A Journey to Ultra Running
In recent years, I’ve discovered I have an allure to humbling myself. I tend to put myself in a variety of situations which push me into unknown territories. Through these situations I have learned where my limits begin, and I have grown curious about how far they can be pushed, too.
I often wonder, what is this fatal attraction I have for seeking out and pushing past my limitations? Why do I and so many others tempt fate as we dance on our absolute edge? Is it the desire to prove to ourselves that we can do it? Is it the process leading up to the objective? Or is it the aspiration to do it ‘bigger and better’ than the first go, seeking new levels of satisfaction? I want to know what pushes us beyond our breaking points and why we go back for more, time and time again.
For the past five years, rock climbing has been my main form of recreation, my dominant tool for getting out into the wilderness and away from most of society. Climbing, for me, isn’t just about the escape or trying to reach the tallest, most technical peak. It’s more about the relationships formed between myself, my partner, and the mountains. Climbing is a shared experience, a way of connection intermixed with solitude.
On the other hand, trail running is something I can do with or without friends. All I really need is a pair of trail shoes and I can take off on a moment’s notice. Over time, I have found that running is a safe space for me. I can deal with my stresses and anxieties from school, work, and my personal life. It’s the only form of recreation in which I have found internal silence.
The Seed was Planted
Running an ultra-marathon wasn’t exactly on my bucket list. When I made the decision that yes, I would in fact run 50 miles, I had never run further than 10, and I had a broken record in terms of running consistently. So why did I think it would be a good idea to spend the next year of my life training to run 50 miles? Why not just strive for a marathon?
July 2017, I went on my first expedition into the Brooks Range with two friends from Homer, Alaska. During our trek through the arctic bush, I often fell behind and would become frustrated by the fact that I wasn’t as fast or as strong as the boys I was hiking with. To keep my confidence up and feet moving forward I developed a mantra for myself, “I am strong, and I am capable of anything I put my mind to.”
On this trip a sense of camaraderie developed between the boys and me. It felt as if we would have many future adventures together, so when one of them proposed we run the Squamish 50-mile race next year, it was easy to say yes. I mean, if I was able to bush whack for three days wearing a pack that weighed more than half my body weight, then I could probably handle running 50 miles, right? As a bonus, the race was being hosted in a town that I hold dear to my heart, Squamish, British Colombia. So, of course I would do the race. I didn’t stop to consider the amount of work it would take to train from base zero to base ultra.
Sadly, several months after we got back from the Arctic, I had a falling out with one of them, and our race dream dissolved. At this point I had already made up my mind — I would run the race no matter what. I decided I would make it my own experience, so I reached out to the women in my life who are equally as crazy as myself. I easily persuaded my older sister, Hailey, and my friend, Aria, to join me.
I had no idea of the challenges I would face in preparation for the big day. The journey ahead would result in multiple running related injuries, struggling the balance of school, work, and training, as well as loads of self-doubt and mental anxiety. In the beginning, I thought the training process would be easy. I would just run a lot, right?
I consulted my friend, Charles, an experienced ultra-runner. He told me that I should be running around 80 miles a week prior to race day. In this moment I realized for the first time how much work and time I needed to put into preparations. He loaned me a book of training plans for ultra-marathons. I told myself that I would simply follow the weekly plan. Easy.
The truth is, I didn’t follow a single plan leading up to the race. Injury, and exhaustion from school, kept me from the reality of keeping my mileage up. Until race day I typically averaged 20 to 30-mile weeks, with the occasional 40 to 60-mile week. I often doubted myself and my ability to be successful on race day. When these anxieties arose I called Hailey, who is not only my sister but an endurance athlete. She always reassured me that I would be fine and that just because I’m not following a plan by the books does not mean I won’t be able to finish the race. She became my rock, in terms of maintaining my mental strength.
Run, Run, Run!
Thus, 2018 became all about running. The Chuckanut trail system in Bellingham, Washington became a familiar web that I learned to weave together. After several months, I was able to easily form interesting loops at higher mileages. I ran the same trails over and over, watching them change with the seasons. I ran through snow in 30-degree weather. I ran in the rain and in the dark of mornings before school. At times I felt myself getting stronger, and other times I felt like I was deteriorating. I was determined, and I was exhausted. I prioritized running over socializing and getting a full night’s rest. Running took over my world.
Ultimately, I became obsessed and a little anxious, but at the same time I was having a blast. I finally found an activity where I could connect with myself. I didn’t need anyone by my side — I was my only competition and for short times I could tune out the world. Sure, I doubted myself constantly in preparation for the big day, but my attraction to the trail systems kept me moving towards my goal: 50 miles.
The seasons changed and temperatures rose, the snow melted. I was able to widen my web of trails into the Cascades, running further and further into the alpine.
My most memorable training run took place two weeks out from race day. I was dealing with a series of traumas which had built up over the previous year. Before I started training, I would have processed these by going on a climbing trip with a close friend. But now, with my focus on my upcoming race, I turned to my new form of meditation — running through mountainous terrain in isolation. I felt I needed to test my limits and push myself, not only to face these traumas but to meet myself and my strengths.
Besides, race day was quickly approaching, and doing a longer test run seemed smart. The furthest distance I had run thus far was a 50 km race in Vancouver, BC two weeks prior. I had a handful of ideas of where to go, but summer wildfires and smoke limited my options. I started asking friends for trail ideas. My friend, Liza, was planning on backpacking a three-to-four-day loop trail in the Pasayten Wilderness. When she heard I was looking for a long run, she suggested the same loop. We got together at her place and poured over a map of the 43-mile loop with roughly 10,500 ft elevation gain and loss. It seemed like the perfect precursor for the Squamish 50, which had about 11,000 ft of gain and loss. If I could do this solo run, then I could run the race.
So, in that moment I decided to run Devil’s Dome Loop in a day, alone and unsupported.
I planned to run the loop counterclockwise from the East Bank Trailhead. This seemed to be the most popular direction, and it would orient me so at some point during the run I would cross paths with my friend. The day before the run, I packed my bag, bringing enough bars, chok blocks, sport beans, and electrolytes to keep me fueled, and iodine for water purification. I planned to sleep at the trail head and start my run at 5 A.M. in the hopes of finishing in 12 to 13 hours. It was just me at the trailhead, and I was thrilled. My naivety kept my nerves at ease.
The morning of Devil’s Dome Loop dawned and I felt strong. I was intimidated by the 13 mile bump up from my Vancouver run two weeks before, but I felt I could handle it. What I didn’t consider was that I would be running unsupported in the wilderness, at an unfamiliar distance on an unfamiliar trail, and only two weeks out from race day. Most people would be tapering their mileage by this point.
I started my run at 5:40 AM, after waiting for the sun to start rising. The first stretch of trail was brushy, and rich with morning mildew. The terrain was gentle and rolling for the first three miles. As I climbed in elevation the views became more expansive; I was feeling confident. As the day, and miles, progressed, my body felt good. I ran through alpine meadows and up and down valleys. With every foot fall I brought myself further into the wilderness. I was enamored at the distance I could travel on my own two feet.
Devil’s Dome is the high point of the trail, sitting at 6,982 ft. It not only marks the rough halfway point, but also the end of the climbing. In the following five miles, I would lose all of the elevation I had worked to gain, and the terrain would ease to mostly flat for the last 10 to 15 miles. After about eight hours of running I stood on top of Devil’s Dome. I was a bag of mixed feelings. I was tired and behind schedule due to getting off the main trail twice. I wasn’t sure how many extra miles were added to my overall run or how many were left. I had a rough idea, but I wasn’t positive and perhaps I was in denial of my remaining distance. Stretching for a moment, I admired the smoke-glazed view surrounding me. The haze was light enough that, when looking back in the direction I had come, I could gauge the distance I had run. I felt proud of myself.
Starting downhill from Devil’s Dome, I felt a restored bout of confidence. I enjoyed the rush of air flowing through my hair as I let gravity pull me downwards. In the distance I saw a group of women taking a water break next to a creek crossing over the trail, and I knew even before I was close that Liza was one of the figures. At mile 32, we gave each other sweaty hugs and talked briefly before I continued pushing downhill. I felt strong and energized by these women — their energy and smiles boosted me. I had been alone and inside my head for several hours, and it felt restorative to connect with a friend. Liza gave me a sense of support on this solo journey and for a moment it felt as if I wasn’t completely alone on this trail, and the heartache that motivated me to the trail in the first place was nowhere to be found.
After a few more miles of pounding downhill, I finally saw Ross Lake through the trees. I felt that this was the final homestretch and that the terrain would ease significantly from here on out. I was certain I would finish within the next couple of hours, arriving back at the car around 6 PM. For a while I enjoyed the beauty of the lakeside, taking my time intermixing walking and running. Shortly after the trail veered away from the lake and into the forest I started to deteriorate. My legs were beyond tired, I hadn’t eaten enough food, and I couldn’t gauge how much longer I would be on the trail. Everything started to look the same. The scenery dulled in comparison to earlier views and light was fading. Through the darkening underbrush, I was starting to “see” hopeful signs of the trail coming to a close, but it usually was a piece of bark catching light or fallen trees I imagined were the bridge that I had crossed earlier in the day.
My watch died around mile 36. Each time I looked at the map on my phone the distance remaining seemed as if it would never end. I needed to move to beat darkness but running felt impossible. My head was spiraling into a dark place. I could feel myself breathing heavy and fast, my eyes tear-filled. I imagined myself collapsing and not being able to push forward, darkness engulfing me, alone. I recognized the symptoms and realized I was having a panic attack. I had to pull on a deeper resource. Then I heard myself say out loud, “Remember — you are strong and capable of anything you put your mind to.” I put myself out here and I was going to get myself out. I found the presence of self to tell myself to calm down and breathe. My mindset shifted, and I found the strength to run more. I had flashbacks to all the times I have had to push through discomfort. I remembered the boys and our trip in the arctic. I remembered Liza and the other women I saw a few hours before. And I imagined my sister running alongside me, rooting me on, giving me power. I was in a state of fight-or-flight mode and determined to finish what I started 12 hours earlier.
At 7:30 PM the sign I had been waiting for appeared, 2.8 miles to East Bank Trailhead. I would be at the car by 8:00 PM. I ran until I reached the bridge I had crossed that morning, almost 14.5 hours earlier. I hooted and hollered with joy and relief. And then I cried. I could not stop crying. They were tears of joy, pain, and relief. My body let go.
But I was also in shock and my brain spiraled down a dark hole. What have I done and why? I felt as if I were on a fast track to self-destruction. My body felt broken, I couldn’t eat, my legs throbbed, I had chafe in places I had never experienced before. I felt as if I had put myself in a dangerous situation and in the moment, I couldn’t comprehend the day behind me.
I remained an emotional mess through the next day. I remember calling my sister and immediately crying. I hadn’t talked to anyone up until that point. The amount of stress my body had been put under was huge, and at that point I felt absolutely no desire to run the race I had been training to do. I felt as if I had already done it. Was this an accomplishment? Or was all of this stupid? Why did I do this, and how would I have the strength to run 50 miles in just under two weeks? There was a part of me that felt defeated.
I calculated the run, including my off-route excursions, to have been about 46 miles and around 11,000 ft of gain. It took me a week and a lot of processing to realize that this, indeed, had been an incredible experience. And, perhaps, I could do the race I had set out to do — I knew if I didn’t run the race I would regret my decision. My body was recovering surprisingly well. I chose to not run until race day to allow for full recovery. The past year had been all about the Squamish 50, and it was the final obstacle that I needed to complete. In a sense I felt the race would be easier than my run around Devil’s Dome: I was not only familiar with the course, but there would be aid stations every six miles or so and hundreds of people. Most importantly, I would have Hailey and Aria on the course with me.
The Big Day
Race day arrived. I stood in the dark alongside my sister and Aria. I was excited, the day was finally here and the race about to begin. We waited amongst hundreds of anticipating racers for the whistle to blow. The race was slightly delayed and began at 5:40 AM — the same beginning time of my run two weeks prior. As the whistle sounded and we took off, I couldn’t help but think about the irony of the start time. It seemed fortuitous and I took it as a good omen. I had trained on over half of the course through a sequence of organized orientation runs in the months prior to the race, and the terrain felt familiar and comfortable. Only, this time there would be watermelon and salty things every six miles! There were people all around and I felt full of joy. I found my rhythm within minutes. The trail was full of conversation, playing leap frog with different racers on the uphills and downhills, and at the aid stations strangers were excited to help take care of me.
After the Devil’s Dome experience, it all felt surreal. I felt now, more than ever, that my solo run was indeed an accomplishment, and I could see how I was a little crazy to do such a huge run so close to race day. But without the Devil’s Dome run, I’m not sure I would have had the same mental stamina on the Squamish 50. Whatever mental blockages I needed to move through in order to be successful on race day, I dealt with on the loop trail. I had already felt what it was like to reach my limit and to move through it. I knew the Squamish 50 was within my capabilities, and from this I felt strong. Mile 27 shot a burst of energy through me and I could do nothing but smile — I was doing it and it felt incredible!
Nearing the end of the race my legs wobbled and a piercing pain throbbed through every toe tendon in my right foot. My head was still in the race, but my body was feeling the push of my physical edge. When I approached the final aid station I saw a sign that read, “That was easy.” Next to the sign, a volunteer had attached one of those buttons that, when pressed, said out loud, “That was easy,” to the gate marking the entrance of the aid station. I couldn’t help but laugh and press the button. The tables not only displayed the usual pretzel and watermelon snacks, but also included cake and whiskey! I couldn’t stomach the thought of taking a shot, but the cake was a dream. I filled myself with cake and pretzels, refilled my water, and was off on the final six miles. With tired feet, tired body, and a tired mind I crossed the finish line at 12 hours and 58 minutes. A year’s worth of work summed up in a blur.
Finishing the race almost felt anti-climactic. I crossed the finish line and that was that. Another item checked off the list. Just four or five months before the race I wasn’t sure I was capable of finishing; 50 miles seemed far out of reach. But, it turns out, it was well within my capacity. It just took a year of training and an epic run around Devil’s Dome loop trail to believe, in my body and my mind, that it was well within my capabilities all along.
So, again I wonder: after all I went through in the past year, how do I define my own limits? What is the draw that keeps me going back for more? I have found that I am constantly redefining my limits as I learn my inner and outer strengths. Because of this, I have come to think of limits as fluid. Being pushed to an absolute breaking point and still continuing to move forward has made me realize that limitations are a head game. If I can believe in my own capabilities I will be able to keep putting one foot in front of the other until I reach the end point. Which, in turn, will still not be an end point, but one more turn along the trail. The trail, literal and metaphorical, may not always be pretty, but the fulfillment and satisfaction I gain after accomplishing something challenging is ultimately unexplainable. It’s the joy, relief, and the surprising meeting of myself that, at the end of the day, keeps me going back for more.
A quick shout out to all my friends and family that supported me along this journey, especially Callie and Will. These two were not only my main emergency contacts for my solo adventure, but they fed me before I headed out to the trailhead and let me use their home to decompress, shower, and try to become human again. It made all the difference.
There are so many people that made this year of running a special one. I could go on and on about each person, but I’m going to trust you know who you are and you know that I appreciate you in my life.
edited by Anneliese Kamola (Thank you!)