I started running when I was 37. A colleague told me about a 5K that benefited the local public library, and I thought why not. I’d just moved to Illinois and didn’t know many people, so in defiance of my social-activity-shunning nature, I forced myself to get out and do stuff. Plus, where I live in Illinois, it’s flat. How hard could running be? Very, as it turned out, yet something happened to me after that first ghastly ordeal ten years ago (besides gorging on the pancake breakfast provided for the runners, thus ensuring that I consumed far more calories than I had burned): I vowed that I would get fit. As God was my witness, I would earn those pancakes. And then I would have seconds.
If you had told me back then that in ten years I’d go from barely making it around the block without collapsing to running 4 hours, 8 hours, 12 hours straight, well, I’d have laughed in your face provided I was able to catch my breath. It’s not unusual to hear stories of people discovering running relatively late in life; it’s exercise a person can do on their own, after all, with relatively little expense or preparation—and, most of all, no humiliating sessions with baffling equipment, surrounded by the young and the shredded, in a mirrored room that won’t let you delude yourself about your lack of strength, coordination, and flexibility.
It’s becoming even more common to hear about long-distance runners pushing and exceeding the age of 40, even among the elites (Meb Keflezighi won Boston a few days shy of his 39th birthday and finished in the top 10 a few days shy of his 40th). Distance favors discipline. Even if you aren’t one to party all night (as I never have been), it’s a rare 20-something who willingly gets up early to run all morning. Moreover, in truth many people “discover” ultras when they realize that their days of getting PRs for shorter distances are almost certainly over. When you can’t go faster, you can always go farther. There’s yet another reason ultramarathons are particularly appropriate for those well into the second half of their lives: Nothing can make you feel so gloriously alive one minute and absolutely wrecked the next as a race that goes on all day, maybe all night too, and I think this is something that can only be fully appreciated by someone potently aware of the body’s simultaneous strength and frailty.
Two weeks before I was supposed to run my first ultra, my entire left leg swelled up to tree-trunk size—and we’re talking sequoia here. I was 44 years old and I ran marathons, so the most likely diagnosis given the symptoms—deep-vein thrombosis—still seemed so unlikely that I shrugged it off until a friend with medical expertise told me that if I didn’t go see a doctor immediately she’d drive me to the emergency room herself right then and there. I hate seeing doctors. Even though my left foot was so swollen I could only wear flip-flops, well, it was June, so I could wear flip-flops, so what was the big deal? Besides, a doctor would probably tell me I shouldn’t do the ultra—they’re always saying shit like that, damn quacks, and I did not want to hear it after all those months of training. Sure, my leg was huge, and it felt like it was being squeezed into a PVC pipe the diameter of a Twizzler, but come on, I could still move it, which meant 31 miles wasn’t truly impossible. Given my friend’s threats, though, the next morning, just four days before the race, I went to see a sports doctor who was himself a runner. He’d get it, I figured; he’d know how much running my first ultra meant to me, and he’d advise me on how I could get around this weird but no doubt minor medical issue.
The doctor looked at my leg and then looked up at me like I was a lip-diddling lunatic. Not a good sign. “So, Doc, am I OK to go run?”
“You’re not going anywhere but the ER.”
Instead of an ultra, I got an ultrasound, which revealed that my left leg was full of blood clots—“the worst case of DVT I’ve ever seen,” my new doctor reported excitedly. I was a good 20 years younger than most of his other DVT patients, so it was and still is a mystery why this happened (though birth control pills were the most likely culprit). The upshot was I spent the day of the ultra in ICU taking fluids through an IV drip instead of a camelback and peeing out those fluids in a bedpan instead of in the woods. These two situations are not nearly as comparable as you might think, not at all, especially since in between bedpan-peeings I was stuck lying in bed instead of putting my body through an intensely grueling physical ordeal. The pain you choose to endure in pursuit of a goal is very different from the pain you are helpless to control, a difference that has never been made quite so vivid to me as then.
I left the hospital ten days later on July 3rd and the next morning got up to go to our town’s Independence Day 5K. No, I wasn’t running it, just volunteering, in part to show off my awesomely gruesome scar (several people who saw it nearly fainted) but mostly because I wanted to be involved in running again in some capacity. I missed my first ultra but I was still here, damn it. Yes, my stubbornness might well have killed me if a clot had made its way into my heart or lungs, but that didn’t happen; I still had functioning legs, lungs, and heart, and I wanted to use them.
I did use them and ran my first ultra a month later, 34 miles that wrecked my Achilles tendon and took me out of running another month. It was glorious. Oh, don’t look at me like I’m a lip-diddling lunatic. Since then I’ve taken far more precautions to avoid injury so that I can keep running for many more years to come, but at that particular time, I needed that ultra. The moment in life when you realize your body can’t run forever is precisely the moment you feel the need to try to do just that anyway. It doesn’t always happen, but knowing it might not happen is all the more incentive to try.
Note on photograph by John Hoey: Digital HDR color image of Elite Men’s runners (with eventual winner, Meb Keflezighi) at the 7-Mile marker in Framingham, MA (Boston Marathon, 2014)