Beyond the Marathon


You know what’s weird about running a big race?  You don’t think about the “after.” So much energy is directed toward the event, and then…that’s it.  At the most, I thought, “well, after the marathon, I’ll do more cross training.”  But now I’m realizing all the tiny ways in which this one race has changed me, as a runner and a person.

The biggest perk of having run a marathon?

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Getting to wear a 26.2 shirt.

Just kidding.  It’s willpower. I suppose it must have been there during at least the last third of my training, but I didn’t really notice it until after the race.  I trust myself now, and I trust my body, to do more than I expected.

My running now is stronger and more innate.  My mind doesn’t doubt me and trick me to stop anymore, and that is a freeing feeling.

4 days after the race, I ran an experimental 3 miles and was shocked to find my pace – my reasonably comfortable pace – come in around 7:30 min/mile. Where did that come from?  It’s almost as if this subconscious “runner me” was in control – like my body had learned from the race and could now function without silly directions from my head.  Running feels more innate.

6 days after the race, I ran the Gumbo Flats Pumpkin 10k.

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During the days which preceded the race, it didn’t seem like such a good idea to run.  I didn’t feel 100% recovered.  But as soon as I pinned the bib to my shirt, I was ready.  The race was fantastic.  Although it was freezing outside, I didn’t feel the expected pangs of tendonitis or the ache of tired muscles. I don’t know, maybe I just ignored them. But I smiled nearly the whole time, feeling strong, confident, and capable.  And I placed 3rd in my age group, earning me a medal for this race for the second year in a row! (One of the reasons why I love this race is because only the top 3 finishers in each age group receive medals, so I can really race!) Recovered or not, I know the marathon gave me the strength I needed.

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After running three races within two weeks, I’m really itching for more.  I didn’t do any winter races last year, but the idea of waiting until Spring just kills me.  Hello, again, willpower: now I don’t even feel deterred by the freezing temps…even though I hate cold weather.

I’m hoping to run one or two more before the year is out (possibly a half marathon and a 5 or 10k with my little brother).  Next year, the goal is to run 13 races for 2013.  Half Mary’s will be my go-to races, because I really love the distance, but I’ve also been toying with the idea of going farther than a marathon.  I don’t really know what I’m thinking, but I’ll blame it on last weekend when…

I worked an aid station at the Ozark 100 Mile Endurance Run.

You can read that again if you want, but there’s no typo: “100” miles is correct. I definitely didn’t expect to enter the world of ultramarathons just a few weeks after my first 26.2, but as soon as the opportunity presented itself, I just had to take it. 

I actually heard about the race from a Smoothie King customer.  He overheard me talking about racing and said, “If you like running, have you ever thought of doing an ultramarathon?”  We chatted about it for a while, and I learned that he had run over a dozen 50 and 100 milers and was hooked on them. “There’s nothing else like it,” he said, “and running on the trails and through mountains is a lot more fun that road racing.  Plus, once you get started doing ultras, marathons will be a breeze.”

Being a dork who is easily excitable when it comes to fitness, I was beaming so much that my coworkers were concerned, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. I’d read ultramarathon-themed books like Born to Run and some stuff by ultramarathon legend Dean Karnazes, but it always seemed like something only elite runners could do.  And yet, there was this normal looking guy, ordering a smoothie from me, and he was clearly in love with running in the wilderness for hours on end.

The next day he came back in, and we talked about it some more. I told him I’d looked into some ultras, and could maybe run a 50k (30 miles) this coming year.  It’s basically the shortest distance for ultras which, by definition, is anything longer than a marathon.  50k seems like a nice way to challenge myself without jumping straight into a 100 miler. Then he told me that, if I was interested, there was a 100 mile race nearby in a few days, and I might be able to work at an aid station.  It would be a good way to see what it’s really like, meet other runners, and build up inspiration.  Before I knew it, I’d contacted the race coordinator, found an aid station that needed help, and found someone to cover my shift at work.

Attending the race would mean spending a total of 6 hours in the car and driving out to the absolute middle of nowhere Steelville, but I couldn’t be more excited.  Ultramarathons had been the stuff of dreams for so long; I couldn’t believe I would actually get to see one. 

I arrived at Bass River Resort by 8:30 in the morning and met up with the rest of my crew: a mother, son, and grandmother, all runners, and all veterans to working this race. The son, only 15, actually just finished his first full marathon, too.  Once we all piled into their truck with all of our supplies, we had an hour’s drive deep into the forest.  We actually ended up getting lost for about 20 minutes while trying to find out little spot to set up. 

Our job was to give the runners a place to refuel, rest for a few minutes, and prepare to run the next 8.4 miles to the next station. We set up tents and laid out a wide selection of food and drinks: every thing from orange slices and sandwiches to mini candy bars and animal crackers, water and electrolyte drinks to soda and juice. There was also a tarp where we set out drop bags for each runner, which contained the personal items each runner needed during the run, like extra socks and first aid items.

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Although we arrived around 10, the first runner didn’t roll in until half past eleven. It was really amazing to suddenly see this solitary figure emerging from the forest, the pure embodiment of endurance.  He stopped for hardly a full minute at our station: just enough time to grab some water and flash a relaxed smile.  One of our crew said something like, “Keep it up.  You’ve got this,” to which the runner replied, “Oh, I don’t know, I respect this trail too much to have that much confidence.”

I will admit, watching the first few runners stop by was enough to make tears well up in my eyes.  These guys have run dozens of ultramarathons.  One of them even won the infamous  Badwater Ultramarathon. aka the National Geographic rated #1 of the top 10 toughest races. 

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Throughout my time at the race, I saw runners in just about every possible condition, from strong and steady, to nauseous and weepy.  Some runners were silent and focused, while others hung out and chatted for a while.  4 runners dropped out at our station and their disappointment positively tore me apart. 

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I took every chance possible to let the runners know how inspiring they were to me.  And you know what? Most of them just chuckled or shook their heads in disbelief as if to say, “What have I done to inspire you?” One man asked if I was a runner.  I shrugged and said, “I suppose, but I’ve never done anything like this.” He asked what distances I race and I replied, “10k up to marathon distance.  I just recently did my first marathon.” When he asked what my time was I hastily let him know “but I’ll do better next time, I know I will!” He just smiled – this veteran ultramarathoner – and said, “Girl, don’t even worry about that. You ran a marathon.  You did something amazing, and you should be proud.”

I was speechless.

Oh, and check out these stats:

– Out of 102 runners, only 46 completed the entire race.

– The youngest runner was 21; the oldest was 75. The majority of the runners were in their mid-to-late 40’s.

– Nutter Butters, chocolate chip cookies, and oranges were among the most popular foods.

– I counted at least 4 married couples running together.

– The ultimate winner (from France!) was in 3rd place when he arrived at our station, and won the race with close to an hour and a half lead. Here he is:

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– The organizer of the race, who graciously gave me the chance to help out, runs more than 6 or 7 ultras a year, and manages to be a lawyer as well!

– The race took over 24 hours for most of the runners, which meant running throughout the night, in a forest with known populations of wild pigs, bears, and mountain lions. Yikes!

– Our station was delayed for an additional 3 hours because the last runner (a woman who was by herself) had gone missing and wandered off the trail. And that 75 year old runner? He disqualified himself to go back and find her.

My big takeaway from the experience is one of complete awe.  During a quiet point in the day I ran 4 miles of the course just for fun, and it was so exciting.  I’m wavering between really wanting to do a 100-miler and definitely not wanting to do it at all.  I think the darkness and isolation scares me more than the running.  But then I think: most of these ultra-runners can’t get enough of it.  Again and again, they keep coming back for more.  There’s no doubt that it’s painful and grueling, but I’m curious to find out why they love it so much, and if I could love it, too.

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Realistically, I’ll settle with a 50k for next year. I’m also thinking about being a trail sweeper, which would mean only running a leg of the course (about 15 miles) to clean up after the runners.  We’ll see how it goes.  I really want to stay healthy and work on my recovery after races. The faster I can bounce back, the sooner I can race again.  I’m talking to you, tendonitis. Regardless, it was an amazing experience.

And all over again, it leads me to think about willpower and hidden strength. 

The marathon is like a shadow that follows me, materializing when self-doubt slithers in. It reminds me that I can do incredible things. I can find a good job, plan a fantastic wedding, enrich my life and find my potential. And yet, as much as it gives me confidence, it also gives me humility.  There is so much more to be conquered, and I’m still a child in the running world. More than anything, the marathon nudges me to do even more, and to always find new boundaries to break.   I crossed a finish line, but there are so many more waiting in the future. 

Also, I’d like to give a  shout out to my friend and bridesmaid, Rae: Congratulations!  Rae gave birth to her first child, Maverick this afternoon, and I couldn’t be more proud.  I cannot wait to meet him!  Talk about willpower and strength, huh?

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