There’s something exciting about setting goals. Big, unpredictable, juicy goals that intrigue you just enough to propel you to take that first step and set yourself into motion; even though you know there will be days when you start to second guess how you of all people can do this one thing. Ever since I graduated college and knew soccer was no longer in my future, I knew running was something I could continue to do throughout my life. Running ultras, on the other hand, was not something I would have ever considered until I joined the Denton Area Running Club.
Here is a community that has the same crazy ideas and goals as me. Could I actually run a 5k in under 30 minutes? Can I run a marathon? What about an ultra? Yes, yes, and YES. Not too long after I joined DARC in 2017 I had a lot of goals in mind. Running an ultra was one of them, but it seemed unlikely—and potentially painful. After obsessing over which race would be my first through extensive research, I found the Piney Woods Ultra in Tyler, Texas. I decided to run the 50k, which would take place on September 22, 2018. If I were going to run 31 miles, I would rather do it in the rolling, forested hills of Tyler State Park. I started training for the event in the Summer, along with my trusted confidant Stephen Smith, who was also signed up to run his first ultra. We decided to embrace the suck together and completed many trail runs throughout the city, meeting up with friends along the way. You know you found your people when they are willing to meet you in the dark, early hours of the weekend morning to spend a ridiculous amount of time on the trails--battling cicadas, snakes, ticks, and the Texas humidity. It is because of people like Chris Taylor, Ben Bridgeman, and Stephen (to name a few) that I was able to complete as many training runs as I did. So many weekends of long runs, great stories, and wondering why we decided to do this--seriously, who does things like this?!
Skip forward to the weekend of the race: my husband Taylor and I are driving up to Tyler to our hotel where we will meet all the other brave souls expected to take this race head on; rain and humidity in the forecast for the entire weekend. The entire evening before is a bundle of nerves, paranoia, and excitement. I just want this day to be here, finally. I was going to finish this thing no matter what. The morning of, I woke up with the alarm and I was surprised I was able to sleep through the entire night. After making triple sure I had everything I needed, Taylor and I headed down to the lobby to meet a few others and head over to the park. I have to give props to the organizers of this race. Parking was not complicated, many aid stations were made available throughout the course, and the coordinators and volunteers kept the ‘can-do’ spirit going for all of us slugging our way through the forest. The starting line was packed with Gu gels, nervous energy, and excited runners. This is what I have been waiting for and how I thought this moment would feel. I can do hard things.
The beginning of the race was drizzly, yet comfortable. The scenery was green and lush, making it incredibly difficult not to look up while running in line with everyone else. I tried to take it nice and slow knowing that I had miles upon miles to go, and even though I was feeling good, I knew my IT band could flare up at any time. The first half of the race was smooth. My legs felt good while running alongside Ben, Chris, and Stephen. Sure, I was tired and I could feel the slow creep of irritation from my IT band but I had waited so long for this day. Running alongside friends also helps me mentally get through any tough conditions. The rain was off and on throughout the first half of the race and around miles 15-20 I realized I was flying through certain sections and I would have to slow down if I was going to make it the last two laps pain free. Even though I had a while to go, I never felt like the race was dragging or that I could not last the entire 31 miles. I figured this was a good thing; loving every second of the race and excited I still had two laps to go. This was a feeling I tried to hold on to while the rain started to pick up and made climbing the hills difficult. It was on the third loop that my IT band had started to warn me I needed to power hike and ditch the idea of running this entire 50k. This was something I anticipated due to the fact I had never attempted the distance and the hills of Denton were nothing compared to what I was tackling in the present. At this point, it was just me and Ben and he had made it clear that we were getting through this together. I would let him know when I could run a section and he would push me just enough to keep it comfortable. He had estimated that with me walking most of the third and all of the last loop, we would finish around the eight hour mark. It would take me a typical work day to run and power hike 31 miles in Tyler State Park. I kept thinking about the runners attempting and most likely suffering through the 100k. While I was bracing myself for the fourth and final lap, 100k runners were praying for the halfway mark. I spent quite some time envying those runners, especially the few women, who were attempting such a distance. I would get there myself one day, and I even have dreams of finishing a 100 miler. But that is the future and for now, finishing my first ultra was the present.
I was surprised that I did not eat more while completing the race. Throughout the loops, I ate a few packs of almond butter I packed in my handheld and stuck to familiar foods at aid stations like oranges, peanut butter sandwiches, pickles, and some electrolytes. I think I was so excited and determined to finish that at times, I would not think about hunger or even stopping to rest for long periods of time. I knew that if I just kept going, even if I was walking, I was going to get to that finish line and be so happy and proud of myself for getting through hours of uncomfortable conditions. The final loop was the most uncomfortable with rain deciding to pour down, making my clothes, shoes, and body feel extremely heavy. Ben and I trudged through the last lap, talking about how awesome it will be to stop, take a shower, and eat all the food. During those last few miles, I felt like I had been in those woods for days. It is an odd and funny headspace you get in to when you run a looped ultra and see the same trees, rocks, and pathways over and over again. It was such a beautiful race and even though the weather and my IT band made the last section very difficult, I was having the best time. I knew I would be doing this again soon. I think that mentality is important to have when attempting to complete any race, any distance. I just wanted to have a blast running, talking, and laughing with the people I had spent so much time getting to know these last months. Mission accomplished.
Ben asked if I was willing to run the last bit to cross the finish line. Hell yes. I had been saving up my energy and legs to do just that. Crossing that finish line was the best feeling in the world. And to make things better, Taylor was there to cheer me on. I love having a husband who respects the fact that I love to train and run these crazy long distances. He does not have to love running, but he loves me, and that is the kind of support I need. Once I crossed the finish line, Ben gave me a big hug and I was so happy to have him there with me. He did not have to wait for me or walk with me because of my injury, but he did. I would not have made it through this distance without the support of my friends. We all believe in each other, no matter the outcome. It is getting out there and giving it your all that counts. One piece of advice I will give to any runner looking to tackle the ultra distance for the first time: do not sit down right after. You will regret it.
A couple weeks later, I found out that I would be tackling a new adventure in the upcoming months. Apparently, I ran this 50k while pregnant. Training for and running my next ultra will have to wait but until then, I can remember how awesome this experience was. I am sure that will give the motivation I need to get back out there and embrace the suck that inevitably leads to pure happiness.
Recounting this race made me think of a piece I wrote when I started running again, soon after joining DARC:
I spend a majority of my day, hours, and minutes looking for new experiences that will break me. I want to do hard things that could crush my soul into a million billion pieces, so I can pick up the pieces and carry them to the next challenge. I love waking up early to run with people who know what I mean when I say I am tired but I have to get my run in. I love knowing that running is always there when you need it; literally right outside your door. Just throw on some shoes and see where your legs take you. I love the mental battle between what you think you’re capable of and what you actually accomplish. I think I could run 100 miles. I will run 100 miles. One day, it will happen. I love running before people are awake; when things are still and almost too quiet. I love forcing myself to run without music or distraction; making myself listen to what is around me. Piecing together your thoughts and occupying your brain on a long run without music or intentional distraction can be tough. But I think it is also necessary.
Keep running, my friends.