The first time I finished an ultramarathon, I cried. The relief of accomplishing what I had worked so hard to achieve, combined with the pain, exhaustion, and doubts that I overcame during the race were too much to hold inside.
My failure prophecies that had kept me from sleeping the night prior had not come true. I didn’t sprain my ankle on the technical Columbia Gorge trails. I didn’t quit when my brain told me I wasn’t tough enough. And I refused to slow down when every part of my being tried to convince me that it was okay to dial it back and walk it in. I ran and I raced, and I pushed myself farther and harder than I ever had in my life.
The last mile of the Gorge Waterfalls ran alongside the highway on a narrow stretch of grass. As you approach the finish you can hear the volunteers and spectators cheering on the runners. It seems close but feels like an ocean away. Eventually, the path turns hard to the left and you run a couple hundred yards through Benson State Recreation Area to the finish line. It was here that the tears started flowing. It was here that I spotted my wife and I threw up my arms yelling, “Can you believe it?”
A year before the 2016 Gorge Waterfalls 50K, I had not run 31 miles in my life—combined. A series of random events led me to that moment. My wife’s job in the hospitality industry required us to move to Bend, Oregon. So, we crammed all of our belongings into our car and headed to the Pacific Northwest—a long way from the Florida Keys where we had been living for nearly a decade.
I had never heard of Bend. I didn’t know it was a mecca for world-class athletes and outdoor enthusiasts. I had never run on a trail before or even knew trail races (let alone ultramarathons) were even a thing. But things change in life and you either learn to adapt and enjoy what is around you, or you live in the past and worry about what was, while missing out on everything that could be.
So, I said goodbye to my boat, flip flops, tropical sunshine and many amazing friends, and I made the most of my new life. I’ll admit that it wasn’t hard. Bend is beautiful. And the craft beer, oh the craft beer! There was not a single brewery in Marathon, Florida, but in Bend I could walk to a dozen of them.
Before we left the Keys, I had just started running. Just a mile here and there, but I had set a crazy goal before we left: to run a marathon. Bend seemed like the perfect place to pursue this dream. Not long after arriving I was fortunate to become friends with amazingly talented ultra-runners like Ryan Kaiser and Rod Bien, who helped show me the ropes and push me out of my comfort zone. We all know how the ultra-progression goes. You run a distance you did not think possible, and then you sign up for something even farther. That is what happened to me as well.
Before I started trail running, my passion was the sea. Heading into the blue water in search of pelagic trophies, beyond the sight of land, is still one of my favorite joys in the world. But I have never caught a fish that offered anything close to the same satisfaction of finishing an ultramarathon. Running has been one of the greatest and most rewarding chapters in my life.
The last race I ran before the COVID-19 pandemic was the 2019 Cuyamaca 100K. I had a difficult day after I went off course and failed to achieve my goals. But I fought through and finished. During the final mile I thought about my family and about the path that had led me to this moment. The emotions and exhaustion were once again too much to hold back. I cried. Cuyamaca was my 10th ultramarathon finish, but it felt just like the first. The sensations were just as strong. I can’t wait to experience that feeling again.
I tell this story because I miss racing. I miss the challenge, the people, and perhaps most importantly, I miss having a goal to drive me to stay fit and be healthy. With so many races canceled, it’s hard to stay motivated. While writing this, I received yet another Facebook notification for a canceled race. It breaks my heart, and not racing leaves a void that I’m still trying to fill.
But (my path to) ultrarunning has taught me an important lesson—we’re all stronger and more capable than we often realize. Things can seem overwhelming right now, but as every ultrarunner has heard before, “Just put one foot in front of the other.” Now seems like a good time to adhere to that advice.
Not everything turns out the way we plan it—but if we move forward and put our energy into the things that we can do right now— like bettering ourselves through education, making a difference in our community and our planet through activism, and speaking up for what’s right— there’s a good chance we will find something more satisfying and more rewarding than any ultramarathon finish.