By Sheri Poskanzer
I’ve heard it a thousand times: 100 miles is a long way, anything can happen, something will go wrong at some point. And I haven’t just heard this sage advice, I’ve experienced it as well. At the Burning River 100 in July 2017, my first 100 mile race, I was comfortably on pace to my goal of a sub-24 hour time until I experienced abrupt knee pain around mile 70 (https://ultrarunning.com/featured/fierce-at-my-first-100-miler-burning-river/). While pushing through and walking it in for the last 30 miles to finish the race is still an accomplishment that I hold near and dear to my heart, the taste of a near-sub-24 hour time continued to linger. Additionally, there were consequences for walking 30 miles on an injured knee that include inconsistent mileage and migrating injuries for the greater part of the following six months. These are the types of encounters that we learn from, that help us grow as people and as runners, and that make for interesting stories.
But what if nothing goes wrong? That is what seemed to happen for me this year during my second attempt at the 100 mile distance during the Indiana Trail 100 on October 13, 2018. In fact, things seemed to go so flawlessly, that I hesitated to even write this article at all. Is there even a story to be told? Is there any benefit to hearing this tale? Will others merely feel that I am boasting? In full disclosure, this last question was my biggest fear. However, after a long deliberation, I determined that there were still a few lessons that I learned along the way that could perhaps benefit someone else’s ultrarunning journey. Or at the very least, maybe the experience could provide hope that perfect days are possible.
Before I dive into the details, I would like to qualify that I am using the words “perfect” and “flawlessly” with a flavor of relativity. Of course the whole 100 miles wasn’t all roses and butterflies! I still experienced the anticipated and appropriate negative sensations of fatigue, aches/pains, chafing, demotivation, hopelessness, loneliness, doubt, and imposter syndrome (more on this last one later). At one point around mile 80, I turned to my pacer and simply recapped the experience with “this is hard.” So yes, I did actually still run 100 miles.
Lesson #1: It was okay to allow my training plan to be flexible. I like planning… a lot. And not just planning, but sticking to the plan (see Lesson #3 below). However, an erratic work schedule as a medical resident and excessive travelling left me with two very low mileage weeks (zero miles and three miles) during the higher mileage portion of my plan. Additionally, while my final weekend of higher mileage before the taper called for a 15 mile run on Friday, 25 mile run on Saturday, and 30 mile run on Sunday, I knew that this wouldn’t be possible since I was out of town for a wedding. I tried to make the best of it by still doing 15 miles on Friday and cranking out 28 miles with 6,000 feet of elevation gain on Saturday, but I had to convince myself that it was okay to let Sunday go, even if that meant it was time to start the taper early.
Lesson #2: Selecting the Indiana Trail 100 as my second attempt at the 100 mile distance was a fantastic decision. The Indiana Trail 100 is an extraordinarily well-organized event and is composed of an incredibly dedicated team of race director, staff, and volunteers. Everyone was instantly friendly and welcoming and it was clear from the get-go that the local running community in Indiana holds this race close to their heart. The Indiana Trail 100 is composed of five loops of a relatively flat 20 mile course through the beautiful Chain O’ Lakes State Park in northern Indiana. The 100 mile race is held in conjunction with 100k and 50 mile race options and the race has seen multiple incredible runners in the past, including Michele Yates, Bibo Gao, and Avery Collins.
This year was the sixth installment of the event, with all of the previous five having been held in April. However, that time of year can have exceptionally rough weather in the Midwest. If you don’t believe me, search for the internet videos of the previous events, where runners slog through knee-high water despite no actual water crossings on the course. As a result, the race was moved to October and this calendar shuffle was beneficial to me in a couple major ways. First, October allowed time for me to fully recover from my Burning River injury the previous year and feel confident that I would be able to get a full training cycle in prior to the race. Second, while obsessively stalking the weather forecast for over a month prior to the race probably took two years off of my life (I’m looking at you, Farmer’s Almanac), the weather on the day was beautiful. There were sunny skies with highs around 50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, lows in the 30s at night, and not a drop of precipitation. Plus, because I never needed to resort to a complete walk like I had the year prior, my body temperature never plummeted at night.
Lesson #3: A specific race plan is an executed race plan… though sometimes flexibility helps here as well. I will admit: I overplanned race day. The race day document that I provided to my crew topped out at nine pages in length and each crewmember donned an identical bright orange shirt that could be instantly spotted from a quarter mile away. The document included precise time ranges for my arrival at every aid station (even the ones that my crew wouldn’t be going to because they weren’t allowed at them), what to give to me or take from me at each crewed aid station, and who would pace me for each section. I even thought about including sample questions to ask me during certain aid stations, but fortunately stopped short of doing this. And the race planning didn’t stop when the gun went off. I mentally prepared a precise list of my aid station needs starting two miles prior to any aid station, which prevented me from spending more than four minutes at any given one. Those fantastic slices of vegan bacon and delicious kettle cooked salt and vinegar chips that got me through the worst parts of my first 100 mile race? They were put in Ziploc bags, ready to grab and go.
But flexibility is good too. I opted to use my GPS watch this year, which I hadn’t done at my first 100 mile because I didn’t want to deal with needing to charge it on course. My watch (Garmin Fenix 5S) did require recharging with an Anker battery twice to maintain itself for the entire event, but I truly feel this was worth it as it allowed for pace feedback every mile to determine if I was within my target two-minute range for that loop. While this may be data overload for some people, it encouraged me to continue shuffling as much as I could later in the race as opposed to taking my originally planned walk breaks.
My other moment of flexibility was probably a bit riskier. A few times over the course of the first three loops of the race, I found myself running and chatting with another runner, Gary. The fact that one of his first comments was “our names rhyme” indicated that he would be great company. However, I quickly realized that Gary was running just slightly faster than what I was hoping to run for those sections. Slow down and lose my new friend? Or keep the up-tempo pace and risk blowing up? I gambled and chose the latter, which helped the time pass quicker and put a few minutes in the bank, but did fatigue my legs faster. Fortunately, this wore off as I slowed myself back down.
Lesson #4: It is impossible to completely prevent injury, but trying probably helps. My biggest fear during the race was a repeat of my knee injury from Burning River. Knowing that the injury had dismantled my hopes so late into that race, I never hit a point of reprieve from this concern during this race. In fact, I came into the 50 mile mark at Indiana Trail 100 within two minutes of my time at the 50 mile mark at Burning River, only making me more aware of the paralleling disaster that could occur.
However, there are two things that I chose to try to prevent the same catastrophe. First off, there was likely a component of overly aggressive downhill running during my first 100 mile race that led to my previous knee injury. Easy solution: I was more careful on the downhills. Secondly, but probably more importantly, was that I did not sit down once. Despite the ultra community’s ubiquitous warning of “Beware the chair!,” I had voluntarily chosen to sit at every opportunity during my first 100 mile race. I thought I was being wise by trying to relieve the accumulating aches and preserve my legs, but instead, I had left every aid station more stiff than the one prior. Therefore, this year, I committed myself to not sitting once unless I needed to change shoes (which I did twice) or if something terrible occurred (which didn’t happen).
Lesson #5: You can’t control who shows up at a race, but sometimes this can work in your favor. While I am someone who can occasionally place in their age group, I never remotely think about the possibility of coming in as first overall woman. In fact, I wasn’t actually aware that I was close to the lead for the women’s race until around 60 miles. Since I considered that to still be early in the race, I tried not to let the information affect me and I continued to just focus on my goal of sub-24 hours. However, after starting my last 20 mile loop in just under 17 hours from the start, I was beginning to feel confident that sub-24 hours was well within reach. I then allowed the potential to “win” a 100 mile race to become motivating. How can I walk now when the second woman came through that last aid station only 30 minutes behind me? I must keep shuffling! And shuffling was all I could muster, until my pacer and I passed the final aid station with 2.7 miles to go and sub-22 hours suddenly possible. Then I dropped the hammer and ran almost the entire way to the finish line.
Ultimately, I finished the race in just under 22 hours (21:51:10), was the first woman to cross the finish line, and had an overall fantastic experience, surpassing all expectations that I could have had for the day. I received my coveted “Under 24 Hours” belt buckle as well as a beautiful nearly-two-foot-tall wooden trophy and sincere congratulations from the race director. I couldn’t have asked for anything more.
There is a psychological flipside to this perfect coin as well though. While I am truly proud of my accomplishment of going under 22 hours, I am also overly aware that my “win” was completely due to the luck of the starting line and a little perseverance, which has led to a hefty dose of imposter syndrome (I told you I would get back to this). One gentleman after the race asked if he could take my photo as he is a “fan of running.” I was secretly complimented by the request, though I mentally blurted out that the woman in the photo was a fraud. Even as I am writing this now, I am noticing that I am consistently placing the word “win” in quotation marks. Perhaps feeling confidence in my self-worth, my “fierceness” as I have previously written, is something that I will need to continue working on over time.
There will be more 100 mile races in my future. Which ones and when they will occur remains to be determined, though with the sub-24 hour monkey off my back, I may explore new types of challenges. I hope to approach them with a clear mind and deep-rooted wariness that I may never have another flawless day and be okay with that. Regardless, I will always closely cherish my incredible experience, my sub-22 hour time, and my mostly accidental win at the Indiana Trail 100.