It was about a year ago that the idea of completing an ultra was anything I even remotely considered as a possibility. I had just come off of completion of an Ironman competition and was feeling the need to continue endurance training. I started joining some friends on their long runs as they trained for their first marathon, and one of them mentioned a friend of hers who was training for an ultra – Can Lakes, it turns out. I tossed the idea around in my head – “is that even remotely possible for me?” I wondered. I’d completed a number of marathons using the Jeff Galloway “run/walk” method, and just within the past year completed my first 3 marathons where I actually dropped the walk breaks and ran the whole way. But 50 miles… it just seemed inconceivable.
In May I travelled to Texas to meet some Ironman friends of mine. While there, they told me about a show they watched – “Desert Runners” – about ultra runners who were completing the “4 desert challenge” attempting to run all 4 ultra desert runs (about 250K) in 1 year. They said it made them think of me. The show captivated me – and the idea of actually trying for ultra distance started really taking hold. On the plane home from Texas I bought and read Hal Koerner’s “Field Guide to Ultra Running”. Hmmm. Perhaps this was doable. There was a field guide. I came home and pre-registered for Can Lakes.
From my own previous successes using defined training plans, I’m a big believer in following a plan. I downloaded a pretty aggressive Runner’s World plan that ranged from 50-75 miles per week. This amount to 30-55 miles more than I was running already, although my endurance base was pretty solid with lots of swimming and biking and a spring marathon under my belt. However, I was a little concerned about my ability to complete it. I started my 16 week plan already suffering from plantar fasciitis and I wasn’t sure how it would do with that much mileage. I figured I’d start the plan and if things were really hurting after a few weeks, I’d stop.
The training plan seemed daunting to me with back to backs every weekend, starting out with an 18/12, and quickly progressing to 20/18, then 23/20. The highest weekend mileage was 3 weeks before the race, with a 4 hour (23 mile) run on Saturday, followed by a 5 hour (28 mile) run on Sunday. The further I got into the plan, the more amazed I was at my body’s ability to adapt to the mileage. I was a bit dismayed at how slow I’d gotten, but was astounded at how long I could run. And, even better, as I completed the training, the plantar fasciitis actually improved. It had originally worsened during the first couple of months of training, but I kept it in check with some vigorous strengthening and stretching exercises. The tide started to turn after I was fitted for custom inserts and got new neutral running shoes – the problem almost completely resolved itself. After completing that 51 mile weekend, I knew I was as ready as I could be for this race.
Taper time was tough, as it always is. That’s when the doubts set in as you start to go crazy and lose confidence because you are not running enough. The week before the race I was edgy and sort of emotionally numb. I just wanted to get this game on.
The weather for race day was as perfect as it could be. Low 40’s to start, with a high in the high 50’s and sunny. I was so very grateful for the sun – the day before the race was just miserable cold rain. As I stood in FLCC that morning with the other runners, I continued to have moments of self doubt. And then the run began, and instead of waiting for it, I was running it. And it was wonderful.
The first 18 miles flew by in a blur. I was so very grateful to have my 21 year old daughter Patty up there supporting me for the race. We had ridden the course the night before and mapped out all of the aid station. Starting at aid station 2, she was there ahead of me for every stop, posting updates to Facebook for my friends and family. What a difference it made knowing I had someone waiting for me at every station. I handed her my sweatpants and gloves at aid station 2. Somewhere in the teens, my right knee and hip really started to get aggravated from some of the downhills. I asked Patty to scope me out some Tylenol, and there she was at the next aid station, Tylenol and a cup in hand.
I was actually happy when I got to Bopple Hill, and actually doing it rather than having it ahead of me. Again, running the down AFTER Bopple Hill was harder on the joints than actually walking up it. Lots of folks were walking all of the hills, but I felt that for me, I was able to keep running better by running the hills that I could easily run, and only walking the super steep ones. Part of that for me is because it is sometimes harder to go back to running after walking, than to just keep running in the first place – both physically and mentally.
For me, the big unknown about this race was, what was going to happen after mile 28 – which was my longest single run to date before the race. In my Ironman, I was pretty well spent for the last 16 miles of the run, and I ended up walking a significant portion of that last 16 miles. I knew that there was every possibility I’d feel the same way at Can Lakes. I was hopeful, however, that I would not. Through my many back to backs runs, I had learned the magic of slowing down – and just figuring out what pace my body needed to run at in order to continue running. My whole goal for the race was to run as much of that last 20 miles as I could.
I hit the “out and back” where we crossed over the 25 mile halfway point feeling strong and happy. The miles started to tick up – 26, 27, 28… 29. The longest run I’ve ever had. 30. Even longer. 31… I’d done a 50K and was still running! Mid 30’s – holy crow. Bare Hill. Not much to say about that – was happy to to meet Heather Ruger and chat with her up the hill – and snag another Tylenol. Mile 41 was sort of magical for me because my 2 of my regular mid-week training runs were 9 miles. So at that point I knew I just had the distance of my mid-week run to go. At 42 I passed another runner and shouted a cheery hello. He asked me “do you feel as good as you sound?” And I said “I feel amazing!” This isn’t to say it didn’t hurt. By that point there was a decent amount of hurting going on. But I was STILL RUNNING! And, what was more amazing to me, I was still running at a pace which really wasn’t all that much below my long slow run training pace.
Even though I said my goal was to finish in less than 12 hours, my secret goal for the race was to come in under 10:04 and earn a silver medal. By the last aid station around mile 47, I told my daughter that I knew I could earn that silver medal even if I walked for the last 3 miles. She said “so aren’t you going to walk?” I said “No – I’m going to run as much as I can.” And that’s what I did.
I did more walking that last mile than I’d done for the rest of the race, alternating between .2 miles of running, .2 of walking, but still maintaining a pace less than 13 minute miles. And there I was, at the finish line, exceeding my wildest expectations by coming in at 9:35 – 29 minutes faster than my goal time, with my daughter there to greet me at the end.
I am so very grateful to have had this experience. The training was transformational. The race was well organized, with wonderful, wonderful volunteers. Oreos! Pringles! Coke! Nice, wonderful people who filled my water bottles for me. Stunning venue with rolling hills and gorgeous scenery. A cool supportive Facebook group where I’d met some new friends – Heather, Patrick, Fredna, Allison, Jeremiah, Russell, Ellen, Kevin, Joseph, Dave, Jennifer, many of whom I got to meet in person on race day. A group of fabulous, friendly and motivated people who have discovered and embraced the magic of long distance running. Of pushing yourself to your limits. Past them. Throwing them out the window, and saying “limits? What are limits?”
This was my first ultra. It will not be my last.