By HPRS Staff Columnist Holly Rapp
Less than one hour into my first ultramarathon, a 24-hour timed race, I had already thrown up twice. As it was my first, I wasn’t sure if this was standard or possibly a rough start, but I decided just to go with it. I was so excited to be running that nothing was going to ruin my enthusiasm. It was, I tried to tell myself, like throwing up sunshine. As someone who is generally adverse to inspirational platitudes, this desperate re-framing proved shockingly effective if for no other reason than by distracting me as I thought about how much I can’t stand such prosaic phrases.
Coming out of my clever hiding spot behind a tree – because obviously nobody could see me there (in reality, several runners and spectators saw every time – my sincere apologies!) – I thought about how exactly I found myself at this point. How was it that I, the least talented runner I knew, was somehow embarking on an ultra? Ultrarunners, I had always assumed, were naturally gifted with physical capabilities far beyond average. Who else could complete anything as absurd as a 50+ mile run through rain, snow, darkness, and every other adverse condition imaginable? I, by contrast, am a mid- to back-of-the packer with terrible biomechanics and a body that doesn’t get along well with running, as my early race stomach emptying demonstrated so clearly.
But though I lack running talent, I’ve been told rather frequently that I’m slightly stubborn and I simply refuse to quit. Whether or not my stomach came with me, I knew I would find a way to reach my original goal: to cover 50 kilometers, making this the longest run I had ever completed and my first official ultra. Prior to this day, the only race I had done was a marathon fiveyears ago in 2013. During this race, I would make my way around a snowy and muddy loop for 16.5 hours until I covered 70.1 miles, well surpassing my goal.
The story of my first ultra is part of an ongoing narrative of how I’m learning to put myself out there and try things that sound impossible or take on challenges that terrify me. The act of writing this piece is itself an example of something new and terrifying, as I’m an intensely shy, deeply private person who can’t quite imagine sharing anything this personal.
But I’m writing this story because I hope it might encourage someone who feels too timid to try their first ultra to just go for it. If you are reading this because you are looking, as I did for so long, for some kind of validation that you are ready to take on an ultra, here are my thoughts: if you keep waiting until you feel ready, or someone tells you you’re ready, or until you find just the right race, or for the moment you fulfill any other criteria you come up with an effort to keep putting it off, you will never start. At some point, you just have to say f*ck it and jump right in. Here’s what happened when I finally did just that.
Making it to the Start
For reasons I don’t yet fully understand, I found myself staring at Ultrasignup one night in March and actually clicking “Register” rather than just endlessly browsing races as a way to avoid signing up for anything. It was a decision fueled partly by the kind and relentless encouragement of an HPRS member (thanks, Greg!) and partly by the knowledge that I was in the middle of the best period of running in my life. During this time, I was running as much as I wanted simply for the sheer joy of it, a method that inadvertently led me to record mileage week after week.
The race I settled on was a 24-hour timed event in April with a course comprised of a .82 mile dirt loop. It looked brutal in its simplicity and reasonable for a first timer. (For more practical advice on choosing your first ultra, see http://humanpotentialrunning.com/from-the-rd/choosing-your-first-ultra/)
As race day neared and my weekly mileage continued to climb, I began to believe I had the potential to do more than the 50K I originally envisioned. Though I kept it to myself, I started to think 50 miles might be possible if I was willing to put myself out there and suffer a long time. I went into race day with a carefully crafted plan: run to 50K, hope I still had something left, and keep moving until I couldn’t move anymore.
“Snow is rare, but always a possibility.”
On race morning, we were greeted by a snow and freezing-rain mix that turned the course into a puddle-ridden mudslide. I did my best to embrace this development as a challenge that would make my first ultra even more memorable. I knew this experience would be whatever I chose to make of it, and I decided from the start that it was going to be incredible.
I chatted nervously with Greg, who was also running the race, as we picked up our bibs and set up camp in the snow.
As I stood with the other runners at the start, I knew this was going to be the one of the most painful and extraordinary experiences of my life. When the race director asked if anyone was going to try to run the furthest they ever had, I raised my hand shyly as I positioned myself near the back of the pack.
Kindness & Generosity
The first several hours were marked by three things: my incredible excitement to be running, my inability to run at a reasonable pace because of said excitement, and my increasingly upset stomach, which made itself known at regular intervals. When the wonderful spectators and volunteers offered words of encouragement, I smiled and responded every time, as enthusiastically as possible: “Best Day Ever!”
Right from the outset, I learned how much ultras rely on the selfless generosity of so many people. My husband, Chad, sat in the snow all day to act as my crew, tallying laps and handing me ginger ale. Greg propped me up with stories and constant positivity, acting like my pacer even though he was running the race himself.
Other runners also offered support mid-race (if you somehow find this, hi Brad, Jamie, James, and everyone else I had the chance to meet!). The race director and volunteers braved the cold with smiles. And many kind people came to cheer despite the terrible weather: Dan, our running group leader, along with his wife; Greg’s friend Jay, who took pictures of the event; Greg’s best friend Joe, whose surprise appearance lifted Greg’s spirits visibly; and even Sherpa John and Hollis, who appeared out of nowhere and starting cooking bacon sometime deep into the night.
The entire day could be retold as a story of how countless people gave of themselves to help a group of runners achieve crazy personal goals. All race long I wondered what I had done to deserve such kindness.
To 50K and Beyond
Every step past 26.2 miles marked a new personal-distance record. I was elated as we celebrated Greg hitting the 50K mark and then a lap later my own completion of that milestone. (For an eloquent take on reaching for a new distance, see http://humanpotentialrunning.com/interest/into-the-unknown/).
Having hit my initial goal for the race, I simply kept running. I did note that things were starting to hurt quite a bit, and I realized more significantly that the cold and lack of calories were beginning to take a toll. Most of what little I ate did not stay down. I knew I was digging myself into a terrible hole but I didn’t know how to fix it. I started to pay dearly for these mistakes, suffering as never before as I hit the wall again, and again, and again. But it didn’t matter – I kept moving forward, no matter how slowly, as I adhered relentlessly to my plan to move until I couldn’t.
I also refused to sit down the entire day. If I could eat, drink, and do anything else while moving, why stop? (I do not recommend this plan – it was another error on my part.) During one memorable lap, I carried an entire bag of potato chips so I could eat without stopping. As I fumbled with the bag and tried to figure out the best way to hold it with my double-gloved hands, I glanced up and saw the look on the face of a bewildered spectator. At that moment, as I pondered the absurdity of a situation in which I was trying to engineer a potato- chip carrying system so I could eat while running circles around a lake in a snowstorm, I burst out laughing so hard I finally had to stop for awhile.
Throwing Up Sunshine: Round 2
Greg and I celebrated again when we hit mile 50 and later as we passed 100 kilometers, mileage we couldn’t even begin to comprehend. The day took on a marvelous sense of unreality as our distance climbed higher than I had ever dared to hope.
I was equally shocked when night arrived as I never imagined I would still be moving that late into the race. In an incredible display of fortitude and friendship, Greg kept me going much of the night by telling an endless array of stories, the kind you can share only after 12+ hours of running in bitter cold, snow, and mud.
In a desperate attempt to stay warm, I eventually wore five coats (yes, seriously) as I continued my shuffle/walk around the lake. I clung to my plan to keep moving until I couldn’t, a mark I knew I was approaching rapidly. Greg, on the other hand, was still moving incredibly well. I was inspired by his unbelievable performance, but I was reaching a level of cold and exhaustion unlike anything I had ever experienced. On some level, I was grateful for this suffering as I knew it meant I had pushed myself to a point I had never before reached.
In a terrible reversal of fortunes, Greg said suddenly that he wasn’t feeling well and his race was finished. Greg threw up sunshine at the completion of his race and later during a bonus round by the side of the road while driving home. There are two ways to interpret these events: one, we both need to work seriously on race-day nutrition; or, two, our day opened and closed with sunshine. While both are valid, I choose to emphasize the latter in my memories of the race.
Best Day Ever!
Near the end of my own race, I looked down at my watch and saw 68 miles. Ever the obsessive runner, I decided I wanted to hit the round number of 70, though the thought of covering two more miles seemed utterly incomprehensible.
It is hard to describe those final laps. It was nearing 1 a.m. with temperatures in the teens. I was so cold I couldn’t walk in a straight line and so tired I couldn’t stand fully upright. I tried my best to run but all that resulted were pitiful stuttering steps. There were only a few runners left on the course and I tried to say something encouraging to every person still out there.
I spent most of that time in quiet contemplation. I simply could not believe what was happening. I was still moving. And I was about to finish my first ultramarathon.
As I stumbled into the race tent to turn in my timing slip, the lone awake volunteer greeted me with a smile. He asked how it was and I got to respond, one last time, with “Best Day Ever!” before officially ending my race at 16.5 hours, 86 laps, and 70.1 miles.
Thoughts Beyond the Finish
I can now tell you from cold, hard experience that grit and determination can carry you through an ultra.Patience, persistence, and the willingness to suffer a long time are also important. It’s going to be hard, it’s going to hurt, and things will go wrong; you simply have to decide how you will face these realities. The experience will be whatever you choose to make of it, and I suggest humbly that you make it as extraordinary as possible.
As I write this a few days after the race, my left foot and ankle are so swollen I can only wear one pair of shoes, untied. I have bruises on my arms and legs from where I tripped and fell during my cold-induced stupor. I can’t fully bend my right leg. When I try to foam roll, I burst out laughing as a way to avoid crying. And I am so damn proud of all this pain because I worked exceedingly hard to earn it. I feel the way I do because I smashed the sh*t out of my goals and ran an ultra I never dreamed was possible. Now it’s time to reach for something even more impossible, as soon as I can fit my left foot into a running shoe again. I hear mountain ultras and 100 mile races are quite fun…