It was Sunday, 10 in the morning, in the vicinity of the finish line of the Stagecoach 100 mile race. I was not functioning well as a human person.
“Hey, I couldn’t find you!” said Geoff after I’d wandered off for another unplanned nap in the back of the enormous tent. An hour prior I’d been wide awake, ringing a cowbell and cheering in other racers in the morning light. Three hours prior I was sitting in a daze after my own finish wondering if that had actually just happened (yes), if I’d feel some exhilaration any moment now (no), and why my ass hurt so much (TMI).
Okay. Wait. Back up just a tiny bit. Let’s go back a little more than a day and start this sizzle reel from the beginning. It was 6 a.m. on Saturday, I was about to run my first sub-24 hour 100 mile ultra marathon, and I felt pretty damn good. But why was I even here, with this particular goal? It all goes back to a “little” horse event called the Tevis Cup.
100 Miles. One Day.
To run 100 miles and not get “lapped” by the sun. It’s the stuff of ultrarunner dreams. Those four iconic words are etched into each coveted silver buckle from Western States—the oldest 100 miler in the country. Originally, 100 miles under 24 hours was the final cutoff for the Tevis Cup, but after Gordy ran it without his horse it was clear humans could do it, too. Now, a sub-24 at the 100 mile distance is a people’s benchmark, attainable and yet still difficult. In other words, it’s the perfect goal.
For me, it took some planning, some specific training, and a lot of base building. This race was chosen specifically; I had run my 100 mile PR here, a 26:15 five years ago. Everything seemed to be in alignment. I didn’t even get injured (more than a niggle) during training. In the end, my race was a success and yet the achievement felt incredibly numbing at the same time. I was left with so many conflicting emotions, from “of course I did it, I knew I could” to “that hurt a lot but I can do it better” to “I’m already sad and I don’t know why” to “goddamn I’m tired” to “maybe I feel a little . . . yay?”
I have been doing ultras for a very long time, including 100s, yet I wasn’t sure how I would feel. Maybe I imagined it a little like Zach Miller. If you haven’t seen the end of The North Face 50 mile from 2016, give it a look. Watching that kind of redlining . . . it makes me FEEL stuff. THAT is how sport should be! And feel! And wooooooo! But for me, at 6:28 am on Sunday morning, 23 and a half hours after I started, there was not a lot of fist pumping.
Crossing the finish line I definitely felt relief that I didn’t fuck it up. See, the thing is that I knew I could break 24. My training was right, the day was right, even my cycle was exactly at the right spot. (And yes, that’s important if you are a woman trying to race. Dr. Stacy Sims, y’all.)
Weeks ahead of time, I told everyone I was going to do sub-24. It made the goal more real and more visible. And scary: what if I totally failed? If the result was that I struggled all day and finished in 25 hours, I’d feel surprised and a bit humbled and a lot embarrassed. So I needed some perspective.
Detach From Results
In order to let my legs do what they were ready to do, I put my trust in them. My heart was ready. It was the head that needed some coaching, honestly. The head controls pretty much everything, including legs and heart. It was my head that would tell my legs to slow down if it decided I was a crap runner. It was my head that would allow my legs to reclaim their spunk in the last hours to put the frosting on my race cake.
Days before the race I was in a yoga class and almost lost it when the instructor said to the room, “Your body is ready. You are ready.” She wasn’t talking to me. She was referring to all of us being warmed up and ready to do a deep stretch. But it didn’t matter. My heart heard those words and melted like butter in a skillet. Yes. I was ready.
5 Things Toward Making Sub-24 A Reality
In the end, several things helped me get to my goal. They are what you must remember. They are what I needed to relearn.
1. Running to a timetable is damn stressful.
Nearly every other ultra I have ever ran was “to feel”. Meaning, I ran what felt appropriate for the day, for my training, for the race. Not too hard. Sometimes I was fighting cutoffs. Sometimes I pushed myself harder than usual to finish strong. But almost always, I was running what felt reasonable for that day. And that made me feel unfulfilled as an athlete/animal. WHAT COULD MY BODY REALLY DO? This was a question I’d started to answer 10 years ago when running marathons, but I am just poking into it with ultras.
My 24 hour target splits were absolutely perfect for ME. They were based on two people who’d run this race the year before, finished just under 24, and raced like I do: worryingly slow in the first half, then a barely perceptible slowdown in the later miles. Based on previous races I knew this was my kind of plan. But it left little room for error. I wasn’t putting in quick miles early to have some wiggle room later. That ends up disastrously for many people, and besides, I love that feeling of “orange-lining” the whole 2nd half. Not redlining and blowing up. Bad idea. But just below that is the orange line and that is where I twiddle the dials of my Central Governor and go into the pain cave for awhile. Sustainable discomfort. Which leads to . . .
2. Everything is temporary. EVERYTHING.
Feeling bad. Feeling awesome. Being too hot. Needing to “find a tree”. Feeling hungry. Getting talkative. Wanting silence. Being lost. Getting lonely. Those fresh batteries in the super-bright headlamp.
Nothing lasts. Soon, you feel better. Or worse. Or your batteries die. Deal with it, and wait for the next change.
3. Self-talk can make or break you.
Get ready for this one; it’s not as hippie as you think. Hours and hours of “you got this” and “you are ready” and “what a great day” will tend to produce a different mindset than “oh boy I feel slow” and “this hurts my feet” and “ow ow ow my butt”. And your mindset can turn into differing performance results. It’s true that some folks can rally when faced with criticism or difficulty, but those birds are rare. Many of us do far better with encouragement, from the world around us AND our inner narrative. Even though I wasn’t able to draw my Sharpie mantras all over myself, I still thought about them as if I had.
Corollary concept: positive talk directed to other people is a double shot of goodness. Telling other racers they’re doing well, thanking volunteers, all of it feeds into this big loop of sparkles and unicorns and love. And it works.
4. The finish is what you make of it.
Didn’t have any friends to be there and go WOOOOOOOO and take photos of your grimy face and thousand-yard stare? Suck it up, buttercup. You STILL did the thing and the tiny cactus still believes in you. Pat yourself on the back as much as you damn well want. Mope. Take a micro-nap without really planning on it. EAT something, unless you will literally throw up as a result. And, most importantly, get OUT of your head. You’ve been in it for more than a day. Stand up, walk around, and do the WOOOOOOO for everyone else who is coming in to the finish. Maybe they don’t have their friends around, either. BE their friend. You both did this thing.
5. Aftercare is real and underappreciated.
No, I didn’t just deliver a baby but boy did I put my body through the wringer. For days the muscles are confused and angry, the lower legs inflamed and swollen with impressive cankles. Sleep is challenging, and then sound, and then challenging. Hunger is fickle, rising and falling with no seeming logic. I am given a free pass to eat anything I want as a “reward” for my race, but when I go to the store the day after the race I buy salad and liver and eat them with gusto. More than a week after the race I find myself having a chocolate-bar-and-bag-of-chips dinner. Really. But with more than a solid week of nutritious food already down the hatch, I’m recovering like a boss.
Oh, yeah. Emotional wackness. I get this one, real bad. Half a day of “yay, I did that” followed by a day of random staring into space and thinking, “boy is my life empty and dumb”. Repeat for a week. Or two. Throw in some sudden emotional meltdowns, such as panicking at the grocery store or bursting into tears during a run, and you have a pretty interesting post-race period. It’s sometimes called post-race depression and it can magnify any other clinical depressive symptoms already present. Pay attention and call someone if you’re freaked. Call me. There’s lots of us in this together, and we’re stepping up to be seen.
Ultimately, the biggest secret to aftercare is just tuning in. Need a nap? Take one if you can! Hungry? Eat something, dammit: whatever sounds good. Legs all freaky and tight? Lay on the floor and put your feet on the wall. It’s a lovely feeling. Want to go running? Go, but slow. Don’t want to go running? Don’t! But do walk around and be mobile as much as humanly possible. You might get a cold a week or two later. That’s fine. Sleep more.
And take it all in. Smile, even if you still have the thousand yard stare.