You can do all the training in the world, but nothing prepares the mind for a longer race.
I have trained my body to be able to run 50K trail races. The one thing I was not prepared for was the journey my mind would go on during the races. I have heard so many runners before me say, “Running ultra-marathons is 90% mental.” I acknowledged this, but I didn’t really digest it until I experienced it.
At this point in my running journey, I have ran 33 half-marathons, three marathons, and two 50K races. Last Sunday I ran my second 50K; this time it was in Maryland. From my limited experience, I knew along the 31+ mile race that I was going to experience a low. It seems to be a natural occurrence once I am out there running for more than five hours.
This race was a 5.19 mile loop that we ran six times. The race wasn’t necessarily difficult. In past races, I have run up mountains and have started races at 10,000 feet of elevation. So this was not the most difficult race I have ever run. It actually had a nice balance of gradual hills and smooth down hills. There were places that the trail was level and felt like an open racetrack.
Before the race began, I stocked my running vest with snacks, water, and my Skrach Labs hydration drink mix. I wanted to run two loops before I stopped at my self-made aid station to refill and refuel. I also wanted to acclimate myself with the course.
At the beginning of the race, it was 25 degrees, and the ground was frozen mud. The course was easy to follow, so I was able to focus more on my running than making sure I wasn’t getting lost. I felt good about my first lap. I loved the way the trail surprised me. Each turn around the corner was a new sight. I loved coming up on a small creek crossing where the trail dipped down, crossed the water, and then rose back up. One section was what I would describe as the haunted woods. The tree branches were bent like crooked witch fingers that reached out intertwining with one another. They created an arched hallway to run through as the trail led me uphill. There was a washed out, rocky section that slowly wove up through the forest. I hopped back and forth over the crevice that ran straight down the middle of the trail.
It was these beautiful discoveries that had me smiling and grateful. Even when I was getting towards the end of the loop and the trail turned into a swamp, I gingerly found the non-muddiest route to pass through.
As I crossed over the timing mat to mark my first loop, I was happy with my time. I still had enough fuel to make it another loop without stopping so I continued on. The second loop continued much like the first. The trail was still hard and frozen, so the mud was crunchy and rigid. There were sections I was looking forward to, and I really began to understand the trail and her nuances. During the second loop, a hawk squawked and flew overhead disappearing into the shadows of the bare trees. It was a greeting from Mother Nature herself.
As I was nearing the end of the second loop, I was running out of fuel, and I was starting to crave my salmon jerky and something more substantial to eat. After I crossed the timing mat, I pulled over like a race car driver into a pit stop. I had all my goodies set up and ready to go. I refilled my bottles with water and my sports hydration drink mix, and I grabbed some additional food which included my salmon jerky and pretzels.
After I was stocked up, I started the third loop. Nothing much had changed on the third loop except it began to warm up, so the hard, crunchy mud began to soften and turn to mush. I also begin to walk for the first time in the race, but I still felt strong physically and mentally. I had no plans to stop again at my aid station until after the fourth lap, but I started to feel a blister forming on my foot, so I decided it would be good to stop to get some moleskin.
I finished an uneventful third loop and stopped by my bag. I quickly took my shoe off and put the moleskin over the blister that was starting to rub. It was at this moment I started to have my first doubts. Regardless of what my mind started saying, I begin my fourth lap. I spent the whole fourth lap alone except when I slid and fell on a muddy turn when a faster runner was running by. He was kind enough to stop his fast paced run to check on me. I waved him on and pulled myself back up to continue the run. From mile 15 to 19, I experienced one of the worst times I ever had during a race.
As I mentioned before, I am used to dealing with mental lows in a race. I have had them many times before. However, the lows usually last for a mile or two. Maybe up to 20 minutes and then it drifts away. I will experience a few of those moments throughout a race. This time the low lasted for four miles straight. I had never experienced a dark patch for that long during a race, but for some reason in this race, I only had the one longer low point. During ultra-marathons, I already feel vulnerable and exposed. It seems the negativity knows this and tries to pounce. While I was grateful I only had to deal with one low moment, it was a new experience to have to survive 50 minutes of negative self-talk and anger.
My thoughts started to run rampant. I became angry. I really wanted to quit the race. I began to doubt why I was even running. I found myself swearing under my breath as I tried to navigate the now overly muddy trails. With every slip and slide, a “fuck” escaped between my lips, and then “shit” was spat out, followed by a forceful “damn.” There were also two races being ran: one was an individual 50K race, and the other was a relay team 50K. With the 50K relay team, most runners were running one 5.19 mile loop as opposed to six. As I angrily drudged along, cheerful, fresh, happy runners in clean, sequined skirts said, “Great job runner” as they passed by me. They continued on laughing in their conversation. I hate to admit this, but I wanted to push them all down in the mud. I felt so much anger boiling up. I was mad I was running the race. I was mad at how happy and chipper the relay runners were. I was mad at myself, and I started to doubt my life decisions. I felt like Pig-Pen from Peanuts, except I wasn’t surrounded in filth, I was engulfed in anger. I told myself I was going to quit the “fucking stupid ass race,” and “what the fuck was I doing anyways.”
Somehow in this melodramatic, yet real moment, I had a little clarity. Intuitively I knew if I could just make it through this fourth loop I would be okay. The fourth loop just felt like no-man’s land. I was too far along to still feel fresh and excited, but I was still too far from the end to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I was going to have to gut out that fourth loop.
About a mile before the fourth loop was about to end, I felt the angry cloud lifting. I was able to coax myself to finish the last mile and make it to my aid station.
I felt relieved. I had been caged in my own negative mindset, and I hid the key from myself. When I finally broke free, all I could feel was relief. I restocked and refueled my running vest, and I started out on my fifth loop. On the fifth loop, the temperature was finally over 40 degrees, and the sun began to dry out the muddy trail. I laughed to myself because I had been out there so long I saw the trail turn from hard and frozen to slippery and mushy to compact and dry. I experienced the whole trail cycle in one day and on one run.
By now, I knew I could run two loops. I had survived the fourth loop of nothingness, and I knew it would only improve from this point. With about 2.5 miles left in the fifth loop, a relay runner decided to run with me. At this point, I no longer hated people, and I wanted to give the woman a hug. I might have actually told her I loved her as well. It was so nice to have company. She kept me running as she told stories about her daughter and her job. I just blindly followed her and openly listened. Even when she picked the pace up faster than I really wanted to go at that moment, I just tailed behind her. As we crossed the timing mat to mark the end of my fifth loop, I reached out and put my hand on her shoulder and told her how much it meant to me that she ran with me.
At that point, I had one loop left. I didn’t stop at my aid station, and I just started right into the final loop.
During the sixth lap, two other individual 50K runners met up with me. They both passed me, but we were still all in the same vicinity. I could see their bobbing bodies moving along the trail. I had another hawk fly in front of me then weave through the trees, and a drum line of woodpeckers banged on tree trunks as I made my way through the forest. I felt my energy rise. All of a sudden around mile 28 I decided I was ready to go. All I could think about was my dog back at my travel trailer. I wanted nothing more than to be curled up in the bed with her. So I ran. I ran up the hills, I ran down the hills, I ran past the two runners who had passed me earlier, I ran through the remaining mud pits, and I didn’t stop. I watched my watch change from 28 miles to 29 miles to 30 miles, and I kept running. When I saw the finish line I couldn’t believe it. 7 hours, 5 minutes, and 21 seconds after I started this 50K trail race, I was done.
As I look back, I am so glad I finished the race. I don’t know if that fact was ever in doubt, but I was still happy and proud to have completed a race, of a half-marathon or longer, in my 26th state. I was proud that I overcame my own mental state. It is like playing a game of chicken but with myself. In the moment, I am never quite sure which side of me will win out. The negative, dark voice is loud and convincing. However, some part of me hangs on and reminds me that it is only temporary. It is free therapy.
Out on the trails, I meet the demons of my own making. I am forced to see them and deal with them because there are no distractions and there is nowhere to hide.