My decision to register for a 100-mile ultra was hardly spontaneous. I’ve been building mileage and mentally preparing for it since 2013 when I finished my first 50-mile ultra. A few months ago I chose Run Rabbit Run, a 100+ mile race with 21,000 feet of climbing through Steamboat Springs’ surrounding mountains. I’ll have 36 hours – a day, a night, and the following day (no, I don’t plan on sleeping!). The September 18th race is now 89 days away.
It seems to me like 100-mile ultras are what people do in Colorado. I can name a dozen friends who have finished at least one. The other day I met a group of runners at Barr Camp (a cabin at 10,000 feet on the side of Pikes Peak), and all five of them were 100-mile veterans. See? I thought. Everyone is doing it! 100 miles is the new marathon! It’s not so far! It’s not so crazy!
If only I were as talented at endurance running as I am at magical thinking. The reality is that the enormity of 100 miles isn’t becoming any less daunting.
My weekly miles are accumulating and – this is going to be shocking – I’m starting to tire a bit. Climbing a single flight of stairs makes my quads ache. My feet are raw with blisters. And they’re dirty! No matter how much I soak and scrub. My big toe nail is threatening to come loose. I have sunburns and tan lines in weird patches. I can’t keep up with the laundry. Training is taking over my social life and work. And I am all-the-time hungry.
On Friday as I trained I interrogated myself, trying to answer the looming question: why? Why do I feel so compelled to try 100 miles? Even after eight hours on the trail, I didn’t find the answer. I have 89 days to figure it out, I thought.
I took only one day to find the motivation. Like many of my epiphanies, the answer came with a worsened headache. Saturday night after a family wedding and probably neglecting myself too much earlier in the day, I had the most painful sort of headache. It was the kind of piercing throb that renders me immobile, that makes me wish I could stop breathing because even that much movement aggravates it. I’ve been there before. I’ve been there so many times, but still I forget how excruciating a headache can be.
Imagining Run Rabbit Run helped me get through the worsened pain. I envisioned those later miles and how badly my legs will ache, how tired I will be, how I will be acutely aware of every joint, ligament, tendon, and muscle in my body and yet how I hope I will still find the strength to keep moving. I thought if I can do it then during the race, I could do it during that worse headache. I could keep enduring.
I was hoping my decision to push for a 100-mile race had nothing to do with The Headache. Yet there it was. Perhaps I had been wishing I was simply a masochistic maniac, because maybe that’s easier to accept than the chronic pain driving me to such ends.
I’m still grappling with the implications. Are other runners’ reasons for tackling 100 miles any more or less valid? Or “crazy”? Is long-distance running any less or more emotionally healthy than other coping mechanisms for handling chronic pain?
Or maybe those answers and the why of it don’t matter. What I know is true: every time I’ve pushed my limits, I’ve learned something about myself. The mountains make me stronger, happier, better. Maybe all that matters is that I show up on the trail on September 18th, willing to experience whatever journey I was meant to.