(I don't always blog, but when I do, it's because I have done yet another silly race.)
Before diving into how the Yeti 100-mile Endurance Run went for me, I thought it would be helpful to take a look back at previous 100-mile performances. So many lessons were learned in the previous years that contributed to a successful performance a couple weeks ago, and I hope that sharing how I capitalized on my past mistakes might help others figure out how to plan for their next big race or challenge. Whether you are doing a couch-to-5K, gearing up for your first ultra, or getting ready to face a major life event, it is SO important to not only glean whatever useful information you can from previous struggles, but to embrace and be grateful for every misstep along the way.
Pinhoti, 2016: First 100-mile race. I sprained my ankle at mile 18, but survived on copious amounts of caffeine, ibuprofen, and absolute stubbornness, finishing in 25:19:34. Perhaps I should have thrown in the towel, as I spent the following year plagued with mobility issues as I kept pushing from one race to the next, fearful of losing the fitness I’d gained training for this first 100-miler. However, I experienced just how strong and willful the mind can be, and from this race I gained confidence that I can endure so much more discomfort than I had previously thought. That being said, I would not continue to run or train through that kind of injury again!
Great Southern Endurance Run, 2017: This was the longest distance I had ever covered on road. I was exposed for most of the day and had to work hard to stay on top of hydration and heat management. I should mention again, it was NOT smart of me to do another 100-miler at this point as I had foolishly run a race nearly every month since Pinhoti. I fought through some serious physical fatigue to finish in 22:56:01, and then finally took over a month off from high mileage and structured training.
Pinhoti, 2017: I returned to this race to get another ticket in the hat for the Western States lottery. My training was a bit more consistent and I started this race convinced I could go under 24 hours. But after a tough year managing some personal struggles (by “managing”, I mean I just ran more as an escape. Not healthy), I wound up battling physical and emotional fatigue all day and night. I waited too long to start using caffeine and so when my pacer, my husband, joined me I thought I could rely on him to keep me alert, entertained, and moving. Unfortunately, he was battling some physical issues and had to drop due to a severe muscle spasm in his back. I was certain I would quit right there, but another friend stepped up to get me through the rest of the night and that race, bringing me to the finish in 26:14:25.
Western States Endurance Run, 2018: Having gotten into this race with only two tickets in the lottery, I knew that no matter what, I had to finish. So many people wait for years and years to get their chance to start this race, so I was not going to squander my opportunity. I thought I knew what it was like to have the wheels fall off during a race and to fight for a strong finish, but boy did I have a lot to learn. Due to a disastrous effort maintaining the proper balance of fluid and calories, I spent half the race puking or trying not to puke. On the positive side, I finally learned how to surrender and accept help, leaning into my husband, coach, and pacers to get me to the finish. Initially, my ego took a blow, as I contemplated whether I would have finished alone (probably not), but to get that “Golden Hour” finish of 29:11:09 was worth swallowing my pride and fully realizing for the first time that I did not have to try to do everything on my own all the time.
Grindstone, 2019: This race, in a way, felt like my first 100, with the number of unknowns I would be facing. This was also my smartest year of training to date, in which I did NOT fill my calendar with a trail race every month. So I went into this event feeling charged up and ready to tackle one of the toughest races on the East Coast that included a 6:00 PM start, 40,000 feet of cumulative gain, potential for huge temperature swings, and needing to be self-sufficient for hours in between aid stations. I spent more time on my own mental strategizing leading up to this race, knowing that I would only see my crew twice before my pacer could join me for the final 35 miles. As luck would have it, my husband would miss me at the second crew stop, so I had to take care of myself between miles 22 and 65. The final few miles were the biggest struggle as fatigue set in from spending more time in the darkness than daylight, but I pushed myself to finish just a hair shy of my goal of thirty hours: 30:10:36. For the first time since starting my journey into trail and ultrarunning, I felt like I actually knew what I was doing.
So here we are, in 2020, a year that has presented most of us with challenges unlike any we’ve weathered before. To say I needed the Yeti 100 is an understatement. We all needed it, really, from the race director to the volunteers to the friends and families that came out to crew their runners. There was a definite sense of relief that could be felt in the air just walking around Damascus, Virginia. While our smiles were covered with facemasks, I could see in everyone’s eyes a little sparkle that said, “Let’s forget the world for a weekend and do something really silly that no one else will understand.”
After all the tests my previous 100-mile races had put me through, and knowing this would be the flattest – and potentially fastest - race I’ve done, I decided to put all my hard-fought lessons to the test and show up to this race without pacers or a crew. It’s a Yeti race, after all, and I feel incredibly fortunate to say I knew I would have friends who would check on me and offer any help I needed all day. Also, there were only three full aid stations… so I would get to see those friends multiple times!
All throughout my training for this event - every interval, tempo, and long run - I imagined myself at different stages throughout the race and the decisions I would have to make from one moment to the next. What problems might I encounter? When do I push and when do I hold back? What are my A, B, and C goals?
I worked on consistent food intake and learning how to really feel what my body was telling me it needed given the conditions of every training run. I kept a mental checklist of every less-than-stellar workout to remind myself how to problem-solve through every setback. I honored my body more with recovery weeks, and even extended them when things felt off. I resisted the urge to push paces that weren’t conducive to my training when I felt that twinge of competitiveness looking at other peoples’ runs. I told myself with every run that I was stronger than I thought and if I remained smart and consistent, I would get the result I envisioned.
If you’re one of those people that rolls their eyes when you hear things like “manifestation” or “the power of positive thinking,” I’ll probably lose you here. No matter, I will still say with 100% certainty that the race that unfolded for me was decided before I even stepped up to the starting line. I brought purpose and intention to every single minute of that race. You can’t see what you won’t believe, so I spent the months and weeks leading up to this race dedicating my heart and soul to believing in myself; that I could make it in under 24 hours, that I could run smart and manage every challenge, that I would finish with a smile on my face. Then, when race day finally came, I decided I can do even more than that.
While hardly ever alone on this course with its multiple out-and-backs from Damascus, I was provided more than ample time to spend in my own head. I knew that one of the most important race strategies would be to keep the chatter positive. And if I lost the energy to be positive, I had to at least be productive. As we set off at 5:00 AM in the rain, with nothing but rain (and more rain) in the forecast for pretty much the entire day, I anticipated some mental hurdling in the absence of the major hills or technical climbs that often serve as a nice distraction in other races. I found good company for the first 20-25 miles chatting with a few other runners, and relished in the usual race day chatter: Where are you from? Have you done this race before? Is this your first hundred? What do you want to do next? After a couple hours, the field of runners began to spread out and conversation dwindled down to Looking Good, Good Job, and It’s not going to rain ALL day, is it?
About the rain.
There were plenty of moments when my brain split into two runners: One, much like my daughter, decided these conditions were less than ideal and had a lot to say about it. The other, the grown up who has to manage her daughter’s mood swings, reminding my child-self that bitching about it won’t do me any good. Back and forth we went: I am so sick of this rain! – You can’t exactly WILL it away. – Is this ever going to stop?? – You aren’t doing yourself any favors by being mad at it.
Work the problem. This is probably one of the most valuable lessons I’ve taken from my many 100-mile struggles and mishaps. So on my second trip back to Damascus, about mile 47, I knew I would need to take the time to change my shirt and jacket and apply anti-chafe to all the places. Eliminate as many discomforts and control what I can. In previous races, I was afraid to stop for too long and would suffer needlessly through issues that could have been managed with a change of socks, different shorts, taking an extra moment to get the heart rate down so I could eat, and so on. Small changes can go a long way to help you reset for the next leg of your journey.
Along with the rain, I battled just a touch of monotony. Don’t get me wrong, the scenery along the Virginia Creeper Trail is simply beautiful, even through the low-hanging clouds and unrelenting precipitation. But on this year’s course, we would see the same 18 miles over and over and over again. When doing the same thing for hours on end, the brain craves something new to pay attention to, so I timed the use of music and podcasts to help shift my focus and stay in “cruise control” instead of angrily running faster as though that would somehow make the rain stop sooner. In training, I had spent countless miles running on pedestrian and multi-use trails around my home, training my brain to push through the boredom of familiarity. I challenged myself with each run to find something new that I hadn’t noticed before, and applied the same technique to keep my brain occupied with something other than anger (bordering rage) at the rain.
Finally, as the sun went down the rain let up, giving us a comfortable and pleasantly humid evening. It felt SO good to start breaking a sweat after fighting off the chill that came with every aid station stop all day. While the legs were starting to feel the pounding of more running than I had ever done in a 100-mile race, my brain started to perk up after a shot of coffee and the realization that if I kept moving consistently, I could be done with the final out-and-back section in less than four hours. But I knew I’d have to run with my brain and will power. There was pretty much no pep left in my step and things started to ache or downright hurt that I had not experienced before. Here comes another key decision point: I was in a position to run this race in a time that I had never even imagined. Going sub-24 was clinched. I could walk the last 18 miles and make it in that time. But what if I went for more? What if I put myself out there, aches and pains be damned, and really see what I can do?
I’ve mentioned in this blog and to my clients before – it’s not the “have to” or “need to” that drives the mental progress necessary to meet the challenges we face. It’s the “what if”s. It’s being curious and inquisitive and trying new and hard things, rather than beating yourself down about what you haven’t accomplished yet. It’s about failing and learning, rather than always playing it safe. What if I try this seemingly impossible task? What will I learn if I don’t succeed? How will I build on this experience if I do?
I decided I would continue to move as quickly as my body would allow, only slowing down to walk and stretch when my quads or knees started to yell. I told myself that even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time I would run what I could run and that I would finish strong. As a final energy boost, a friend had a few swigs of beer waiting for me as I came through his aid station on my way back to the finish with just 7.4 miles to go. It was time to, as the Yetis do, put on some loud music and “fucking run it”.
Thanks to a mix of fuzzy clock math and wild optimism, I figured I might make it to the finish by midnight. At this realization, my brain short-circuited. Midnight. Midnight?! You might actually run ONE HUNDRED MILES in less than ONE FRIGGIN DAY. For a moment, my more cautious self doubted my calculations and conceded that I’d also be extremely happy to finish by 1:00 AM, to which my brazen self replied, NO! YOU’RE DOING THIS BY MIDNIGHT!
The minutes and miles ticked by as I maintained a controlled effort to keep consistent splits while also being careful not to completely wreck myself. The adult me kicked back in with a reminder that I still needed some fluids and calories to get to the finish or things wouldn’t be so pretty when we finally sat down. By the same token, the now-emboldened runner said We’ll deal with whatever hurts tomorrow. Let’s go! As I neared what I referred to in my head as “The Beacon Of Hope” - where the lights from the parking lot at Food City illuminated the trail a couple miles from the finish - I knew it was time to really turn it on if I was going to turn this somewhat arbitrary goal into a reality. Just past Food City was the camp where runners’ crews had set up, marking just over a mile to go from the finish. I allowed myself a look at my watch and thought holy shit, we’re doing this.
11:55…. The caboose, decorated with a banner put up by the town welcoming the crazies who showed up for this thing. 11:56… The first of two illuminated bridges that lead into downtown Damascus. 11:57… For the last time I wave at the friendly neighbors with the tempting fire pit and beer and call out “Goodnight!” 11:58… I can see the lights over the second bridge and hear the faint whir of the fan keeping the finishing arch inflated. 11:59! I’m on the bridge! I see the timing tent! I see the finish line!
“NUMBER 252 I’M DONE!” I yell, running through the arch like a maniac, seconds before midnight.
My friends, watching bewildered from the aid station tent asked me why the hell I ran that hard at the end of 100 miles. “BECAUSE IT WAS 11:59!” I exclaimed, grinning like an idiot. A bold, brave, stubborn, determined idiot.
In the past, I’ve heard words like “intense” and “intimidating” tossed around when my name has come up in chats about running or racing. This really could not be further from the truth! Sure, I’m a bold, brave, stubborn and determined idiot, but more than that, I go into every challenge with a mix of brazen curiosity and blind faith. A huge part of my relative success in races is the fact that I’m not afraid to fall on my face, literally or figuratively. I’ve had some HARD races, and a couple where I nearly threw in the towel. They serve as a reference point for just how much physical and mental fatigue I can endure and still keep moving. I’ve fallen within the first few miles of an ultra (and multiple times thereafter) so I know I can withstand some pain and embarrassment and still keep moving. I have been the one intimidated by other amazing women at the starting line, so I know what it’s like to have to silence the ego that wants to put me down and say, “You’re nowhere near their level of talent” and just KEEP MOVING.
And that is why I subject myself to these frequent endurance tests. I don’t go into a race with any real intention of winning or even placing (but I admit, it’s pretty damn cool when it happens). Rather, it’s my reminder that I can do really hard things and prevail against the undercurrent of doubt that inevitably creeps up in races and in life. To doubt is normal. To be afraid of something is normal. It’s the brain’s way of protecting ourselves from doing truly dangerous or stupid things. But sometimes, the brain makes a mistake, and thinks it’s in over its head when in reality, we have so much more strength than we realize.
"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absense of fear."