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My First Ultra explores runners’ first experience running an ultra.  This show was great but be sure to read her written account below before diving in!

My journey from just starting out to my first 50-miler…

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She cut me off in mid-sentence and said….”Just shut up and run, Susan.”.

I had recently started running, but hadn’t gone longer than 3 or 4 miles yet. I had just finished going on and on about how I “couldn’t imagine ever running six consecutive miles” when my friend finally interrupted my stream of self-doubt. That was in 2012.

I decided she was right. I would just “shut up and run” and see where things went.

By July of 2012, my long run was 13 miles. In October, I ran my first official half-marathon. Shortly after that I started obsessing over whether or not I could run a full marathon? “Just shut up and run.” It echoed again in my head.

May 2013, I crossed the finish line of the New Jersey Marathon. A few other marathons followed before I finally started wondering…”can I go longer?”.

 

October 2014, two years after wondering if I could run 6 miles, I completed my first 50k. I used Lehigh Valley Marathon as my last long run before the Blues Cruise 50k, then I tapered. I followed a typical marathon training plan for Blues Cruise and I ended up having a great first experience.

On the course of that first 50k is where my love of trail running began. Before Blues Cruise I had only tried trail running twice. I trained almost exclusively on pavement back then. I had no idea what I was missing.

After that first 50k, I still ran road races, but at every possible opportunity I headed out into the woods for the peace and quiet. Over time the differences between road running and trail running become clear to me. Not just terrain and technique, trail running has an entirely different vibe to it. One that I much prefer these days.

In 2015, I divided my time between soul-nourishing trails and the convenience of pavement. That year the Yamacraw 50k in Kentucky offered such an incredibly beautiful course and the energy coming from spectators lining the streets of the Chicago Marathon was exhilarating. Six days after Chicago I ran the Water Gap 50k. In Vermont, I ran my first snowshoe half-marathon and I covered my longest distance (at the time)…34.6 miles along the D&R Canal Towpath.

“Would 11 more miles be possible?”. I began 2016 with this question burning in my mind. 

May 2016, the Dirty German 50 miler. I showed up to the start line believing that I wouldn’t finish. That I was about to end up with my first DNF. The month before I had finished two 50k’s within three weeks of each other (North Face Endurance Challenge DC and New York). They were my last long runs before tapering for the 50 miler. They also happened to be my slowest 50k’s to date. Tough trail conditions at the first one created a race that ended up testing my mental toughness more than my physical capabilities. The second was grueling, technical terrain and at times felt more like rock climbing than trail running.

They were both hard-earned finishes that I was proud of, but neither one gave me the confidence boost that I was hoping for. My main concern was making the 30-mile cut-off time at the 50 miler. I knew my legs had the strength to carry me the distance, but did they have the speed?

There is a saying in the endurance runner world….trust the training. I put in the effort. I followed the plan. I covered the miles and had my physical and mental toughness tested repeatedly. There was nothing left for me to do, but trust the training.

As it turned out, I couldn’t have been any better prepared for my first 50 miler than I was that day. The weather was absolutely perfect. The course was perfect for my first attempt and I felt strong the entire time. I ended up easily making the cut-off. In fact, I reached it with an hour to spare. I hit the 50k mark with a PR time. Within 5 miles of the finish I started getting giddy. I laughed and said out-loud “I think I’m gonna finish this.”.

Disbelief. Relief. Joy. Pride. One final surge of adrenaline. I crossed the finish line of my first 50 mile race in 10 hours and 53 minutes. Slow and steady. 

In hindsight, those two grueling 50k’s were exactly what I needed. The perfect conditions on the 50 mile course felt effortless compared to them. Obviously, a runner needs to be physically prepared to run any distance, but you cannot underestimate how important of a role mental-toughness plays in finishing ultras. There are moments when your mind and body scream at you to stop. You suddenly find yourself questioning all of the decisions that led you up to that very moment of misery. You are nowhere close to being finished. You are in the middle of the woods. Alone. None of it makes sense anymore…but then you tell yourself to “just shut up and run”.

When you reach that finish line it all comes flooding back to you. 50 miles makes wonderfully, insane, perfect sense. And you’re left wondering…”can I go longer?”.

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