It was approaching 6 pm and the sun was beginning to set. At an elevation of 1,500 feet, I had a breathtaking view of Devil’s Lake State Park in Baraboo, Wisconsin. I was in no mood to enjoy the scenery, though – my mind was caught in an infinite loop of self-loathing:
Why am I running 50 miles?
Because I’m an idiot.
Why am I an idiot?
Because I’m running 50 miles.
I was at mile 48 of the Dances with Dirt 50 Mile Ultramarathon. Physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted, the proverbial tank had reached empty about ten miles ago. I was on the verge of losing it so I sat down, not to enjoy the scenery, but rather to regain my composure.
“You’ve only got two miles left,” said one of the two runners of my support crew who had volunteered to run the last five miles of the course with me. “You can make it!”
Two miles, though, sounded unthinkable. It seemed like a lifetime ago that the race had actually begun. Since then the course had beaten me down, humbled me, and then beat me down some more. But I had come too far not to finish. I had endured too much not to know what it was like to cross the finish line of an ultramarathon. I would not quit on myself now and let the race end here. I gathered enough strength to stand up on my feet again. “I’ve only got two miles left – I got this!” I said to myself, and headed off in the direction of the finish line…
“How do you feel?” Nathalie asked. It was a little after 4:30 am and I was eating my usual pre-race peanut butter and jelly sandwich while sipping some coffee. Nathalie was a college friend and fellow runner. I had asked her to be my main support crew member during my first ultramarathon, and we were having breakfast together. “Ready,” I replied.
Despite all my training, I still had butterflies in my stomach. I was about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime – something so physically demanding and grueling that people have literally dropped dead in the act. I hadn’t felt this emotional seesaw of fear and confidence since I lined up for the start of my first marathon years ago. I finished packing up my aid bag, which I would have access to at certain locations scattered throughout the course. “Alright, let’s go!” I said to Nathalie, and we left for the start line.
The race started promptly at 5:30 am. Even in the dog days of the summer it was almost pitch black out. The first part of the course was a 4.5 mile loop up and down two trails that used as ski slopes in the winter. Brutal way to start a race. However, watching the sunrise on top of a mountain while taking part in my first-ever ultramarathon was an indescribable experience, and eased the pain. Nathalie ran this portion with me, wished me luck, and headed to her car. While I continued on, she’d drive to an aid station at mile 32 – almost 30 miles from where I was!
By the time I reached an aid bag access point at mile 17, the temperature was in the 80s and the humidity was stifling. I took my shirt off, refilled my Camelback, and used the next few minutes to stretch out my legs. In the meantime, I chatted with fellow runners who were similarly reequipping and preparing for the next portion of the course. A welcome break, I made sure to head back out on the course before any lethargy set in.
About ten miles later, I reached the “ultra decision point.” This was where runners could choose to either end their misery early and head toward the 50K finish line (50K is “only” 31 miles) or add another 19 miles to their run. The race directors also placed the ultra decision point right after the most difficult leg of the course. (A sarcastic thanks and some swear words ran through my mind.) For me, though, it wasn’t a decision – I had never never quit a race before and I wasn’t going to start today. The only issue in passing this point was that it allowed thoughts of stopping and ending the pain to creep in. Trying to block it all out, I focused on the fact that Nathalie was waiting for me up ahead.
I eventually ran into her, though earlier than expected! Trekking through a forest, Nathalie had backtracked from mile 32 to mile 30 to surprise me and boost my spirits. And let me tell you, she was a sight for sore eyes! By this point, the course had begun to take its toll on me. My legs felt increasingly fatigued and heavy. My feet had terrible blisters. I was beginning to feel the preliminary side effects of dehydration and heat exhaustion. As we ran together for a few miles, it all melted away. That’s why ultramarathon runners have support crew – they help recenter and refocus you when you start to go astray.
We parted ways at mile 34, as I transitioned to a run-walk strategy where I would run for a mile then walk for a mile. Finally, by mile 39, my legs had no running left in them and I slowed to a walk. I was still 11 miles from the finish line and had no idea how I would get myself there, but I left that question to be answered later. All I needed to do now was get myself one more mile to the next aid station, where Nathalie and my other support crew friends were waiting for me. I’d figure the rest out then.
Hobbling into the mile 40 aid station, the sound of cheering from spectators and my support crew friends boosted my spirits. I was given ice to cool me down, cold water to drink, and a variety of snacks for refueling. I couldn’t stomach a lot, but tried to get in as much as I could handle. Refusing to sit out of fear that I would not be able to get back up, I filled in my friends on the experiences of my first ultramarathon thus far. I was feeling more optimistic and decided to depart this aid station sooner rather than later, because regardless of sitting or standing, if I did not get my legs moving again soon I knew they wouldn’t be able to move again period. I was in such high spirits when I left that I actually jogged away from the aid station! It may seem simple and cliche, but my attitude from here on out was that with each step I took, I was one step closer to the finish line. All I had to do was keep moving forward, and I’d eventually get there.
Six miles later, as I approached the next and final aid station, I came to learn that the designers of the course had a dark sense of humor. I could see the finish line! It was no more than 100 meters to the right of the aid station. I could hear all of the music and festivities that were going on at the finish line. But I still had four more miles to go, and they continued on in the opposite direction of the finish line. I still had two ski slopes to ascend and descend. Nonetheless, just seeing the finish line gave me a boost of adrenaline. After a few minutes of resting, drinking water, and talking to my friends who had gathered at this aid station, I headed off with two other runners of my support crew who had volunteered to run this last leg of the course with me.
We went straight up the last of the ski slopes, and my legs were in agonizing pain. After meandering through trails for what seemed like an eternity, I finally sat down, completely wiped. I had almost no energy or willpower left. With persistent coaxing from my support crew and the help of some electrolyte tablets, I eventually got myself up off the ground to endure a little more.
The course ultimately took us to a hill we needed to descend, and at the bottom were two more support crew runners. They wanted to run the last half mile with me. Seeing them there and knowing I was so close gave me such a shot of adrenaline that I started running again. As I approached the finish line with throngs of spectators cheering me on, I sprinted with every bit of energy I had left. I crossed the finish line, twelve hours and forty-five minutes after having left it earlier, with one arm triumphantly raised in the air. 50 miles could be run after all!
Legendary ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes once said, “To most non-runners, running is at best boring and at worst terribly painful and senseless.” I pity those who hold this view of running because that ultramarathon was perhaps the greatest lesson on life I’ve had and will ever have. I learned it takes a lot of guts getting to the start line of an ultramarathon, but it takes going to hell and back to cross it. I learned I am not a quitter. I learned leaving every bit of mind, heart, and body on that course and crossing the finish line was one of the greatest senses of accomplishment I’ve had in my life. I learned the path of least resistance is not always the best path to take. I learned that challenging myself and pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, even though it may entail suffering and hardship, can lead to great things. I learned that there is no limit to the depth of the human spirit or willpower. And I learned that this would not be my first and only ultramarathon!
I ran the Dances with Dirt 50 Mile Ultramarathon in July 2010, and felt inspired to write a post-race reflection afterward. I’ve never had a way to share this with an audience – until now!
Are you a runner? Thinking about tackling an ultramarathon? Have you completed an ultramarathon? Let me know in the comments below!
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