I’m a running purist. I’ve earned my stripes running on road and trail, at distances ranging from 5K to 60K. And through simply running those races, I’ve encountered a multitude of unexpected, uncomfortable, and sometimes unsafe situations, all of which have taught me something about myself, and made me stronger as a result.
As a rule, I stay away from races that involve costumes, tutus, cloudbursts of paint, zombies, or obstacles. I’m not even attracted to the more “hardcore” events that promise to challenge with muddy water plunges, barbed wire low-crawls, and maybe the occasional electrocution thrown in for good measure. Don't get me wrong - I appreciate the role these events play to make running a fun activity for family and friends to enjoy, often for the first time - but, I’m not comfortable inviting gimmicky elements into my running experience.
So, when a group from my CrossFit gym signed up for a Spartan Super challenge, I considered it carefully. Of course, there are countless ways to hurt yourself at any time, but signing up to endure a total of 28 obstacles over 8+ miles seems an open invitation for injury. The last thing I want is to break a toe because I miss a hay bail jump, or something equally pointless, that takes me out of my running routine unexpectedly.
A few years back, I read Spartan Up about Spartan Race founder Joe DeSena, whose original endurance event “Death Race” had been formulated as an extreme challenge designed to take its few elite participants way out of their comfort zones, mentally and physically. The 24-48 hour Death Race included challenges like “crawling through mud and barbed wire, running two miles through moving water and climbing hills while lugging bicycle frames and tree stumps…they’re also forced to perform various mental feats, such as memorizing a list of U.S. presidents or reassembling a bunch of Lego pieces in a precise configuration.” And since the challenges were kept secret, participants could only train generally, and hope for the best on race day.
Spartan Race is DeSena’s evolution of Death Race for the masses. And though it’s still an incredible physical challenge, obstacles can be skipped in exchange for 30 burpees, the course includes frequent aid stations, and photographers dot the event to capture participants working their hardest.
I found that the obstacles along the course were a nice complement to the movements practiced in CrossFit - lots of climbing, hanging and pulling up - mixed with short spurts of trail running. Though somewhat skeptical at the start, the traditional runner in me actually welcomed the mental break each obstacle presented, and the novice CrossFitter in me was pleased with my ability to complete most without assistance.
Surprising myself, I finished the event feeling open to doing it again, keeping these things in mind:
The Tarawera Ultramarathon 50K ends on the rocky Hotwater Beach, not far outside Rotorua, on New Zealand’s North Island. After 7 hours, 59 minutes and 17 seconds of near-solitary running, the cheering crowds along that final narrow track are disorienting but welcome, and I focus carefully on each step as I navigate the rugged terrain, climbing the final steep, but brief, hill to the finish line.
Upon crossing, I immediately enter the open arms of a cheerfully costumed race official. Crowds are cheering, music is playing, but after 8 hours of constant and demanding physical activity, the refuge of an embrace that envelops my entire being is exactly what I need - no matter that it’s from a complete stranger. I exhale deeply, sinking into the comfort, and time stands still as we hold on for a few seconds more. He asks how I feel, and I answer honestly, smiling - I feel great, wonderful in fact. The course was challenging, but I am content with my performance. “You did very well,” he says, placing the finisher’s medal around my neck, evaporating the seclusion of our private moment. I notice my best friend and travel buddy standing closely by, moving in to offer her own congratulations before leading me to find dry clothes and a warm meal.
In actuality, while my performance at the Tarawera 50K was strong and consistent, with only a few minutes’ down time to refuel, it was also my slowest 50K pace to date. With 5,643 feet of uphill climbing - more than any other race I’ve completed - I knew it would be challenging. But the mythical destination that is New Zealand, and its landscape that is like something from a fantasy world, fueled my curiosity to participate. I wasn’t disappointed - the course wound through a towering redwood forest, across vast expanses of sheep-dotted farmland, over several fences (who saw those coming?!), and its many hill climbs offered gorgeous views of the expansive Tarawera Lake.
Just over a year earlier, I signed up for my first ultramarathon (the Patagonia International Marathon 60K), motivated by a quest to achieve something audacious - to see exactly how far I could run and still feel good. It was to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so I trained as perfectly as I could, and was, amazingly, the first woman to finish. That accomplishment felt very good, and I decided to maintain a high mileage lifestyle for as long as it kept serving me.
Since then, I’ve completed 4 subsequent 50K races, including the Tarawera, pounding a path to self discovery, making personal strides that had nothing to do with pace or finishing time. The determination that drove me to complete ultra after ultra in quick succession over the past year was as much about testing (ok, pushing) my limits as it was about following my passion. Learning to run through rain and snow, over frozen earth and through ice-cold streams provided perspective and patience. Experiencing a low blood sugar bonk because I failed to sufficiently fuel taught me to respect my body’s signals, and view doing so as an investment, rather than liability. Training alone in the woods for hours at a time taught me to rely on myself in the most fundamental ways and to make calculated decisions quickly. And though ultrarunning can appear to be a solitary sport, ultrarunners look out for each other and are quick to create community among complete strangers. Meeting and racing with runners of all ages and stages of life has been both humbling and satisfying. Those lessons and experiences have given me strength, confidence and perspective that will forever be a part of who I am.
I wouldn’t trade my first 5 ultras, or their impact on my life, for anything. I completed them because I was driven to achieve things I’d never even contemplated before, and because some part of me needed to know that I had the toughness it took to do so. And over time, the pressure of training to pass my own tests has fallen away, and the possibility of chasing experiences purely out of desire has replaced them.
When I crossed the Tarawera 50K finish line and melted into the arms of that complete stranger, I knew in my heart that the test I’d somewhat subconsciously set just one year earlier was no longer of consequence. Whatever I’d been trying to prove to myself about my physical ability, stamina, toughness and grit, had been done. I will continue to run distance, and am strongly considering the possibility of conquering a 50 miler in the near future, but I know I’ll do so only when my body is ready for the challenge, when my mind has sufficiently relaxed from the pressures of training, and when the passion in my heart will rest for nothing else.
Standing at a finish line on a remote beach in one of the world’s most beautiful places, the feeling that enveloped me just as reassuringly as that hug was one that surprised and pleased me - it was the confidence of closure, and the excitement of finding out what’s next.
I have some catching up to do! Since I last posted, I’ve completed The North Face Endurance Challenge 50K and Festivus Games, a CrossFit competition for competition newbies. Today I’ll focus on the TNF Endurance Challenge - more to come on Festivus later!
The North Face Endurance Challenge - DC 50K (TNF ECS - DC) starts at Algonkian Regional Park in Sterling, Virginia, and follows the Potomac River on the aptly named Potomac Heritage Trail until connecting with a series of trails in Great Falls Park, before looping back to Algonkian.
My fourth ultramarathon in 8 months, I entered TNF ECS - DC with a nagging concern. Though I had been training consistently, with daily runs and a big focus on hill work, a packed travel schedule had limited my time available for any serious distance. Case in point, my farthest long run (since the last 50K I’d run in February) had been 18.6 miles, and that fell a full 3 weeks prior to race day. Ideally, I would have liked to fit in an additional 25 mile run to prepare my legs for the duration and feel more confident in the distance.
That being said, there were several factors working in my favor. I’d taken some hard-earned lessons to heart after bonking in my previous ultra (Holiday Lake 50K) and was going into TNF ECS - DC with a solid game plan for pre-race and race-day nutrition, hydration and rest. Though chilly, the weather for TNF ECS - DC would be a good 25 degrees warmer than Holiday Lake had been (a major relief). And finally, my hectic life leading up to TNF ECS - DC was calming down at last, and I’d have time to devote to distance again - I viewed TNF ECS - DC as a welcome and much-desired long run to kick off a new season of running.
TNF ECS - DC started on Saturday, April 16 at 7 AM, just after a steady rain had diminished. I joined the third wave of runners to cross the start line into an open field of misty wet grass, moving forward under an ominous steel gray sky toward the Potomac Heritage Trail.
With almost 400 runners on the 50K course, TNF ECS - DC drew the biggest crowd I’ve ever encountered at any ultra or trail run. Due to its phased start and course layout, it was surprisingly also one of the few trail runs I’ve participated in where I did not encounter any serious crowding, even in the narrow sections of single track.
As in most trail races I’ve been a part of, TNF ECS - DC included a nagging challenge for all runners - this time it was mud. After a night of rain, much of the Potomac Heritage Trail began the day as mud and ended as a mucky mess, deep enough to swallow shoes, and slick enough to take down a line of runners like dominoes if not careful. The hill climbs were few but long and steep, affording a fun descent for those brave enough to navigate the slippery mud that day.
Overall, the course was one of the most enjoyable I’ve experienced in Northern Virginia. Running through the woods on a spring day surrounded by budding trees and bluebells in full bloom on either side, felt nothing short of magical, even more so when tiny white specs of hail fell from the sky for a few minutes’ time. It was beautiful, peaceful, and felt a lot like being home.
My concerns about training were warranted, but ultimately unnecessary, as I finished the 50K in 6:56:43, with a clear mind and properly fueled stomach. A solidly mid-pack performance, which felt, to me, entirely exceptional.