by Dan McHugh
For the uninitiated, for those who marvel at the idea that 50 or 100 miles of continuous running is possible, the phrase “I could never do that” is often an instant, almost involuntary reaction. “I could never do that” precedes a second common reaction, “I can barely run a 5k.” Despite how frequently I hear this reaction, it still gives me pause and makes me wonder: Why, after all, are people so fixated on finishing an ultramarathon, when the road to the starting line is where most of the journey takes place?
I took up ultra running over Mexican food. A colleague and I realized at the exact same moment that we never had come face to face with our own physical limits. I lived in Manhattan at the time. I said, “Has anyone in this city NOT run the New York City Marathon?” He said, “Let’s do an ultra.” It happened that fast and permanently changed our lives. Within a week we found a race to enter, the American River 50. Within two months, the prospect of getting to the starting line was in serious doubt. He was urinating blood. I was fairly convinced I had broken my leg. And both of us felt malnourished and exhausted. But we learned valuable lessons. Eventually, we made it to that starting line. It was the hardest starting line I ever have reached.
A familiar narrative unfolded after that race. I became hooked on ultra running and made it to many more starting lines in the coming months and years. 50 mile, 100 mile, hilly races, flat races, hot races, cold races. Each starting line was a victory unto itself given the obstacles I had overcome to get there. The demands of my job and my desire for family time made training hours difficult to find. Uncharacteristic onsets of Bronchitis, fevers, and the common cold caused me to question whether I was pushing my immune system too close to the brink. I dieted poorly and slept too little, resulting in workouts where my mind showed up, but my body stayed home. There were bad weather days, like the ice storm in Manhattan where I said, screw it, I’m running anyway and nearly froze my ass off. Or the heat wave where I said, screw it, I’m running anyway and nearly spontaneously combusted.
In part because of the punishing miles I log, I never go very long without a mysterious, nagging pain that I try to stretch loose by contorting myself on the living room floor. Is it pulled, strained, snapped or broken? This is a question ultra runners know well. One summer, a nagging shin pain would not go away, no matter what creative measures I applied. After an MRI, I convinced the nervous technician to share his view of the results without waiting for the doctor’s appointment. He said, don’t quote me but it’s a grade four tibial stress fracture. Then he said, did I hear you correctly that you jogged four miles to get to this appointment on time?
After recovering from the stress fracture, I only had six weeks to train for the Last Chance 50, hoping to use it as a qualifier for next year’s Western States 100. Six weeks of preparation was about 14 weeks too few, but I got to the starting line anyway. Later that year, the improbable happened. I was picked in the Western States lottery. I shouted with joy, immersed myself into training, and promptly re-fractured my tibia. Still, I showed up in Squaw Valley that June, undertrained, grateful to be there, and giddily contemplating the steep mountain path extending up from the starting line.
While training for the North Face 50 in Wisconsin, things were going uncharacteristically well. Nothing on my body had broken. I didn’t get sick. Life events never seriously threatened my training plan. Even my dieting started to improve with better ratios of proteins to carbs to fats. Then on race morning, I grabbed fairly lightweight, warm weather running clothes and realized too late that it was 35 degrees outside. Oops! As I struggled with ice-cold legs and numb fingers to adjust my gaiters right before the race, a familiar figure appeared, offering to help. I said, “Dean Karnazes! You changed my life!” He recoiled and said, “Hopefully for the better?” I said, “Of course, yes,” as he shook my hand and offered to help with my gaiters. His hands weren’t frozen. He had learned that lesson already.
On the road to the Florida Keys 100, I trained in the hottest part of the day when humidity was at its worst and local wildlife retreated under shaded cover. Whatever I experienced during the race, I wanted to multiply by two during my training. By race time, I was accustomed to the heat, physically fit and mentally strong. The starting line was in a non-descript parking lot in front of a scuba diving shop. The lack of sunlight so early in the morning was a pleasant diversion from the hot, sun-blasted course to come. I felt ready, but in hindsight I was not ready for everything. Standing at that starting line, I did not anticipate the hallucination I would experience, 80 miles into the race, of a two-ton manatee flopping on the ground in the running path ahead. A land-based manatee? How the hell did that get here? My mental note went something like this: Must figure out how to avoid manatee hallucinations. Or at least how to enjoy them. Or something.
In exactly one week, at the corner of sixth and Harrison in the predawn hours, I will be at the starting line of the 2014 Leadville 100. I have been there before and know roughly what to expect. The breath of nervous runners visible in the cool mountain air. A steady beat of funky music to get the blood flowing. Hands performing precise adjustments to laces, water bottles and various other gear. People bouncing up and down, stretching, recalling the many hours of preparation to get here…and what it will take to get back home. And my emotions, welling up inside because of the rare and precious chance to start another ultramarathon. I feel prepared this time. And I am blissfully unaware of the things that inevitably will go wrong.
When people talk about ultramarathons and say, “I could never do that,” they seem to be taken by a magic trick where 50 or 100 miles of continuous running is unfathomable, therefore must be impossible. Ultra runners refuse to be fooled by this trick. They break it down to manageable parts. They do the math. They obsess not over the finish line, but what it takes to get to the starting line. How many miles per week? What kind of diet? What are the best lubricants, clothing, gear? What should I know about electrolytes, fluids and calories? How much should I weigh? When should I do speed days, hill days, long days? By breaking down the unfathomable into the manageable, an ultramarathon becomes a much more feasible dream. And as we take that road to the starting line, as we sweat and struggle and abandon our fears, the obstacles in our way reveal what we are capable of and who we hope to be.