I ran my first trail ultra marathon in 2008, after only running for a little more than a year and never running a race or a practice run longer than a 10k. But, that didn’t stop me from entering in, and even running the Laurel Highlands 50k trail race in June of 2008. The race was phenomenal and it showed me a side of my being that I had never experienced….this side that was seeking something, I don’t know what, but some force was driving me to finish. I went out in the first 12 miles with the leader (a nice fellow from Utah) and another runner (from Taiwan) that finished second. At mile twelve, securely in third place and hitting my first aid station, I learned one of the great lessons about ultra running; you must pay attention to your body and feed it. Two miles out of that aid station my legs turned into stones, I cramped like I had never cramped before, and nothing was going to fix it. Other runners were nice enough, as they started passing me, to offer a variety of electrolyte products, all of which I was sure I didn’t need, but none of them helped. As I struggled through the last two-thirds of the race, a major storm hit and there I was in agonizing pain. In the middle of no-where, nothing with me except a hand-held water bottle, not even a shirt on…I was finished, lost, desolate.
This was where I saw a glimpse of what it was I was seeking. I still can’t explain what it was that I experienced, but other ultra runners understand. You get those quick views into your soul, and you get to see the very core of what drives you. Somehow, I made it to the finish in 6:23 and had completed my first trail ultra marathon…this is when the journey started.
I wasn’t always a runner, in fact, I was one of those guys who looked at runners like they were crazy, at least the long distance runners. I ran track in high school, but kept my distance to 200 meters or less. My senior year of high school, a lot of hard work spent on the sprints paid off with a championship state victory for my medley relay team where I ran the second 200 meter leg, and a second place finish in the pole vault. In the US military during my young(er) adult years, I had to run as far as 3 miles, which I became moderately proficient at. At the age of 19, I would hope that I was in good enough shape to run three miles in a reasonable time, which I did clocking 18 minutes even. Once I was done with the military, however, I was done with running. Don’t get me wrong, I loved to be outside and enjoyed hiking through the mountains of western Pennsylvania, but no running for me.
Jump ahead to ten years later. Now having a family, a bachelors degree, a masters degree, starting work on a doctoral degree and teaching at a local university and I was turning 32 years old. In fact, the day of my birthday, March 21 of 2007, I had one of those moments. It’s been described many times by many other athletes, that moment where you look at yourself in the mirror and think to yourself, I’m only in my early thirties, and I look like this? Is this what I am happy with? Is this how I want to exist for the rest of my life? My answer was a resounding no, so I decided to put on some running shoes, some junky old ASICS that had seen many a yard-mowing, and headed down to the local walking track to “get some health in my life.” The run was painful, I remember it well. It was one mile and took me about 20 minutes to complete. My face was beat read I was soaked in sweat and it was only about 35 degrees outside.
Once I caught my breath from the run and got past the remarkable thoughts filling my head telling me that this was a dumb idea and I was in fine shape, I didn’t need to put myself through that kind of pain again. Once that was all gone, I decided I would try to make myself stick to this running thing. I made it a game by keeping a log of every run which I still maintain. The early months of my running were maxing out at about 12 miles…for the entire month, and I thought that was great. Then I started reading about this sport called ultra running. I went through the rest of 2007 just trying to break the 8 mile mark on my runs successfully, but the full time was becoming infatuated with these people that could run 100’s of miles and more. The seed was planted.
I knew that this was what I wanted to do, but I also knew that I had a lot to learn about this sport…so that was my goal in 2008, which I admittedly didn’t do a very good job with. I ran one other ultra late in the year. I decided, in a very last minute manner (5 days prior to the event), to run in the Tussey Mountainback 50-mile ultra. This was not really one of my best choices, but it was fueled by personal strife and the need to feel like I was doing something with my life. So, with no training (literally, I ran 5 miles a night for the 4 days prior to the event), I toed the line for the USATF 50-mile nationals. Much to my surprise, I finished the race in under 9 hours.
So here I am, young, eager, wanting to learn more, wanting to run more, wanting to help others understand this amazing sport as I try to understand it. A sport where, more than any other, the human nature is tested, pushed to its ultimate limit. We all run for a reason, but many of us run for the same reason… we are seekers.
What is it that you seek?