise distracted.

Sometimes my goals are met, though, at least partly if not fully. As planned, I completed my first 50K race this year. Also I ran a better half marathon. And in about two weeks my husband and I are moving across the country to San Diego, a goal we have had in mind since sometime around forever. Not too bad for 2012, I’d say.

And then there’s the goals I never completed: lose 30 pounds before the Pineland 50K. Finish a 20-mile training run. A 30-day running streak. 100-ups. The Paleo diet. Learn to love gardening.

All of these things were somewhat of a failure. And I think that’s because they were all things I thought I should try, rather than what I really wanted to do. They are all similar, though, in meaning: a way of working toward self-improvement, and added self-awareness.

(Well, except for the gardening stuff. I’m never going to learn to love mowing the lawn and planting flowers. Forget it. So instead we are hiring a gardener to deal with the new place.)

It is a good thing to always aim at improving yourself. No matter where you are in life, there’s always room for a challenge or a change. So I have revised my short-term list of goals, based on my own current version of self-improvement and upward change. It’s not your list of goals, or Scott Jurek’s, or Vanessa Runs’…it’s mine. It’s not a long one, either. And I think that is why it just might work.

1. More Ultras

This one is simple. I want to run more ultras. 50k’s, 50 miles, and perhaps beyond that. Or perhaps not. Thing is, I don’t have a set time goal for any new distances (beyond 50K), because that’ll just set me up for stress and ultimate failure. Also I haven’t signed up for anything at all, yet. And I still like my half marathons and 10k’s, so I’m not sure I’ll ever completely eliminate them from my repertoire like some of my ultra friends have. I just know that I have so much more to learn from the ultra marathon, and I’m finding that I very much look forward to the experience.

2. Trails + Hills

This year I fell in love with the trail, which is very awesome. But I am still really fucking bad at running up and down hills. It’s not that I can’t do it. I really just don’t do it. Not very often, anyway. There aren’t a lot of hilly trails near me, and I don’t spend much time looking for them, either. So as a result, when I do find myself at the bottom of some hills, I run out of gas pretty quickly. But I can get better, I know it. I am strong and enduring. All it will take is some practice and some dedication to the other goals I’ve got listed here.

3. More Challenges

I have a lot of very talented mountain-running trail monkeys as friends. Shelly and Jason Robillard, Jesse Scott, Mr. Shacky-Shackleford, Vanessa Runs, Pat Sweeney, et al. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t want to be them. I don’t care if I run as fast or as far as any of them, ever. But, what they’ve shared about their journeys is very helpful to me. I have learned a lot about myself by watching them, following the goals they have achieved, and even by getting to run with some of them. I want more challenges, I want to experience more of the things that running can offer me, and I want to grow as a person because of it. I want to be faster, fitter, and to enjoy longer runs. And once I get there, hey…I guess I’ll have those crazy monkeys to thank for it.

4. Healthier Eating Habits

Yeah, I say it every day. I really gotta stop eating pizza and chocolate. Start counting calories again. Get back on Paleo. Maybe try vegan. Soon. Next week. Once we move. before my next ultra. Someday. Blah, blah.

Blah.

It never works. So, to hell with diets. It really just time for me to grow the fuck up and stop eating like a twenty year old. I’m 33 now. Pasta makes my belly fat and my belly fat keeps me from running fast. With the rest of my goals shifting towards better training and ultras, this is my goal to eat for the purpose of running fuel. Chances are, if I do this right and run as often as I want to, I’ll lose weight reasonably fast. And then I’ll finally be able to run reasonably fast.

5. Cross-Training

I am notoriously bad at cross training. I tell people that I don’t run for exercise, because if I did I’d probably only run twice a year. I don’t do well with exercise for the sake of exercise. It has to be a challenge, a game, or an art form for me to even consider wanting to do it regularly.

But I really need to get stronger to become a better runner. Something has to change. So next week I am cancelling my gym membership in Boston, and I’m not getting another one in San Diego. And I’m not joining any expensively ridiculous Crossfit gyms, either. Nope. Instead I’m buying myself a mountain bike, and I’m going to ride it on off days and for simple errands to cut down on gas usage. And I’m going to make myself a slosh tube (thanks for teaching me, Jason!) and get better at things like burpees and squats. I don’t need a gym membership to cross train. I just need some fucking motivation.

And that concludes my list. My hopes are that the change in scenery, the complete overhaul of my work hours and lack of commute, and my ultra-badass friends living nearby will all be helpful motivating factors. If nothing else I’ll be totally out of excuses.

 


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Last to Start, Last to Finish: Pineland Farms Trail 50K Race Report

Me and Brad and Team SquirrelWipe, at the starting line.

Throughout four months of training for my first ultra marathon, I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. And even seconds before the gun went off, standing in the grassy clearing at the start line of this race in my Pace Gloves and my Team SquirrelWipe tank top, I still had no idea. I have come to the conclusion that one has no way to fathom what a trail ultra is like, until one completes a trail ultra.

My friend Sherée and I started the race at the very back of the pack because I knew we’d be there soon enough anyway. Besides, I’m not too fond of watching 300 people (including my more talented running friends Shelly Robillard, Adam Gentile and Brad Waterson) whiz past me at the beginning of a race – it’s just not great for morale. And I had to pee in the woods ASAP because the lines at the porta-johns were too long.

We started at a modest pace, feeling brave and adventurous. I knew there would be hills, lots of them. Steep ones. But I did my best to ignore that reality for as long as possible. We flew over the first few of those hills and glided back down. The trail was clean, soft and mostly rock-free. There were frequent breaks from the woods into acres of gorgeous, grassy pasture that had been mowed down to form perfect 5-foot wide trails snaking around and crossing over each other. I was exhilarated and the view was breathtaking. There were cows, white picket fences, farm houses and sunshine. It was ridiculously awesome, and I’d never been happier to be running.

We had a timely arrival to the second aid station of the race, which was actually three stations in one, all set up at angles connected to different sections of trail in the middle of a mowed pasture. Turns out I would have some important encounters with people at this very station throughout the race. The first of them was right then, as Brad waved at me from the second of the three stops. Damn he’s fast. “How did he already get there?!” Sherée asked me as we stuffed our faces with bananas, Oreos and quartered PB&J sandwiches (we didn’t give ourselves time to eat breakfast before the race). I didn’t know…but all of a sudden I needed to catch up.

I might have wanted to catch Brad a little too much, though, because we probably went too fast and I lost Sherée once we got back to that station again. Her injury was flaring up so she decided to call it early. At first I was thinking “lucky bitch,” but it wasn’t until many miles later that I would realize how lucky I was that she didn’t run the whole race.

The second time I met someone at this three-in-one aid station, it was Jason Robillard. He was on mile I-dunno-what (he was running the 50 mile race) and I’d just started my second of two laps around the course, probably somewhere around mile 17. I had just left the porta-john and was busy eyeing the water truck that had just come in, fantasizing about hopping in the back and calling it a day. Just as I opened my mouth to ask someone if I could get a ride, I was pulled violently from my reverie with the sun-shiny words “Hey, Trisha!” to my right. There was Jason, looking fresh as a fucking daisy.

I will admit I was thrilled to see him again, after having already spent some time running together a few miles back. When he came up to me then, hooting and hollering something about Team SquirrelWipe from behind me, I was insanely relieved to have him there. I was working on mile 12 or 13 (now’s a good time to mention that I purposely didn’t wear my Garmin – the jury is out on whether that was a smart move), and hitting my first major low. We chatted a bit and compared notes, and then before going ahead on his own, Jason helped me visualize running past the start/finish at mile 15.5, and then moving on to that second lap without even thinking. He told me to ride out the low end of this wave like these rolling hills, and then he took off up the hill like a barefoot stallion. Er…yeah.

He probably didn’t realize that every one of the 50 or so 25K runners that flew past me after that were going to sink me further and further into that wave.

But I digress. Now I was past the start/finish, and I’m sure he was glad to see his advice helped me get this far. He listened to me garble on about being tired and completely ignored my ideas about quitting, as if I hadn’t even voiced them. He didn’t seem to give one or two shits that I’d been crying only minutes before reaching this aid station. He told me this was all normal – normal! – and sent me on my way, telling me which station I should plan to get food from. He never stopped being positive for one millisecond. Damn him.

And after some time I found the aid stations were becoming part of an emotional pattern for me. I’d see one, speed up, arrive with a smile, and then someone would ask me what I wanted in my handheld (eventually they stopped asking and just took it from me, because I was too exhausted and confused to answer). I’d spend a few moments lollygagging around (later, I’d spend a lot more moments) and then I’d grab a handful of the closest food item from the table and shove it in my mouth as I left. Then I would run for a good clip, feeling refreshed and rather happy. And then after awhile I would grow tired, come to the bottom of a big hill and start to walk. Then I would sink into a deep, lonely despair, unable to run much more (because there were too many hills) until I caught sight of the next aid station.

This cycle repeated for me until the 6th and final time I reached that infamous three-in-one aid station. I let the nice aid station lady (it could have been a dude for all I know – people were getting sort of fuzzy by now) fill up my handheld with Cytomax and I took a little sit-down on the grass beside the food table. I was perhaps at mile 23 or so, and I couldn’t feel my face. This time I was definitely going to get someone to drive me in. I don’t know how long I sat there deciding, but it might have been ten or more minutes. The teenagers were starting to give me worried looks when a 70 year old woman named Terry came along. I remembered passing her back at mile one (good lord). She asked me why I was sitting down, and I nonchalantly told her that it was because I was waiting for my ride back.

Now, tiny little Terry might have looked frail, but she pulled me off that grass like she was plucking a daisy in a field. “Let’s go,” she demanded. “You’re nearly done, you’re not stopping now.” I spent the next three miles walking with her, while she distracted my exhausted tears with stories from her long and amazing ultramarathon career (and I do mean amazing). She got me as far as the start/finish area (mile 26), where I decided to take a short pit-stop at the porta-johns. I had only five miles left.

In the porta-john I decided that since I’d just run a marathon, that was good enough. That it was taking too damn long for me to finish this race, and that it was time to go find Sheree in the crowd, tell her I’m all set, and have a beer together. Mmmm. Beer. Then I realized there was no more toilet paper, so it was a damn good thing that I’d shoved some in the side pocket of my handheld that morning. Phew.

I stepped out, looked up, and…shit. There was Sherée. Standing at the top of the hill like a monument of resolve. The look on her face said she wasn’t going to let me stop. “Let’s go, honey, there’ s just five miles left and I’m running them with you.”

Now I realize that obviously, I never really wanted to quit before I finished. If I did, I am more than pig-headed enough to have overcome all of my friends’ determination to keep me going. It’s embarrassing now that some of them had to watch me whine like an over-tired 5 year old as I walked through the start/finish toward my final 9K loop, but I was going to do it either way.

I think in the end I just needed some companionship, and I’m not sure I could ever make Sherée understand how much it meant to me that she was there right then. Those hills, those woods were really lonely. It’s fairly obvious that my legs were not quite prepared for the constant barrage of hills on this decidedly hellish course, but I was absolutely blindsided by my emotional despair and overwhelming sense of aloneness. Normally I prefer running alone, I even have written articles on the positives of running alone. But my mind, my heart, just could not handle my loneliness during this race. And that’s probably why I lingered for so long at the aid stations (I figure I wasted about 1.5 hours at them), and why I practically waited for people like Terry and Jason to come along and lift me out of my interminable funk.

I was also surprised that I preferred the fields to the wooded parts of the course. Everyone around me (er…passing me) was bitching about the heat and sun as the afternoon closed in, but throughout the day I found that the sunny fields were the only areas I really felt like opening up to a run. The sun was hot and yucky, but I barely noticed. Its familiarity lifted me out of my emotional darkness. But more than anything else, contrary to the woods the fields were more or less flat. Even toward the end of the race I found I could maintain a much better running pace on these flat areas. In the end I guess it really was the hills (and, perhaps, the hills alone) that made this race so profoundly difficult for me.

After a quick stop at the bag drop-off to bandage a small blister and check my phone for inspirational text messages (of which I had many, because I’ve got amazing friends), Sherée and I took off for the last five miles. The first half mile was in the fields – those lovely fields – and Sherée gingerly commented that I was going pretty fast. I didn’t care. I felt good, I wanted to run fast and I wanted to be done. Soon as we entered the hilly woods, I fell apart again like clockwork. But she whisked me through this last hour as fast as she could on fresh legs. She was so unwaveringly supportive, that I’m pretty sure she would have carried me to the finish line if necessary.

But before too long (well…nevermind, it was way too long), we were almost done. All I had to do was cross the street and enter the clearing toward the finish line. Sherée sent me on as I sped up to a trot, then a run, then a faster run. Brad appeared before me – barefoot, flailing and making wild noises like he was trying to scare the cows. There were strangers clapping and hooting at me, and cowbells ringing out their metallic monotone as I sprinted for the finishers chute, dead fucking last, with a colossal grin on my face.

I got a fever. And the only prescription is…more cowbell.

I have a few conclusions about this race. Some of them relate to my embarrassingly bad finish time, my feelings about having walked too much and whined too much, my regret over picking such a difficult course, etc. And others point to the little victories, like the fact that I didn’t get hurt, that I handled all the downhills surprisingly well, and that I finished at all, even though I was the last one to do so.

In the end, perhaps my finishing this race was more of a testament to my will and determination than it was to my slacker training. But the bare fact is that I finished. I did it. I might be the slowest one under the age of 70 but I am an ultra-marathoner.

And as Jason Robillard promised would happen, I kinda can’t wait to sign up for my next 50K.

One with fewer hills.


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Releasing the Dark Pacer

In just ten days, I will be standing at the starting line of my first 50K race.

The question “Am I prepared?” floats around in my mind frequently, but for the last few days I have been batting it away like a hungry mosquito, with the answer “Doesn’t matter – it’s too late to do anything about it now, anyway.” I’ve completed my last long run now, so for better or worse, I am as ready as I’m ever going to be (insert other applicable cliché phrases here). But has my training been good enough to get me through 31 miles of dirty, hilly trails? I find that as that date gets closer, I’m spending more and more time letting every conflicting opinion I come across seep into my brain and allow me to doubt myself.

I recently downloaded the book Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons (Bryon Powell), and while searching it desperately for tidbits of information that might help me out during the race, I have been sweating bullets whenever I come across an especially intimidating reference or recommendation about training for an ultra. Back-to-back long runs, double-run days, 10-12 mile “short” runs, tempos, intervals, strength training and so on. I have done few of those things and none of them in any sort of dedicated manner. So when I read things like this my openly confident “slacker training” theory begins to feel loose and shaky. There seems to be no way this author would consider my rather lackadaisical training to be good enough. And even though I shouldn’t care what this author would think of my training, I can’t help but attach his imagined opinion to my own feelings about it.

Because I have no reference for understanding how prepared (or not) I am for such a distance, I’ve taken to comparing myself to others…to trainers, authors, friends – a decidedly deleterious habit. My mind fills with negative rationalizations like “but he’s been doing back-to-back long runs, and I haven’t,” and “but she’s already run a marathon and I haven’t.” All things designed to help me believe that I’ll never succeed. Conversely, I’m easily relieved whenever someone admits their own ultra training has been lazy or substandard (and yet they did fine), or assures me in some other way that my current level of training is adequate.

My self-confidence has been hopelessly tied to the beliefs and experiences of other people, and it’s because I quite literally cannot wrap my head around the enormity of what I’m about to undertake. I mean, thirty-one miles? Who can picture that distance? From where I’m standing, a 50K might as well be 100 miles. Or a thousand. It’s all too much for me to understand right now, and so all I have to draw from is the stories of others.

I think this is precisely why a lot of people tend to ask the question “how will I know if I’m ready?” The answer is you can’t possibly know if you don’t know yet. I realize that’s a strange sentence but it makes sense in my brain.

As I have experienced triumphs and failures throughout my training, a few people have told me that they think I’m too hard on myself. I’m not sure I agree. The reality is that I’m both too hard and too easy on myself, depending on which day you’re referring to. In the last four months I have enjoyed moments of pure, intense confidence, and I’ve endured an equal amount of delirious uncertainty. It’s a mixed bag.

My emotions about this race stay with me, like a faithful pacer, with every mile I train. Or, more accurately, there are two pacers – one in white, who congratulates my efforts, and a dark one (perhaps like Dexter Morgan’s dark passenger?) who chides every missed opportunity to further my training.

Maybe everyone has a dark passenger.

But now my training is over, and I have no more pacers. I’ll just have my legs, my determination and my friends to keep me going on race day. I just hope none of them asks me how many back-to-back long runs I’ve done.