January is the biggest month for personal trainers everywhere. February and March make up the largest number of discarded fitness goals every year! When I am continually successful within any new discipline it because I really want to act and enjoy the process. So I’ve brought in my friend Kiwi to talk about how she runs 100 mile runs “because it’s fun!”
Robin asked me to write a guest post about my ultramarathon runs. So I’ll tell you about the best run I ever did, in 2008, on the Western States Trail in California.
Every June some of the most hardcore trail runners in the world complete this 100 mile trail running race starting in Squaw Valley near the Nevada border, reaching a height of 8500 ft on the mountain trails of the Sierra Nevada, traversing a series of deep canyons, usually in sweltering heat, and finishing in Auburn, California just outside Sacramento. I’m not as tough as many of these ultra-runners, but I reckon I have more fun than most.
My goal in running the Western States Trail was to finish within 40 hours, and to do it according to my own rules and choices. Most importantly to have fun. In June 2008 I traveled to Sacramento to familiarize with the course and practice the river crossing. I then returned in September 2008 and made a first attempt at this run, solo but with two kind local runners providing support. This first attempt ended 24 hours after it began, with me staggering down a deserted country road at 1am, freezing cold and falling asleep from the antihistamines I’d taken after receiving 20 wasp stings a few hours earlier.
I rested for two weeks and then returned for a second try, this time entirely solo and self supported. I spent a leisurely four days driving around remote 4WD roads laying in supplies along the route. After the run it took three days to drive these roads and retrieve the supplies. This was part of the journey for me. Bumping around these remote dirt roads was nearly as much fun as the run itself. The thrill of being entirely self sufficient in a wilderness environment which most people consider hostile and scary. The mountains have never felt scary to me.
I set off at 1am after a lovely 5.5 hours sleep bandit-camping in the bushes above the ski resort at Squaw Valley. It was a beautiful cold crisp night climbing the ski hill, feeling rested and excited and alive alive! I love the early morning hours on the first day of an ultramarathon, the rest of the world asleep, the distance to travel almost impossible to grasp, so many hours of fun still to go, and setting out to attempt something that so many people believe is not possible. I see a lot of parallels between my ultramarathons and the autism volunteer work that I do through the Son-Rise Program. Most folks believe it’s not possible to run 100 miles. Most folks believe autism is not curable.
Reaching my first food stash I found a bear had cunningly removed the rocks from the base of the cairn and eaten all my sandwiches. My energy gels were still there, inside a knawed-on nalgene bottle. No matter, next food supplies at 30 miles. The sun came up as I was descending to lower elevation having crossed the historic Pacific Crest Trail. Someday I’ll come back and complete this 2500 mile trail from Mexico to Canada. Another kind of adventure. Running, sprinting even, on the gently descending mountain trails. I usually hit my stride 6 to 10 hours into a run; which is why I prefer ultramarathons to short runs where I’ve barely started warming up by the time it’s over.
Reaching Robson Campground mid morning, I still felt on fire and excited to be alive. No sign of the mountain lion pawprints I’d seen here two weeks earlier. During the official race, they weigh competitors at the aid station here. Anyone who’s lost 5% of their body mass is pulled from the race due to dehydration. Outside of the race environment I trust my slower pace and ability to read my body signals to maintain my health. I was also carrying a PLB (Personal Locator Beacon) and a larger amount of warm clothes and first aid supplies than the competitors carry due to the higher risk of being on my own in the mountains without backup.
The next section of the run crossed huge chasms with deep descents and ascents, through the heat of the day. It was the most remote part of the run. Donning my jacket to sweat past the location of the wasp stings the previous attempt; this time I saw no wasps at all. One third into the run is often my biggest psychological challenge; tired from having run a long way already, but still with an impossible distance to go. This time, the euphoria of being alive, alone, and doing something most folks think is impossible sustained me through the heat of the afternoon and I felt none of the despondency I sometimes have to work through to finish ultramarathons.
Reaching the tiny several house hamlet of Michigan Bluff around dinnertime I retrieved supplies stashed by the locals to protect them from bears. The family invited me to join them for lasagna dinner. You couldn’t do this during the official race! These locals were horse riders, and shared tales about the 100 mile horse race held every year on the same trail. The annual running event started 35 years ago when someone’s horse came up lame, and one extraordinary rider completed the race anyway on foot.
Heading into the gathering darkness I felt revived by the rest and food, and made great time reaching the small town of Foresthill before midnight. Here I stopped for another 45 minutes to eat cold burgers, hot soup and flat coke that I’d prearranged for the employees of the local diner to stash for me that afternoon.
At 1am on the trails descending from Foresthill towards the river, now 24 hours into the run, I yawned for the first time. I didn’t fight it. Best rule of running – and life really – go with what you’re feeling, trust yourself. I ate a teaspoon of instant coffee powder and lay down in the middle of the trail. After 2.5 minutes snooze I was getting cold enough and imagining cougars behind the bushes. I put some fast running music on my ipod and set off down the trail again. I never yawned again during the 37 hours of the run.
Descending the mountain trails I hit the biggest zen moment I’ve ever had in my running career; running, sprinting, flying down the trail, music pumping, 2am alone in the wilderness, alive, alive, alive! That feeling of being connected with everything, in touch with the universe and a part of something so much bigger than myself. Some folks take LSD to get this thrill. I go running on my own in the middle of the night.
I reached the river at 4.15am and stopped for a third long rest break to fire up my cooker which I’d stashed, eat hot soup, and don life jacket and helmet for the river crossing. This crossing is the reason it’s rare for anybody to complete this run as one continuous push, outside of the official race in June. During the race there’s a rope strung across the river, volunteers in waders, and floodlights lighting up the scene. I trusted 15 years of experience doing serious river crossings, having nearly drowned once when swept away crossing a river in flood, and I’d performed many river rescues in training programs and when things went pear shaped on kayaking trips.
I crossed the river without incident, moving carefully in the darkness to maintain my footing and brace against the current. One kilometer up the trail, I stashed the lifejacket and helmet, and swapped running shoes. It was just starting to get light as I headed into the forest trails approaching the more populated areas. I had trouble selecting directions sometimes as the trail branched more frequently. The brain doesn’t fire as well after running 30 hours, even 30 hours of fun!
Feeling bouncy in the new running shoes, I made great time and finished the last quarter of the run much faster than expected. I always did tend to be much slower than average during the first third of an ultra, and much faster than average during the last third, another reason why I prefer to run solo.
It got hot again heading into midmorning on the second day, and my feet were starting to hurt. Despite the pain, I genuinely don’t recall feeling any sense of discomfort or unhappiness, rather just a feeling of intense euphoria as I realized that I really was going to finish the Western States 100 mile trail run. The pain in my feet reminded me of how cool I was.
Coming out of the final river valley up into Auburn, there are painted footprints on the pavement to guide runners through the town to the finish line. I must have looked a sight sprinting through Auburn in the heat of the afternoon with poles waving and backpack swing wildly. Coming up on the Placer High School where the competitors finish the race, a bunch of kids were running around the field and I paralleled them on the road beside them, sprinting to reach my car just under 37 hours after setting out from Squaw Valley 100 miles away.
Most folks think running ultramarathons is about hard work and uncomfortable pain. What I remember most about this run was how much I enjoyed the journey. I remind myself elsewhere in life to have fun while doing the things I do. And celebrating accomplishments! I don’t deny that there’s physical pain in challenging my physical limits. But this run was simply fun, fun, fun, all 37 hours from beginning to finish. Really! That’s why I run ultras.
The single best book I’ve read on running is Born to Run. An engaging read and a fascinating look at cultural and individual athlete’s beliefs:
Also, take a look at this video I gave to a group of competitive runners on the myth of stretching.
Want personal coaching on improving your running? I would love to help you. Contact me at robin (at) robinpzander (dot) com.