I shake at the start of each marathon. The night before sleep is hopeless. I stare at the maps- where are the aid stations, the bathrooms… where are the hills? How the heck am I supposed to run for 26.2 miles? Is my music charged? Do I have my gels? Why do I do this, what if I can’t do this, this is going to take at least 4 hours, I can’t run for 4 hours the most I trained was 3!!!
But I have run for 4 hours. I’ve run for 6 hours, 12 hours, 22 hours and each minute in-between but that doesn’t scare me. What's funny about running ultramarathon distances, the fear I feel heading into 26.2 miles, even 13.1 miles isn’t multiplied when the distance stretches - it is divided. I sleep well the night before an ultra.
This is why I run ultras, in part anyway. I was never a runner- not in high school, not in college, not even in my twenties trying to thwart the thirties that lay ahead, but then I went into the woods for a long walk. The Appalachian Trail was 2,176 miles of backpacking that showed me the secrets of the empty trail on a rainy Tuesday, and the earnest sweetness that the forest solitude provides on Easter Sunday (not enough jelly beans, but other riches aplenty). After coming back from the trail I was introduced to trail races as a way to find myself back in the woods. My first race was the Megatransect, a now-defunct 28+ish mile ultramarathon in central Pennsylvania. That crisp October morning in 2010 I spent more than 11 hours swishing through leaves, getting my feet soaked in streams that my legs could not hop, and climbing hands-on-hips picking my way up fiat sized rocks to the top of a mountain.
I wouldn’t have otherwise been in Pennsylvania. I would have been home, on the couch, coffee in hand, laptop within arms reach. That Saturday morning though, at 10 am having already been at it for 3 hours I couldn’t have been happier. I turned to my friend- “It's like a chamber of commerce ad!” She suggested with a look that I could turn around and take my happy somewhere else. (Ultras may not be for everyone.)
Year after year I went back. Rainy days, boiling hot Octobers, days with snow and sun both. No matter what the weather at the start I knew I had a day to spend outside when others may choose to stay indoors. I knew for myself if there wasn’t a start time, a start line, I too would likely just opt for a different day to go for that adventure. Why run in the rain, wait for another day. An adventure so often and easily put off that “another day” may likely never come.
Nine years later ultramarathons have brought me to places I may have never gone too, for hours of hard work that I wouldn’t have put in, and on trails, I could have never seen. Now I pick races because I wouldn’t otherwise go into the desert of Arizona on my own. The prairies of Kansas I would have never known, and the views over Lake Superior in the fall would still be something I could only hope to someday, maybe just maybe, see. When you commit to an ultra-distance you commit to having a day, a whole day to move through comfort and discomfort, frustration, joy, and doubt. You earn a day in the wilderness with other like-minded creatures. Humans like you who will go outside even when it’s raining- or snowing, or hot, or perfect- just because there is a start line, and a finish line and nows the time to show up for both.
It takes many many hours of training, so many weekly miles of running to be ready for this day, to see that finish line, but that’s the gift of an ultra too. The idea of running for 75 miles is just scary enough to keep you honest when your alarm goes off, and when the thermometer dips to the single digits. So many of these days are days that could so easily be missed. Snow crunching under sneakers, trees so filled with birds chirping it stops you in your tracks, and seeing the weather clear and turn into a gorgeous spring day. You get all of this and more. And when you do that work, log those hours, map out the miles you can see your mileage bank growth, you are a 401k of your own life, and the unreasonable, the impossible challenge of running for 12 hours seems within reach.
And then you are so tired that you sleep well and you hit the hay early because tomorrow is a big day in the woods. Rest up, and worry not- the snacks will be great, but remember the start line won’t wait.