For the past five years, I have run ultra-distance races. Technically, that is anything over the marathon distance of 26.2, but I've fallen in love with 100-milers. Sometimes, when the topic comes up in conversation, people pause, and ask, "100 miles? Over how many days?" Others ask, "How is that possible?" While so many in my world are invested in this sport, I realize that it's still largely unfamiliar to others. A 100-miler is a blend of running, walking, and if necessary, crawling, and it typically occurs in a 30-hour time limit -- and somehow, it's possible!
If you know me, you will agree that I am not super-human. An overachiever? Sure, I've held that title since the first grade, when my teacher told my mom that she didn't know what to do to keep me occupied. Type A personality? I am a fan of schedules and to-do lists and I'm disciplined to a point, but I also love to go with the flow and I have never been about winning. For those of you who have gone the distance, perhaps you will agree that running long requires something beyond super-human attributes: a blend of faith, courage, persistence, grit, mental fortitude and a love of outdoors. One thing that I have learned for sure is that there is no short cut to the long run. You have to go the distance before you can arrive. This fact has proven true to me in most personal and professional aspects of my life.
I am often asked what led me to running ultras. I have been a runner and a devoted yogi for some 20 years. A passion for sports and sweating is part of my DNA. But a few years back, witnessing my mom battling Acute Myelogenous Leukemia, and then my brother battling debilitating GBS, I felt a fierce determination to live more. And beyond that, I witnessed how in their suffering, they shifted and became in a sense freer, more committed to living their lives. I watched them develop into what seemed to be their true, courageous, optimistic, and determined selves. I had heard of ultra-races, read Dean Karnezes Ultramarathon Man, watched Running the Sahara -- a documentary that chronicled three ultra runners journey across the entire Sahara Desert. I wasn't sure if I had it in me, but as with all things that capture my imagination and interest, I was willing to give it a try.
Unlike other feats of insanity, ultra-running requires training before you can jump right in. So I upped my weekly 60 miles to 70 miles, which has become my constant -- meaning, it's the mileage I can survive weekly to stay strong, without falling apart. Those first few weeks, the training scared me. Going out on daily 10 milers and weekend 20 milers, I felt panicked. A resounding I can't do this was my soundtrack. Somehow, though, I shifted. The long runs became a chance for me to be with myself, hear myself, lose myself. Running long teaches me daily that there is only the moment I am in. When I run, life is reduced to one foot in front of the other and my inhales and exhales.
My first ultra-race in September 2010 was a 50 miler in Wisconsin, on the Ice Age trail. There was thunder and lightning in the 5 am darkness, torrential downpour, and then we were off! Drenched, scared, telling myself over and over that I didn't need to do this, that I didn't have to prove anything to anyone, I was ready to quit at any moment. And then something strange happened. By mile 21, I eased into it. In fact, somewhere along the way, I knew that I could do it, that I would do it. I made some great friends during that race -- friends who I would go on to run many more ultras with -- and by the end of the race, something in me had shifted. I realized that I was capable of so much more than I had ever imagined, pain and all, and with that knowledge, a new version of me was born.
As I write this, I have completed nineteen 100-mile distance races and over 50 total ultras, ranging from 50K to 100K to 24 hour races. I have run on trails, mountains, roads, beaches, and faced exacerbating heat, wind, ice, snow. Ultra-running has taught me that my breaking point is often my starting point. That when I can finally lose myself, there is the chance of finding myself. It has taught me that when I feel I cannot go on, all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other and breath. It has taught me that finish lines are often the beginning of new and wonderful adventures. It has taught me to believe in myself, to trust the universe, to be grateful for those that I do life with, the people as well as the birds, bees, snakes, alligators, and coyotes that cross our paths in the wilderness. It has taught me the importance of solitude and building a relationship with myself, and it has taught me the joy and honor of companionship. It has taught me that if I am bored with myself, I need to plunge deeper, to uncover that faucet of joy and wonder and creativity that the responsibilities of daily life sometimes dilute.
In life there are good days and not so good days. The same holds true for runs and ultra-events. Challenges greet us all, only to pass, making room for new challenges which pass, too. There is a growth for me that comes from each race: a granite within myself that grows firmer, more substantial. These races have taught me to face all that confronts me with an open heart, an open mind, a desire to journey through and beyond. They have taught me about focus, about drive, about will, and about humility. If a typical 100-miler ends in 30 hours, how valuable and lucky I am to live a whole lifetime within that span. How much more I have to offer my family, friends, colleagues, students, and clients when I am back in my office on Monday morning, with the knowledge that I survived, that I will keep surviving, and that the challenges we face are not only part of the journey, but integral to it.