Why I’m not attempting a 50-miler this year

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Planning to spend the summer enjoying plenty more trail adventures with great friends.

This blog post is titled: “Why I’m not attempting a 50-miler this year.”  For most people, that’s not even something that needs to be addressed – it’s a given.  Actually, for me in any other year, this would be a given.  And then last fall, I had one of those weird nights where my best friend and running partner texted me about an interesting looking race called the North Country Trail Run.  And somehow, in the span of 90 minutes, I went from never having heard of the race, to signing up for the 50-mile option.  On my birthday.  In Michigan.  Our texts the next morning were pretty hilarious, as we realized the enormity of what we had just signed up for.

In November, when I sat down to plan my racing schedule for 2017, I based everything around North Country.  I worked my way backward from that race, choosing to run several random trail races simply because they would be good training for North Country.  My entire focus was on getting myself strong enough to take on 50 miles in the middle of Michigan in late August.  I had a plan.  I was focused.  This was going to happen.

Then life intervened, in the way that I’ve found life usually does when you think you have everything planned out.  In February, I took on a part-time coaching job.  It allowed me to get back into a sport I loved, but with 8 hours of coaching on top of an already packed schedule, I found that I began to get even less sleep than usual.  In an attempt to not stumble through each day as a total zombie, I began to cut a few of my weekly runs a bit shorter, in favor of 15 more minutes of shut-eye.

A few weeks later, I took that hard fall on the trails, which led to a cracked rib.  It was a full six weeks before I had a full range of motion without pain, and while I never stopped running during that time, I did cut back my mileage a bit more in an attempt to heal.

Several weeks after that, I learned that my school was cutting my teaching position for next year due to enrollment challenges.  Now on top of everything else that I was juggling, I began a full-scale job search.  As I sit here at my computer in late-June, life feels pretty relaxed.  I could not say the same for this past spring.  In fact, looking back on it now, I’m still not sure how I got through those few months.  The answer probably comes back to coffee.  I pretty much gave up coffee a couple of years ago because it tends to make me shaky.  This spring, I was back to drinking it on a daily basis, and even then I was barely keeping my head above water.  I was working 1 1/2 jobs, searching for a new one, driving the kids to gymnastics and baseball, and still running about 30 miles a week.  I was sleeping less than 6 hours a night.  It was not a good combination.  Something had to give.

I broached the idea of skipping North Country with my friend Jen in early May.  I was just so stressed, and the thought of preparing for a 50-miler was adding to my stress.  And I realized that it was silly to stress about something I love so much, like running.  We discussed it, then decided we would see how things went at Kettletown, our planned 50k, before making any decisions.  Of course, regular readers might remember that Kettletown did not go as planned.  We severely underestimated the challenging terrain, and after calling it quits at the 30k mark, the thought of 50 miles seemed completely ridiculous.  On the long car ride home, I told Jen that North Country was not going to happen for me this year.

A few weeks later, I had a great racing experience at Ragnar PA.  It was my first strong race of the year, and it gave me a bit of hope that this year might not be a total wash.  That same weekend, two of my friends and training partners crushed the 100k at Worlds End.  I was beyond happy for them, but it sparked a bit of jealousy as well.  Here they were completing a 100k and I was walking away from a 50-mile race without even attempting it.  I began to question my decision.

The following weekend, Jen and I arrived at Big Elk Trail Marathon, a race that we signed up for solely as a training run for North Country.  At the starting line, I shared with her my recent thoughts, and how I was now once again considering the idea of making the 50-mile attempt at North Country.  Jen assured me that she was still undecided herself, but that she knew she didn’t want to run the race alone.  We decided that we would see how Big Elk went and then make a decision.

I plan to write a full race report for Big Elk, but in a nutshell let me say that it was a great course that I fully enjoyed until the temperatures skyrocketed.  By the time I crossed the finish line, temps were in the upper 80s.  I felt strong on the run, but I ran the entire second half on my own, which gave me a lot of time to think.  During that time I realized that I probably could finish a 50-miler, but that I wasn’t sure if I actually wanted to.  I shared my thoughts with Jen upon finishing, and was happy to hear that she was in complete agreement with me.  After dealing with the heat at Big Elk, neither of us had any desire to double our distance in a late summer race.

And so that’s how we decided to give up our 50 mile dreams, at least for the moment.  I’m realizing that I don’t need to compare myself with everyone else to feel satisfied with my running.  Yes, my friends completed a 100k.  That is awesome and amazing.  They are awesome runners.  Forty miles is the longest distance I’ve ever run.  I think that’s pretty damn awesome too.  I’m not sure what the future holds.  I may still make an attempt at 50 miles someday.  For now though, I’m going to focus on enjoying my miles without the pressure of a big race hanging over my head.  After such a stressful spring, it feels awesome to take a few steps back and just enjoy running for the sake of running.

The overlooked female athlete

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Just a few of the awesome, strong female runners who I regularly tackle the trails with.  

The focus of my running last year was to take risks and attempt races that would force me outside my comfort zone.  No race did that more than Worlds End Ultramarathon, a stunningly beautiful and challenging 50 and 100k (I ran the 50k) in northeastern Pennsylvania.  While I sadly had to miss this year’s race, due to a conflict with Ragnar PA, I closely followed all of the excitement online, and I was eagerly looking forward to signing up for next year.  Today, one of the race directors, David Walker, shared with the online group some of the challenges with the way the race was portrayed online by Trail Runner Magazine.  In addition to botching the official race name, Trail Runner Magazine neglected to mention any of the female finishers in the 50k race.  One could argue that the write-up was incredibly brief overall, and that the lack of any female finishers was a minor oversight.  In the 7 sentence blurb, however, 4 sentences were devoted to noting the accomplishments of male runners, while just 1 sentence mentioned any of the female athletes.  This unfortunately mirrors a nearly identical incident with this year’s Hyner View Trail Challenge, when a local newspaper article summarized the race and the male winners, but neglected to mention a single word about any female winners.

When Dave posted his frustrations to the Worlds End Facebook group, along with his response to the magazine, there was instantly a great deal of support from runners of both genders, praising his determination to stand up for the rights of female athletes.  It was heartwarming to see so many people speaking out about the issue.  While women have made great strides in equality over the past hundred years, there are still huge obstacles that women face, and that is most certainly true in the world of athletics.

A recent article I read stated that while women now make up 40% of all sports participants, they receive only 4% of the media coverage of sports.  Of that piddly amount of coverage, much of it is of a questionable nature.  Female athletes, even those at the very top of their game, are much more likely to be asked about their looks or their families in an interview, rather than their skill.  When you think of a female athlete, what names first come to mind?  Of those women, how many of them have received media coverage for their attire or their appearance as much as for their accomplishments?

I’ve always been a fan of sports movies, and I was just entering my teen years when the movie “A League of Their Own” came out in theaters.  For any of you who may have missed it, the movie focuses on the women who played professional baseball after most of the male players were drafted into WWII.  It’s a sweet, fictional comedy, but repeatedly throughout the movie are references to the fact that people will only really be interested in watching girls play baseball if they find them to be attractive.  In fact, several of the players are originally told that they can’t join the league because they don’t have the right “look.”  Yes, it’s a fictional movie, and yes, it is set almost 70 years ago, but I would argue that not a lot has changed in sports since that time.

As female athletes we face plenty of adversity already.  Female trail runners train just as hard as their male counterparts, along with added challenges, such as their personal safety, that are heightened concerns.  It’s only fair that they receive equal commendation for their accomplishments.  None of the women I know, or men for that matter, run these races for the notoriety that it brings, but it would be a big step forward for all athletes to see both the male and female winners equally represented when a race receives a write-up.  One of my favorite things about trail running is that the directors of these races are so committed to putting on top-class events for their participants.  From my first experience, I’ve admired the work that David Walker and Jeff Calvert do to make Worlds End Ultra a reality for us runners.  Dave’s determination to stand up for his female participants is just one more example of what a great advocate he is for the sport of trail running, and for female athletes in general.  I now have yet another reason to look forward to towing the line in Forksville next June.  I already know that those in the trail community will celebrate the female finishers as much as they do the male finishers.  Now wouldn’t it be great for the media to do the same?

Ragnar Pennsylvania 2017

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The medals all together to create an awesome message.

I’ve been dragging my heels on writing this post for three weeks now.  I could blame the end-of-the-year craziness, or my son’s nonstop sport’s schedule, or lazy summer days.  All of those excuses would apply.  I think the biggest reason I haven’t attempted this post, however, is that I find it overwhelming to consider how to capture the magic of Ragnar for anyone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand.

For those of you who may not know, Ragnar is a racing series that takes place in about 40 locations around the country.  They have both trail and road events, but both types of races are team relays.  For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the road events, since that’s what PA was.  For a road race, you compile a team of 12 (or 6) friends and run approximately 200 miles nonstop, which takes teams between 24-36 hours.  There are 36 predetermined “legs” in the race, which means that each runner runs 3 different times.  The total mileage usual ends up being between 12-24 miles per runner.

I ran Ragnar DC, another road Ragnar, back in 2014.  I ran with a team that was largely strangers, and yet for this introvert, it was an incredibly awesome experience.  When my team captain from DC invited me to join his team yet again for Ragnar PA, I jumped at the chance.  There were eight of us returning from the original team, which means that we invited 4 newbies to join us.

Our team didn’t have a chance to meet before race day, so the first time that I met my new teammates was when we arrived at our van at 5:00 am on Friday morning.  I knew that three of our four new teammates were female and I just assumed that most were somewhere in the 35-50 year-old range, since that’s where our team basically averaged last time.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the two new women in my van were actually high-school seniors.  Our team captain’s daughter was the youngest member of our team back in 2014, and this time around, she convinced several of her friends to join us.  All in all, our team ended up being composed of 7 high school/college students and 5 middle-agers (how did I get into that group)?  It gave the team a markedly different feel from my one previous experience.

Usually I try to go through a race report in a chronological fashion, to give you the full experience of the race.  That’s not really possible with Ragnar, unless you’re willing to write a race report that goes on for 10 pages.  Instead, I’m going to try to put into words why you should consider running a Ragnar race of your own.

There’s a magical feeling about covering such a large distance on foot, and the way that Ragnar is set-up helps you to truly internalize the length of each and every leg.  I began the race as runner 1.  That means that after I took off from the starting line, my teammates hopped back into the van and drove alone the course until they got to the start of leg 2, which was just about four miles away.  Four miles is not that long a distance, but it certainly seems longer when you are driving it slowly and passing numerous runners along the way.  We repeated this pattern for just about every leg, and I was repeatedly awed when I considered how awesome it was that our team was working together to cover this cumulative distance.

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The sleepy members of van 1 at the start of the race.  

The course itself was incredible.  We began in downtown Lancaster before quickly moving out into the rolling hills of Amish country.  It would be hard to imagine a more beautiful, peaceful setting.  Lovely tilled fields spread before us, barns and silos were plentiful, and black-and-white grazing cattle dotted the bright green grass.  We saw numerous Amish families working the fields or digging in their incredibly tidy gardens, and they graciously gave us a wave or a head nod as we passed by.  I never realized that brightly colored laundry could look so lovely when it’s flapping in a gentle breeze over a green lawn.

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Just a few of the shots we took along the earlier parts of the course.

After the first twelve legs, the farms and fields began to turn to more wooded landscapes.  As we moved through the night, and our second round of legs, the course gradually began to climb into hillier terrain as we approached the Poconos and the finish line.  A steady rain began right around the start of my final leg, and it followed us for five of the first six legs we ran that morning.  The gray, foggy start to the day added to the surreal feel of running for more than 24 hours on barely any sleep.

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Many people cite the sleep deprivation as a reason that they are not willing to take on a Ragnar.  I won’t lie – it’s pretty brutal.  I got about 3 hours of sleep in my first Ragnar back in 2014.  In this race, I think I managed closer to 2 hours, and it was broken up in two separate stints.  There were definitely moments when I could feel the lack of sleep hit me like a brick.  There were also large blocks of time when I felt an incredible amount of energy, however, even with so little sleep.  You see, for 36 hours you are continually surrounded by hundreds of other teams of runners, who all share your love of the sport.  Running is so often a solitary activity, and Ragnar allows it to feel like one big running family.  It’s a fantastic way to bond with total strangers that you will likely never see again.  In my mind, it’s worth it to give up a little bit of sleep to experience that kind of magic.

One of the best parts of Ragnar is that teams traditionally cross the finish line together.  Our final runner came into sight and we greeted him, handed him his team shirt, and jogged with him across the finish line just after 6:00 pm on Saturday morning.  Our team had its fair share of adversity along the course and so it took us nearly 35 hours to complete the race.  Even so, we crossed the finish exhilarated and proud of our accomplishment.  On the ride home, all I could think was that I really wanted a shower, some sleep, and to plan out the next Ragnar that I was signing up for.

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