For me it was like flying. I was ready to attempt the impossible. Standing at the starting line, I thought about the 100 miles that lay ahead, trying to grasp a distance of such magnitude. But it was not confidence I felt while digging my feet into the ground nor was it eagerness as I paced back and forth, waiting for the gun to go off. It was FAITH that kept my mind in the moment and my heart in the skies . Faith in my training, faith in my abilities, and faith in myself. It was faith that kept me on that starting line, ready to tackle the toughest physical challenge of my life. When it comes down to it, what else could I have felt? I was completely uncertain if I could finish such an inconceivable feat. The thought of it made me smile as I put on my headphones and took off down the fog-covered trail. Every great achievement starts with the willingness to try.
What a journey my first 100 Miler was. The year was 2014 and I finished in just under 24 hours. The race consisted of one small out and back followed by a much larger one. Remembering how I felt after my 100K a few months prior, I could not fathom covering 100 miles, so I didn’t try to; I just put one foot in front of the other and kept moving forward. Running 100 miles certainty taught me a lot. I’d like to share a set of valuable lessons I learned by the end of that day, or should I say, by the morning of the following day, finishing at sunrise. Let’s start with the importance of running in the present..
1. Running in the Present
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. Up until my 100-mile ultra I had heard about the concept of running in the present but it really never hit home until that day. Beforehand, ultra marathons and marathons were more like grinding out mile after mile until reaching a relief by crossing the finish line. But something sunk in that day. I began to conceptualize that there is no finish line. After all, when the finisher medals stack up along with a pile of race shirts in a box under your bed, you begin to realize that each finish line is relative to our own personal journey, a new reference point that vanishes into the distance along with the rocks and the trees we leave behind on the trails. Sometimes when racing, it feels like the day will never end. There were plenty of times during my first 100-mile ultra marathon when I felt this way. Come to think about it, there’s a time during every ultra marathon when this thought arises. But one way or another they always end. Step by step we get there. So in that moment when I feel discouraged or over-consumed by the finish line, I remind myself in that minute, in that exact fraction of a second, all I need to do is simple. All I need to is RUN. Also, at times I broke the race down into smaller segments. For example, I focused on running to a particular object or to the next aid station. I once heard someone say that it took them 10 years to become an overnight success. The longest run of my life came one aid station at at time, one mile at a time, and one step at a time.
2. Trade Expectation for Gratification
Chasing a time, a particular qualifying event, or a particular placement are typical running practices. However, for some, what motivates us at the starting line can be the death of us before ever reaching the finish. For some it leaves us chasing an external outcome with our mind focused on the finish line. I’ve ran fixated on the finish line, chasing a time I was expected to run or a place I was expected to be in. But I’ve also ran grateful for the now, for the moment, and for myself. And you know what? Gratification trumps expectation tenfold. What can you be grateful for when running? Be grateful for your health, your bones, and your muscles. Be grateful for the trails, the earth, and the weather. Be grateful for your fellow runners, the volunteers, and the support of your family and friends. Be grateful for the time, your love for running, and the shoes on your feet. Be grateful for anything and everything. When we are feeling grateful it’s almost impossible to feel bad and in a sport where intense detrimental physical and mental pain is guaranteed, gratification can help us along the way. Be grateful for the freedom that we can walk out of our doors and be and do anything we want–that is, if we can take down the barriers of our own limiting beliefs, because only then we can achieve even our greatest goals. Perhaps we could even run 100 miles…
3. Fight or Flight: Excuses
I wrote in my post 10 Tips for Running Your First Ultra Marathon that I know one thing for certain–if you look for excuses you will certainly find them. When running inconceivable distances by foot, our bodies will undoubtedly feel threatened, naturally engaging our fight or flight response. After fighting excuses to stop running for hours and hours on end your body will rationalize and make sense of just about anything. Your mind attempts to rationalize irrational thoughts when its survival is threatened. It’s possible to loose sight of the reasons you’re running in the first place and anything seems like a good reason to halt in your tracks. To help beforehand, I wrote down a handful of reasons why I chose to run 100 miles. For example: to surpass my limitations, to show my boys that anything is possible, to break limiting mental barriers, to appreciate life through a deeper meaning, to connect with the environment, to enter into the unknown, and the list goes on. When I think back to my first marathon I think I wanted to prove to other people what I was made of, but I’ve learned quickly that this will only fuel the fire for so long. Right before my first ultra marathon an incredible athlete looked me dead in the eyes with complete, compassionate certainty and said these words: “Today, in this race, you do it for one person and one person only. You do it for yourself. You cross that finish line and you change your life forever.” I’ve taken these inspiring words with me and passed them on to many first time runners before attempting their first marathon and now I pass them on to you. We can help each other, we can inspire each other, and we can learn from each other. But no one can run those miles for you. Those miles you earn, and those miles are yours, and they are yours forever.
4. You Are What You Eat
The performance we are able to put out is a reflection on what we put into our bodies. What worked for me during a 50-mile ultra marathon did not work for me during a 100-mile ultra marathon. My stomach began to reject sugary sports drinks and gels at mile 50, causing a severe case of nausea that lasted for the remainder of the race. Fighting the irritable and irresistible urge to throw up on my shoes for the the entire second half of the race, I ended up running on chicken broth and ginger chews for hours on end. But that day was a blessing in disguise. I was dealing with stomach issues at the end of every race and this day was the tipping point. Sometimes we must go through a significant amount of pain before we are willing to take action and make a change. This experience made nutritional changes my top priority and, fortunately, I did find a solution. I changed my diet and it changed my life by removing processed foods from my eating regiment and learning the importance of fat metabolizing. I plan to write a future post on the matter. Nausea is a common issue we face in the ultra world. I will tell my story in hopes of helping a few runners out there dealing with the same issue. Your body doesn’t have the ability to turn poor nutritional choices into ones of high quality. Our cells, muscles, skin, and bones are built by the food that we supply it. We literally are what we eat.
5. Mother Nature Is Unpredictable
On race day the weather was in the mid 80’s during the day and the low 40’s at night. I got sunburn and blew visible streams of cold air out of my mouth all in the same day. To top it off, we also faced a period of thunderstorms. When the temperatures significantly dropped at night, an experienced volunteer taught me to swing and pump my arms fast and to certainly not stop moving. When running exhausted at night with such a dramatic temperature change, my body was on a thin line between a distributed body temperature and going into shock. I witnessed some participants go down from it. But as I pumped my arms a little harder it neutralized the shakes. This was in addition to fighting the tremendous urge to take a nap as the hallucinations from sleep deprivation set in. Trying to keep my headlamp aimed at the ground, I watched an imaginative audience in the edges of my peripheral. We can not control the elements we face from the earth, but we can pack for them! I learned the importance of “just in case” packing and the utilization of a drop bag.
6. Positive Action
When you think about positive action, you may think of positive mantras and thinking positively. As you probably gather from my posts so far, I stress the importance of building a positive psychological strength for running ultra marathons. But let’s face it, ultras hurt like hell. I attempt to run in a very positive state of mind but ultras can be like one long, long, long…..LONG roller coaster ride. It consists of a series of ups and downs until you cross the finish line. You typically here about runners “coming back from the dead” and I’ve certainly been there myself. But can we run while facing negative emotions like anger, sadness, or regret? Absolutely we can, but we can do it in a positive state of mind. Welcome frustration, welcome rejection, welcome pain, because these types of emotions can drive us to success. If we can control these emotions, and leverage them to our advantage, it’s possible to achieve the unimaginable. It’s when we lose control of these emotions that we loose control of ourselves and potentially DNF. Running 100 miles, I demonstrated to myself firsthand the importance of being in control of my emotions and to not let my emotions be in control of me.
“Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy; the hard part is pushing yourself even further…past what your mind wants to let you. That’s what ultra running is all about; introducing you to a self you’ve never known.” – Rex Pace
Running deep into the night my legs were shot, my stomach was torn, and my mind was exhausted. But I kept moving forward despite the unbearable pain from my legs, feeling as if they would shatter at any given moment. I ran the first 50 miles with my body and the next 40 miles with my mind, but those last 10 miles, those last 10 repetitively devastating yet insanely gratifying miles, those I ran with my spirit. Igniting that feeling deep down inside, that feeling that tells us we can do and be so much more, that higher self, the deeper self, that’s who found the strength to continue, that’s who found the strength to cross the finish line. If we can dig deep enough and push ourselves far enough, we may be fortunate to have a taste, a small taste of what we are actually capable of. And when that sun began to rise with short of 3 miles to go, and I was encouraged to pick up my pace in order to achieve under that 24 hour mark, all of a sudden the first 97 miles became irrelevant. It came down to only 3 miles. It was a new race, and I ran and I ran, and I made it–23:56:17.
Thank you so very much for reading this week. I wish you all the luck in the world as you set forth to push past your own personal limitations. The 100 mile distance is like no other. The 100 mile distance is an indescribable journey, one I hope you’ve experienced or get to experience one day in the near future. Stay healthy, be strong, and KEEP IT MOVING!
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