The mental side of running an ultra

In my last post, more than two months ago, I shared about how I was going to drop out of my planned 50-miler in late August.  My birthday came and went, and I’m happy to report that instead of running a 50-mile race, I hiked 4 miles before spending the rest of the day relaxing with my family.  Of course, life is never that simple, and in an attempt to perk ourselves back up after turning our backs on North Country, Jen and I decided to run the Labor Pain 12-Hour over the holiday weekend.  Actually, to be more accurate, Jen went ahead and signed up for the race and I decided that good friends don’t let one another make silly decisions alone, so I joined in the fun.

I could write a typical race report for this year’s Labor Pain, but as I’ve done the race two times previously, and written a report both times, I figured I would attempt something a bit different.  Instead of a traditional race report, I’m going to try to take you inside the mind of a runner as they experience an ultra marathon.

Several weeks before the race: I receive a text from my best friend that she has signed up for Labor Pain, even though we have another ultra scheduled for mid-September.  I immediately tell her that I have to think it over, but will most likely join her.  I spend the next 24 hours debating whether or not to run the race, before deciding that I will be totally bummed and cranky if she runs an ultra and I’m sitting at home alone.  I sign up for the race.

A week before the race:  I realize that signing up for a 12-hour race is a great way to “get over” the disappointment of backing out of the 50-miler.  I begin to feel excited for the race, and for a day spent on the trails with my best friend.  I also begin to check the weather obsessively.

Five days before the race:  I continue stalking the weather, stressing about the predicted heat (highs in the low 80s) after a week of beautiful, 70-degree days.

Three days before the race:  I feel conflicted about the new weather forecast – lower temperatures certainly sound ideal, but the steady, constant rain does not.  Wet conditions = endless chafing in an ultra.

The day before the race:  I try to remind myself that I have no control over the weather and choose to focus on the positive – the rain is supposed to move out early, and unlike most races, there are plenty of covered spots at the start, so at least I can stay dry while I wait.  I celebrate how easy it is to plan for a race that I’ve already run before, and pack my race bag.  I also begin to feel excited for what tomorrow will bring.  A win in Notre Dame’s season opener certainly helps enhance the positive mood the night before.

The morning of the race: I wake up and instantly cock my ear to the open window – no sound of rain.  Excellent!  I get dressed, gather my belongings and then wait impatiently for my husband to pull himself together.  As my desired departure time comes and goes, I resist the urge to snap at my husband and remind myself that a lot of guys would not be willing to give up an entire Sunday to sit on the sidelines of a race.  I have a momentary panic when I get in the car and discover the predicted arrival time on the GPS is 10 minutes later than I had expected.  The return of drizzle on the drive does not improve my mood.

Pulling into the race start:  My anxiety peaks as I realize I have just 45 minutes to set up my stuff, get checked in, and prepare for the race.  Plenty of time in theory, but I appear to have arrived at the exact same time as the majority of the other runners.  The long-ish lines do not help my mood.  I try to plan out the steps in my mind so I don’t waste any time being indecisive.

30 minutes before the race start:  I feel much better after getting my bib number, using the bathroom, and discovering that my husband has set-up the pop-up tent.  I also begin to appreciate my husband a whole lot more as I realize that his attendance means that I don’t have to waste any time or energy figuring out how to organize all my gear under the tent.  A good race crew is invaluable in an ultra, even for ones like Labor Pain, that are relatively easy to organize.  I spend the next 20 minutes bantering with fellow runners before heading over to hear the race director give the pre-race briefing.

Race start:  I wisely line up right near the start line, knowing that anyone further back will get bottle-necked when the course hits the trail less than a 1/2 mile in.  I give thanks for the brim of my hat, which is keeping the steady sprinkles out of my eyes.  I choose to go against convention and push hard for the first 1/2 mile so that I can reach the trail before it gets too clogged.

Entering the first section of single-track: I rejoice when I confirm that I have made it onto the trail before it gets clogged by runners, then instantly dial back the celebration when I realize that the rain from the day before has left large piles of mud on the trail.  With a loop course, I know that this is the best footing I’m going to get the entire day.  I start to mentally prepare myself for a wet, slushy day, even if the rain stops.  I also begin to instantly reassess my mileage goals for the day.

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This is the type of mucky footing that we dealt with for much of the day.

The remainder of the first 5-mile loop:  I focus on settling into a comfortable pace, trying to make sure that I don’t push too hard too soon.  The trail is not clogged, but is busier than I like, and I find myself annoyed by all of the people around, especially the ones who don’t seem to respect personal space.  Why do some runners insist on tailgating?  I step off the trail several times to let annoying runners pass ahead.  I also keep a constant eye on the trail conditions, noting which sections are dry and which are bogged down in mud or puddles.  As we come to the final hill, I find myself celebrating that it is shorter and easier than I remembered.  I quickly remind myself that it appears to grow in length and difficulty with each successive lap.

First pit stop:  The entire time, I’m focused on minimizing my time spent at the tent.  I say a quick hello to my husband, grab my handheld, and head back onto the course.  My spirits are high and I’m eager to log more miles.

Second loop:  This loop is not very memorable, though I do find myself celebrating how much more I enjoy the trails when the crowds have spread out.  I also register that I’m beginning to feel hungry and I need to make sure I take care of that the next time we get to the tent.

Second pit stop:  Once again, I’m focused on getting what I need without wasting too much time.  I relish the taste of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that my husband hands me.  In my opinion, there are few things that taste better than a fresh pb&j during a race.  I remind Jen that we’re heading into what is traditionally the hardest part of the race for me, and I try to focus on just powering through the third loop.

Third loop:  This loop is memorable and surprising simply because I feel good.  Really good.  There’s not a single point when I hate running.  Usually when I’m 10-15 miles in, I’m beginning to feel tired, but I’m also disheartened by how far I still have to run.  Today, I just feel strong.  The rain has finally stopped and the fog has lifted out a bit.  I appreciate how beautiful the woods are.  I can’t stop feeling giddy that my spirits have remained high.  When I mention this to Jen, she responds with, “Yeah, you haven’t been a bitch at all,” and we both enjoy a good laugh.  A good running partner is every bit as invaluable as a good race crew.

Fourth & fifth loop:  My spirits lift a bit more going into the fourth loop when we connect with our other friend Jen (hereafter known as Trail Jen).  At this point we are close to four hours into the race, and it’s nice to have a new distraction.  Trail Jen is an eternally happy person, and she and I happily chat away for several miles.  In the back of my mind, I note that Jen is unusually quiet, but I realize that this means she’s hit her own personal tough point in the race.  Knowing her the way I do, I leave her alone, knowing that she’ll come out of it at some point.  At the start of the fifth loop, Jen takes off without a word.  It’s surprising and also expected.  Surprising because she appeared to be really hurting, but expected because she usually leaves me at some point in the race.  It’s always a disappointing moment for me, but I understand it.  Jen is naturally a more gifted runner than I am, and so in the majority of our races, she usually pulls ahead of me at some point.  Today I celebrate that we ran together longer than I expected, and that I still have Trail Jen for company.  It is during the fifth lap that Trail Jen and I decide that we’re both going to call it a day after 31 miles.  The messy trail conditions are starting to wear us out, and we decide that a 50k on a tough day is more than respectable.

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Mugging with the two Jens near the start of our fourth loop.

Fifth pit stop:  We reconnect with Jen, who has beaten us back to the tent by a couple of minutes.  She confirms that she’s still feeling lousy.  I share our plan to run one more loop before calling it a day.  I enjoy another pb&j, some watermelon, and an ice-cold Coke.  We head back onto the course for our final loop.

Sixth loop:  Trail Jen and I spend the first 20 minutes of the loop celebrating that this is our last time past all the familiar landmarks.  As we banter back and forth, Jen is with us, but surprisingly quiet.  At one point, she and I pull ahead on the trail and I ask her, “What are your plans after this loop?  Are you stopping or going on?”  She confirms what I already knew, that she wants to try for at least a seventh loop.  With five hours still left in the race, I know that we have plenty of time to keep going.  I also realize that while I’m tired, I feel surprisingly good for this late in a race.  I don’t even need to think it over – if she’s going to keep going, so will I.  I find myself hoping that we’ll stay together, as it would be a lot less fun to continue on alone.  I also admit to myself that if we’re going past 31, I know that we’re going to stay out on the course till 40.  Jen won’t admit it in the moment, but I know her too well.  In fact, I find myself worrying that she might decide she wants 45 after all.  I feel pretty good, but I don’t know if I can mentally gear up for 45, after thinking that I would be done at 31.  I spend the remainder of the lap resolving myself to ten more miles of running.

Sixth pit stop:  We inform the husbands and Trail Jen that we intend to continue on after all.  Trail Jen informs us that we are welcome to continue, but she still plans to stop at 31.  My husband confirms how well he knows me when he says, “I knew you would keep going.”  Funny that he knew it before I knew it myself.

Seventh loop:  Even though I’m tired at this point, I’m in pretty good spirits.  Less than ten miles from the end, and I begin to feel uplifted at the thought of logging another 40-mile finish.  It’s been two whole years since I’ve hit that number.  I try to really break the loop up into segments, hiking hard on the uphills and pushing our pace to a steady run on the flats and downhills.  I note that Jen is running much stronger now than she was two laps ago.  Ultras are funny in that way – you often get an unexpected boost late in the race.

Seventh pit stop:  It’s a great feeling stopping back at the tent and knowing that the next time we see our husbands, we’ll be done.  We quickly refuel for the final time and head back onto the course.

Eighth loop:  The eighth loop almost has the feeling of a victory lap.  For me, it’s a chance to celebrate everything that has gone right with this race.  My fueling was totally on point.  I paced well without pushing too hard.  I remained mentally positive.  I’m feeling really good.  Halfway through, Jen mentions that she thinks we’re on pace to set a new PR time for the 40-mile distance.  Of course, we can’t remember our exact PR time, and we’re mentally shot at this point, so we spend way longer than we should trying to make the math work out.  I feel cautiously optimistic that we can PR, then instantly remind myself to keep it in check, since I’m not exactly sure what time we are trying to beat.  As we reach the field near the end of the loop, I urge Jen to continue running, informing her that we should be able to come in under ten hours if we keep our pace up.  I don’t know what our previous PR is, but I know it’s definitely over 10 hours.  We run the final 5-10 minutes with a focused intensity, crossing the line for the final time at just under 9 hours and 52 minutes.

At the finish:  I feel total joy when we cross the finish line, immediately followed by relief that we are done.  When we reach the tent a few minutes later, I’m overcome with tears.  It’s impossible to fully describe the feeling of finishing a tough race.  There’s excitement, mixed with relief, mixed with exhaustion, mixed with the disbelief that you just accomplished something so crazy.  As I finally stop moving, I allow myself to fully feel the pain of ten hours of running.

The following days:  The week after an ultra is always hard for me.  I start out on such a high, only to quickly realize that most of the world really doesn’t care, or if they do, they don’t understand.  After an ultra, all I want to do is relive the entire experience for anyone who will listen.  Unfortunately, there are very few people who actually want to hear the details of a 10-hour race.  There’s this almost irresistible urge to tell everyone what you’ve done, coupled with the desire to remain humble so that you are not viewed as a braggart.  On top of that, there’s a bit of uncertainty.  It’s hard to know what your next goal is after you’ve completed a race that consumed your life for several months.  It’s usually at this point that I begin to search out my next running adventure.

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Celebrating our third 40-mile finish and a new PR time!

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