I was 45 miles in at last Saturday’s Miakonda Trail Ultra, well after dark, and green glow sticks marked the borders of the curving dirt path through the trees. It looked pretty cool, but I was struggling with gut pain, and mindful appreciation of my surroundings had been replaced by a desire to tough it out to my goal distance and go home. With just five miles to go, I hadn’t expected anything remarkable to happen.
But I’d just met a remarkable fellow runner, and as I listened to her story, I was able to push my discomfort to the side for a bit and reflect on what ultrarunning teaches me, especially at times I least expect it.
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The Miakonda Boy Scout camp near Toledo, which hosts this race, features a 2.36 mile loop through its campground on paved paths and wide groomed trails through the woods. Starting at 10 a.m., you run as few or as many loops as you desire during a 24-hour window. With a full-service aid station at the halfway mark of the loop, and drop bags and fluids at the start/finish, you’re never far from anything you need.
I’d come here to tune up for October’s Indian Creek 55K in Colorado. This was my first ultra after an extended training break, so a PR wasn’t in the plan. I would relax, run easy, and go for 50K, with a stretch goal of 50 miles if I felt up to it.
It reached 90 degrees in the afternoon, but the staff had prepared well. The water was cold, and the aid station had plenty of ice, wet neck towels, and even sno-cones(!). There was also the standard array of food including fruit, cookies, and PB&J and grilled cheese sandwiches. Another plus was the crew camps and spectators at many points on the course, cheering on all the runners. Unusual for an ultra, and much appreciated. And lots of inspirational signs along the way, too.
Things went well up to the 50K mark. I even ran the couple of short hills as a personal challenge. When I crossed the finish line after loop 13 I was looking forward to a nice break before deciding on whether to go on. Except oops, I was a half-mile short, and fourteen loops (33 miles) were needed for 50K credit. I put a smile on my face and pushed out one more loop.
Rested and rehydrated, I decided to go for my stretch goal. I needed 22 loops to hit 50 miles (actually 52 miles), but heck, I was already one loop ahead of plan. And then things began to unravel. At the aid station on loop 15, I suddenly felt woozy and sat for a bit. An orange sno-cone and some Coke later, I went on, walking it in just to be safe. On loops 16 and 17 I returned to running, and I thought I might even reach my 22-loop goal before dark. And then my gut acted up.
I’ve had this pain before, so I wasn’t worried, just annoyed. Nothing in my bag of tricks worked, and I had to slow to walking. But I knew if I quit, I’d be mad at myself later. I’ve suffered for longer, in worse conditions. This was a dry, smooth trail on a cool night. On I went through loops 18, 19, 20. Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” had been playing at the finish of loop 17, and that became my mantra.
On my penultimate loop, hoping to find a distraction from the discomfort and monotony, I caught up with another runner and asked how she was doing. And we walked together and talked for the rest of that loop.
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She’s a single mom with a full-time job and cares for a teenager with special needs. But she finds time to run ultras, which she says, keeps her in balance. “And I’ve lost 70 pounds,” she said. She has done races up to 100K, pushing her son in a wheelchair (which he loves). This event was some much needed time to herself. “A vacation,” she called it. We talked about our mutual love of ultras, agreeing that each one is different, and each one has something to teach us. That’s really why we were both out there when we could have been far more comfortable. Because we wanted to learn something about ourselves.
She went on after finishing the loop while I took a break, so I did my final one by myself. But that was okay. Any shred of self-pity I’d been nursing was gone. An extra two miles with a stomachache is noteworthy? Please. Here was someone who “ran an ultra” every day. Here was a real overachiever.
On loop 22 I enjoyed passing by each familiar landmark – the BB gun range, aid station, the “Kevin hill,” and the fence on the last leg meaning the finish line was close. I ran the final fifty yards to close it out. I’d preserved two streaks – never walking across a finish line, and having a takeaway from every ultra.
My stomach still hurt when I went to bed, but I was fine the next morning, and for having just completed a 50-miler, I feel great. A good sign for October.
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Lesson from the Miakonda Trail Ultra: There are overachievers all around us. Find them, and listen to their stories. You might learn something.