You have GOT to be kidding me. Two miles in? Already? No. NO. Too bad. This is it. I’m all in.
I’m doing this.
MILES 1 – 10.68 >> NORDIC SKI TRAIL LOOP
Saturday morning May 11, just six months after running my first ultra marathon, the Wild Duluth 50k on the Superior Hiking Trail – and swearing 27 miles into it that I would never, EVER entertain such a horrible idea ever again – I laced up my shoes for my second ultra, the Ice Age Trail 50 Mile race in the Kettle Morraine State Forest near La Grange, WI. I was poorly prepared and fairly convinced I’d DNF. Finishing under 12 hours was my only goal.
Since the WD50k, I hadn’t given my body the rest it wanted and needed. Instead, I signed up the very next day for the Ice Age 50, figuring if I could just sustain my fitness level I’d be fine. So over the course of the last six months, I overtrained and endured various ongoing injuries ranging from IT band issues in November and December, to metatarsal stress reactions in January and February, to running a half marathon on a sprained ankle in March and re-spraining it two weeks before the IA50.
On perpetually injured feet and legs, my training was so stop and go that I was convinced at a couple points I’d have to drop out of the race altogether. Saturday morning at the start, my singular hope and prayer was that the few 20+ long runs I’d done, all of which were on tired, sore, post-injury angry legs, would be enough to sustain me for 50 miles.
Imagine my disdain when, not two miles into said 50 mile race, I rolled my left ankle. Again.
I knew at that moment exactly what I’d be facing for the next 48 miles. I was going to be in massive pain. I was going to run out of gas. I had twelve hours to finish the race, and I knew I would need all the back-end padding I could get to finish on time. So I adopted a “use it or lose it” mantra, using all the excited-at-the-start adrenaline juice I had to propel me through the early fresh-legged, isn’t-this-an-awesome-race miles. I pushed ahead of the group I’d been running with, sailed through the first couple aid stations, and, feeling happy and strong, I joined another group for the next 15 mile stretch.
Your ankle hurts? Oh honey. You’re in a 50 mile race. You can’t be talkin’ like that! It’s mind over matter. Either you’re here to finish or you shouldn’t be here. (-Brandi)
MILES 10.68 – 30.5 >> WEST OUT-AND-BACK
I felt great. Amazing, in fact. My ankle was bothering me quite a bit, but it wasn’t overwhelming pain. It wasn’t anything I couldn’t simply ignore and move through. And so I did.
The second leg of the IA50, a 10ish mile out and back, weren’t easy by any means, but after the monster elevation profile of WD50k, I was prepared for hell. The Ice Age trails in the first two legs of the race are gorgeous and easily runnable. I took the inclines at an easy walk and padded my way down and around the hilly terrain. We sailed across pine bed floors, crossed some epic ridges overlooking stunning landscapes dotted with lakes, then curved down and across those same lakes to aid station crews waiting for us with cookies, pb&j, and encouraging pats on the back. The weather was absolutely perfect – about 50 degrees and overcast – and the worst weather we faced through mile 30 was some gnarly wind and random spitting rain.
When I met up with Paul and Eli at mile 17 and then again at 30.5, I was making great time. I came into 30 miles at just over 6.5 hours, and other than on-and-off ankle pain and the fact that my stomach was misbehaving, swishing and sloshing around and failing to – *ahem* – excavate, I felt strong and capable. None of the discomfort was unmanageable.
I should insert here how exuberant I was over the simple fact of feeling good at mile 30. By mile 25 of my first 50k I felt broken and wasted, wondering if I’d be able to do anything but crawl across the finish line. When I finished that race, I wondered if it’d ever get easier, or if I just wasn’t cut out for ultras. It was disheartening to say the least. So when I left the 30 mile aid station and took off for the East out & back feeling good, I was truly excited for the last 20 miles.
But I was also ready to start feeling very, very bad.
Skippo: “These trails really are gorgeous…”
Amy: “…I sure wish I could enjoy them.”
Skippo: “You read my mind.”
MILES 30.5 – 47.4 – EAST OUT-AND-BACK >>
Earlier in the race, somewhere along the West out and back, I mentioned to another runner that I thought this portion of the course was pretty easy but that I’d heard bad things about the 30-50 mile leg. “You think the insane climbs will make you grateful for the descents, but that’s just not true,” he said. “The descents are at least as bad as the ascents, and you have to do them all twice – at the END of a 50 mile race.”
I’m glad to have been duly warned because miles 30.5-37ish were a sour taste of pure hell – and that was the FIRST time through. These were true out-and-back legs, so whatever I climbed and descended on the way out I’d have to do again on the way back, and I would inevitably be feeling worse the second time around. For the first time in the race, I faced climbs that were long, straight up and straight down, and incessant. Steep ascents and brutal descents over technical single-track trails strewn with loose rocks and roots that were constantly tripping me up.
As I approached the 37 mile aid station, my knees were feeling it and my running pace had slowed considerably. I was walking a lot more, and each step in a run oozed pain. I put on my mantra, “use it or lose it,” and reminded myself that Paul and Eli were waiting for me at mile 40…so if I could just run 3 more miles, I’d get some food, encouragement, and power for the last ten miles which I was already certain would be the worst miles I’ve ever run.
As the pain-per-step increased, so did my gratitude for those long training runs on tired achy legs. Higher mileage in training couldn’t have served or prepared me better for the last 20 of this 50 miler. As I wound my way down to the 40 mile aid station, I reminded myself over and over again, “It was always going to hurt. The sooner you’re down the hill, the sooner you’ll get a break. So just go.” Onward I went toward the aid station. Once there, I met the promised smiles of my son and husband! I got to sit on a toilet to pee rather than squat in the woods! And, of course, all my muscles sagged and squirreled and begged in unison to JUST STOP NOW. I had to get out and get going before I gave up.
Leaving the 40.3 mile turn around, I armed myself with the hope that in just ten more measly miles I would see their faces again, only this time, it’d be over. I could plop down wherever I wanted and not get up for days. I just had to go ten…more….miles. Even as my legs slowly picked up a little more speed and I shifted my torso ever-so-slightly forward, my spirit dovetailed. It began to hail. Literally. It hailed. And random spots over the next ten miles found me freezing under spitting wet rain and barreling winds while dodging hail beads, or baking under the fiery sun. My body couldn’t get comfortable. I was either really cold or really hot. Every time I stripped my arm sleeves down to my wrists, the rain and wind picked up and howled. As soon as I had them back up, the sun was setting me on fire.
There was no way out but forward. Perpetual forward movement.
Crossing over to the aid station at mile 43, my knees were toast. My left knee was sending shooting pains through my leg, no doubt from absorbing the shock my sprained ankle couldn’t tolerate over the previous miles. I still had the worst ascents and descents ahead of me, so I found myself discussing in my head the best, most efficient way to manage pain and propel myself forward. Downhills were painful no matter what. Walking slowly didn’t help a lick, because the bending action was the source of the shooting pain. Needing to keep my left leg as straight as possible, I quickly learned that a Kindergarten gallop was my best bet.
Galloping worked well for the next three miles or so, at which point my right leg, which had absorbed thousands and thousands of pounds of crazy impact already – impact which had increased exponentially with the galloping – raged in protest. Trying to ignore the pain wasn’t working any more than telling them to just shut up. I couldn’t run through it.
They were done.
One foot in front of the other….we just gotta put one foot in front of the other… (-Skippo)
MILES 47.5 – 49.5 >>
By the time I came into the 47.5 mile aid station, signaling the end of the insane hills I’d scaled twice, I literally couldn’t run anymore. I tried shuffling. I tried scraping my feet. I couldn’t do it. As the other runners I’d been surrounded by fanned out, I was for the first time all day alone on the trail, left to the uninterrupted content of my imagination.
I yelled at myself for having actually paid money for this ridiculous torture.
I told myself, You’ll get this amazing belt buckle when you finish, accompanied by these incredible stories! To which my Self promptly replied, I will throw that thing away – I don’t want to ever remember one second of this God-forsaken day.
I told myself, Jesus endured 12 hours of torture on the Cross for you – you can endure this as an act of worship. In response, my Self kindly reminded me, YOU ARE NOT JESUS.
Finally my inner beast roared (and this may have been out-loud….I can’t be sure), Suck it up wussy. Jesus died for you. Now GO.
And the conversation ended. It became a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other, shuffle-when-you-can, hike-if-you-can’t game of just moving forward.
Wobbling through the final 48.5 aid station at 5:01pm, I was grateful to have a full hour to finish the race. I debated with myself whether to use all the time. To slow down, maybe rest a little. Breathe deeply or something.
In the end, the allure of the Finish Line won. I was determined to cross that finish line as soon as I possibly could given my circumstances, but I just couldn’t run. So I hiked.
Great job persevering! We’re almost home! (-Old Hurting Running Man)
MILES 49.5 – 50 >>
Earlier in the race, around mile 45, I was passed by a runner and his pacer. He was really struggling, and she was just pushing him along. She’d noticed me limping down hills, trying to discern the best and quickest way to move on blown up knees. As I fell behind, she cheered me on – “Come on. Stick with us. Don’t lose us. We’ll do this together.” Before long I passed them and went on ahead.
Throughout the day, as runners passed each other on the trails we’d say, “Way to go!” or “Great job – keep up the good work! Awesome running!” It was standard.
But when this guy came up to pass me in the last half mile, on ragged breath and with an exhausted voice he simply said, “Way to persevere. We’re almost home.”
That was it. I wasn’t finished yet, but his was the prophetic voice I needed. I heard the cheers of the spectators ahead, the music of the live band, and the announcers naming runners as they passed the finish line. And when I came around the final corner, I picked up my feet.
And after 11 hours 28 minutes and 20 seconds, I ran across the finish line with a smile on my face and pure joy in my spirit over what I’d just done.
I immediately made him promise me not to let me run for at least two weeks, and not to let me sign up for any more ultras for at least a year. Two in six months is plenty. When Skippo found me at the finish line, he said, “What a course. What a race. That was painful. So….see you next year!?”
I laughed. Loudly. “No way!”
But of course, today I’m dreaming. Dreaming of running another 50 miler on stronger, healthy legs, injury-free and with a proper training season bolstering me. Of seeing if I can finish strong next time. Of taking on the challenge of simply running for a whole day…but maybe just a little bit less of the day next time. This time, I finished in 11:28:20, 52nd out of 68 women, and 252nd out of 300 runners. Maybe next time….
Maybe I could learn to love these races.
Mostly because there’s nothing cooler to me than getting lost in pain and agony and clawing my way through it. I’ve never had that dogged determination with which some people are born. I’ve always been one to give up pretty easily. I’ve considered pain – whether physical, mental, or emotional – to be my inner person’s way of saying, “Hey stop! Take it easy on me! Who needs a challenge, eh?” And these ultras are teaching me this beautiful truth that suffering, pain, agony, and most importantly endurance – of mind, body, and spirit – are absolutely key to a life well-lived. It really is “for the JOY set before us that we run the race and endure the suffering, scorning it’s shame.”
So here we are. Two years to the day after being released from the hospital, having spent nearly a week in ICU and recovery for post-partum hemorrhaging and an emergency hysterectomy that almost cost my life, and heading home with a baby in my arms and the reality of salvation padding every step I took, I ran a 50 mile trail race. On purpose.
Running 50 miles in under 12 hours is no small feat on its own. But the real celebration is in what it represents. It represents the resurrected Me. It reminds me that this body God has blessed me with doesn’t come cheap, isn’t a “given,” and should be used as a means of worship even when the worship is hard and painful. With this bag of bones and muscle, I can share in His suffering and celebrate the victory inherent not to winning, but to persevering to the end. Because in the end, after every drop of energy is spent and the battle for the last few miles invariably becomes The Whole War… That’s where true salvation lies. That’s where we see with total clarity exactly what lies before us, we embrace its agony…
And we run.