by Shannon Featherstone
My husband runs ultras. I never did. Like many people, when asked if I would ever consider doing one, I would respond with a breezy I could never run that far. What I really meant to say was that I could never spend that kind of time with myself – alone with my thoughts.
That all changed when I ran my first 50-miler at the North Face Endurance Challenge – Wisconsin on September 13.
What I found while running this event was that ultras are indeed a mental game. However, it wasn’t about mentally toughing it out or mind over matter. For me, this race was about letting go. Although I did not plan it, this run became a type of moving meditation for me.
Now, I have done yoga for a couple of years, but I have never meditated. So, I was surprised when I found myself slipping into a level of mindfulness that I have seldom, if ever, achieved elsewhere. As the miles ticked by, I found I didn’t focus on how much further I had to go, or even how many miles I had until the next aid station. Instead, I just observed. Wow, that first seven miles went by quickly…. Oh look, that’s the half marathon mark…. Now we’re at 19 miles. Gee, isn’t that about the time I am ready to be done in my long runs? Thoughts came through my head but were acknowledged and then allowed to drift away. No judgements took root. For some reason, I didn’t beat myself up because I wasn’t hitting a certain pace or because I felt like walking a bit longer than the minute I had intended. I just noticed what was happening and then moved on.
It helped that we had a crisp late summer day – perfect running weather with the promise of autumn in the air. It helped, too, that the trails of the Southern Kettle Moraine are beautiful. They invite you to spend a day on them. Hills were distracting challenges. The woods seemed to breathe in and out with a life of their own. Every few miles an aid station would pop up providing a buffet of treats to choose from and cheerful, cheering volunteers and spectators telling me how great I was doing.
The hardest miles for me were between miles 21 and 26, which neatly corresponded to a difficult section of the course – and the knowledge that I would get to go through it all a second time as this was an out-and-back portion. In the couple of miles approaching the 31-mile mark, however, I experienced something of a rebirth. All of my senses went on high alert, ready to soak in the experience of that unchartered territory – miles 31 to 50. But, if there were no demoralizing lows up to that point, there were to be no euphoric highs either. As with earlier in the race, my mind just seemed bent on observing, not giving in to the drama of the day, such as it was. I floated through the last 19 miles of this event with the same feeling of acceptance that I had had in the first 31.
I finished the race in just over 12 hours, so I am in no danger of breaking records anytime soon. But, while I may have been physically tired, mentally I finished strong. I felt refreshed. Alive. Cleansed. Open to new challenges. Never having successfully sat through a meditation in my life, I knew I had somehow stumbled upon a way to experience true mindfulness on a path in the woods and through the fields of Southern Wisconsin.
Will the peace I found still be there next time? I don’t know, but I cannot wait to find out. I am planning on signing up for my next 50-miler in the spring.