Most of my friends and clients know that I am a little crazy. Outside of personal training and teaching indoor cycling, I have recently fallen in love with trail running and ultra-distance running. An Ultramarathon is pretty much anything longer than a marathon (26.2 miles) and more often than not takes place on trails. When "graduating" to the ultramarathon distance, the focus shifts drastically from only concentrating on miles and pace to incorporating more resistance and elevation in one's training.
Sometime late last fall, when I was still in the joyful post-race haze of having done the Goatz 50K in Omaha, Nebraska as well as a fantastic half-marathon on Thanksgiving, I decided to sign up for the inaugural "Quest for the Crest" 50K in the Black Mountains of North Carolina. The race promised very challenging, technical trails up to the top of a mountain crest three times; a range that is home to the tallest peaks east of the Mississippi and some of the most magnificent views in the southeast. Another promise made by the race director: This would be THE hardest 50K in the world.
Well, of course, I thought. Everyone wants to believe their baby is the best. The same goes for race directors and the events they plan and coordinate. Or personal trainers and the workout routines they design...
In the following months of studying topographical maps and taking the time to run in upstate SC on trails that might mimic what I would be in store for, I realized that this was not just another mountain race, but that I'd actually probably lose or break a limb, as the race director kept taunting us with updates like:
"I am so sure that you won't do this that I will be giving $500 to anyone who breaks 6 hours on the 50k"
"This should be one of the most technical runs you've ever done. If not then you must live in British Columbia."
-and my personal favorite-
"50kers, coming down Colberts Ridge it will be insanely dangerous. The first 2 miles is sketchy at best, wet rocks and roots. Seriously a fall could kill you. Please butt slide when you don't feel safe." (this would be the 2nd descent coming down off the crest)
He told all runners (anyone who isn't an elite) to anticipate our finishing times to be AT LEAST double that of any other 50K we may have run. He told the more experienced runners their time MIGHT be close to their 50-mile time. This is when nerves started to take a hold of my confidence and made me second-guess my decision to sign up for this stupid thing. I started having dreams about wild animals attacking me on the mountain, and Ninja-Warrior-type obstacles keeping me from the top. I knew there would be NO room in my mind for doubt if I were to get to the start and make it all the way to the finish, but ignoring that doubt is easier said than done, as my clients have told me, and I was learning here myself.
Doubt is the cloud that stops your brain from being able to communicate with your body. I knew this, but it took a lot of self-talk and pumping up to get over that mental hurdle and stop worrying about whether or not I'd make the time cut-offs: 3.5 hours for 7 miles (yes, that is truly how long the director thought it would take many of us), 7.5 hours at mile 19, then 12 hours at mile 26.5. Just seeing those time estimations alone made it hard to swallow. That is a LOT of time hiking and crawling up rocks and negotiating our way down ankle-breaking descents. And you better believe that some of us needed every last minute to do it all.
But I had to stop doubting and start doing. Simple as that. I was still a bundle of nerves when I walked up to the starting line (the street sign at the bottom of a dead-end country road that lead up to our first trail), but the only thoughts I allowed to creep into my head were the visualizations of me cresting that damn mountain - all three times - and crossing the finish.
Here's the thing about self-talk and visualization: It really CAN work. If you let it. I am a big fan of mantras. There are several that my clients and spin class participants hear quite often:
"I know it sucks. It sucks, but you have to do it."
"Let this be the hardest thing you'll do today. Then you can come back and do something harder tomorrow because you've already done the hardest thing you could do."
"Don't think. Just move."
What I've seen happen to some people, and what has happened to myself on many a training run, is that our heads often get in the way of what our bodies can do. As soon as you allow yourself to question what you are capable of doing, you are giving yourself an out. The option stands there to simply stop because you don't think you can do more or go further, and that's that.
Whether you are in the middle of a challenging workout, getting up the nerve to work out for the first time ever, or standing on top of a mountain knowing you have to run down and then hike up AGAIN, you absolutely can not give yourself the option to give up. From the start, you need to envision the finish. You lock onto that feeling of success and elation that you will surely have once you reach your goal, and you hold on to that for dear life. Because THAT, my friends, is what will pull you through.
This was, without a doubt, the single hardest thing I have ever done. This 50K gave us 23,000 feet in total elevation change over the course of three major climbs. It took all of the strength I had in my entire body, mind and heart to get through this thing. In the following photographs, I'll share some of the thoughts that entered my mind as I overcame each mental and physical hurdle. For those of you who have worked with me, you'll be happy to know that I can confidently say I hurt WAY more now than anything I've ever done to you! I nearly cried. I bargained with the Powers That Be that I would close my eyes and then open them to find myself magically transported to the finish. I was put face-to-face with my doubts and fears and was forced to plow through.
And I'll also tell you this: I sure as hell am going to do it again. Not because I like hobbling backwards down stairs or discovering all the new places I didn't realize I needed to apply BodyGlide (shoulder blades, if you wear a hydration vest in a tank top, FYI), but because there is no other way for me to see the beauty of this world without climbing those peaks. Because I wouldn't know my limits if I didn't push myself to find them. Because the hardest thing I've ever done in my life is actually that which I have not yet done.
Thank you for reading and sharing this journey with me. I know the only way for me to help others improve their lives is if I am continuously working toward something myself. I know that I am not yet everything I can be, because each new accomplishment opens the door to try something new, and that is what I hope to do for many people to come. Whatever your mountain is, it is up to YOU to decide to reach the summit. Break away from fear and doubt to free yourself so you can not only get to the top, but look onward toward even higher peaks.
Ok, NOW I was finally down. That's ten HOURS and forty-five minutes of blood (I'm clumsy), sweat, and near-tears. It was also ten hours of beauty, camaraderie, and displays of sportsmanship and strength like I had never experienced before in my life. It's not the distance, but the sights and the people that have brought me back to my third Ultramarathon and will keep me coming back for more.