The Journey to Becoming an Ultramarathoner

The first time I thought about ultra running, I was smack in the middle of a 2,650 mile hike across the country. At that point I was entirely self-supported–carrying all my gear–routinely cranking out 30+ mile days. The prospect of traversing the 31 miles that an ultra marathon entailed sounded…well, to be quite honest? Easy. I thought “Hell, I do that EVERY DAY out here! How hard could it really be with aid stations peppering the route? I don’t even have to carry a backpack?! A cinch.”

Turned out, there was (a lot) more to ultra running than I thought.

As a long distance hiker with something like 23,000 miles of hiking under my feet, I had firmly established a personal pace that enabled my body to walk 30-40 miles per day for months at a stretch. 3 MPH was where my internal governor redlined, and as I’d soon discover, I was ill-prepared for upping to a pace that allowed for feasibly beating cut-off times. A year and some change later (August 23rd of this year, to be exact) I toed the line at the Headwaters 50K feeling strong. When the herd of fellow participants started galloping away from me, I confidently stuck to my plan and set off in a hybrid shuffle-hike that I guessed was around 4-5 MPH. Plenty of time to beat those weird cut-off times I’d read about, right?

Upon arrival at the first aid station, I started to get worried. The volunteers there informed me that I was barely on track to beat the clock! In my fear I started traveling faster–much faster than I had during my training–a 2,180 mile hike of the Appalachian Trail! The leg muscles that had allowed me to complete the AT in a mere 86 days were not conditioned for running, and I was hurting more than I’d ever experienced on trail by the time I hit the 18 mile mark.

Looking back now from the comfort of my couch, I can clearly see the switch that happened in my brain. The misery that I was experiencing on that ultra race was the same familiar pain I had felt on my very first long hike, back in 2003. In the 11 thru hikes since, I’d forged my body into a thru hiking machine, but I had neglected to consider the different muscles needed to run rather than simply hike. At that 18 mile mark I realized that I was in the same old boat I had been as an inexperienced cocky kid, taking my first steps as a long distance backpacker. Here I was, fresh off a multi-thousand mile hike, yet woefully unprepared for the mere 50K run I had felt so confident about.

I finished that race. Gritting my teeth, I ran for as long as I could, shuffled the climbs, and eventually crossed the finish line. My legs were thrashed, my ego crushed…but my face was stretched into a smile. I was elated to finally find a new challenge. Thru hiking had become such a normal aspect of my life that it had ceased to present me with any real hardship. This ultra running business was TOUGH!

The next month I ran the Flagline 50K, followed shortly by the Lithia Loop trail marathon. In between these races I started to do something I never even imagined: training runs. Every day I’d strap on my Altra Lone Peaks and head to the nearby trails, pumping up the climbs with a renewed sense of purpose and ripping the descents, arms out like airplane wings. When my body and brain inevitably tried to slow my pace to a something more closely resembling a “thru hiker” speed, I’d remember the pain of that first ultra run and kick it up a notch.

As much as I hate to admit it, it’s just not possible to live my entire life immersed in a thru hike. However, with trail running I can get my fix of wilderness travel, albeit at a much faster clip (and within a much smaller window). Being taken down a notch has proven extremely beneficial to my mental health, and has stopped me from resting on the long distance hiker laurels I’d become so comfortable upon. Ultra running isn’t just a new obsession–it’s a new, solid foundation to complement and augment my yearly mega hikes, and I cannot wait to see the changes in the way I travel next year.

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