Several (Too-Long, Meandering) Pre-Race Thoughts about Grit
Are you as surprised as I am on the rare occasion when I post here? I’m baaaaack. For a second anyway. High Lonesome 100 is just three days away, and I wanted to jot down some thoughts, honestly for me as much as anyone else.
When people ask if I’m ready, it’s tough to find the gumption to say, yes, I am ready. Ready for 100 miles and 22,000 feet of climbing in less than 36 hours and mountain weather and technical trails and snow on the course and one long night out in the dark and cold and maybe rain. Possibly all of that with a migraine. I’ve finished 100’s with this much elevation before. Twice. But it isn’t any easier to feel bold about it. A few days ago I couldn’t answer in the affirmative but as each day gets closer I’m moving my head into that space of confidence. I’m waking up every morning more excited than afraid.
I’ve put in the work. My miles haven’t been as high as they could have been, but I’ve climbed more than 110,000 vertical feet in the past few months. I live at elevation now (10,000 feet!) and am quite acclimated. I’m in great aerobic shape for me, maybe the best I’ve ever been going into a 100 (though my fittest was in the few years before I started 100’s when I was running shorter, faster races.) Maybe the most important thing of all is that I’ve consciously worked on re-developing my grit.
I’ve been thinking a lot about grit this training season. Here’s what I’ve decided: grit is a muscle that weakens and strengthens depending on if we use it.
For example, I’m remembering a night run I did a few weeks ago – twenty miles in the pitch-black dark along the Colorado Trail – and how because of that experience it’s going to be a lot easier to find fortitude when the sun sets Friday night and I haven’t picked up my pacer yet. I’ll be more confident of not tripping and falling or being devoured by a mountain lion. I’ll be tougher at keeping a steady pace just using my headlamp’s beam despite my fear of the dark.
I’ve been finding it difficult to push myself as hard this training season because my chronic headaches and migraines have been far worse. Since I lost the occipital nerve stimulator almost a year and a half ago due to an infection, the pain has spiraled. I cringe when I think back to how self-congratulatory I was for pushing through the pain when I had the nerve stimulator. I’d give anything to have headache levels what they were back then. Now I sometimes go whole weeks without a break from a migraine.
An aside: I find it shocking how uncomfortable people become when I talk about the worsened pain. It’s okay to talk about chronic pain when it’s in a positive spin, but not when you are stuck in the rut of it. When I posted a blog here about six months ago describing how it had worsened with the removal of the stimulator, the responses came in two distinct categories: people who understood all too well and people who wanted me to go back to talking about the resilience part. One friend told me not to make it a major plot point for my life. I noticed just this morning that a professional athlete I follow posted about arthritis and how she overcomes by simply not thinking about it. (Gosh, why haven’t I tried that!) This shit reminds me of something I might have said a few years ago when I didn’t recognize how much worse it could be. I’d respect her more if she posted instead when she was feeling rather run down by it. Anyway, PSA: if you are following me here or on Instagram, I will talk about how the pain gets me down just as much as I talk about victories. I believe in being honest about both if I’m going to say anything at all.
Pain is a major plot point in my life and no amount of magical thinking will change that. I believe in leaning into what is hard, not pretending it doesn’t exist.
I have one rule for myself when it comes to training with the pain. I start every run as planned, and if the headache is too much after I’ve started, I’m free to turn around. One time, for example, I dragged myself to a trailhead and literally ran less than .1 miles before I said, nope, no way.
In the spring, I planned on running Grand Canyon rim to rim to rim (between 42 – 49 miles depending on the route, and 11,000 vertical feet). My migraine was at its worst the night before, so bad I could hardly pack my running vest with what I’d need. I delayed my start, and even though the pain was a lot better during the actual run, I only made it 2/3rds across before I turned around. I was afraid of being an entire Grand Canyon away from safety. The migraine hangover made me dizzy and my legs were already tired; I could have pushed through one of those but not both. And you know what? That’s legitimate. I’m not ashamed that I failed to run that far by myself in a desolate place with the remnants of a killer migraine. Some would call that decision smart.
I’m also not ashamed that I’m ranked as the slowest runner to start this 100. We all come into these things with different sets of circumstances. I don’t think we can actually compare unless we try on each other’s bodies for a minute.
At the same time, I can only have so much flexibility with myself if I insist on still setting big goals like a 100. People finishing races like this one complete their training runs no matter what they feel like. The runners who will be crushing ahead of me aren’t the same people who are calling my decision in the Grand Canyon smart. The runners ahead of me might be mortified if they were ranked last and might train harder to never be in that position again.
I recently watched a woman I know attempt to become the fourth woman Nolans 14 finisher (linking all 14 of the Sawatch’s 14,000-foot peaks in less than 60 hours – a challenge that is harder than it even sounds considering how off-trail you must go). She demolished 10 14’ers in 36 hours even though she broke her arm a few months ago so badly she still doesn’t have mobility or grip strength back. She is 100% grit and truly follows an ethos of no excuses. I admire her, and mountaineers and runners like her, and I also know that will never be me. I must give my body a break when it demands.
So how do I find this balance? How do I honor my body and what it needs while still following in the literal footsteps of people who allow themselves zero excuses?
When do you push? When do you give yourself a free pass to the couch? I’m guessing those are questions many of us ask, no matter our goals or our life circumstances.
Ironically, even though the pain is my main barrier right now, it’s the reason I’m running the 100 in the first place. If you’ve been following me here, you know that ultra-running for me as always been about that very thing. During 100’s, I push myself to the absolute brink of what my body and mind can handle because that’s how I learn (and remember) that it is okay to be in pain. It’s okay to suffer. There’s still light (ie a finish line) on the other side.
I run 100’s and I have a 100 tattoo on my arm to remind myself that I will emerge from even the darkest of places. I need that reminder now more than I ever have.
Lately with the pain I’ve been to the bottom mentally far too often. Unlike with ultra-running, there is no finish line. Right now I don’t have a lot of hope for relief. I’ve rededicated myself to natural remedies like diet, massage, deep needling, etc. I’m currently experimenting with a new injectable drug called Aimovig, and I’m hoping to have the chance to try more Ketamine drips which will probably require a longer hospitalization. Otherwise the only other option is more surgeries for another nerve stimulator. I am extremely reluctant to go that direction again.
Circling back to the idea of grit, on one hand, I think being in pain trains you how to be in pain. Hurting during a training run lets you tolerate hurt during a race. Having the nerve stimulator for a decade, and learning how to function while experiencing reduced headaches, prepared me to keep living life even now that the stimulator is gone. If I hadn’t become a hiker and runner then (and gone back to college and started working real jobs), I certainly wouldn’t be those things now that the barrier to doing so is higher. Finding grit gives you more grit.
On the other hand, every time I go through a bad episode of pain, I feel more beaten down by it the next time it flares. This last week I had a terrible stretch, and I dropped emotionally far lower than I have in the recent past. I’m still pulling myself out of it. Coping with migraines takes internal resources, and if I don’t have time between episodes to gather more, the pain hits me harder. I become desperate much faster.
Go back to my example of running twenty miles overnight a few weeks ago. What if I went on three dozen night runs this season? Instead of feeling buoyed by my training when the sun sets on Friday, I might feel worn down and mentally fatigued instead. I might react instead with, “This crap again? I can’t keep doing this!” I might feel immediately despondent rather than confident.
So which is it? Does practicing resilience give you more of it? Do you get tougher when you make yourself become so? Or is grit a limited resource? I’m starting to wonder if it works both ways. Maybe building resilience works right up to the point that you overdose on tough shit.
The only thing I know for sure is that somehow, over the past four or so months, I’ve put in the work I will need to finish this 100. Physically and mentally. For now, I’ve found a balance. I’m tougher right now than maybe I’ve ever been. I’m holding hope that I can at least start the race without a bad headache/migraine, but I’m prepared to travel all 100 miles with it if I have to.
I’ll let you know what I think about it on the other side… (Unless your name is Anthony in which case you’ll experience it along with me mile 50 and onward 😊 )
Feel free to share your thoughts below. I genuinely want to know what others think.