Welcome to the Dark Side… of Ultra running

May 1st, 2014 by Erin Young

I love an adventure! Courses in beautiful places, long miles of trail where few even walk, and I especially love it if course support has to be brought in by mule or boat. The course needs to be challenging.  I’ve run 50 miles dozens of times and know full well I can do that on even the most hilly of courses.

If I could only use three words to describe the Lake Sonoma 50 course they would be rugged, relentless and humbling. The vertical profile looks more like a polygraph than a race course.

But I knew this, and respected the course. I trained harder than I had for any other 50 miler. For 16 weeks, I monitored my heart rate, my recovery, got plenty of sleep, cut out sugar and alcohol. I added high quality speed work and would spend up to 90 minutes on the treadmill at a 15% grade. I ran through every single sub zero day,  and rested for every concerning niggle. But sometimes its just a bad day.

To this day, Lake Sonoma was my worst race ever. My heart rate was  too high in the first two miles. I tried to relax and even though that pace should feel like a comfy jog, I was red lining. Even on the downhills. So I abandoned my plan of staying with the lead pack for the first 5 miles. “I just need to run my own race,” I thought. Even at my “jog” I was breathing heavy and my quads were already in a bad place.

One of the many reasons that I love ultra running is the ability for me to go to painful and lonely places, then finding my own way out. For each moment spent in those places, I learn something about myself. I was in a dark place no doubt. By mile 13, getting to halfway seemed a day away. Just getting to 30 felt like I was going to die, then by 40 I just wanted a cougar to jump out of the bushes and eat me. My only logical thought after 7.5 hours of running, was that cougars do not generally attack early afternoon.  I meditated just so I wouldn’t lose my soup, or let my legs fall out from under me. Finishing that event felt impossible. I repeatedly reminded myself how strong I was, I had put in the training, I was healthy, even lucky to be here, running on my healthy legs, with a healthy heart. I was fighting a battle chose to fight. Yeah, I paid for this. I was certainly going to get a finisher jacket for this “adventure”.

After hours of fighting negative thoughts, I realized just how powerful positive thinking was. In a nutshell, that day on that course was rechid, but positive thinking DID save me. It doesn’t sound very positive, I know. If I did not know how to use the power of positive thinking, I would have surely thrown in the towel hours ago when I knew it was going to be a long fight. There wasn’t much joy as I crossed the finish line at Lake Sonoma, and that’s okay. I felt utter relief. My finish time was terrible, just awful by personal standards. However, I felt no shame in that. The last 9 hours beat me down physically, but I won. I am more stubborn than any mean and nasty course, and I know it was just a bad run. My view suddenly changed and that dark day in the California sun was feeling brighter. I felt so grateful for my greatest friend at the finish, there to prevent me from a face plant finish photo. So enthusiastic about my finish, you would have thought I won.  I felt undeserving of his wife’s gentle stretching of my scratched, aching, filthy, smelly body.

If you’re curious, I am not giving up just yet. It took 4 days, but I walk normally. I have another 50 mile race next week, and I have some big fish to fry. But instead of course plotting, dieting and continuing  that pre race Type AAA behavior, I am enjoying chocolate, tortilla chips AND beer. By my new standards, this is going to be a walk in the park. Hopefully a faster walk and a LOT more enjoyable!


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