Past the Limit

Ultra running is a niche sport, an extreme one at that. It can take many forms as far as terrain, but the definition is simple: covering a distance more than a marathon. Covering that distance in one piece however, is not so simple.

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I first discovered ultra running in the form of mountain running. This quickly turned into a love for an even more extreme form of mountain running known as skyrunning. Here, courses take you from the sea to the sky, in the most direct path imaginable. This year I’ve been lucky enough to compete in La palama (Transvulcania 75km), Madeira (Madeira ultra sky 50km), the Dolomites (Cortina Trail 50km), and the Pyrenees (Buff Epic 110km). I find motivation and challenge in skyrunning, due to the demanding technicality and steep grades. However, my most recent race, the Buff Epic, at the skyrunning world championships in Valle de Boí, forced me to places I had never been before.

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I’m not going into the details of a race report, but for background, this race was 110km with 8000m of positive gain (about 69 miles and 26,500ft). Extreme.

 

I knew this race would challenge me, maybe even break me, but never did I expect the day I had.

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I started comfortable, anticipating all the climbs, letting the steepness dictate my pace. I felt comfortable, calm to be running. Within the first 20k I had already managed to go off course for a few minutes, to fall on some slippery rocks, but even that couldn’t get my spirits down. I knew I was going to be out there all day, mentally I was ready to be patient.

Then, all of a sudden it hit me. Nausea. I was being proactive about my nutrition, but suddenly, around the 25km mark, even the smell of food made my stomach turn. I would vomit when I tried to eat anything!

I thought things would turn around if I stuck to liquid calories and salt to get back in some electrolytes, but things just got progressively worse. Sipping coca cola soon lead to vomiting and by the 50km mark I was stuck to drinking a salt solution provided by the aid station, with very little caloric value. I was worried and I wanted to quit.

I had an amazing support crew who were meeting me around all sections of the course (which were really hard to get to), so perhaps that was a source of motivation. But, for me, running is so personal. I won’t simple do a race or a run because someone tells me to, I must be convicted to do it myself. So I kept going.

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This time, every uphill, or slightly steep pitch I was dry heaving. Pushing my body past a certain pace caused me to double over with nausea. I was 67km in.

My mind was spiraling. I worried about my place. How I was competing – I wasn’t competing. I wondered what people would think about my performance, it was the world championships, I wondered if I was a horrible runner now. I thought about quitting simply because I wasn’t in a podium position like I imagined I would be. Right then, I stopped on the trail, and told myself out-loud: ‘That’s a horrible reason to quit Hill, and it’s not why you run.”

 

So I kept moving forward. Around 75km now.

 

I wanted to quit! Why wasn’t I quitting?? Should I quit? Am I causing myself damage? How am I able to walk up this mountain with no food in me??

 

I carried these questions with me into the last major aid station at 81.5km, convinced this was the time to call it quits. I had run 50 miles – that was good enough. Plus, I didn’t want to run in the dark. I was ready to quit, like I had told myself around the 30km mark.

 

My crew had everything prepared. My headlamp, water, more water – water was the only thing I could stomach now. I looked at their faces to confirm my defeat, but they told me they’d see me at the finish. I didn’t believe I’d make it. But I got up, making my way towards the door, hesitant. I wanted to quit, to end the suffering, but I was still moving toward the door. I left in a slow trudging jog.

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Where was the hope, the perseverance, and this determination within me? Why were my feet still moving me forward? How? Why won’t my stomach stop hurting? How in the world am I still dry heaving? Why am I not quitting?? I still want to quit.

 

These words played like a broken record within my head. Repeating, circling, questioning, begging myself to quit. I really had no idea how I was still moving or if there was anything to be proud of with my performance. I was absolutely defeated. Yet, still moving. How were these two things possible?

 

The last few hours of my race were all a blur. The dull ache of my stomach and my circling questions made time irrelevant. I came to when I say the 1km mark on the side of the trail. I had made it to the finish, but not in a triumphant manner, or with any extra surge of energy. I was relieved and confused crossing the finish line. Why and how did I keep going? How did I make it hear.

 

Over the next few days, I kept reliving my experience and I still can’t explain what transpired that day. I’ve always said I run for the challenge, and the strength it gives me as a person. That day I felt the weakest and most challenged in a race or run. Extraordinarily, I still had something more. Nothing tangible or explicable, but I had something deeper that kept me moving forward, something that wouldn’t let me give up or give in to the pain, the challenge and doubt.

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I wouldn’t have discovered this silent strength, this powerful force within me, unless I was pushed past my limit. I would have never known I possessed this immeasurable strength if I had not kept going that day. This is my silver lining, and the true reason why I run. There is strength in the struggle and grace in the challenge. All I must do, is simply run.

 

 

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Thank you to The North FaceSky RunnerUltimate DirectionSkratch LabsSwiftwick Socks and Real Athlete Diets (RAD) for their continued support.

You Don’t Look Like a Runner

I only had 5.5km left, all downhill. I told myself to focus for thirty more minutes, extra time never hurt. This course was brutal, a 55km race bragging 4000 meters (13,000ft) of gain. Technical, steep, hot – just what I like. It was a very competitive race and I had pushed into 2nd place. As I rounded the final corner to push up one final hill I finally let myself feel it as chills ran over my skin. There was excitement, relief, accomplishment, a need for more water and to take off my shoes. I had made the podium and I had fought for every single second of it. I was proud, happy to be done, and pleased with my strength and patience throughout the race.

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After some rest and recovery the athletes and volunteers gathered for congratulations and dinner. It was great to celebrate. We relived the race, our ups and downs, the views, and the terrain; assuring the organizers they had put on a tough race.

Everyone kept telling me how strong I was, how hard I pushed on the uphills, that I was a machine. Then one of the local runners had a question for me:

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“How much do you weigh?” he asked, comparing me directly to Gemma Arenas, the winner of the race, who was standing next to me at the time. She’s about 5’ tall, and petite. Not only am I 9’’ taller than Gemma, but we have completely different builds; I, being, the more muscular of the two. Then, another question, ‘”How is it you can run so fast when you weigh so much more?’

Strength, machine, powerful, animal – those were the adjectives used to describe me. Not fast, or skilled, or talented, or even the word ‘runner.’ Was it because of the way I looked? I couldn’t help but be slightly offended, hurt and extremely self-conscious. I had just finished second, amongst world-class competition, and I was asked to explain my performance and myself.

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photo credit: Ian Corless

Immediately, the first thoughts in my head were “Why am I here? How did I run that fast? I don’t look like I’m supposed to look?” I let those comments and doubts interfere with celebration of my achievement. In fact, that night I let myself stagger in confusion and self-deprecation, crying and wishing I could change how I looked to avoid future speculation from others and my own critical eye.

Like many women – and runners – I have had an eating disorder. However, trail running is what motivated my recovery. When I started running, is when I decided to take care of myself, to listen to my body and respect it. Although I am recovered now, it’s a dynamic process and one I can never ignore. That fact made clear by my shear devastation brought on by a comment about my weight.

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So I challenged that doubt and fear. I don’t need to look different to be considered a runner. I am one. I challenge that thought in all of us. Take a breath, and decide to take action. Maybe the action is an out loud declaration, quiet introspection or venting. For me it’s an all out battle inside my head to accept those uncomfortable thoughts that are urging me, convincing me that I ‘don’t look like a runner’ and that I must change my physical state to match a certain standard. They’re bullshit. Complete. Total. Irrational. Bullshit.

I can run. I can move. Uphill. Strong. Fast. Running. I am a runner.

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What is a runner supposed to look like anyway? I am a runner and so are you, no matter the size and shape of our bodies, no matter the distance covered or the terrain encountered.

I was made to run. My soul feels it; my body knows it; my heart longs for it. These are the thoughts I listen to. I am a runner. I chose to run toward that truth.

 

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