It is dark, 5 AM, and I am running through the streets of Kingston, Jamaica. Saturdays are for long runs, and today our local club has arranged a route for up to 10 miles. Having been provided the route ahead of time, I did my best to commit it to memory, but it’s complicated - there are 18 turns within the first 5 miles alone. It’s my first Saturday run with this group, my first go at the course, and again - it’s dark.
At the start, I fall in with a few other 10-mile runners, head of the pack type runners, friendly, and competitive. Self-proclaimed to be around a 9:30 pace, like me, our match seemed like kismet. But when their brisk starting trot becomes more of a sprint in mile 2, I know I’m in for a challenge with 8 miles to go.
Kingston is a small city, and rough around the edges, even in its nicer residential neighborhoods. Running over uneven asphalt, making the frequent turns past stray dogs, under broken street lights, jumping to miss a dead rat, keeping my group in sight, noticing the security guards pass on motorcycle, all makes me feel like Katniss in the Hunger Games. It’s adventurous, invigorating, and empowering. I need this run like I need to breathe; I feel happy, excited, and free; I don’t stop moving.
Thankfully, the route is broken up by a water stop every 2 miles. The club collects water bottles at the start, sending them out to the course for runners to use along the way. For the first 8 miles, my main objective evolves from keeping in step with the lead group, to keeping them in view - a challenge considering the often pitch black we run through, and 3-4 turns we make each mile. Also thankfully, this group runs like a team - I reach each water stop as my faster cohorts finish up, and we all run on.
By mile 8, the sun is rising, and we’re well into the return of this out-and-back run. I’m passing many runners still making their way to the half-way point/turnaround, making the course much easier to navigate. Runners wave, say good morning, share high-fives. I fall into step with a slower-paced group to finish the final 2 miles. We talk about weekend plans - someone is hosting a birthday cookout for his daughter, needs to leave quickly after the run to start roasting the goat; someone else plans to visit the botanical gardens.
I’ve always said that running is the best way to see a place, to get close to its details, to learn all its nooks and crannies, such that once you’ve run it, you know it differently, and more intimately. Next weekend I’ll run my first half marathon in over 2 years, on the other side of the island in Negril. I’ll set my own pace from the start; I’ll start from the back and work my way up - my favorite way to race. Out of the city, next to the beach, I wonder how that run will be different, how that place’s details will look up close, and how it will make me feel, in the dark, and as the sun rises.
We’re all born with it, the mind/body connection. As infants, we react immediately and instinctively to physical discomfort. Over time, of course, we develop the ability to take care of ourselves and we learn to consider our discomfort before reacting, even when doing so is hard. I think the ability to rationalize a body’s signals is a necessary ingredient to living a healthy adult life - if everyone reacted to everything in the moment, all the time, that would create its own kind of stress and negative health impacts. That said, the ability to rationalize or ignore what your body is saying is often taken too far, resulting in anxiety, exhaustion, injury or worse.
I honestly thought I’d be better at it than I am. In fact, training for, and completing, 5 ultramarathons in a year’s time required me to be highly tuned into my body’s signals. Spending hundreds of miles a month on foot causes a person to notice the slightest maladjustments and dial into even minor aches and pains, while burning through shoes, socks, and (gross, but true) toenails with cyclical predictability.
I completed my last ultra about a year ago, and though I’m not currently training for ultra distances, I maintain an agenda of frequent and intense physical activity. The discipline that ultrarunning has taught me, not to mention healthy habits like fueling, sleeping, and goal setting, all serve me well.
Though I mastered the self care of an athlete - a daily regimen of running or cross training, movements for mobility, stretching and smashing of muscle, frequent sports massage, maximizing diet for performance - I also learned to minimize physical discomfort. I rationalized, delayed, downplayed and disregarded the kinds of sensations that, if experienced in the course of ‘normal life’, would make many people call in sick, at the very least. I disconnected mind from body at will, and with crystal-clear awareness.
Anyone who considers herself an athlete; anyone with a physically demanding lifestyle; anyone who prioritizes performance above comfort will understand this: The challenge I see most clearly, and hold in highest regard, is respecting - and strengthening - my mind/body connection. That means having the patience to sense what’s happening and slow down, and willingness to take the time to act, adjust, or rest, all while cultivating the ability to take care of myself physically in the way I’d take care of a loved one - not just when it’s convenient, but in all moments. No matter what feats of strength or endurance are in my future, I know this challenge will be the greatest of my life and - with any luck - the most rewarding.
Before I got serious about distance running, I viewed fueling on the run as frivolous - what was the point of replacing the calories you were working so hard to burn? That outlook was fine when I was playing with runs of 3-5 miles, but as I started doubling - then tripling - that mileage on a regular basis, my body quickly let me know that it would not happily run on empty for hours on end.
Now with 5 ultramarathons under my belt, I’ve had plenty of time to test and fine-tune training habits and calorie replacement while on the run. My findings are a combination of research, trial and error (hello, low blood sugar bonk), and happy accident (I discovered Uncrustables at a 50K aid station, and now I won’t run without them).
I’ve found that fueling is one of the more personal decisions a runner makes - over time, you will develop your own tried-and-true system - there’s no right or wrong way. (A frequent runner of 100-mile races found my reliance on PB&J sandwiches ridiculous, but hey - they work for me, every time).
Though this is my go-to plan, variables like terrain and weather require flexibility. For example, a day with 1,000+ feet of hill climbs will demand significantly more calorie replacement than a flat run, which is why I’ve included separate plans for trail and road running. Extremely hot weather requires greater electrolyte replacement than a day with mild temps. And almost always, running on a trail leaves me in greater need of replenishment than running on the road. So, without further ado, this is a general look at how I fuel on the run.
Uncrustables are my go-to. Store in the freezer, and remove before a long run. They are individually packaged, small enough to stow in a hydration pack pocket, and thaw quickly.
A note on Gu:
People have a love/hate relationship with the stuff, and I get it. The “Chocolate Outrage” Gu works consistently for me, so I use it, however there are many other flavors and brands to consider. I’d recommend buying a few different options at your running store, and testing on your training runs. Or, forego gel packs completely and reach for something more natural - like fruit, honey, candy - just make sure your calories are covered!
What about water?
Yes, hydration is arguably the most important aspect of fueling on the run, and something I’ll address in detail at a later time. Long story short - respect your body’s need for water, and don’t be caught without it on a run of any length!
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.