After Saturday, September 15, 2012, I will never hear the words “50 miles” again and think about them in the same way. There are so many things, beyond the measure of mileage, that now describe 50 miles. Doubt, perseverance, deep friendship, dirt, overwhelming support, darkness, mental toughness, pain, family, hills, belief, tears, natural beauty, blisters, selflessness, labor, and VICTORY. Each one of these things played an important role in making my first official ultra-marathon a truly memorable, rewarding, yet unmistakably arduous day.
|The day before we previewed the beautiful ICE AGE trail and made new friends.|
Leading up to the race one of the things I was most excited about AND most fearful of encountering was what’s often referred to in ultra-sport as, the pain cave. In racing, it’s a form of self-imposed suffering that you can choose to face head on or let it destroy you from the inside out. It’s basically physical challenge at its max meets mental challenge at its max. It’s one of the main reasons I race– to put myself in the path of something challenging that will make me a better human and teach me something about life.
But, it was the AMOUNT of suffering or time in the pain cave I had committed to that was giving me pre-race jitters. The Tuesday before, I had a dream that I gave birth to three babies. They weren’t triplets, but three separate births within hours of each other. During the dream I remember thinking, “Oh, that wasn’t bad and I’m not even swollen or banged up like I imagine I’d be from birthing three babies.” I woke up with a new confidence that my psyche was telling me all would be okay in my labor to come on race day.
As Chris and I arrived, checked-in, and got busy resting in Delafield, Wisconsin, the full meaning of the dream came to me. The race required that I meet three time goals/ checkpoints throughout the day. I would have to “give birth” three times, just hours apart from one another.
|4:45AM–nervous and ready to start.|
After waking up at 3AM, we headed down a dark, deserted country road, caravanning with the other athletes from The Holiday Inn into Kettle Moraine State Park. Our favorite pump-up CD, Cirque du Soleil “Dralion”, was blasting as we pulled into the park. The temperature required multiple layers even as we huddled around one of four outdoor space heaters provided by the North Face organizers. The small grassy area was almost silent with 250 athletes–200 of which were men–waiting to start.
|5AM-ultra-running legend, Dean Karzanes, sends us across the start line.|
Unlike many other races I’ve done, the announcers very casually called everyone up to the line at 4:58AM and within minutes we were off into the pitch-black of the morning. As we headed out of the start gate and into the forest, it was a breath-taking sight. There we were, bobbing head lamps in a wilderness and a sky packed full of stars. As everyone settled into their pace, I hadn’t anticipated how spread out we’d be (at most points I was totally alone) or that the trail would be COMPLETELY dark.
So, for the first hour and a half until the sun came up, I struggled to stay on my feet not being able to see the trail shift beneath me. On one hand, it was a feeling of exhilaration, adventure and strength–a kind of instinctual blood-pumping movement that I imagine our early ancestors felt in the wild. But on the other hand, I was very scared. In fact, for most of that first section I was begging the sun to rise and simultaneously praying that I wouldn’t roll an ankle. I took a tumble early, landing with a lung-emptying “huuuaah.” But the sand padded my fall, and so I quickly got up to keep trucking into the forest.
As the sky above the pine trees got brighter and brighter, I let out a giant sigh of relief and looked down at my watch. I was on my intended pace but my heart rate was way too high and the adrenaline of the start was wearing off. Into labor with baby #1 I would go, as I set my sights on checkpoint #1 at mile 21.
It is during these times of extreme challenge that I’m reminded of the amazing mechanisms of the mind. I found as I ran toward that first cut-off, I was experiencing two different parts of my brain. My “maintain-the-status-quo” self was doing everything in its power to get me to stop, and to experience comfort, homeostasis. “You can’t keep this up all day. Just walk as much as you want. Don’t worry about actually finishing, any mileage will be an accomplishment on this terrain.” The second, equally powerful, “carpe diem” self was reminding me that my true desire was to continue forward. “You trained all year for this, Susie. It’s one day of hard effort. You CAN do this. There is nothing in life stronger than you.” If you’ve ever seen the Nike “Reincarnate” ad it’s a very similar ping-pong of the internal voices. Over and over, my mind played this game. At times, one voice would start to overtake the other, but for those first 20+ miles it remained pretty much an even match. At mile 21, my first baby was in my arms. I had made the first cut-off with an hour to spare. I could stop and sit for a moment to bask in its beauty. But not for long, I knew I still had two others to deliver.
|Aid station #4 / #6 was adjacent to a shooting range. The sound of shooting actually felt comforting as I knew it meant I was close to food & supplies.|
The labor of baby #2 was by far the hardest. From mile 21 until mile 35 (cut-off #2), I faced a lot of doubt and had to lean very heavily on my amazing support crew, thoughts of all of my people back home, and the most incredible friend/pacer there ever was, Lee Ann Werner.
Like a perpetual pendulum, the moments of power and pain alternated turns. As the day went on, I found the swings between the two points to be greater and faster. In moments of power, I felt guided by a deep internal knowing that I was stronger than anything the trail could throw at me. I felt a magnetic pull toward a finish, I felt as if I was exactly where I was supposed to be in space and time. In moments of pain, I went outside of my aching body for strength. I thought of my best friend, Anya, who was just told by her doctors she wasn’t allowed to run due to a disease she is battling. Her love of the sport is as deep as mine. I thought of another set of close friends, Katie and James, who just successfully made their way through three months of having their premi son, Brady, in the NICU. They showed such incredible endurance and courage through this unbelievable difficulty. I thought of the dedication and bravery of countless clients at the studio and what we all do on a daily basis to survive/thrive in this life. And, so, amidst the pain, I ran as if Anya’s legs were my legs, Katie and James’s strength was my strength, countless friends and clients’ courage was my courage. It wasn’t just me running, it was anyone who ever had a goal to do something risky, daring and out of their comfort zone. With this energy, I pushed toward mile 28 where I knew my whole family and my pacer would be anxiously awaiting my arrival.
To say that my family is supportive is a vast understatement. My dad, step-mom, mom, step-dad, sister, bro-in-law, two nephews and friend Lee Ann all made the journey to Madison, WI to crew us in our epic day. My sister made special, matching t-shirts. My dad spent an entire week working on overlaying the course map with the surrounding roads and figuring out the timing of each aid station.
My brother-in-law trained for many months to be able to pace us. My step-mom baked oatmeal cookies & her famous fudge bars to be stuffed into my gear bag. My mom and step-dad eagerly awaited me at each aid station and were there crouched beside me, silently touching my arm in my lowest moment of the day. Finally, my friend Lee Ann saved the day when she picked me up at mile 28 to pace me to the next cut-off and eventually all the way to the finish.
As I entered the aid station where pacers were allowed to join, I plopped down on the ground and tried to catch my breath. My nephews lifted my spirits with their fresh, young energy and shy smiles. As my family asked me how I was feeling, the only thing I remember saying was, “Let’s just say, Lee Ann has a GIANT job to do.” As I got back on my feet for the next 7.1 mile stretch, Lee Ann looked me in the eyes and said confidently, “Susie, from now on just turn your brain off, I’ve got it from here.”
We were on a tight time table to make it back to mile 35 cut-off and I knew we’d have to run faster on the way back than what I had done on the way in. I remember glancing at my average heart rate (cumulative from the start) and it reading 89% (a number that is dangerously high for this long). I already had the skin of one toe completely gone, my back had been spasming since mile five and it was starting to travel down my right leg. But, somehow with Lee Ann by my side and the knowledge that I was more than half way to the finish line, my “carpe diem” self kicked back into high gear.
It’s my belief that we are all made to run. Yes, every one of us. Our history as humans, our DNA and mechanics show that it’s so. Yet, I also think we are all given different assets as humans who were meant to move. Earlier this year, as I was reading ultra-marathon champion, Scott Jurek’s book, Eat & Run I took note of this sentence, “An ultrarunner’s mind is what matters more than anything.” It became a mantra for me during training as I already felt that my mental capacity is naturally stronger than my physical abilities. Luckily, they can both be trained! As my physical pain increased toward mile 35 it was amazing and somewhat frightening how the mental muscle took over.
|Mile 35–my hardest moment of the day.|
The rolling hills and associated waves of nausea were coming at me fast as we pulled into cut-off #2 with 22 minutes to spare. In what would be my darkest moment of the day, I laid down to try to stretch-out my back and hips. As I closed my eyes, I could think of nothing that would help the way I was feeling EXCEPT for getting to the finish. I knew that if I didn’t get up right then, I would end up with a big DNF by my name– “Did Not Finish”. No matter how slowly, I HAD to keep moving.
It’s somewhat comical to me that the biggest gift of the day was one that was unexpected, if not resisted. Leading up to the race, I had been hesitant or indecisive of how I wanted to be paced. I tend to be an introverted, solitary runner and I assumed that having someone by my side would distract me. I also have a hard time letting go of control and trusting that others can do an adequate job (just some brutal self-honesty). But, as it turns out, distraction and direction are exactly what I needed.
|Me and my guardian angel for the day, Lee Ann.|
For 23 miles, Lee Ann embodied selflessness, love and showed me the true connected spirit of running. Let it first be said that Lee Ann is a bad-ass athlete and veteran of many 50s and a 100-mile run. I couldn’t have asked for anyone more perfect who knows the territory and all of the associated feelings that go along with racing for hours and hours on end. She told me story after story to keep my mind in another place, she ever-so-gently nudged me to run more and walk less saying, “let’s take this gift” every time we’d hit a down slope or flat section of trail, and she continued to do the math to make sure we were keeping up with the cut-offs. We shared life history and life dreams as well as ran in silence. At every aid station, she filled me up with the proper nutrition and made sure we were set for the next section. More than anything, she was simply by my side and I knew she wanted me to get to the finish as much as I desired it.
I will never forget my time with Lee Ann in the forest. She taught me that it’s okay to accept help, that sometimes we need to lean on each other to reach our goals and that ultimately I don’t always have to be fearless and strong.
As we checked off the miles and got closer to the aid station at mile 40, I got word that Chris had made it across the finish. Picturing him crossing that final line gave me great joy and a surge of energy. Then, as Lee Ann and I made our way across an intersection of road and trail, I saw Chris hobbling out of my parent’s car and I burst into tears. He had come back out on the course to cheer me on and make sure I finished! I took one salty kiss, we momentarily gazed into each others’ teary eyes, and I was off into the woods once again.
In any endurance race, no matter the location, the internal workings of the mind and the external sensations of the body remain the same. But, one element that set this adventure apart from any other I had yet to take on, was that I was surrounded by nature the entire time. Over the course of 50 miles, I got to experience one of the most beautiful trails in the US–a section of Wisconsin’s Ice Age Trail. I ran through pine forest, shuffled on sanded horse trail, snaked through tall grasses, traversed over miniature boardwalks and streams, and jogged across wide-open meadows. But at the end of day, there was no sight more beautiful than a simple red arch with the words “North Face Endurance Challenge” printed on it. In what would be my fastest and final mile of the day, the tears began to flow. In his book, The Lure of Long Distances, Robin Harvie argues that it’s the return to a place called home that allows us to go out, put ourselves in the path of danger, and seek new worlds. After 50 miles, all I knew was that MY home were the people waiting for me at the finish–my family. A day of epic achievements had been accomplished, but none of it would matter without my home to share it with. And, yes, my third baby was beautiful.