My First Ultra: Out of Spite


By Jennifer Golbeck

What’s the most epic thing you’ve ever done out of spite?

For me, it was my first ultra. My first marathon was Chicago in October 2000. I was undertrained and totally burned out by the time it rolled around. I finished, but that was my last run for six months. Spring rolled around, and I thought maybe I would ease myself back into things. In April I sat at my computer browsing the race calendar. I probably wasn’t ready for a 10k, I thought. Maybe a 5k, maybe in a few weeks.

“Hey,” I called to my boyfriend, “There’s a 50k this weekend. I should run THAT!” I joked.

“You couldn’t do that,” he replied. No joke. No hesitation. He just straight up declared that I couldn’t.

“Well,” I thought, “Now I have to.”

I knew this was stupid. But he said I couldn’t, and I was going to prove that I could do whatever I wanted, no matter how stupid it was!

I spent the next five days worrying and finally race morning arrived. The race had a 6:30 cutoff, and I knew I wouldn’t make that, so I took advantage of the early start option. The race director put a little yellow sticker on my bib, wished me luck, and I was off running into the dark.

The course for the Chicago Lakefront 50K is easy. It is three loops, 5 miles down and back, on Chicago’s beautiful lakefront path. I ran the first 10 miles and was spent. I started the second loop, frustrated and tired, and already had to walk. I’d try to run, but I was untrained and exhausted. Hours later, when I spotted the start/finish line for the second time, I made myself run. Everyone there cheered when they saw me approaching. “Good job! You’re done! Congratulations!” they cried.

My friends, I have never been so tempted to lie. “Yep,” I would say, “I sure am finished! Good job, self!” And they would hang a medal around my neck and I would hobble home and no one would know.

Instead, I sobbed. “No. (sob) I have another lap to go. (sob)” In my memory, there was a moment of stunned, unimpressed silence from the small crowd. I stood alone at the aid station and a volunteer made me eat a salty potato. I headed into my final loop and cried.

At Night Train 50K, July 2018

When I hit the turnaround and crossed the 26.2 mile mark, the race had officially been going for 5:30. Even with my early start, I was not going to cover those last five miles in the hour needed to finish before the cutoff. I asked the race volunteer at the marathon mark what would happen. He shrugged. “Yeah, that’s too bad. They might not even be there when you finish.”

That guy was a jerk.

Giving up wasn’t an option because I had to get back to my car at the start line. I limped the last five miles toward the finish. I saw the race photographer once, and he asked me to run for the camera so I’d have a good picture, but I couldn’t. I walked. I cried.

Finally, I arrived at the finish. It had taken me around 7:45 and I came in second to last, just ahead of a pregnant lady who had not started early like I did. I was the slowest person there.

Did I have a sense of pride in that moment? No. I just wanted a shower, some onion rings, and a nap. But as the day progressed, I started to feel better. The performance was nothing to brag about. The act itself though – being told I couldn’t do something when all the facts agreed that I would fail, and doing it anyway – that was so me. It was how I accomplished so many things in my life and how I fought that constant undercurrent of comments designed to diminish and discourage.

That first ultra was a small, stupid step, but it gave me a lasting confidence to push myself more (along with a lasting knowledge to train properly). I think this is why a lot of us run ultras. We find our limits, push past them, and do more than anyone thinks we could be capable of.

We all want a good race, but if your next race is not good, may it at least serve to shut up someone who doubts you.

Feeling good at Wildcat 100 in September. Photo: Rufio Rex


1 Comment

  1. “I was going to prove that I could do whatever I wanted, no matter how stupid it was!” – Hahaha, that’s a mantra to live by. Finishing a 50k is still an achievement in my book.