A few weekends ago, I ran my first 50k ultramarathon – The North Face Endurance Challenge at Blue Mountains, Ontario. I had no idea what to expect going into it, beyond knowing that it was going to be a challenge. It turned out to be so much better than I imagined it would be.
Don’t get me wrong. It was hard. It was really fucking hard. But it was also beautiful and exhilarating and wonderful.
The thing that I have always loved about trail running versus road running is the variety. Instead of a regular and consistent gait, using the same muscles over and over, you are using your whole body to push you up hills, to skip over rocks and roots, to run down mountains. While the distance was a serious challenge, it was this variety in effort and landscape that ultimately kept me going. Over the 50k, there were some seriously steep rolling hills, and challenging forest switchbacks, but there were also beautiful expansive grassy meadows with a single, soft track running down the middle; easy, flat forest trails, with young spry trees forming a light-dappled tunnel of green overhead; and long-stretching lake and valley views.
At 26k, I hit a wall, and I was 100% certain that I was not going to finish. I arrived at the aid station thinking that I’d run further than I had, and felt so defeated to learn that I still had double the distance to go. I couldn’t fathom it.
I don’t know what kept me going at that point, but I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, moving forward. My mantras for the next 16k became “run when you can”, and “come on legs”. I hiked up the steeper hills, and every time I was tempted to keep walking, I would kick myself into gear, and repeat these two mantras to myself. I focused on the beauty of my surroundings, and the joy of being outside doing something that I love. I focused on the other runners I know, through friendships or through legend, and carried them with me. I focused on my own strength, and my will to get through this thing that I’d set out to finish.
And then at some point it got easier. I rolled into the 42k aid station feeling light and energized, happy and free. It was the home stretch, and I ran it joyfully. Near the end of the course, there was one very long, very steep downhill. We’d run it once before early on, so I knew what to expect going into it; my knees and quads were screaming at me, but somehow it was easier the second time around knowing it was the last difficult challenge to overcome before a quick straightaway to the end. I’m sure the other runners around me thought that I was crazy, but halfway down, I let out a loud, “FUUUUUUCK THIS HIIIIIIIIIILLLL!!”, then painfully laughed my way to the bottom. I picked up pace, and sprinted in to the finish line. I don’t know that I have ever felt stronger and more sure and proud of myself. When I finished my first marathon, I was surrounded by a huge crew of people that I loved cheering me on, and it was such a struggle to make it to the end. And here I was, pushing myself to the end of this 50k trail race on nothing but my own will, with springy legs and a light heart.
The next day, it was hard to walk, but I couldn’t help but start the Google search for my next ultra, and think about how I can’t wait to do it all over again.