I run. A lot. (Well, this month I haven’t been running much, but that’s because the body needed to recover…)
Compared to most people, I run far. Compared to some, I don't run far. My "happy place" is the half marathon - it challenges me, but doesn't ruin my body, and the training doesn't absorb all of my free time. When given the choice, I prefer running on trails over running on pavement
Because of my affinity for trail running, I have many friends who are far more crazy than I - their happy place is somewhere in "ultra land." For those "normal" people out there who aren't familiar with the wild and wacky world of ultra running, an ultra (short for "ultra-marathon") is defined as a footrace that is longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). Depending on who you speak with, you'll get a different answer as to what distance makes you a "real" ultra runner, but generally speaking, the shortest distance that is "accepted" as an ultra (in the ultra community) is the 50k (31ish miles).
Since I have so many friends who run ultras, I’ve found a home within the ultra community over the past few years. I volunteer, pace, and/or crew at 2 or 3 ultras each year and have made many phenomenal friends through those races! There was, however, one thing that bugged me going into 2016 - since I had never run an ultra, many people would look at me as if my opinion/thoughts didn't matter. I'll wholly admit that I had never experienced an ultra firsthand, but I had done my fair share of reading, spent countless hours around ultras (absorbing everything I saw), had hiked/run many long distances with various extreme elevation gains/losses (living in the Rockies has its advantages), and had taken the time to pick the brains of my closest ultra running friends to make sure that I knew what an ultra "really entails" before I embarked upon my first pacing gig at Run Rabbit Run 100 (RRR) in September 2015. My runner was successful at RRR, and I had a phenomenal experience pacing it...but I really didn't like the "looks" I got from some runners when I'd answer questions about running ultras.
Because of this I decided that I would sign up and run ONE ultra during 2016 - a 50k at Bighorn. (For more info on that specific race, see my previous blog - Never Say Never.) It was a great race and a phenomenal experience, but one that, going through the training, I said I’d NEVER repeat.
Famous last words, right? Sometime around Bighorn (I’m not sure if it was just before or shortly after the race) my best crazy ultra running friend, Chavet, said something along the lines of, "Hey, a bunch of us are going to go down to Phoenix in December and run Across the Years! You should come! I'm going to do the 24-hour race, and everyone else is going to do the 72-hour race - that way we can all be buckle buddies!" (Of course she said this with a HUGE smile on her face and in such an excited and happy tone that anyone listening wanted to have THAT MUCH FUN!)
I said yes? (I'm still not sure what was running through my mind at that point in time.)
The rest of the year went by, all the while I "knew" that I'd be running 100 miles in December, but the full impact of it didn't really set in until I was past all of my "other races" for the year (which didn't wrap up until December 3rd). On December 4th, reality started to set in...
During my training for Bighorn I learned that I didn't want to over train. From the marathons and back-to-back races I'd run during the remainder of the year I'd learned that I could keep moving through quite a bit of pain. Because of this I had decided not to do any race-specific training - I'd just do the races I'd planned, and I'd spend as much time on my feet as I possibly could. [Hint: this is NOT a good training plan...and I would not suggest it...if you decide to run an ultra, TRAIN!] Thankfully I had 4 friends who were also “talked into” ATY that would be tackling this crazy endeavor by my side (and, of course, Chavet, who would be there the entire 72 hours even though she was *only* running 24 of them for her own race).
A quick sidebar on pain – when I refer to pain I mean the okay kind of pain, the aches, hot spots, and spasms that are saying, "I'm tired, can we go home yet?" Not the bad kind of pain that says, "c'mon stupid, time to STOP before you get an injury!
I may not have trained, but man did I ever plan! My friend Lisa was going to stick with me most of the time (she wasn't quite sure how she'd gotten talked into this either), and we decided that it would be best for each of our "mental games" if we did 50 miles on the first day of the race so that each of the remaining two days was "only" 25 miles each. (For some reason “less than a marathon” just doesn’t seem so bad after running 50? I dunno…) On top of the actual running plan, we planned to get at least 8 hours of sleep each night, and would take time to eat regular meals and shower.
Before we knew it, December 28th was here and we were at the start line. Everyone had their own plan - Chavet was running the 24-hour race and was hoping to get ~120 miles (since I likely won’t get back to this – she hit 119.5!!), Dee Dee wanted to run 45 miles the first day, 30 the second day, and 25 the third, and Deb wanted to break it up evenly - 34-33-33. We all started at the same time and at our own paces. Lisa and I ran (slowly) the first 5 miles, and then I chimed in with, "we better pick our walk-run intervals now or we'll be regretting it in about 30 miles!" (Neither of us had ever run longer than 32 miles in one go…and the furthest either of us had run since Bighorn was a road marathon – her in NYC and me at MCM.) We chose our intervals and, surprisingly, were able to stick to them pretty darn well for the rest of the day.
We set a new 50k PR, shaving about 2hr 45min from our time at Bighorn!
We kept on moving all day - yog, walk, yog, potty stop, yog, walk, yog, food, yog... It was working! At mile 45 my calves gave me a loud and clear, "I hate you!" and seized up, but it was the "okay hurt" and I was able to keep moving to finish 50 miles on day one. It took us about an hour longer than we'd hoped, but both Lisa and I were ecstatic with our day - WE REALLY WERE ULTRA RUNNERS - we'd finished a 50 miler (without actually training for it, mind you)!!! After finishing our 50 miles, we had a fireball shot (we came prepared) and hit up the aid tent to have the AMAZING first aid dudes roll out those tight calves (I knew that I’d wimp out if I tried to do it myself…and they REALLY ripped into those now rock-like muscles)!
Day two we woke up and showered, then had a normal breakfast (they have a PHENOMENAL aid station/kitchen at ATY, so we were pretty spoiled with mashed potatoes, eggs, cheese, and ham for breakfast), and hit the ground running...er...walking. Our legs were pretty tight, so we started walking while eating our breakfast, planning on "easing into running" as the day went on.
There are many things you expect to have happen during an ultra - you aren't "excited" about them, but you're prepared for them. My calves’ seizing up was one of those things. Then there are the things you can't even imagine. Like hives.
Yes. Hives. Red, blotchy, itchy, hot, torturous hives. All over my feet, ankles, and calves. By mile 3 on day two, my feet were screaming to get out of my shoes (I was even wearing ones with a nice sized toe box and a fair amount of padding). I suffered through it for 10 miles because at this point I didn't know that the hives were there (they were just starting to get a little itchy, and weren't red or blotchy...yet…just HOT). So after 10 miles I put on the oldest, most loved pair of shoes that I'd brought down to Arizona (they had about 530 miles on them already) as they were the most "roomy" shoes I could find. The shoe change helped in that my feet didn't feel restricted, but they still felt really hot - like all they wanted was to be out of the shoes! By the end of the day I knew the hives were there because I could see them climbing the back of my calves. I had a hunch that I knew what it was from - the dirt along the course - but there was no "fix" for it, so I suffered through because even though I was miserable, I knew this still wasn't a "bad" hurt…and I was too stubborn to “let the hives win.”
That evening we all stopped and had dinner - Smash Burger - and it was the BEST. FOOD. EVER!!! It pulled my spirits up and made the next few miles a bit better, but by the time we finished our 25 miles for the day, everything hurt (and much of my lower body itched too). [Hint: when you're feeling grumpy and miserable - EAT!] Once we'd finished our mileage for the day, I sat down, wiped as much dirt off of my legs as I could (showers were only available in the mornings), took Benadryl, and rubbed Calamine lotion on the hives. The Benadryl helped me sleep, but unfortunately didn't get rid of the hives and they were still itchy.
I "ran" day three in flip flops with Injinji socks (thankfully Chavet brought extras) - the socks kept the dirt away from my skin (at least as much as possible), and the flip flops allowed my feet to vent the heat that made them so miserable on day two. It was tough, it was painful, and I'll proudly admit that I shed my fair share of tears during those 25 miles. Thankfully there were some pretty amazing people out there – one even sat with me while I rolled out my hips and bum…I was in a dark place, and she made it “okay” to be in that place, which was AWESOME! (If you’ve ever been in a dark place and had some overly cheery individual try to convince you how INCREDIBLY IMPORTANT it is to just “pep up” and “be happy,” you know what I’m talking about…if you’ve never been in that dark place, be thankful and remember this when you eventually hit that place!) As the day dragged on (25 miles takes a really long time when you’re walking 16-18 minute miles and taking food/water stops every mile or two), Lisa and I learned that our bodies wanted two very different things - mine needed to run some and couldn't walk very fast at all, while hers preferred walking fast as it hurt to run. We stuck together most of the day, hobbling along, but decided it best to part ways for the last 5 or 6 miles. It was tough, but actually a very good decision. And guess what??? WE ALL FINISHED!
So what did I take away from this experience?
There may not be another 100 (or 50) miler in my future, but I’ll be around them pacing, crewing, and volunteering…and I look forward to getting “back to basics” as I tackle my first race since ATY this weekend – a nice, low-key half marathon…wOOt!!!
Melissa is many things...among them, she is a friend, sister, daughter, dog owner, RunJunkEes Ambassador, Colfax Marathon Ambassador, Skirt Sports Ambassador, Lowry CrossFit member, and a mountain girl at heart!