Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What Running an Ultramarathon Feels Like: My Experience

Twenty-five miles in. I’ve been running for five hours. Slow and steady, but still: five hours. My legs are heavier than they used to be. I got tired a while ago, but I won’t be stopping any time soon: I’ve got 75 miles to go. The distance is unthinkable. The farthest I’ve run before was only 50. Even that was a long way. A really long way. And here I am, pacing towards 100. Everything past 50 miles is unknown territory. What will happen?

Now and then my ankle stiffens or my calf muscle fires a warning shot. Fear. Will it get worse? Can I run through it? I question everything. Should I have eaten that yesterday? Was my training enough? Did I set out too fast? How’s my form? I’ve never run 100 miles before, so I have no idea what a reasonable pace is. Run too slow and I won’t realize my potential. But even worse, I won’t make the checkpoints, which means DNF—Did Not Finish. But run too fast and I’ll putter out before the finish line. DNF. The three most terrifying letters.

Running this long is no fun. In fact, it’s horrible. My stomach has been clenched for hours now, a braced against tides of nausea. I’m hungry, but eating might just make it worse. My ears are plugged. Something beneath my arm has been chafing, and it’s getting worse. I’m seasick but nowhere near water. It’s so hot out and the sweat is making my eyes burn and all I have is my little handheld bottle, which doesn’t hold quite enough water to last me from aid station to aid station, so I’m always flirting with dehydration. I’m so bored. I’m sick of dirt and rocks and roots. Every now and then I remember how many miles—hours—I have left. The number discourages me. I’m already so tired. All I can do is get comfortable with the discomfort and look forward to the next aid station. Maybe they’ll have potatoes. Small goals. One aid station at a time. You can’t think about all 100 miles at once or you’ll get overwhelmed. But sometimes you can’t help it. One hundred miles is a long way, and there’s no getting around that. It makes it worse being all alone out here. When was the last time I saw a person who wasn’t actually a pine tree? And now I think: Why am I doing this, anyway? Whose idea was it to sign up for this stupid thing? I’m dropping out at the next aid station. It’s pointless. Who cares about a DNF? I’m never running again.

The next aid station comes. The volunteers there, many of whom are ultrarunners themselves, encourage me. “You look great,” they say. “You’re making awesome time.” I refill my water bottle, swig some ginger ale, munch on a handful of M&M’s and exchange a few smiles, and then I’m back on the trail. I wipe the crusted salt from my eyes and take in the scenery. Tall pines, sweeping trails, a slight breeze. It’s a beautiful day, and I’m so grateful to be outside, able to enjoy it. I’m feeling better. By now I’ve forgotten all about my decision to drop out. Running is too much fun.

I’m running, I’ve been running, and I’ll keep running. It’s like breathing, only breathing isn’t difficult. Well, running isn’t difficult, either. Except sometimes. Same with breathing. Running I become small. So small. A tiny person in a great, big universe. But big, too, because there’s nothing left in the world that can tempt me. Only one thing: sitting down. I’ve been racking my brain for the past 10 miles and I can’t think of anything in the whole world I want except that. Can you imagine it? Breaking yourself down so much that all you want is something you’ve always taken for granted. And it’s the one thing you can’t have. Because sitting means stopping, and I can’t stop. I’ll never stop running. Because to stop running is to stop breathing—to stop living.