I am not a believer in the culture of badassery that surrounds ultrarunning. People who run ultramarathons—that is, races of distances longer than 26.2 miles, often substantially longer—are not tougher than other mere mortals; they’re more privileged. If you are in a position to take on a physically demanding task voluntarily, and if you are able to make a goal for yourself in which nothing is standing between you and success but yourself, and if success or failure in that goal doesn’t affect anyone but you—well, I call that damned fortunate.
That said, I’ll admit it’s hard to feel fortunate when the heat index is a hundred, you can’t use the bathroom, and you don’t have any shoes.
Last weekend I ran my 11th ultramarathon, a 12-hour race down in Fenton, Missouri, on a 1.4-mile loop course. You heard right: I’d be running in circles, quite literally, all day. It’s more fun than it sounds. For starters, you can eat all day long, anything you want, because you’re going to be burning somewhere around 5,000 calories. With this happy scenario in mind, I started shopping for race food several days in advance of the event. Cookies, chips, peanut butter cups, peanut butter itself, bread, potatoes, chicken and turkey slices, hummus, coconut water, Cokes, Pop Tarts, probably would have included a rack of lamb if I’d had room in the cooler. I had fuel and hydration, I had sunscreen, S-caps, Body Glide, tape, water bottles, bandannas to fill with ice, a change of clothes and two changes of socks, and as I surveyed all of this in my hotel room the night before I realized I had not brought my shoes.
You do not panic in this situation. No, really, you don’t. You laugh. Not because you’re badass, but because, well, what the hell else can you do? It’s pretty damn funny. When you stop laughing, you become calm and practical. Having small feet means you could probably borrow almost anyone’s shoes and stuff the toes with socks, and surely one of the runners at the race would have an extra pair since most runners won’t be dumb enough to pack the food first and the shoes not at all. It’s not ideal—it is not even on the same planet as ideal—but it’ll keep your tootsies off the hot pavement. Even better, your running buddy is in the same hotel as you, so you call to ask if she has any spare shoes. She does, and they happen to be your teeny tiny foot size. Unbelievably fortunate. You also call another running buddy who will be coming down to the race the next day to pace some of it with you; he agrees to stop by your house to get your own shoes. Even more fortunate.
So far, no sweat. Plenty of that yet to come.
On the morning of the race, my running buddy, her husband, and I got to the park before dawn to get situated, set up our tent, and prepare for the long day ahead. I tried on her shoes, pleased that they were adorable pink Newtons, and tried not to think about how much unfamiliar shoes might wreck my body over the next 12 hours should I not be able to get my own pair. Every running guide ever written doles out the same seemingly too-obvious advice that you should never try anything new on race day, especially not new shoes, but such advice tends to be overlooked not by the rookies but by the veterans. Once you’ve done a few races, you start to realize that you simply cannot control everything, or even most things, about a race. After a while, you stop even trying to get control. It’s just running. So what if you forget shoes? Eh, you can deal with it. So what if the bathrooms at the race are still locked 20 minutes before the race begins? There are plenty of trees. Oh wait, this is a city park with lots of people around, and there’s probably a hefty fine if you relieve yourself publicly. Now we have another problem.
“This happened last year too,” one of the race directors said. “Parks & Rec is supposed to be here at 6am to open them, but they never get here in time.” He was saying this to me as he tried to pick the lock with a professional-looking set of lock picks. “We had to try to pick it last year too. Thing is, these are tough locks to pick. If they’d just used the weak kind most people have in their homes, no problem. This one’s strong.”
Good to know Parks & Rec uses the best, and that RDs know how to break and enter. “Did you get it open last year?” I said hopefully.
“Nope. Had to get the smallest person to climb through the window.”
I looked around back at the window, which looked only slightly larger than a mail slot. I have small feet but the rest of me is normal-sized and as badly as I wanted to go before the race began, I sort of hoped I wouldn’t be the runt of the litter.
A very small woman, her hair braided fetchingly, her outfit matching my borrowed shoes, spoke up. “I can go through the window!”
The RD looked her over. “How much do you weigh?”
I have never been so happy to outweigh someone in my life.
We spent several minutes trying to figure out the logistics of getting the woman, whose name was Sparkle (I kid you not), through the small transom window. We rejected Fosbury flop and went with face down feet first. The RD and his son hoisted her up while I (at Sparkle’s request) photographed the whole thing on her phone. After contorting a bit to avoid the window’s protruding latch, Sparkle gave a happy shriek. “I’m in!” She looked taller, somehow, until I realized she had landed on the toilet seat—but luckily not in it, or else she might have been next in line to search for doll-size footwear.
So now I had shoes and a bathroom, and a lot of food. What more could you need? Nothing, really, and in fact as I turned out, I could have shown up to the race with nothing at all and been fine. The truth is the more prepared you try to be, the less prepared you will be, because you’ll think you’ve accounted for all possible variables when you’re really just kidding yourself.
It was hot, you see, had been for a week. In the days before the race I watched the forecast with dismay as the predicted high crept up and up. By race day I knew the heat index was likely to reach 100, and I tried not to think about the fact that I’d not only be outside in that heat for the entire day but outside and running. This is not an intelligent thing to do. The nice thing about fixed-time races, however, is that you can easily stop whenever you want. Your goal is your own; if you decide you want to do 50K, you can stop at 50K, however much time is left, and feel successful—and smart, and still living, if the weather is dangerously sucky, which it most certainly was. The problem is I had a very specific goal in mind for this race: I wanted 50 miles, not 50 kilometers. Screw you, metric system.
On my two previous attempts to do 50 miles, I had to DNF at 30 due to injuries. I wasn’t injured at all during this race, and I felt strong and well-trained. Fifty miles in 12 hours seemed like an absolute cake-walk when I first decided to do this race—in fact, I secretly toyed with the idea of doing 60. Sixty meant an 11 pace with 5 minutes each hour for breaks. That seemed so very doable all the way up to point where the forecast started getting nasty. Even knowing the weather would not be playing nice with us I figured I had plenty of time.
You know when you take a wrong turn in the car and the GPS lady sounds all cranky when she says “recalculating”? That voice was in my head every loop. I kept having to recalculate how much time I had left to do the remaining loops I needed. If it had been 1.5 miles and not 1.4, it would have been much easier to figure out, but fixed-loop courses don’t often tend to give a damn about your mathematical convenience. I’d figured 36 loops would get me just slightly over 50, which meant a nice simple 3 loops per hour—except of course I full well knew it wasn’t going to be a nice simple 3 loops per hour. I’d want to do more at the start while it was still relatively cool, plus breaks would likely become longer and longer as the day went on. Everything became a math book word problem: If I keep going at this pace, I’ll get 50 with an hour and a half to spare. I’m most certainly not going to keep going at this pace so how much can I slow down and still make my goal? That is, during the first handful of loops I thought this way. Later on, of course, things changed quite a lot.
You know all that food I brought? I ended up eating almost none of it. The extreme heat made me extremely sweaty, which meant I lost electrolytes, and even though I took plenty of S-caps to make up for the loss, I was nauseous after just a couple of hours. At one point I tried to eat a salted potato, one of my favorite fueling foods. Took a bite. Untook that bite. Nope, that wasn’t going to happen. Next loop, tried to nibble on some bread and watermelon. Unnibbled. Nope and nope. A couple loops later, took a gummy bear from the aid station, bit his ear off, spat it out. Sorry, bear. That’s another nope.
So now I had a new problem: finishing 50 miles fueled by no more than a couple of slices of orange and a few sips of Gatorade. I wondered fleetingly if my desiccated corpse might end up fitting through that bathroom window by the end of the day after all.
Again, I was fortunate—massively so. My pacer for the race was a guy who once famously did an entire ultramarathon with a broken femur. This guy makes just about every other runner I know look wimpy—and sane. He was so not bothered by the heat that he even ran in sweat pants for a couple loops and consumed two burgers and a brat midway. Me, I couldn’t even say the word brat without throwing up a little. He kept me running even when my increasingly low blood sugar meant that I was expending more energy yelling at him than actually moving forward. There were whole loops where the only words I used were expletives. And yet we kept going.
At some point, however, the math was not adding up. We were going to run out of time before I got in that 36th loop, and we both knew it. At first I was massively pissed. All that suffering for nothing. Fuck. What the fuck. Why the fuckety fucking fuck was I doing this? Three attempts at 50 and I still wasn’t going to get it. So much for being awesome runner babe. I sucked, I fucking sucked, and I was very, very, very, very tired.
And yet we kept going.
It’s quite possible that this was a very foolish and dangerous thing to do, that I could have compromised my health in serious ways. That disclaimer made, we kept going. And then something inexplicable happened: math was wrong. Despite the fact that there was no way we were going to make 50, at some point nearing ten hours of running, my pacer told me we still had a shot. At 7:10pm with only 20 minutes left in the race, runners would no longer be able to run the regular course but instead would be allowed to run out-and-backs, each complete out-and-back totaling a quarter mile. “All you need are three more loops, Letitia. Three loops, and four out-and-backs, and you’ll get your 50.”
I started bawling. Not because I had a chance to get my goal, but because I had to keep going to get that goal. Stupid fucking goal.
Loop 33. The sun was starting to go down, cooling things off, too little too late. Stupid fucking sun.
Loop 34. I walked almost all of it. My pacer and I didn’t say a word to each other.
Loop 35. The final loop. I ran. I sobbed. The little hill. The newly planted trees with that mulchy smell around them. The basketball court. The shady section. The sunny section. The finish. I had 25 minutes left to go one mile and the RDs had decided to start the out-and-backs early. I grabbed my flag and trudged off.
When I got to that fourth out-and-back—the one, my pacer told me excitedly, that got me over 50—I waved my arms triumphantly and roared. I had done it! And I still had several minutes left! A victory out-and-back was in order.
Turns out math wasn’t wrong after all; we were. My pacer had based his calculations on 1.5 and not 1.4, so we were off by two-tenths. The next out-and-back I completed, my scorer pointed at me and said, “That’s fifty!” I looked confused. Hadn’t I gotten that last time? As a result, the moment I actually made my goal was a little anti-climactic, and I felt more puzzled than ecstatic. Of course, if you’d asked me my name I might have been puzzled at that point, but eventually I remembered what was most important: I got my goal. I even came in first place in the female masters division, which is the award category for women like me who have more years on the planet than sense in their head.
So I ended up running a total of 50.95 miles on a day when most people didn’t even want to be outside at all, much less moving quickly (more or less) for 12 hours. This is not an impressive time for that distance, and the truth is this race was more a factor of stubbornness than athleticism. When you spend most of the day locked in a quasi-epic internal battle between quitting and continuing, the battle pretty much becomes your entire world—a sweaty, smelly, achy painy misery-laden world that nonetheless is all you know. I want to stop. Why am I not stopping? What could I possibly have to gain by continuing to do this stupid thing? This will be my last lap, count on it. This next one will be. The one after this one, that’s it, I’m quitting. I can’t go on. I can’t go on. I can’t go on. And so you go on.
And lest I start to believe my own hype, I still maintain that I am more fortunate than I am tough, because the truth is that everything went my way. No endeavor comes without obstacles, and my obstacles were made easily surmountable because I had help from a lot of other people—people with small feet, people who can slip through outhouse windows, people who will put up with a lot of cussing and whining and run almost the same distance without getting an award for it. I call that lucky. Feel free to call it badass if you wish, though; I won’t mind.
Photo by author
Cover photo: Run by Hernán Piñera
The closest I ever got to an ultramarathon was The Great Hawaiian Footrace in 1985, which was 275 miles spread over 19 days. But I had a tough-as-nails running acquaintance that was leading a 50 mile race near the end, only to have his pacer misread the course and take them a mile out of their way before realizing what they had done. When they got back on the course an official said they were now fourth with two miles to go. This guy dug deep and ramped up the pace, ending up passing all of the runners ahead of him. Crazy.
That is a great story — and it’s funny how many times I hear those kinds of stories in ultra running. You think you can’t possibly have it in you to run more than the specified distance, but somehow you do. I once got lost on a 30-miler and ended up doing 34 miles. I did not, alas, win, but I did run the most miles. I’m sure that counts for something.