“Can I give just a little bit more?”
The Ultra Decision:
“But I don’t want to get lost, get eaten or get injured.”
This past January I was between marathon training seasons and starting to wonder what would be next. Do I want to run another Spring marathon? Do I want to try and PR (your personal record) in a Spring marathon? Or maybe take a break and focus on a PR for the Brooklyn Half in May?
I was feeling burnt out on training for speed. I had just come off running my 4th NYC Marathon in November and a long year of marathon training: a total of 3 marathons for 2016 (Newport Beach, CA in May and The Hamptons Marathon in October). Running the Hamptons Marathon and then the NYC Marathon just four weeks later was a big indicator to me of what I am capable of achieving as a runner. Both marathons I finished in my typical finish time range (4:30 – 4:40). I recovered fast from the Hamptons and rolled into the NYC Marathon ready for a fun block party.
My husband, who is also a runner and triathlete asked me what do I want to do next? I told him I just wasn’t sure. I love long distance running but I am tired of the same old speed workouts. I already had 9 marathons under my belt since 2012. Basically, I am always training for a marathon – in the Spring or in the Fall. Despite trying my best, all my finish times for every marathon tend to be in the same range anyway. What goal did I want to set for myself in 2017? He was flipping through a copy of Runner’s World magazine. There was an article featuring Ultra runners. He turns to me and says, “You know you could do this. You could run an Ultra. You are so good at running long distance and pacing yourself. You alway finish marathons feeling like you could keep going. Why not do an ultra?”
Yeah, why not? Oh I know why. I don’t like running rocky, lumpy trails where you can get lost, get eaten or get injured. If only there was an Ultra run where it was on asphalt and streets. Maybe I would do it. So he got my wheels turning and I started researching Ultra race options.
Any race distance beyond 26.2 miles (a marathon distance) is considered an Ultra distance. The first step up into the world of Ultra Running is a 50k distance (31 miles). I knew I could go 5 miles more. Who can’t run 5 miles more?
Next up was to figure out which Ultra 50k would fit my style of city running. I had recently visited Niagara Falls in Canada for the first time and fell in love with everything about the area. My runs along the river were spectacular and I knew they had a marathon in the Fall. I was looking for a Spring/early summer race. I figured there must be a local running club that has small town races in the area. Sure enough, I discovered Saint Catharine’s Running Club who organize the Niagara Ultra in mid-June (my race was 6/17/17… lucky numbers in my book). The race includes a 10k, Half Marathon, Marathon, 50k and on alternate years a 100k. This looked like a perfect fit for me!
The course starts at Niagara-on-the-Lake and has you run the asphalt roads and gravel paths along the river for 15 miles out to the Falls where you turn around and run back. Scenic, not too hilly, and most important: I would not be lost, eaten or injured along the course. I shared it with my running club friends (Sunrise Girls Running Club) and my friend Nicole jumped at the opportunity with as much excitement as I did.
“We’re gonna run a marathon distance in our neighborhood, just for training. An unofficial marathon.”
Ultra training was wonderful. It was like a recharge to my entire power system. It was everything I needed to get my running mojo back. I created a plan based on several Ultra coaching websites and my own experiences after almost 10 marathons. The biggest difference from marathon training is that we did not do speedwork. Everything had to slow down. The focus was to be on our feet, not about pace. We would constantly have to slow ourselves down and settle into an 11 – 11:20 pace. It was a lovely, conversational place to be running for 4-5 hours. And although a chunk of our training took place in the NYC winter months in the wee hours of sunrise, the running Gods were on our side and we were able to do almost all our runs outside although there were a few 16 miles we had to endure on the treadmill.
We are part of a crew of women who run before sunrise (The Sunrise Girls Running Club) so the only major change to our routine was that we had to start earlier than our usual 5am start. Many times we were meeting at 4:30am or 4:45am. For those perplexed that humans function at this hour… yes, I wake-up at 4am. Sometimes even 3:50am. On weekends we would run back to back long runs: Saturdays would be 20 – 26 miles and then the next day we would run 8 – 10 miles (depending on the week in the plan). It was thrilling and empowering to plan to run a marathon distance in our neighborhood, just for training. An unofficial marathon. We actually ended up squeezing an extra mile and made it 27 just to prove to ourselves that we can give just a little bit more.
In Ultra running you walk the hills with intent. This just means you pump your arms and keep your legs moving quickly but not in a jogging movement. However in all our training we always ran the hills in order to maintain our strength and form. We also cross-trained 2-3x a week with strength training, core and HIIT workouts at our local YMCA gym.
I had my training board pinned with my 20-week ultra plan that I customized for myself off several various Ultra training web sites. I loved seeing all the check marks and my notations next to every goal I set throughout the 20 week plan- from the short runs to the super long runs and the cross-training in between. The philosophy behind my Career, Executive & Personal Development Coaching company is inspired by my running:
1) Celebrate the little victories. 2) Find the joy in the journey. 3) See it. Believe it. Be it.
By the time we got to the start line of the Ultra, I felt we had run the least amount we needed on our legs in order to be fully trained and ready to rock. In other words, we were not overtrained, tired or wiped out from doing too much. We did just enough, with plenty of fuel in our tank.
The Pre Race Experience: “Damn this is far.”
The morning of the Niagara Ultra we grabbed a taxi outside our hotel near the Falls. The taxi drove along the Niagara Parkway which would be our race course. As we got close to the start line we both had a similar thought, “Damn this is far.” Yet we knew we had only driven about 13 miles. Why did it feel like a long distance? I shook the thought from my mind. I reminded myself how it feels at the start of the NYC Marathon, at the very start on top of the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island, looking way out across the Hudson towards the skyline and knowing you would run 26.2 miles to get to the finish line in Central Park.
I can do this. I have done this. No big deal. I have run 26.2 miles 9x times now in marathons. And I ran 24 and 27 miles in training for this run. I reassured myself I would come alive along the distance. Just like I always do. Oh, but we are driving such a long time!
Our cab driver clearly took advantage of two out-of-town runners who were geared up for a race and told us it would cost $40 in American or Canadian dollars. Alrighty then. We intentionally didn’t bother to haggle.
Along the ride to the start line, we were passing a pretty wooded, park area. Nicole saw a coyote on the side of the road and let out a loud “Oh my GOD that was a big animal and it wasn’t a dog or a fox!” We both looked at each other, didn’t speak and had the same thought, What are we about to do? Or rather… where the hell are we about to run in this Ultra course? Were we mistaken with thinking this was a mostly-asphalt course and not a deep in the woods trail run?
Just as we were both questioning our sanity and what this course was actually going to be like, our taxi began driving down a very long, steep, winding hill. This part of the road also seemed to never end and our thoughts of “What the hell are we about to do? never quit either.
“Excuse me sir. Is this the only way to get to our destination?” We knew the answer. “Yes there is only one road to get to Niagara on the Lake. This is it.” Nicole and I began cracking up with laughter. What else could we do? Give up? Complain? Groan? What would have been the point? We had to face it. There was no turning back. I took one of many deep breathes I would take for the day and told myself I would get it done and love every second of it. That was all there was to it.
We pull up to the Race Start Line and see a few runners collecting their backpacks from their cars or stretching on the grass. To me they all looked like real Ultra runners. They were geared up with backpacks, running belts, compression socks, headbands and scruffy beards in the fashion of Forest Gump. They all seemed to have this Ultra look about them. These folks were not high-energy, bouncing, jumping, sprinting to warm-up for their kill to a PR race time. They were chill. Reserved. Quiet. I felt like an outsider. And then I adjusted my own mini-backpack, and organized my fuel of salt tablets, Gu’s and protein bars in my pockets and I realized that I probably looked like an Ultra runner too! I felt calm, peaceful and strong— mentally and physically. I did some easy stretches and then stayed in this mental ‘chill zone’. I was conserving my energy because I knew I would be exerting myself for 6 plus hours.
Since the Niagara Ultra is a small town race, the ‘Race Expo’ was in a community center hall. The Hall reminded me of the church in the TV series Little House on the Prairie. There was no Ultra race expo happening in this tiny Hall. No vendors selling running swag or giving out free merch. We got our bibs from a single line and then got our sweatshirts from another man who was pulling them from the box. The Niagara Ultra organizers actually state in their race info that they distribute hooded sweatshirts rather than T-shirts because there is something twisted about giving out sweatshirts in June and we like that. Ok – that pretty much sums up the Ultra crazy mindset. I liked it too.
I asked the woman who gave us our bibs if we could pick-up our shirts after the race and she said no because they will be all gone. “But you can just leave them in a corner somewhere here. No one will take it.” So it’s the honor system. Nice. We hung our shirts on a hanger, put a garbage bag over them (I came prepared with a plastic garbage bag in case I needed insulation from wind or rain pre-race) and hung the bag on a rack along the wall.
We got ourselves pinned with our bibs and put the old-fashioned chip tracker on our shoe lace. Nicole and I chatted with a few guys around us who were also attaching their bibs. One guy was from NYC and this was his first Ultra. The other guy looked like a lean Grizzly Adams. We sized him up to be a force to be reckoned with. Turns out he was one of the top finishers of the 50k!
Looking around, I realized that any of these runners could become part-time running partners with me along the distance of the course. Unlike most races or marathons that I have run, where you get lost in a sea of runners, never to cross paths again except for the odd chance if you’re in the same pace range; with only 195x runners participating in the 50k, I knew I would be recognizing many of these faces along the course.
There were plenty of port-o-potties and we took care of business before heading to the grassy area of the start line to relax. Yes, relax. Everyone seemed to be relaxing. I don’t recall seeing anyone doing major runner stretches or the jittery muscle pre-race bounce. There was a friendly atmosphere of longstanding camaraderie.
We saw the inflatable START area and whipped out our phones to take selfies and pictures. I have seen many START lines since I began running races in 2011. This one gave me butterflies because I knew it was going to be a first for me. I felt very prepared. 100% ready. I just had no idea what was going to happen once I crossed the start line other than the fact that I would have to run for the longest amount of time I have ever run in my life. I didn’t bother to look at the flip-side of the sign to read FINISH. I only wanted to see that sign when I was about to hit 31 miles.
All of a sudden Nicole says, “We have incoming!” And her radiantly warm Canadian cousin, Adriana, comes running towards us with her hands waving. Turns out that Adriana’s mother lives just on the other side of the park where we were stationed. It was a very happy and loving reunion between Nicole and her dear cousin.
The Race Director begins prepping and corralling (more like huddling) the pack of runners. Where do we position ourselves? We knew better than to go up to the very front. At the same time, I didn’t want to be dead last because my one goal was to not finish last.
The race director – Henri – gave directions about how to run the course. “This is an out and back race. You will turn-around just past the Falls and there you will find your drop-bags. Remember you do not have the right of way on streets so you will have to stop to let cars pass.” This is all normal, small-town race commentary. Then he says, “We have put yellow duct tape on the paths to help you follow the course.” HUH? Duct tape? I had this vision of a long line of duct tape running along the sidewalk and streets, like the line they run for the NYC marathon. One more crazy thing to add to the growing list of surprises.
Before Nicole and I had time to chuckle at the duct-tape commentary, the director shouted with a Canadian accent “Let’s Goooooo!” and within seconds we were over the Start line. There was no singing the National anthem or other pomp and circumstance. Everyone was ready to dig into their long run.
“Follow the yellow duct tape”; “Cubes for your Boobs!” & “Good Vibrations”
Never judge a run in the beginning. It always takes a good 3-6 miles to feel settled into a long distance race. We started running our easy, slow pace. This is not race-pace time. This is Ultra-time. Our goal pace was between 11:00 – 11:20 minutes per mile. Everyone was just easing into their groove. No one went flying around us or pushing alongside us like they do in the marathon or other road races. Instead there were packs of runners starting to bunch up based on their pace and then very gradually spread out. The folks looking to win or place for their age group were probably way ahead of where I was running too.
In the beginning of the race, I had a bottle of water I was holding like a silly security blanket because my survival instincts were in full-effect (after seeing that big animal in the woods as we drove to the start line) and I was fearful that I would get so hot that the water in my backpack would not suffice. I didn’t trust the aide stations would be competent. Boy was I wrong!
About a mile into the run I hear a man coming up behind me making a flop-flop noise with his feet. As he gets in front of me, I see he is wearing flip flops. They looked like the cheap rubber kind that you slip on between your big toe. I have seen all kinds of runners in funny, weird costumes and get-ups: barefoot, gladiator shoes, wearing tighty-whities, thongs, super-hero costumes or cross-dressing. This man was steadily flopping along in what looked like a pair of drugstore flip-flops. We stayed near each other for a little bit. Sometimes he was in front, sometimes he fell behind. He was amazingly strong and steady with his gait.
At one point I hear a woman comment from behind me, “Wow, you are hardcore! Guess you don’t have to worry about black toenails!” Well, that gave me, Nicole and the others around us such a laugh. It felt good to laugh. It took our minds off the pressure of what we were about to endure and calmed our nerves.
We come to our 1st aide stop and it was… charming? I don’t know how else to describe it. There was a woman cutting the packaging for chomps and lining them neatly in a dish. They had other snacks too but at this early in the race we just wanted some water, maybe a chomp. The chomp flavor was perfect: salted watermelon. These race organizers know what a runner needs! Extra salt. We were the only runners at the aide station now that everyone had spread out. We told them we were from NYC and a friendly male volunteer whips out his camera and says he wanted to take a picture of the girls from NYC. So of course we struck our tag-team pose.
A little later on we run into a guy and his girlfriend along the course. He was a seasoned Ultra runner. Has run 100mile races and averages 75 to 100 miles a week! We asked him for his advice. It was the best advice he gave: ultra running is an entirely different world from marathon racing. Never run a hill. Ultras always walk hills with intention. His girlfriend was chugging along and while she looks to be very fit she did not look like a seasoned runner, let alone an ultra runner. Turns out she only ran a half marathon and seemed to wake-up one morning and be convinced by her boyfriend to run a 50k.
This friendly couple were guiding a blind runner. We realized this because suddenly she shouted “Tree!” with a second to spare and he moved to the side. I don’t think he was 100% blind because he didn’t have a leash guide. Hours later he broke away from them and eventually we caught up to him around mile 18. As we gradually past him on a bridge along the Niagara river where there is a power plant on the Canadian and US sides, he said to me, “Isn’t it gorgeous here?” It truly was spectacular, every section of the course was gorgeous.
At the 2nd aide station there was an amazing buffet of candies, cookies, chips, Coke, Nuun hydration water, water and my fave- ginger ale! Being the Italian-American girl that I am, my instinct was to try everything and stock-up. Not that I needed anything. But it was there so I should just load up, as though I was at a wedding in Brooklyn’s Le Grand Prospect Hall during the Venetian hour of desserts. I just stood there staring at the assortment of drinks in tiny cups and exclaimed: I feel like I should be doing shots! Nicole almost spit out her chomp at the volunteer.
Around mile 7 – 8 we hit our first whopper of a never-ending hill in a wooded park. We were ready to charge up it. This is how we trained all season. Run a hill. We remembered our ultra running buddy’s advice. Walk with intention on the hills! But did he mean this hill? Or something else? Then we saw the folks up ahead slow down to a walk. Ok, we are walking. That was an odd sensation to stop running and walk. I never do that in races unless I’m at an aide station. I had to give myself permission to walk. The hill was a mile and a half long and just kept winding and going up, on a very steep slope. I was happy not to run it. I pushed out of my mind what it meant on my finish time. Must conserve my energy.
After the big climb, we picked up running again and passed the School of Horticulture, Botanic Gardens, Golf Course, vineyards, a vineyard with the sign “Ice Wine Slushies” that sounded so delicious, and spectacular mansions. At one point we were alone and didn’t know which way the course went. And then we saw it: a small strip of yellow duct tape. There it was, looking completely out of place. So off we went in the direction of the tape.
There were no mile markers so I used my watch to keep track. We come to the 3rd aide station and again the volunteers were amazingly warm and friendly. Very attentive to our running needs. A young girl was spraying runners, unsolicited, with her water bottle. She just started spritzing me the entire time I was in the station drinking and chewing. It felt amazing as the sun was getting strong.
I love running a new course because the adventure of discovery is an awesome distraction from having to always pilot your body through the run. We passed a heliport where tourists can get rides to the Falls (I did that the next day!), a zip line jungle gym that took you to the edge of the cliff leading down to the rapids, and a beautiful bridge for a water power station. There was a section on the road where helicopters continually passed overhead and the noise was like a drum-roll leading to our next destination… the decent down the road towards the main tourist area and the Falls.
At this point we start to see the lead Ultra runner’s coming back towards us. We were confused because doing the math it meant they were running a pace of around a 7 or 8 minute mile. Very impressive for a 50k!
By now it was hot and humid. There was a lot of shade and sometimes pleasant breezes but then the sun would burn bright on our shoulders. We get to aide station 4 at mile 12 and a wonderful woman is pouring water on our heads and another is shouting the greatest phrase I have ever head in all my years of running marathons and races
“Come get your cubes for boobs!!”
“CUBES FOR YOUR BOOBS!”
Well I don’t mind if a do. Never did this before. She said to take a handful and shove them down my shirt. I took a handful of the ice cubes and dropped them down my running bra. I immediately felt the relief of being cooled down. So I took some more cubes for my boobs. And then I put ice in my hat and off we went towards the Falls.
We get to mile 13 and are in the center of Niagara for the tourist sites. There are no race marshals or fans cheering. We just had to zig-zag around tourists who had not a clue what we were doing there. A few noticed we had race bibs on and stopped to stare in confusion. We just kept trotting along. Other 50k runners were coming back and we all high-five’d or encouraged each other in a nod of Ultra camaraderie.
Around mile 14 – 15 I saw my family waiting along the promenade to the Falls; my 11year old twin daughters, my sister, her husband and son. They were all cheering as they saw us coming towards them. It was a funny sight because again, it was just another tourist day except for a scattering of ultra runners. My little nephew (4yo) asked what took me so long. “Auntie can’t run that fast. I have to run a very long distance.” I guess he couldn’t stand waiting to see his Auntie. Seeing everyone was the best boost to our spirit.
We get to the Falls at Table Rock and a volunteer points to a cone on the ground and says, “Make sure you go around this cone and then you can stop on the grass patch over there for your drop-bag.” This is the most visited part of the Falls, lots of tourists taking photos. And then there were us Ultra runners, some on the grass stretching, other’s mini-picnicking from their drop-bags or changing their socks. No one around us gave a damn or cared what we were doing. Obviously the Falls were more interesting to them. But we all felt like super rockstars and it didn’t matter what kind of attention we received.
We stopped at our Bag Drop area and picnicked with coconut water and a Powerade bar. We met a bunch of female Ultras who whipped out a cooler with watermelon, pepperoni and turkey sausage. They were very friendly and offered us everything. The watermelon was refreshing.
A young girl from their group said she was going to head out and not wait for them since she felt good. They waved her goodbye. I remember wondering if she was rushing and not taking care to pace and fuel herself. Or perhaps she was feeling good and didn’t want to lose momentum? (We passed her a few hours later).
Heading back on the course we hit a pretty big hill just after the center of the tourist sites. Everyone was walking up the hill so we did too. Now we were starting to feel the distance and the time on our legs and a slight taste of the end coming since we were more than halfway there. So we ran up the second half of the hill while others were slugging it up in a walk. We were feeling strong and recharged. As we were running up the second half of the hill we caught back up to our couple friends who lost their “blind” runner (he broke away) and they were walking. He reminded us they were walking cause ultra runner’s don’t run hills. This time we ignored his hidden warning. We pushed on. Plenty was in our bank of reserves. Besides, we train in Staten Island where our favorite course is loaded with big hills.
We chatted with a few ultra runners who all made the jump to ultra running after many marathons and the common thought we all shared– I wonder what it’s like to do a little bit more?
At one point we passed a runner on a stretcher with a neck brace and a bloody nose. It looked like she had an accident with a biker. The volunteers were amazing at tending to her comfort.
Around mile 20 we were starting to pass runner’s. There were only 190 ultra runners so we had been very spread out throughout the course and yet now we were closing in. A couple of times we passed runners who were on the floor sprawled in odd poses (half a stretch and half a badly cramped pose) and we thought they were in distress. When we asked if they needed anything they perked up, “No, all good. Just stretching.” I guess ultra runner’s die a few times along the course and then bounce back from a dose of mental toughness?
Once again we came to our Cubes for Boobs lady. This time I took a massive chunk and shoved it in my bra. The ice jangling like change in a pocket. I did not care. I needed to survive the heat.
We are about ten miles to go. As I always do with all my races, I broke it down into bite-sized chunks. Just 2 sunrise loops to go. A sunrise loop is the my daily course during the week with my Sunrise Girls Running Club. It’s 5.25 miles each loop. We knew it was game on from this point forward.
It was hot and sunny. Lots of open areas without shade. We had to dig in. Be a robot, as my triathlete husband always recommends. Autopilot on. Just keep moving. My body felt strong. No cramps or hints of cramps. Just felt waves of heat and then I would shut it out of my mind.
Then we hit a big downhill for over a mile, in the shade. Our legs loosened up as we enjoyed the downhill. We almost got lost as we came out of the hill but then we found the lonely piece of duct tape. Runners were spread out wide and we didn’t have anyone to look ahead towards. Just that little piece of duct tape indicating we were heading towards the finish line.
Around mile 22-23 Nicole started to feel the mental load. I gave her a pep talk and reminded her that this is everything we trained for. Now is when it all kicks into gear. All those months of 4am runs, cross training, clean eating. All for now! Everything we invested in our running bank, it’s time to take a withdrawal and go big! Can’t throw away all that handwork just cause right now, when it really counts, we feel a little sluggish. This is our ultra and we are going to finish it strong. She stepped up her pace and fell into a healthy rhythm with me.
We came to mile 24 and decided to put on our music for an added boost. Turning on music this late in the game gave us a sugar rush and a bounce in our step. I cranked up my AC/DC “Highway to Hell” and “Thunderstruck”. And then I got down with a mix of RuPaul dance tracks, Hamilton soundtrack, Kendrick Lamar, Lisa Lisa & The Cult Jam, Katy Perry “Swish Swish”, Black Sheep “Choice is Yours” and Marky Mark & The Funky Bunch “Good Vibrations”. The last song was on repeat the entire final 2 miles. It became my theme song.
At mile 25 we did a quick stop at the aide station. The volunteer was so thoughtful and offered to unscrew and fill my water bottle. This sounds silly to a non-runner but when you have been running for as long as we were, our hands don’t have normal dexterity. It was a welcome service.
We had a strong groove in our step and as another small hill approached and others were walking, Nicole said, “No, let’s just take this puppy home all the way!” Alrighty, let’s go! Just as I pepped talk Nicole earlier, she pepped me with that one simple sentence. Thank God we had each other to motivate when we each needed it most.
At mile 27 I saw my sister and my daughters. They went driving by honking and shouting and then caught us along the course. My sister even had my husband (who was home working) on Facetime via her phone so I could say a quick hello.
We are down to just 4 miles to go. Two loops of Clove Lakes Park on Staten Island. No biggie. It’s a tempo run! Our energy was picking up with each half mile. We hit a quaint town with an old stone church. It was quiet and lonely. We saw one other ultra runner and no one else. Our pace was strong and steady.
I got a huge surge and started ticking off runner’s who were walking or trotting. I felt my legs go high and arms were pumping. Nicole was with me and then a little behind me. We dug deep. It felt like when you come off Fifth Avenue in the NYC Marathon with about 3 miles to the finish line. I did not wanna give in to the walk. I paced myself to finish strong. Most of these runner’s probably went too fast in the beginning, lost their steam and now we are ticking them off.
We were holding a 10:15 minute per mile pace and volunteers who were ultra runners commented how great we looked for a 50k. That’s when I realized I was meant for ultra running. And that I might have found my hidden talent as a midlife athlete.
I turned on “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Good Vibrations” and found a third gear. I started singing out loud. It helped to control my labored breathing. I also felt really joyful and in a runner’s high — ultra high? — and singing felt silly and good to me. Something in my brain flips over to a very happy place whenever I cross over to 20 miles. I was passing a few runners who were walking or limping and I just kept my pace while singing. I knew I wasn’t going to enter into that dead-mans walk territory. I conserved my energy for the last 5 miles and tapped into my gritty mental toughness so I could finish strong.
It was open fields and sunny but I didn’t let it stop me or slow me down. I was breathing heavy but told myself today is a good day for a suicide pace. This is what you trained to do. Go do it! Nicole was not too far behind me and then at a certain point I must have stepped up faster than I realized because I did not see her when I turned around. I kept pushing myself forward. There were no crowds but I just knew I was close to the end.
The Ultra Finish Line: “Smile Across The Finish!”
And then I saw the finish line. I ran on the grass and had to watch my footing for dips and holes but I was still able to step it up. I saw my sister Jill and my daughters standing at the finish line! My heart was bursting with joy. I was so happy. I was running past spectators sitting along the grass as I ran the final stretch to the finish line. I heard the girls shouting – “Come on Mommy!” and then the announcer shouted “Here come’s Mommy! Smile Across The Finish, Mommy!” Hearing those words… the words that are my personal and professional mantra. The name of my coaching business (www.smileacrossthefinish.com), the foundation of my coaching philosophy, that is when I started to lose control of my breathing and feel a surge of pride and happiness burst through my eyes in tears.
I charged across the finish line, hugged my family and then realized I could not breath. Someone gave me a medal (oddly it was of a tree and NOT the Falls. As odd as giving a hoodie instead of a t-shirt for a June race). I needed to find water to cool down and catch my breath.
My sister was filming me come through the finish line chute. But in the excitement and cheering, she misfired and forgot to hit record. The race photographer caught the moment I came in and she realized she missed the entire thing on video. Oh well. I will never forget the visual in my mind!
A few minutes later Nicole came charging for her finish line. We all started cheering. She kept raising her arms, or attempting to raise them high, in a victory pose. Afterwards she said she felt so bloated that even her arms were too heavy to lift over her head. No matter the bloat. She did it. We did it.
What did Nicole go for after she finished? Her coconut water and a vape. I went for water, a few sips of a beer and for the next 20 minutes felt as though I was sucking air through a straw. I sat against a tree in the shade while my daughters hung nearby and waited for my breathing to calm down. When I took off my hat, the ice cubes I had shoved underneath about 45 minutes earlier were stuck to the crown of my head!
Everyone was lying on the grass— some half dead and others just chilling drinking beer. It’s a crazy scene to look at ultra runners. They all push themselves to the brink of death, and bounce back again for more. Their bodies cramping, crumbling, sprawled on the ground and yet their spirits, their minds are in overdrive and they still manage to will their bodies to keep. on. moving.
My magic ingredient to make what seems impossible, possible
My 50k Ultra Finish by the numbers: 31miles in 6:30 (my watch had auto-pause and put me at 6 hours). Ranked 13 for my age range. 3500 calories burned.
It is damn hard work to push yourself to do more, to get comfy with being uncomfortable, to build your mental toughness and a deep reserve of resilience, to MAKE the time to follow your plan and hit your goals, to be consistent and disciplined, to hold yourself accountable to each milestone, whether it’s to run 4 miles, or do cross training with weights, to always be mindful of your nutrition and how you fuel your body (especially when you’re well into your 40s and things don’t bounce back like they once did), and to make sure you get enough sleep! And if you have a family and a job, I know it seems so hard to do. But it is NOT impossible by any means. It’s a choice you make, and you start with one foot actually in front of the other. For me the magic ingredient is waking up at 4am and meeting my Sunrise Girls Running Club for our runs, before my kids are up and my day begins. I type all this because I hope it can inspire some of my friends to realize that they too can hit their health goals despite it seeming impossible.
The Niagara Ultra 50k was the best experience we ever ran and we plan to return again next year. Now I have my eye on what’s a little bit more? Maybe a 50 miler? I know I can do it. Just have to set the plan and go for it.