If you had asked me beforehand what how it would feel to be an ultrarunner, I’ve run enough marathons to know not to say things like, “Amazing,” “Trancendental,” or “like a super hero.” But in the back of my head the thought was there. Ultrarunners have always been a step above the rest to me. There are ultrarunners that I know, I’m even friends with them on Facebook. I remember when I thought an 8 mile long run was an otherworldly achievement. But, last weekend I ran an unofficial ultramarathon, adding almost 9 miles onto a marathon for a total of 35.
It took a couple years for me to get from that point of awed-wonder at ultramarathons to wondering if it was something I could do. I got a couple full marathons under my belt. A lot of my running goals last year were to prove what I could accomplish after recovering from knee surgery. Eventually I was back in good enough shape that running was fun again. It took a long time to build that endurance back up. This year started and I didn’t have any major running goals, but I knew I wanted to do something major. Maybe even something epic. I played with the idea of trying to break a sub-4 marathon. I ran a 10×10 with a handful of friends from my running group. Somewhere along the lines my friend Beth invited me to train with what turned out to be the same group of us for a birthday run. She was turning 35 the same day as the inaugural Joplin marathon. She wanted to run 35 miles to celebrate. By that point the thought of “doing something ultra” had been rummaging around in the back of my mind. In a rare act of self-preservation I asked my wife before committing. She didn’t look at me like I had two heads, or say no, so I took it as a yes.
What followed was a lot of training. If I wasn’t running in the mornings I was lifting or cross training. I had to be very deliberate in making myself take rest days so I wouldn’t overdo it. The long runs got way long. Never in my life had I really imagined that I would say I was running a marathon as a training run. But I did just that, and then went out the next day ran again. Who does that? Ultrarunners, that’s who.
Much of that training time was spent with my crew. We had many adventures, stories, and jokes and made memories.
I like to think I did a pretty good job of maintaining a healthy family/work/training balance. But it was hard. I often didn’t get enough sleep. I was grouchy with the kids at times. I’m sure I missed details at work. Sometimes I had to wear sunglasses to the office so no one could tell I was actually sleeping (my lovely editor tells me I should inform you that I am kidding here). For the most part it wasn’t much harder than training for a regular full marathon. My family and coworkers were gracious and understanding.
Running long, to me, is largely about tuning into your body. All the work leading up to the big day is trying to figure out what works. Even at that last moment, you have to make split second decisions. What and how much to eat before hand. I didn’t decide what pack I was wearing until I walked out the door. I opted for the smaller, lighter hip pack, even though it held slightly less food. It was much easier to access. It was a good decision. What I decided to fuel with beforehand was not quite such a good decision. About 45 minutes into the run my stomach started to revolt.
We took the whole family, drove in late the night before and got a cheap hotel. I had called a dance the night before, plus the nearly 90 minute drive, so it was after midnight before the kids were all tucked into the starchy hotel sheets. I probably could have slept a little later than I did, but I didn’t want to take any chances, and the pre-race jitters made it hard to get to sleep. I ended up with 3 hours of sleep that night.
Despite the lack of sleep, the morning started beautifully. The first few miles we relaxed, everyone was chatting. It was a great time. Until I started to feel like I’d just stepped of a tilt-a-whirl. Eventually the feeling passed. We didn’t quite end up with the full 9 before we had to get back to the start to meet some more members of the running group who were doing the regularly scheduled events for our group photo. As we headed back we started to see other runners around, warming up for the race. Excitement was building. Lines were forming outside the porti-jons. Hundreds of people were milling around working through their pre-race rituals.
The six of us started the race out together but some of us split off as we picked up our own paces. I would see the others occasionally over the first few miles, but eventually it was just me and the miles ahead. The race was big enough that there were always other runners around, but between battling the heat and the hills no one was very chatty.
This year was the 5th running of the Joplin Memorial race, but the first time they had a full marathon distances. It is run to commemorate the EF5 tornado that tore through the city in 2011 and to raise money to assist with ongoing rebuilding efforts in Joplin. Because of these efforts the event had great crowd support. I’ve never run in a race before where the volunteers thanked me for being there. It was incredibly motivating.
35 miles is a long way to run. It takes almost as long as going to work for a day. I had heard things about ultrarunning. Things like, anything over 30 is a whole different game. It wasn’t as different as I had anticipated. It was just more. More road. More uphills. More downhills. More running. The hills became a sweet relief as an opportunity to walk, as did the water stations. Otherwise, I was able to maintain a reasonable pace. I had run on fatigued legs before. Eventually the run became mostly mental. I couldn’t let doubt creep in. If I had had my head up at one point I would have seen another runner pass out on the course from exhaustion. Other runners were expressing their desire to be done. It got hard to keep going. Every time someone told me I was almost there or tried to encourage me I just wanted to stop and tell them they had no idea what they were talking about. I wanted to tell them I had accomplished what they were cheering me toward an hour ago and when I passed that elusive finish line I would have to keep going. But I just ran. And ran.
I did eventually turn the last corner on the course. The last straightaway was long. The crowd cheered. I was so focused on getting to that line that I missed my family cheering on the side. It was one of the few times they were able to make it to one of my events, and I was exhausted to the point that I didn’t even register their presence. But it meant the world to me that they were there with their hand made sign and smiles to see me get one of the metals that the kids love to hear about. I was able to sneak down a side road out a half mile and back to wrap up the mileage and get my 35.
Just like that I was an ultramarathoner. Thanks to Beth and her unique way of celebrating a birthday. Thanks to the friendships and the hundreds of miles we put in. I wasn’t more transcendent. I was tired. I was hungry for days. I was not as sore as I expected to be. I was not transcendent, but I had done what a fraction of a percent of people do.
The only way to go from here is up. I may see how sideways Natalie looks at me when I ask her what she thinks about the Mark Twain 50 miler in September. Then again, I’ve heard running is bad for you knees.