My first 100-mile experience was the Endurance Challenge 100, which started five years ago in Norco, California, a very small city in Riverside County, catering to pedestrians and equestrians. Earlier this year, my fellow running buddy, Scott, asked me if I was interested in running the race, and, per my usual, before I could talk myself out of it, I signed up. The route for the race cut through the heart of Norco and hugged the coast of Southern California. We ran through three counties and 20 cities, day and night, and finished at the beautiful Santa Monica Pier. Prior to starting the race, I did little research on the actual course. What began as laziness has now become a strategy of sorts. I don’t like to do too much research on the actual course, terrain, and elevation of the races that I’m doing, because it helps me not to get in my head too much and freak myself out. Now, this definitely has its drawbacks, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this “strategy” to anyone, but for the most part it works for me.
I’ve never really been too much of a gear person, but the last few years I have definitely upgraded my workout essentials. I used to wear a popular yoga brand all the time, and this brand really opened my eyes to how much good running clothes can impact the workout. But what I grew not to like about this particular brand, is the “brand” itself, and some of the controversial statements from the owner. Thankfully, about a year ago, I was introduced to Under Armour (UA) and I fell in love. I’ll go into my specific gear more in a later blog, but UA is by far my go to athletic gear for anything and everything. Also, I can’t help but love the way UA portrays women in athletics. So for this race, UA was all the clothing gear I needed!
Specifically for ultras, you need to make sure you bring enough clothes. I mean you will be going for a day or more, through climate changes, and sweat, and although I’m pretty minimalistic on my running regimen, I have learned it is good to change out of the sweaty clothes. It will save you from absolute misery. So for this race, I brought my running tights, a rain jacket, my vest, socks and undies. The key here is to consider chafing. Do you want it or not? If not, changing out of wet things is a necessity. Chafing in your favorite girl parts is not a fun experience. My advice? Ultras are not the time to drip dry. Or to prove you can wear the same workout gear five times in a row (which I do…gross!). My personal ultra-running motto: the wetter it is, the worse the chafe. Change it ladies, change it! Also, I LOVE my camelback hydration container. It’s snug, light, and holds enough water to last me for a half a marathon or so. Lastly, my running watch. I just purchased a new one: the Garmin Forerunner 910xt. For the longest time I had the Garmin Men’s Forerunner 10, but I decided to upgrade based on two reasons: (1) the battery life just wasn’t long enough, and (2) it doesn’t tell the running pace mid-run. So I traded up to a much more complicated version of the same thing. I am still working out the kinks on this bad boy, but overall I like it! And, the battery life has lasted me for 20 hours with the GPS running. AHMAZING.
Running ultras are not only fun because of the mental and physical challenges; they are also such a community driven sport. I got my own personal crew: Crew Leader and BFF, Shannon, my friend, Kelly, and my hubby, Jeff. They basically followed me in the car and on foot the entire race, giving me all my favorite snacks and food and forcing me off the ledge. At night, this run required mandatory pacers, so the plan was for them to rotate and pace me during the dark hours. But, mid-drive to Norco, we had a change of plans. My running partner, Maia, notified us that she was rerouted on her flight and was stuck in London. A burst of anxiety swept over me, and I thought, “Holy crap (I censored this for blog J ), I am running this alone.” Fortunately for me, my crew was out of this world amazing. And, they agreed to run with me for some of my daylight hours as well. Phew. So, Jeff (the hubs) and I get to the hotel and I started to get my stuff together, trying to relax as much as possible. The next morning in the hotel lobby, as I’m scarfing down two bagels, I meet this guy, who was attempting the race for his 3rd year straight. He told me that the previous year he made it to mile 78 before calling it quits. I remember thinking at the time, “If I made it 78 miles, I would crawl to the finish” (this turned out to be my inexperience talking, details later).
So after breakfast, we get to the start and we see the runners gearing up. For this race, there were 44 runners completing the 100-miler (24 runners finished the race), and each person is introduced individually. It is a small, intimate gathering that is intense and beautiful as you see runners hearing their name called and weighing in for the first time. After my name was called, and I weighed-in, it was nearly time to start running. Thankfully, Shandies (Shannon) offered to run with me to start off.
As I previously admitted, I do little research on the actual runs, and although this has worked to my advantage in the past, it backfired with the EC100. I was under the impression that this race was a road and trail race. So I wore my usual and favorite Under Armour light weight RC 2 running shoes. These shoes are my favs, and I had already run a few ultras in them, andhundreds of training miles. I don’t adhere to the usual recommendation of the 300-500 mile shoe change because I have been fortunate to be 31 years old and completely injury free. I have not struggled with foot or knee problems in the past, so I can be a bit more liberal with miles on my shoes. The EC100 however, was not the race to rock the old soles. About mile 25, at the first official weigh station, I became aware of a nagging pain in my feet. I was a little nervous, but mostly just ignored it. I popped a few ibuprofen and some salt tablets and ran over to get myself weighed. Then, I scarfed down a hamburger and some cookies. Ultra-run eating is super fun!
As I’m running, I’m sticking to my strategy of running the flats and walking/hiking the up-hill. It works and definitely breaks up the monotony of doing the same motion over and over and over and over again. Along the way, I also see and talk to other ultra runners. Some were attempting this race for their second or third time. Some looked like they were in so much pain, while others looked like this was a walk in the park. Overall, the determination that is so vivid on each person’s face is really inspiring—and it helped me keep moving.
By the time I was halfway, I was becoming increasingly aware that my feet were having problems. It became something that I could no longer ignore. As I’m running into the 50-mile mark with my sweet friend, Kelly, I was hitting a pain low point. The directions on this particular run weren’t overly clear, and we ran about one mile off-course, which doesn’t seem like a lot, but believe me, emotions run so high and wild that it may as well have been 10 miles off-course. I was tired and frustrated. I also saw a few people who were running the 50-miler…and the joy on their faces as they finished. I remember thinking, “UGH, I WANT TO BE DONE TOO!” But, mentally, I knew that 50 was not my finish. I weighed in, put on my nighttime running clothes and took off.
At this point, my crew is alternating running with me. Sometimes we talked, but towards mile 60-70, my talking became limited. I became increasingly aware of the difficulty of the task at hand. My feet were in so much pain that there were times I felt like vomiting. About mile 70, running through the streets of some town I still have no idea the name, I knew I needed a strategy to keep moving. My pain was getting the best of me, and, because my exhaustion was so intense, I couldn’t keep myself from thinking about my feet. So, I drew up a plan. I decided that I was going to replay every Arrested Development episode in my mind. I was pretty convinced that this would last me roughly 2 hours, or at least until the 75-mile marker. After about ten minutes (and I was already done with the entire series), I realized my plan was chock-full of holes. Consequently, I needed a new strategy, but I was coming up empty. Thankfully, my bladder began distracting me. Shannon and I found a gas station to use the restroom. I remember walking in the bathroom and looking in the mirror and thinking, “These people are probably like ‘what the hell is up with this girl?’” I looked rough, like really rough. I was actually taken aback just a bit. Pretty sure I was overkilling the salt pills because my face looked like a basketball and my fingers like huge sausages. Needless to say: it was interesting.
After the 75 mile check point, I had a moment of adrenaline that lasted, oh, about 4 seconds…and I was back to hating life. By now, Jeff was with me and doing all he could to keep me going. Then, thoughts of craziness began to set in. I was so exhausted, and my feet were in so much pain that finishing no longer felt important. I understood how someone throws in the towel being so close to the finish, because even at mile 75 with only 26 miles to go (course was 101 miles), I felt like I was never going to get there. Miles made no sense to me. All I saw was pitch black rolling hills, and my bed felt more and more like the best option. This was the first time all day and night that I began to feel super sleepy. I remember asking Jeff if I could hold his hand and I told him to make sure he goes straight because I’m going to close my eyes and follow behind him. Weirdly, he agreed. At first this seemed like a genius idea. I mean I was really applauding myself on the inside for coming up with it; however, again, my brain was not functioning properly. It’s kind of like when you’ve had a few glasses of wine and everything seems like the best idea in the entire world, and then you wake up the next morning and come to your senses. That’s what was going on with me. So, as I’m holding Jeff’s hand and closing my eyes, I trip. I was becoming a safety hazard. I was like, “Sam, get it together. This was a stupid idea…get serious.” So the napping stopped and the pavement pounding continued.
At about mile 80, I remember thinking that I’m going to quit. I decided it as clear as day; all I needed was a plan to do it. I was really hoping (sounds weird) that a supernatural event would happen which would force me to quit. You know, like alien abduction or a sudden insane object falling from the sky that would stop me dead in my tracks. I actually entertained this idea for awhile, until I realized, “Sam, this is not going to happen. Please stop being weird.” So, sadly, I continued. I told Jeff about my quitting idea. I had convinced myself that this was an amazing decision, so I just had to convince Jeff. Keep in mind, I planned for my weaknesses (check out previous blog on “Planning for Weaknesses” for my strategies), and I told Jeff the night before not to let me quit, no matter what craziness comes out of my mouth. So, of course, he was like, “No, Sam, shut up. You’re not quitting”…and then the whining starts, blah blah blah. I won’t detail it to keep from embarrassing myself too, too much, but yes it happened; it was a low point. Basically, Jeff said, “Sam, if you quit now we would get in the car and drive home, you’ll eat, feel amazing, lay in bed, watch the Family Guy, and be really happy—and then you’ll wake up, and the regret will set in and you’ll be devastated.” After that conversation, I knew he was right, and I knew I needed to do whatever it took to keep moving.
But by now, I was out of ideas and nothing was working. I have never experienced that kind of consistent pain before in my life. My feet felt like someone took sledge hammers and hit the bottoms of them. Granted this has never actually happened to me, but I specifically remember through what could only be described as a waddle, “Oh my gosh. I feel like I’ve had jack hammers hit my feet.” Then BAM! An amazing light bulb went off and I decided to take my shoes off. Again, not realizing I was experiencing really inflated “amazing” ideas, I took the shoes off, and I began walking on the asphalt. I cannot describe the pleasure I experienced. It was seriously unlike anything I have ever felt. Even as I’m writing now, I can still remember it so vividly. The way the gravel felt on the bottom of my feet and was hitting hundreds of pleasure points. It was comparable to this time in high school when I had a super bad case of poison ivy all over my arms and legs. I was so itchy that I could barely stand it. Once, as I was leaving a public bathroom after washing my hands and using the dryer, the pleasure bones were hit. As soon as the heat hit the ivy, my knees buckled and I literally remember my mouth salivating. It felt so amazing. My friend was watching this go down as I’m basically on the counter putting every body part underneath this dryer. It was awkward for everyone. But as the pleasure began to pass just a bit, I became increasingly aware of the consequences of my decision. I saw the ivy bubble up and I was thinking clearly again and quickly falling from my cloud of pleasure. I realized I had made a huge mistake. The foot situation was similar. I walked about a mile without shoes. The pleasure started to leave and I realized the ramifications of my weakness. I could no longer wear my shoes, because my feet had swelled too big. Thankfully, this is where people who love you come in super handy. Jeff gave me his shoes and he wore mine. Even in my exhaustion and pain I remember looking at Jeff in my small running shoes and telling him, “Cool shoes babe. You look really weird in those.” Thankfully, he ignored me.
At this point, I’m in Jeff’s shoes and my feet now hurt even worse, and the quitting thoughts started to cycle back in. I knew I couldn’t quit. I knew the regret I would experience the next day. I knew that, if I quit, it would become easier and easier for me to quit in the future. I knew I did not want to break the quitting seal (that’s my second drinking reference), and I knew that I could do it. I remember repeating, out loud, over and over and over, for what seemed like miles, “I am not going to quit. I am not going to quit. I am not going to quit.” This was the first time I remember feeling tears down my face. Pushing oneself to such extremes is such an intimate experience. I was experiencing a very critical moment, and I was fighting with myself. The quitting part of Sam was working hard, but the determined Sam knew I could do it.
As the sun began to lighten the sky, I thought I would get a second wind, but…I didn’t. It was down to each step. The pain was so distracting that I wasn’t sure how my feet were still moving. At mile 86, Shannon was with me, and I told her that I was emotionally done, and she told me, “Sam, if you’re not dying and it isn’t broken, you’re not going to quit.” I knew she was right, and she knew what I needed to hear.
Around mile 90, Jeff rotated back in and I told him I needed more ibuprofen and salt pills. He told me, though, that I was cut off. I then told him, “I am not cut off and I need the pills!” He was like “Sam, you’ve taken like a million Ibuprofen. If they haven’t worked yet, they’re not going to work. And, you’re starting to look like an oompa-loompa from the salt pills. You’re cut off.” I was pissed and, in my head, called him a TON of names.
A short while later, he told me that my bro-in-law, Teddy, our Uncle Tim, his wife and my friend Kathryn, and our little cousins, Luke and Sarah, were waiting for us at mile 93. I experienced a lot of emotions at this point. Although I only had 8 miles to go, it felt like 50…then I saw our family and I cried a bit. I kept moving with Jeff, and knowing that our family was here to support me gave me extra determination to cross that finish line.
Jeff, I’m sure, was tired of me, but he didn’t show it because he’s a good guy. No doubt, though, he wanted to dump me off somewhere. Thankfully, instead, he showed me a motivational clip on YouTube with his phone. It worked and I kept moving. Afterwards he asked me again what I needed to keep going, and I told him, “Bruce Springsteen.” He told me that Bruce is not coming, and I was pretty pissed about that, but shut my mouth and waddled on. Interestingly, there was a triathlon starting the same route I was doing. I remember looking at all of these fresh-faced athletes, excited about their upcoming challenge and being so annoyed. I WAS GRUMPY. They started running past me and this one guy said, “You can’t be that tired already?!” I was like look buddy I just ran 94 miles, but said nothing. This other guy on a bike passed me and asked, “What run are you doing?” I told him the ultra 100, and he asked, “Did you just start this morning?” I was irritated. I remember telling Jeff about this question and I was like what a dumb question…yeah, sure, I ran 94 miles in 3 hours… sure…use your head! Jeff, quickly replied, “Babe, he may have thought you are just starting.” TRUE. Whoops…low point.
About mile 95 my dear friends Diana and Sarah arrived. They were excited and had a million smiles. I remember looking at Sarah and telling her, I don’t have a smile in me. She and Diana, being the friends that they are, let me be crabby, and kept moving with me. At this point, Kathryn and little Luke joined us. I started feeling a bit better and decided I needed to start running again. So as a group we all started, with an 8:30 pace, my little family and I began running through Venice Beach. I started feeling good. We were making progress and we were running! 97 miles down, I pulled over and took my shoes off. Luckily, Sarah and Diana are both massage therapists, and they started massaging my feet. It almost sent me to another world. I had to tell myself again to get it together; I still have 3 miles left. We start running again, and, there in the distance, I see the finish banner. It was small butamazing! After 28 hours of movement with about 12 minutes of rest, I CROSSED the finish line! As I did, I saw so many people that I love waiting for me. It was the moment of my life. I was overwhelmed with emotions as I hugged my crew, family, friends, and hubs. I was grateful, thankful, and filled with pure relief.
We left a few hours later. I laid in the backseat of our car and smiled. Generally speaking, I don’t like to dwell on moments of personal accomplishments too much. I think it’s because it keeps me motivated to keep doing more. But this time was different. For the first time, maybe ever, I remember lying down, tears of happiness running down my face, and telling myself, “Sam I’m proud of the woman you have become.” Guts like a girl.