Someone recently looked at my blog and commented with pleasant surprise that I was an ultrarunner. The conversation was brief, but internally, it triggered some doubts.
Was I still an ultrarunner? Or a pretender?
An ultrarunner is someone who's completed a run longer than a marathon (26.2 miles). I survived a marathon last fall, but my last ultramarathon finish was April 2018. Before the Appalachian Trail. Before knee surgery. Often, even when I'm running, I question whether I even have it any more.
Joining the Army out of high school, I'd never run more than a mile. I didn’t discover the joy in running until I left active duty. Training on my own, I found my sweet spot. I served a year in Afghanistan as a Reservist and running became my refuge. While deployed, I followed the last annual Vol-State race, a 314-mile race across Tennessee. If I could do that, what couldn't I do?
Four months after returning from Afghanistan, my brother and I ran our first marathon. Three months later, I became an ultramarathoner. For the last decade, running was part of my core identity. Relentless forward progress became a life mantra.
Am I still this person? Or am I living in the shadow of the past?
This has been a year of transitions. I've continued growing into my job. I've held a myriad of Army roles. I married the love of my life.
We're weeks away from selling my house in the neighborhood where I spent the last decade. I dreamed of running from my front door to the ocean. I'd carefully watched the mileage in the car while driving out there. Roughly 32 miles. A perfect 50k. This felt like one of those now-or-never moments.
My brother, who joined me for our first marathon together and "a whole lot of stupid" since, was in the area. The run would be the two of us. The course was simple: exit the neighborhood, turn right, and follow the road for 30+ miles.
My brother demanded we run at night to avoid the sun. I assumed he meant 1-2 am to allow for some sleep. His suggestion was 10 pm. He was adamant about avoiding the sun entirely. We “compromised.”
We set off at 11pm. We’d be at the beach for sunrise.
I managed to get an hour of sleep and spent the rest of the evening lying anxiously in bed. This was my final day of 12 straight workdays and I was already exhausted. My body felt like it was about to give out doing an Army physical fitness test the day before, earning my worst score ever. I nearly called our run off in the final hours.
That's why it's important to commit and find an accountability buddy. I'm slow to commit, but once I do, I see it through.
As an ultrarunner, that's what we do. Commit to the “impossible.” The occasional failure is accompanied with a healthy dose of humility.
My brother and I have an interesting racing past. When racing, we typically tend to alternate who finishes first. He is normally the hare, running off as if shot out of a cannon, while I tend to be more consistent and catch him later on.
Just two miles into the run, my brother was running ahead, leaving me chasing throughout the night. We talked about a slow pace. That lasted 15 minutes. I was initially shocked and frustrated as I expected to run together, but I settled into the calm.
The road was extremely dark except for the cars racing by at 70-80 miles per hour. For a short time, I watched my brother in the headlights of passing cars. Then I was utterly alone. I focused on following the white line in front of me. I needed to stick to my plan, not his.
In the early miles, the sky was filled with stars. I passed by pastures and cows I could not see, but I'd hear the frequent moo’s and then I would moo back. It felt great to be alive.
I ran the first nine miles at a consistent 11 minute/mile effort. Taking it easy, I was concerned about flaming out as I had not done many runs over 10 miles since tweaking my knee running the Marine Corps Marathon in October. Often in ultramarathons, a seemingly easy pace in the beginning turns out to be too hard against the entirety of the race. I was trying to avoid that mistake and delay the inevitable. I knew the suck would come.
From there, I started alternating between run and walk. On the walk breaks, I'd sip from one of the two water bottles in my pack and consumed calories through jolly ranchers, fruit snacks, and a Kind bar. When I had the Kind bar though, it was dry and took forever to swallow. Usually, that's an indication I'm falling behind on my calorie intake. When that happens, I have difficulty taking in food until I take a short break to eat or slow down significantly for my stomach to settle. Or I supplement with liquids that I did not have.
The biggest incentive to doing this race during the night was that we would not hit a gas station to resupply until nearly 20 miles into the run. Running during the night hours, I anticipated my two water bottles would be plenty to get me to the refuel point. During the day, I would've likely had to carry twice as much. I realized at mile 13 or 14 that I had been too optimistic and would need to be more conservative on my intake. My preparation was sloppy.
I saw a gas station at mile 17 or 18. The lights were off and it was closed. I called my brother who was just ahead of me and we agreed to meet up at the next big gas station. Both of my water bottles were bone dry by this point, but the interstate should not be much further ahead.
And then I heard a large splash and continued thrashing in the water immediately to my left. I love alligators and heard many over the last few hours. With only a partial guard rail between us, all I could think was OH SHIT! I couldn't see anything and proceeded to curse into the darkness, hoping my insults would keep the beast at bay.
What I did not realize while yelling to my left was that the road I should be following branched off to the right.
As I passed under the interstate and entered the gas station at 21.5 miles, I looked around for my brother. Maybe he's outside?
I grabbed orange juice, which helps keep me from cramping up, and chocolate milk which has magical qualities to help recovery and provide an energy boost. I actually really hate chocolate milk and only drink it during long runs. These two drinks provide big, fast calories especially when I can’t bring myself to eat.
Sitting on the sidewalk, I called my brother and asked where he was. He asked where I was. We were both looking at the interstate overpass we had just passed under, but the landmarks around each of us were different. After a moment of confusion, we realized I'd gone awry and ended up at the gas station at the next interstate exit north.
Consulting Google Maps, I tried to see whether I could continue this route and link up further ahead. No, my only option was to backtrack and add two miles to my run. Fuck.
Do I call an Uber to catch up to my brother? I hoped to share this journey with him. My heart told me if I got into a car, I'd lose the integrity of the run. Do I risk illegally running a mile on the interstate? My head was telling me I just saw two cops at the gas station that would say no.
I had to go back. I pounded the orange juice and chocolate milk. I refilled my water bottles. In total, I sat for four minutes. That would be the only time off my feet the entire run.
I started my journey backward, primarily walking to allow my body to process what I just put into it. Moving well, it still took more than 30 minutes to get back to where my brother had been. He had moved on. I would not catch him. Until this point, I remained patient as I expected to catch up as usual. Reality crushed that hope. I would spend 33 miles alone.
After passing under the correct interstate overpass, there were sidewalks and lighting for the remaining 12 miles of the journey. Mentally, though, I was shattered and my decision-making from that point on would prevent any physical rally.
It took two hours for my stomach to settle down. I was out of food in the side pocket and would not stop to shift food from the back of my pack. I kept thinking I just needed another chocolate milk, but I doubled down on stupidity and refused to sacrifice the time to enter a gas station. The only calories I had the last four-plus hours of the run were jolly ranchers.
While I ran the first half of the race with short walking intervals, the latter 12 miles were a walking slog with short run intervals. Many times, I failed to even shuffle the entire running interval, which had been reduced to a minute.
I thought back on some of my long runs from the past. Usually, I enter flow. It becomes an out-of-body experience where my mind wanders while the body becomes an automated machine. I called this the "Grinder" when I was on the Appalachian Trail (AT) for its ability to grind out miles. Not this run. I manually executed every step, every mile.
This stretch was painful, but I knew I would finish. The last 7-8 miles of the course featured scenic sidewalks along the water from the inlets to my right. I wished I had time to sneak off for a quick nap with the water breaking against the shore.
Two miles from the finish, my brother called me from the beach. I was crossing a bridge as the sun rose in the distance. Those two bonus miles cost me the sunrise at the beach.
At roughly 7:32am, I touched the ocean.
Lenin said, "There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen." The hours and days ultrarunning have added years to my life. The clarity and intensity of the moments are almost unparallelled to anything else I've ever done. They burn away the excesses of life until you’re fully alive in that simple, singular moment.
For the first time in two years, I can say I’m an ultrarunner again, but the accomplishment did not bring the certainty I expected.
I was taken aback by the level of struggle throughout the run. I’ve become unfamiliar with that level of discomfort. At this moment, I’m not the runner I once was. I have not had the same dedication to training while balancing all the other responsibilities in life. Do I still have the desire? The physical ability? Or, have I just grown soft through non-use? I feel as if I have almost as many questions as answers.
I still feel if I can control that facet of my life, the confidence expands into all other facets. It's about so much more than running; it's the toughness, both physical and emotional. Historically, when running is going well, the rest of my life goes with it.
Regardless, I finished on my feet and afterward my brother commented that stupid should instead be spelled, “S-C-O-T-T.” I’m confident this will not be the final story.