Why do you run?
Is it for fitness? Stress relief? Community? Because you need to get cardio somehow, and running fits the bill?
If you've been running for any amount of time, I know you can answer that question, and I know it's a large part of what defines you as a runner. It's not about the gear, the calorie burn, the free tshirts or finisher medals. Committing to the life of a runner, truly dedicating your waking hours to covering any amount of miles on foot - most often alone, no matter the weather or wrenches life throws in your schedule - requires passion, grit, and a strong understanding of motivation - knowing your "why".
I completed my first ultramarathon just 6 short months ago, and since then I've completed 2 more, never feeling the need to take a serious break for any amount of time. The training mindset has consumed and driven me to run 6 days/week, and crossfit at least 3 of those.
I'd been thriving on this schedule, so when I recently found myself out of alignment (literally) and on the verge of shin splints, I was out of sorts. Why, after all this time, was my training schedule suddenly working against me? Why was I feeling tight and sore, making every running step a laborious burden?
It would be easy to throw in the towel. Chalk these changes up to an aging body or unrealistic expectations. And if my running "why" had to do with exterior motives like weight management or fitness, I probably would throw in the towel. Just as easy to burn calories on a bike, or in a pool, without all that impact on the joints. We runners hear this all the time, right?
But my "why" runs deeper than that - I run for the energy, mental space, meditation and the time in nature it gives me. I run because it provides perspective, patience, and a kickass community - I run because it makes me a better person.
As humans, we are in a constant state of change - physically, mentally, emotionally. It only makes sense that what works for a person one day may not work in exactly the same way 6 days (or 6 months) later.
One of the great beauties of life is that in change we often find growth, a path to the next thing, to the next best version of ourselves. So, I will listen to, respect, and care for my body in this time of change and reflection. I will not push it harder in stubborn frustration, nor will I give up and walk away. Because I don't want to, and because I remember and honor my "why".
This post is the third and final part of the Holiday Lake race recap series. Get the complete story by reading parts one and two first.
Resolve, motivation, optimism were just words. My mind had quickly become a slow dark place struggling to direct my feet forward through quickly drying concrete. This is how it felt to "hit the wall" (aka "bonk") during the Holiday Lake 50K - deeply depressing and disorienting.
Ultrarunning has a way of making a person feel confident and invincible. The moment I gagged down what would be my third and final GU gel during that 50K, it felt not only reasonable, but necessary, that I finish without any more - completely foregoing the nutrition plan that's worked for me every single time before.
According to Runner's World, bonking is a bodily form of sedition, and can show itself in a few different ways. What I experienced at Holiday Lake was the "blood-glucose bonk, where the legs work fine, but the brain up and quits."
"You hit the wall when your glycogen reserves are less than 10%", according to MarathonBasics.com. The resulting feeling is of overall depletion, a "collapse of the entire system: body and form, brains and soul." (Runner's World describes this so perfectly, there's no need to re-phrase). When, 12 miles in, I couldn't stomach more GU gel and didn't replace those necessary calories with anything else, I essentially made the decision to fail. By the time my stomach started growling 10 tough miles later, it was too late to catch up - though I tried desperately with a combination of Mountain Dew and aid station snacks, without which I'm sure I'd have earned my first DNF.
When I did cross the finish, it was without typical feelings of accomplishment and elation - there was no endorphin high, just subdued acknowledgement that I was finally. done. moving.
Recovering from the bonk took time and patience. The stresses of low glycogen (compounded with hours of exertion in the extreme cold) had taken a toll - when, 24 hours after the race, a friend asked how the 50K had gone, I opened my mouth to answer but surprised us both by crying instead.
The initial post-race feelings of weakness improved with each meal and period of rest, and my typical ravenous appetite and high energy level returned with gusto three days later.
I've always thought learning by doing is the best approach to mastering new information, and my first experience of "hitting the wall" was no different. Carb loading before a long run, and calorie replacement along the way are not just nice to have, they are necessary to maintain proper body and brain function. Lesson learned!
This post is the second part of the Holiday Lake race recap series. Get the complete story by reading part one first.
Between miles 17/18, a group of runners walks toward me. One of them is hurt, his face bloody from some kind of eye injury. As we pass I ask if I can help, and they answer no - they are OK assisting the injured runner back to the start for medical assistance. I touch the runner’s shoulder as he walks by, and tell him he’ll be fine. He thanks me, and they move on.
The next few miles are single track wooded trail, with the steepest hills of the entire course, and frequent views of Holiday Lake. The field has thinned out, and for the most part, I run in peaceful solitude from here on out.
Hitting the wall, aka. bonking: A condition caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles, which manifests itself by sudden fatigue and loss of energy.
Mile 23: Suddenly I am exhausted. On a miles-long stretch of mostly flat dirt road, running into the wind, calories depleted, I want nothing more than to be scooped up and carried to the finish. But I am still running - and so are my eyes. The wind causes them to tear up. If only I’d brought sunglasses. I feel the tears start to freeze on my face. Then I feel my contacts harden on my eyes. They stop moving completely, frozen. I am running almost blind, with only moments of clear vision. I slow to a walk, which feels like giving up - it’s either that or risk falling - and I continue, head down against the unrelenting wind, until the course takes a turn, and I can see again.
At mile 25, I cross the stream a second time. This time, frigid water feels downright heavenly on my tired feet, and I want to stand in it, maybe for a while, but I keep moving.
Around mile 27, my stomach is growling with hunger. I knew my pre-race breakfast of an apple and protein bar was subpar, even as I ate it. The energy gels I typically rely on for calories have been nauseating. Till now I’ve been able to stomach just 3 GU energy gels, an orange slice, .5 L water, and about 3 oz of Mountain Dew at each aid station. So, about 12 oz of Mountain Dew total (a drink that would normally disgust me). Today it’s all I want, but it’s not nearly enough.
Mile 28 brings the final aid station. I plan to hang for a few minutes and basically eat as much as possible, but all I take in is more Mountain Dew - about 6 oz - and a Fig Newton - before the aid station worker delivers a no-nonsense, tough love talk and gets me back on the trail.
At mile 30, my foot catches another root and I fall to the ground. Is it the same root I tripped on at mile 2? Quite possibly. This time, I don’t rise quickly. I stretch my fingers wide, grasp the leafy ground and push up into a runners lunge, bend each knee once to feel things out, then stand. This fall physically hurts much less than the first, but emotionally, it depletes me. I run again, slowly, holding back tears, as what sounds like wheezy whimpers rise from my chest.
Mile 31. One mile to the finish, and I whisper a silent thanks to Dr. Horton for ending this race on a downhill.
At the finish, I am greeted with hugs that feel much too fleeting, another cup of Mountain Dew, a carnation in honor of Valentine’s Day, and a finisher’s shirt. It is over. I smile for a few photos, eat a warm lunch, shower, then nap. Physically, I feel strong and not too sore, but it will take the next few days to restore my confidence and energy - to recover from hitting “the wall” at Holiday Lake.
The Holiday Lake 50K was by far the hardest thing I've done, maybe ever. What small shift in balance creates the difference between a perfect race and a hellish one? What sets one race apart from another in this way? Now that I'm finally thawed out and rested up from this weekend at Holiday Lake, I've gained a small amount of perspective on what was a brutally humbling experience. I've broken the recap into multiple posts, because though I'm typically an advocate for concise language, this race affected me profoundly, and there's just so much to say.
“Drink it up, faster. You need the calories, you need to keep moving.” The aid station worker at mile 28 was doing his job, but the sweet, cold liquid felt thick in my mouth, and it was all I could do to swallow once, much less several times in quick succession. “Just get it down. If you need to be sick, throw up and keep moving. Good, now get back out there.” I obeyed, exhausted and done thinking for myself. My feet moved back toward the trail, and I dug in for the final 4 miles of the 32ish that comprise the Holiday Lake 50K.
The race had begun at 6:30AM, with temps in the mid-teens. Crossing the start line, I felt content and adequately dressed for the weather in a long sleeve base layer, a long sleeve, zip-up middle layer, and a winter weight outer layer, lined Sugoi Subzero leggings, a tall pair of compression socks over my short Injinji’s, and gloves with hot packs activated inside.
David Horton, uber-accomplished ultrarunner and Holiday Lake race director, had done his best to prepare us for the worst - there would be ice, fierce winds, deep stream crossings, and treacherous bridges - so after all that buildup, it was a relief to start the race under a clear, starry early morning sky, running just like it was any other day, albeit a cold one.
Headlamps are necessary, but not for long - around mile 2, the sun rises over Holiday Lake. The sky - all oranges and pinks - reflects beautifully in blue-gray water.
Between miles 2-3, the course moves to single track, and I realize just how frozen the ground is - the dirt is hard as rock, with absolutely no give. It feels like uneven, chewed-up asphalt, with frequent stumps and branches mixed in. My left foot catches a tiny stump and I fall, hard. The first fall of the day is always jarring, and I’m not pleased it happened so soon - for me falling usually indicates I need more sleep, which is not an option - or more caffeine, which is more of a bandaid than a solution. I’ll find bruises and dried blood later, but in that moment, I recover quickly and keep running. I trip several times more in the first 16 mile loop, regretting my night of fitful sleep, but my guard is up, and I won’t let myself fall again until much later.
At mile 4, I lift the hydration pack nozzle to my mouth only to find it’s frozen solid. I’m bothered, but not too worried - the race is stacked with ample aid stations, the first of which arrives at mile 4.5. I stop briefly to drink some water, and eat an energy gel as I get back on the trail.
Mile 7 includes the much discussed stream crossing. There’s no jumping over, no skipping rocks to avoid the plunge. The stream is just about knee deep, and once through, I am relieved to feel my wet feet, shoes, socks and tights go from cold to warm fairly quickly. From the knees down, it feels like I’m wearing a cozy wetsuit.
Around mile 8, another runner lets out a cheer - his hydration pack has thawed - and I quickly move to his side and start a conversation. At the next aid station, he helps relocate my frozen gear - taking the pack off my back, removing my layers, putting the pack back on, adding the layers overtop - so that I, too, have water to drink again by mile 10.
Mile 16, I’m back at the start area, which is the halfway point and turnaround. I make quick use of the facilities, drink some warm broth, and get started on the second loop. It’s 9:30 AM - I’m making pretty good time. I feel strong and focused. The day is just getting started.