Lessons from a 100-mile Ultra Marathon

In 2011, I met a woman.


Along the bottom of the picture, you’ll notice a light brown pony tail and a black french braid. This will become relevant later on in our story. I promise.

Okay that’s not technically true. What happened was this: I followed this woman up Grandfather Mountain in Boone, North Carolina for about 7 miles as we both labored to finish one of the hardest street marathons I’ve run. After the race I tweeted out my time, and she responded.

We struck up one of those weird digital friendships. We chatted about ultra running, a sport we’d both recently picked up, and we liked pictures of our respective pets. Other than that, we rarely interacted.

I assumed the hallmark of our friendship would be marked by a casual distance and be limited to a shared love of running. Maybe we’d see each other someday at race, but it was more likely we’d be those people who existed in the ether of our digital lives.

That’s not exactly how it played out.

* * *

“I’ve got an idea,” I said to my wife.

“Okay,” she said to me in that voice.

We’ve been together less than two years, but already I’ve come to realize that I make requests that most husbands never make. I’ve gone camping to do book research without her, I take extended writing trips to local cabins, and I’ve flown to see former students who needed me. These are not extravagant requests, but they are not necessarily what marriages are built upon.

This time, I thought my luck was going to run out.

“So,” I said. “I met this girl a few years ago. Well, I didn’t really meet her. We met on Twitter after we ran the same marathon. She’s going to do an ultra marathon, and I told her I’d run a pace lap with her. That would be okay, right? You should come. It will be fun.”

In my head, this sounded rational: I’d drive to St. Louis, pick Juli up from the airport, shuttle her to the Mark Twain National Forest where she’d run a 100-mile race, and then bring her back. Along the way, I’d take care of her equipment, make sure she was okay, and run 1 of the 25-mile loops with her.

As the words came out of my mouth, though, I realized that for most wives this would be a non-starter. I waited for a second as Rebecca furrowed her brow. Then she flashed her cute “stern” face to let me know that this was one of those questions.

“Who is she,” Rebecca asked.

“Well, she’s a veterinarian, and she does beauty pageants. That’s about all I know.”

“Of course she’s a beauty pageant winner,” she said in mock exasperation before telling me that we would absolutely go.

* * *

Rebecca, Holly, Juli, Richard, and Brad on the way to Mark Twain National Forest.

Rebecca, Holly, Juli, Richard, and Brad on the way to Mark Twain National Forest. The best way to get to know new people: Cram yourself into a car for 2 hours.

“I have no idea how we are going to get everything into the car,” I whispered to my wife as we sat at the Starbucks in the St. Louis airport waiting for Juli’s friend Holly to arrive.

When we first agreed to crew, I assumed that it would just be the three of us: Juli, my wife, and me.

I found out soon enough that I was incorrect in that assumption. Juli’s friend and running partner was attempting the 50-mile run, and another friend, Richard, would be a second pacer for Juli.

As everyone made their way to the Starbucks, I couldn’t visualize how the bags might fit into the back of our Kia Soul. Rebecca and I had been aspirational as we packed. While we crammed all of our clothes and gear into one hiking pack, we’d decided to take our large tent, camp chairs, and blankets in case we stayed on site that race.

The back was simply full.

Now we had to figure out how to get training bags, suitcases, running packs, and clothes into a car that was just a little bit short on space.

* * *

Richard and Brad filling up  Juli and Holly's water packs at Mile 25.

Richard and Brad filling up Juli’s and Holly’s water packs at Mile 25.

My alarm at the Super 8 went off at 4:30 a.m., just 90 minutes before the start of the 50- and 100-mile races.

The women wanted to get to the start early, and we had a 25-minute drive from downtown Potosi to the Berryman Trail.

The night before we’d gone shopping, buying breakfast food, snacks, sports drinks, and fruits so that the women could eat and hydrate before race. Pre-race nerves kept much of that from happening. They’d nibbled and sipped, but everyone was anxious to get the day started.

We arrived at the start, which was hidden in the darkness. Thankfully we had about 15 minutes to spare, which was just enough time for me to fill up Holly’s water and make sure their drop bags were in the appropriate places.

In the moments before a long race, runners envision every possible mishap. My job was to make sure none of those mishaps occurred.

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What We Mean When We Talk About CrossFit

Whenever I mention that I’m part of a CrossFit gym, the first question I get centers on injuries.

People who haven’t been exposed to CrossFit (or exposed to CrossFit boxes that don’t focus on technique) are concerned that the combination of Olympic lifting, gymnastics, and sprint exercises will be too hard on their bodies, and that surely they will hurt themselves.

Here is my answer.

If you end up at the wrong box, that’s certainly an issue. If you aren’t trained to use your body properly, you can absolutely injure yourself just as you might injure yourself by lifting objects with your back instead of your legs.

When done right, though, CrossFit is an experience like nothing else you’ve ever had in a gym. You aren’t isolating muscles and building them for show; you are creating full body strength, balance, and endurance.

The best part about CrossFit: the amount of weight you use doesn’t matter, your technique does. (This is much harder on your ego than it is on your body.) I spent the first 6 months lifting very little weight as I learned how to lift.

I had to unlearn a lifetime of bad lifting habits. The result, though, is that I’ve gained more strength and endurance than I’ve ever had in my life just by focusing on building a better lifting technique. My body hurts less, my back is stronger, and I move easier because of a relentless focus on technique.

So the answer to the injuries question is always the same: No, you won’t injure yourself; yes, you will hurt.

You will hurt because you will learn to use all of your muscles in the way they were made to move. You will lift, squat, and jump in ways you never considered. Your ego will get bruised daily as you strip weight off the bar, and still struggle to do movements correctly.

And then, one day, you will be stronger than you were yesterday.

This is CrossFit.

* * *

While we have great coaches at CrossFit Broad Ripple, my wife and I also spend a good deal of time watching videos like these to help us better understand what happens in each movement.

Very quickly you will notice that Olympic lifting is a bit different than curls.

The Snatch

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One Piece of Advice I Know I’ll Give My Daughter

As my wife and I begin to consider adding little people to our family, I find myself thinking about what I want to tell them when they arrive.

I have a little notebook of “Things to Tell the Kids.” Most involve gender-less advice such as “Find your voice,” “Be active in your life decisions,” and “Be the person you mean to be.”

There are some that are more gender related.

In our CrossFit community, I hear concerns (usually from the women) about strength. To be clear, these women aren’t concerned they are getting stronger; they are concerned that their muscles don’t match up with what we traditionally think of as feminine.

Intellectually I can understand the concern, but emotionally I have a hard time wrapping my brain around it. I can’t imagine anyone ever telling me to stop trying to become strong at whatever I’m doing. I can’t imagine going through life concerned that if I did, I would also have to worry about how that was perceived.

Certainly I was taught that showing emotion is a sign of weakness, but today it is expected that as a man I will be in touch with that side of myself. Few, though, would dare say that a man was less of a man because he showed compassion or emotion.

After hearing this discussion take place between the women at the box, I came home and scribbled this into my book of “Things to Tell My Daughter.” (And I figured maybe women of CrossFit Broad Ripple might benefit from hearing this as well since I’m nearly old enough to be at least their crazy Uncle.)

Skinny is easy; strong is hard.

Skinny is an act of reduction. It is about NOT doing things. It’s about not eating, or not working out. It is about maintaining what you have, and striving for a little less.

Strong is the opposite. It’s about picking up heavy objects, and pushing yourself past where your mind tells you to stop. It is about building what wasn’t there before. It is about sweat, and tears, and aches, and pains.

Strong isn’t just beautiful, it’s earned.

In your life, always aim for strong.

That OPSF 50/50 Ultra

Last weekend, I completed my first ultra marathon: the OPSF 50/50 race in Spencer, Indiana, a brutal all-day affair that sent runners out on 1, 2, or 3 14.1 mile loops depending upon the length you were running (plus a 5-mile Power Line loop for the 50K runners, and 2 5-mile Power Line loops for the 50 milers).

I ran the 50K (which is actually 33.2 miles9 hours and 22 minutes. (The race officials have me listed at 9 hours and 36 minutes, but Najet and I finished together.) The race looked like this:

On this particular day, time wasn’t a factor. I was determined to finish this race no matter what since I’d bonked out of last year’s event.

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Letter #2: To the OPSF 50/50 Organizers & Volunteers

While I was running the brutal course yesterday, wondering why it was that I’d signed up for such a ridiculous race, I knew who I’d be thanking.

David and Sara, the couple who put this race on, and all the volunteers who set up, mark, and monitor the course are nothing short of amazing. They are all upbeat, happy, and encouraging along the way.

Unlike traditional marathons with thousands of volunteers and fanfare, ultra marathons take place in the middle of the woods and have few participants. The organizers and volunteers bust their collective humps to help a handful of crazies run up and down hills all day.

They deserve more than we could ever give them. This letter will go out in the mail on Monday, but I thought I’d post it now.


Dear David + Sara:

I wanted to send you – and all the volunteers – a letter expressing my heartfelt thanks for putting on such a great event. This is my second year running (and first finishing) the OPSF 50/50. This year – as with last year – I found everyone I spoke with to be genuinely kind and helpful. That is no small feat considering how much work goes into setting one of these events up, and how long the volunteers are asked to sit outside while the rest of the crazies run up and down hills all day.

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The 52 in 365 Challenge: The Year of Thank You

The 90-in-90 writing challenges I’ve posted have sometimes taken on a life on their own. Other times they’ve taken on my life. And other times still they have simply faded away.

Fortunately, I’m way more into process than product so the outcome of my personal missions is rarely the point.

For this challenge, though, the product is more important than the process. Let me explain:

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Day 84: Ultra September, a Call for Runners

**Here’s a synopsis: I’m looking for running partners on Saturday, September 29 to help me with a training run on the Monon. Any distance, any leg are helpful. I’ll be running between a 9:30-10:30 pace depending on the day. Feel free to leave a comment or drop a line if you’re interested.**

I’m two months away from the 2012 OPSF Ultra Marathon, the only race I’ve ever DNF’d. (The upside to that race: I met this girl on my way home.)

The moment I decided to drop out of the race, I knew I’d be back. You never finish on a miss. My dad taught me that lesson many years ago when I’d shoot free throws on our driveway. The last shot you take before you go inside has to be a make. This was no different.

The 50k Ultra — in this case a 35-mile run as the course was mis-measured — is an entirely different beast than a road marathon. The hills, the trails, the solitude, the limited aid stations, and the location make these races equal parts mental and physical.

When I DNF’d, I decided to skip the rest of my races in 2011 and 2012, and instead dedicate myself to conquering the ultra distances. I retro-fitted my road bike; I ditched my road marathon equipment and bought lightweight trail running gear; I joined CrossFit to build the endurance needed to run up and down thousands of feet; and I put one race on my calendar: November 3, 2012.

As September begins, my training picks up. I ran 20 miles on Saturday, Sept 1; I’ll run 24 miles on Saturday, Sept 8; dial it back for 18- and a 14-miles runs the following Saturdays; and on Saturday, Sept 29 I’ll do a 30-mile training run.

It’s the last run that sticks in my head: a 30-mile training run.

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Day 79: Remiss in Writing, Not in Doing

We’ve been so tied up with the start of school, training, the wedding, and life that I’ve forgotten to write about the 90-in-90 even though I’ve not forgotten to live it.

The girl and I have continued our CrossFit ways: twice a week and once on the weekend. We’re debating bumping up our membership so we can go more often. Finally after 3 1/2 months of lifting things, we can lift them in the proper way. Let me just tell you: Olympic lifting gets a lot more fun when you’re strong enough to do things moderately correctly.

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Day 52: As School Approaches…

While I don’t write about writing much anymore, I’ve been writing a ton every day. Unfortunately, none of the writing is on my writing projects. I’ve nearly finished my research proposal for graduate school (which involves writing a short novella), I’ve written scores of pages for my online classes, explaining the details of my assignments, and I’m constantly writing grants for projects I’m aiming to accomplish.

In fact, I just turned in the last batch of work for 2 chapters I’ve written for a textbook on magazine journalism. (This is – I swear – the last thing I’m writing for a traditional publisher unless I’ve negotiated the contract.) Also: I sent out a note today that said between now and August 20 my answer to every query not related to school is: I can’t help you.

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Day 48: Run, Bike, CrossFit

Last Sunday, Rebecca and I decided we needed to kick our training up a notch. After all, we’d been going at CrossFit for about 2 1/2 months, and we were starting to feel…energized.

If you’ve ever worked out for an extended period of time, you’ll understand that feeling. When you finish a hard workout, you recover and want to get started again.

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Day 47: Crossfit + the 90s

image Rebecca and I started going to CrossFit about 2 1/2 months ago after deciding that running probably wasn’t enough for us.

She’s attempting her first marathon (which comes after a car accident one year ago) and I’m trying to finish that Ultra that kicked my ass last year (and the Tecumseh Trail Marathon that whooped me 2 years ago).

We’ve dedicated one weekend day each week for BIG EXERCISE, which means a run (at least 5 miles), a long bike (at least 25 miles), and some time at the CrossFit open gym.

Rest assured: We are feeling old. As I told my friend Austin, “I’m getting in shape but I’m realizing shape in your 40s isn’t actually shape.”

Still, we’re starting to fit into our gym wear (which is good). This is my new summer running shirt + my CrossFit workout shorts.

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