Why am I doing this? I’ve been revisiting the topic, especially after finishing my longest distance to date: 50 miles. Life is generally comfortable for me. I live in America, the most free nation on the planet. I go to bed each night in a safe neighborhood, in a warm bed. I have a wonderful husband and three healthy children. I have a job I like and hobbies that fulfill me.
While these things are all wonderful gifts for which I am daily thankful, the truth is comfort and ease usually make people soft. Challenges and suffering build patience, endurance and grit. These are the qualities I want to have. This is the character the Bible urges us to cultivate. I don’t think we should seek out suffering or pray for hard times, but the fact remains that people, in general, grow the most when they encounter those hard times.
When I started running a little over 10 years ago I didn’t like it, but I wanted to do something hard. I wanted to challenge myself. Over these past 10 years running has challenged me like nothing else in my life. And part of the challenge has been tackling longer and longer distances. These longer distances have been the hard thing that’s taught me patience and endurance and humility.
On January 25th I tackled 50 miles. This trail wasn’t like the 50K trail I enjoyed earlier in the month. I’d never run this trail; I’d only seen it on the map. In retrospect I should’ve paid more attention to how it was laid out. Physically I was prepared for the distance but the real challenge was mental. This trail was a 10-11 mile loop. It was flat but contained many roots. It also turned constantly, switching back on itself. This meant I wasn’t able to really stretch my legs out to get full strides. I was always looking down to avoid tripping and I could never zone out to let the miles click by.
I’m learning how important it is to be able to zone out in an ultramarathon. Your mind is going to want to quit long before your body actually gives out. You need a lot of tricks and distractions. On the second loop I started listening to an audiobook. Good distraction but toward the end of the loop I looked down at my watch and saw I’d covered 20 miles. That’s a long distance, but I got discouraged realizing I had 30 miles to go! My husband texted me to say I was doing great but I just felt overwhelmed.
When I finished the second loop I was able to have someone run with me as a pacer. My husband and my friend from the 50K joined me for the third loop. This helped a lot because by this time it was getting lonely on the course; there were less than 20 people doing the 50 mile distance. Talking with someone else is a great distraction. In running, if you can share the suffering it makes it a little less painful.
Before the fourth loop my husband suggested that I change shoes and stick my feet on some ice. That was a real boon physically and mentally. My feet felt refreshed and the shoe change made me feel like I had a kind of second wind. I was still moving slowly but I was moving forward and that’s all that mattered. My husband encouraged me to run more and walk less. This is why a pacer is so key. They will push you to do more than you think you can. I had started walking 1 minute for every 5 minutes but he challenged me to walk 1 minute every mile. I found I was able to do it and each mile marker I would breathe a prayer of thanksgiving to Jesus. My husband dropped off that loop at mile 6 and I was left on my own to finish loop 4.
By the end of loop 4 it started to get dark and I had to turn on my headlamp. That was when I realized how important it was to follow my husband’s advice to run more and walk less. As soon as I turned on the headlamp I realized that running would be almost impossible. The trail was so full of roots and ruts that I couldn’t risk a fall. I was forced to walk and came to the end of loop 4 excited to finish this thing.
Loop five was really a half loop and my husband joined me for it. We walked as fast as we could and tried not to talk too much. We were on a mission to get me to the finish. The trail was even more difficult at night but we pushed forward, eagerly anticipating the aid station where I would get to detour from the dirt trail to the finish.
When I saw the aid station I was filled with relief and found I was able to run the last 1/3 of a mile to the finish. Twelve hours and forty-one minutes after starting I was done. By God’s grace, with the help and encouragement of friends, plus Coca-Cola and Payday candy bars, I finished 50 miles.
It was hard, it was challenging, it was painful. But it was good.