The Ultramarathon – Part 1

There was a time in my life when I thought running was the greatest thing imaginable. I lived to run, and I loved every minute of it. The more I did it, the faster and stronger I became, which in turn inspired me to run more. In my mind the possibilities for my running career were endless. As far as I was concerned the sky was the limit and nothing was going to stop me from reaching my full potential. I was an idiot.

Right around the end of my senior year cross country season the ugly side of running decided to rear it’s head, and like a leach it began sucking the life out of me. I had hit little set backs before. Frankly as a freshmen and sophomore it had taken me a long time before I was even a mediocre runner, let alone a halfway decent one. But I had love for the sport, and that love gave me the energy I needed to power through those set backs. But then all of a sudden in 2010 my body was like ‘whelp it’s been fun but things are gonna suck now’, and they did. No matter how much I ran, no matter what injuries i meticulously attended to, I only seemed to get slower. It felt like my muscles had been replaced with sand bags, and slowly my love for the sport began to fade.

Now running always had a special effect on me, it made me feel tough. I had played other sports before, mostly hockey and lacrosse, but I wasn’t particularly good at them. I wasn’t particularly big, or coordinated, and I seemed to lack the attention span necessary to remember plays and calls and things like that. But, I could take a hit and get back up. While this might not seem like the most glamorous skill to have, it was one I clung to dearly. When someone twice my size would crush me against the boards, or when a stick would catch me in the side of the neck, or between pads, I would just grit my teeth and tell myself I was fine. After a while that response became automated. And while getting laid out in the middle of a lacrosse field may look weak or wimpy from the sidelines,in my mind I was strong because I was getting up ready for more. When I started running I was forced to face a different kind of pain. The kind that creeps up on you, the kind that overloads your senses, the kind you don’t know you’re experiencing until it’s too late. But just like earlier, I could fight through this pain, and the more I trained the more I could focus in pain too.

Now, back to senior year (I promise this has a point and I’m not just being nostalgic) and my shitty track season. I wasn’t getting faster, if anything I was getting slower. Worst of all, I didn’t feel that toughness I once felt. I didn’t finish races feeling like I had given it my all because frankly I hadn’t. My legs, my brain, my body wouldn’t let me. I was zapped, everything was fried, and I was in a slump. Desperate to feel like the badass I had once felt like, I asked my coach if I could start running the 5k and the 1500 every meet during outdoor track. He agreed, and eventually even let me try the steeple chase (followed by the 5k) because, why not? I made sure that if I wasn’t running fast, I was at least going to feel like I was earning my place on the team, and in turn feel tough again. And then when track was over I threw in the towel and didn’t run again for months.

Since college I’ve been on a sort of quest. That feeling of strength and toughness that carried me through running became such a part of me that to try and abandon it was like trying to give up breathing. I can’t train meticulously for races, although I’ve tried. Goal paces, vO2 max, the specifics of training are things I just can’t get into. And so I’ve latched onto the thing I latched onto so many times before. How difficult is it, how painful is it, can I finish it? In answering these questions I’m able to feel that sense of strength I first found picking my muddy ass up on the lacrosse field. And so 1/2 marathons, marathons, triathlons, tough mudders even, they’ve all been really appealing to me, and I’ve dabbled a bit in each. But then, a few months before leaving for Thailand, I entered my first ultramarathon, and I was like a pig in shit.

50k is just barely an ultramarathon. It’s about 8k longer than a regular marathon, so about 31 miles long. That’s not to say they’re easy. They’re extremely hard! Marathons are hard! Half marathons are hard! Hell, running a mile is hard! But when I first learned about ultramarathons my first thought wasn’t that they must be hard, it was that the people who run them must be insane to want to run more than a marathon. The marathon is the pinnacle of running, it’s the fabled El Dorado, it’s the edge of sanity. The marathon is what runners say “yea I think eventually I would like to try one of those”. It’s an event that unifies people, because it’s the ultimate challenge of mind and body. So if that’s what marathons are, then things like ultramarathons and ironman competitions are just batshit crazy. The body can only take so much, and the mind…well you would have to be delusional to think you could focus on one thing for the time it would take to run an ultra. It’s insane, right?

i had to know if I could do it, and so before considering whether I really wanted to or not, I registered. I barely trained, I got injured mid-race, I limped through the remainder of the race and swore never again. Flash forward to last February, I once again found myself in a 50k after better (thought still poor/lazy) training. I made it further but at mile 16 I felt the same injury come on, and resigned myself once again to limping and hobbling through the remainder of the race. It seemed my sense of adventure was writing checks my legs couldn’t cash, or at the very least I couldn’t commit to preparing for. But none-the-less I was hooked. I recognized I wasn’t doing enough to prepare for these races, but I wanted so badly to be able to do them. And so a few months ago I read about the Thailand Ultramarathon, a new event in it’s first year being held in a mountainous region near the border with Burma. I considered, I mulled, I signed up. Not for the 50k though, for the 100k, because learning from my mistakes was clearly out of the question. I woke up the next morning, and as if wrestling with a hangover and remembering some shameful act I had committed, I muttered softly to myself, ‘Ahhhh shit.

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