My Ultrarunning Secret, and Other Pithy Wisdom from the VM150

I slouched in a comfy chair at this year’s Veterans Memorial 150, sipping a Coke and chatting with some Victory Gym staff. One of them heard I’d run the race last year. “150 miles,” he said. “What’s your secret?”

I thought for a moment. These were highly trained veterans who’d seen active service and more hardship than I’d ever know. And they were looking at me, wanting to know how I could run crazy long distances.

What did I tell them? Well, it’s a secret no more. Read on to find out!

This year’s VM150 was held over Memorial Day weekend as always. I have other training priorities this year, but I wanted to be involved somehow. It’s a fundraiser for Victory Gym, a nonprofit gym free for veterans and first responders, and offering support services for those dealing with PTSD. Last year the race raised over $18,000 for the gym.

I decided to run the first leg from Ludington to Scottville, help out at that aid station, and then be available as a pacer Sunday night. I would also collect the event’s waste for recycling and composting through my company, Happy Planet Running.

I showed up Saturday morning in a not-so-subtle red tech shirt, white shorts, and blue shoes. Kurt, the race director, introduced me as last year’s top male finisher, and Rebecca, the top female finisher, who was running the race again.

At the start. I’m just right of center. Rebecca is on my left (I’m looking in her direction), and to her left is Kurt, the race director.

The good news is that we had a record number of 150-mile finishes (seven) and 100-mile finishes (nine). No doubt the cool weather played a big part, with the high temps (low 80s) basically equal to the LOW temps for 2018’s race (with highs of 95+ during the days). Ah, Michigan weather!

Here are some vignettes from my time spent at the race that weekend. First, from that first leg to Scottville:

  • Chatting with Rebecca, whom I hadn’t actually met until now. Six weeks after the 2018 VM150, she’d run the Last Annual Vol State 500K, a 314-mile trek across Tennessee west to east. It took her six days. “Did you have a crew?” I asked. “Nope, I was ‘screwed’,” she said, using that race’s term for an unsupported runner. Where did she eat? Local towns. Where did she sleep? Park benches and churches. Wow. I asked her to talk me out of trying that race, but she refused.
  • Around mile seven, someone’s watch beeped. “Oh, I got all my steps in today,” he said.

At the Scottville aid station, my “helping out” turned out to be sitting around and clanging a cowbell for incoming runners. Tough job, but someone’s gotta…

  • Catching up with Ruth, who’d been unable to finish last year due to health issues. “Rebecca refused to talk me out of running Vol State,” I told her. “Oh, I’m doing Vol State this year,” she said. WTF? Yes, she’d recovered from her health issues. She planned to take the entire ten days allotted. “I figure I can do 50K per day,” she said. Eating and sleeping? See Rebecca’s plan.
  • Micheal Troutt, whom I’d met last year at Victory Gym, was there. He’s now very involved in the Warrior Ethos Foundation, a charity helping disabled veterans with things like house repairs, adjustments for wheelchair access, or finding transportation. This guy is always finding new ways to help people out. America needs a few million more like him.
  • Some Victory Gym staff members were there helping out. One of them heard I’d completed the race last year. “150 miles?” he said with some awe in his voice. “What’s your secret?” They all looked at me. What could I say? What’s a few miles in a safe environment compared with military service in a war zone? And yet ultrarunning is not exactly a typical or easy activity. Finally I had an answer. “Too stupid to quit.”

After the aid station closed, the Victory Gym president drove me back to Ludington. He told me how difficult it can be for veterans to adjust to civilian life, especially those with physical problems. The VA is short on resources, and vets in general don’t like talking about their problems. Over ten buddies of his had committed suicide. “But if they call, we can help them,” he said. “We just need to get them past that initial urge. So we do our best to let veterans know we’re here for them.”

I called Sunday afternoon about pacing, but the remaining runners were all set. So I picked up the collected aid station trash bags and drove to the finish line. I arrived just before midnight. Five solo runners and one relay team were still on the course. Gradually they trickled in, receiving our cheers and their belt buckles from Kurt.

  • Some of the race staff were napping on the picnic tables, wrapped in blankets. Ruth got up and stretched. “How can you possibly be comfortable,” I began, then cut myself off. “Oh yes, Vol State. Never mind.”
  • I chatted with a couple who were crewing. “Who’s your runner?” I asked. “Dean,” they replied. THE Dean? Who’d caught me at mile 35 last year, then gone to the ER with heatstroke? Yep, it was him – and this year he was going to finish! “He used the wet towel this time like you did,” they told me.
  • And then Dean came in! I approached, but he immediately lay down and began stretching while talking to his crew. Finally he sat up and said something about the top finisher. Kurt told him the name. “That guy’s in his fifties?” Kurt shook his head. “I’m talking about that Jackson guy,” Dean mumbled. Everyone laughed. “He’s right behind you!” someone said. He turned, and I shook his hand and congratulated him. “You were my motivation for finishing this year,” he said. Awww.

Dean, second from right, with crew and friends at the finish line.

The last runner finished at 3:30 a.m., and by 4:00 I took my trash and went home. A memorable weekend, even just helping out. Can’t wait for next year!

P.S. If you’d like to see my official sustainability report, with composting and recycling numbers, you can read it on the Happy Planet Running website here.

Being Gratefully Miserable

I sat in the passenger seat of someone’s car, depressed and feeling very sorry for myself. A few minutes before, I had reluctantly handed over my timing chip and withdrawn from the 2015 Glacier Ridge 50-miler. Only ten miles remained but I was dehydrated and lightheaded. The aid station captain and medics had agreed it was a good decision.

A race staff member kindly drove me back to the start/finish area. In an effort to take my mind off myself and what had happened, I asked him if he was an ultrarunner, too.

“I used to,” he replied, “but I can’t anymore.” An enlarged heart had not responded to surgery and even short distances left him out of breath. Running had been big in his life (“my stress relief”) but it was no longer possible.

His story instantly cured my self-pity. I’d failed to finish one race, but there would be more to run. He was done for good. Talk about restoring perspective! I came away from it all the more determined to return the next year and finish the damn race. In 2016 I did just that, and have completed every race since, including two 100-milers and a 150.

2016 – a much happier ending!

I was reminded of this story when reading one of the fitness blogs I follow. A fellow athlete over fifty has developed knee problems. She continues to be active but can no longer run, and it took her some time to come to terms with that. In this post she describes the grief she felt and how she dealt with it.

This year I’m working toward improving my speed and performance at shorter races (up to the half marathon). Training can be hard and uncomfortable, and races can take place in some pretty miserable conditions.

The Winter Switchbacks a few years ago – one of the better sections.

But I can remind myself, even at those times, how fortunate I am to be able to run, and to push myself toward new goals and face new challenges. With trail ultrarunning in particular there’s a sense of adventure and shared experience (re: suffering) that brings me deep satisfaction. I guess that’s what keeps me signing up for the silly things.

When the time comes that, for whatever reason, I can no longer run, I expect that like the people in the stories above, there will be a period of adjustment. But I hope I can look back without any regrets, and be grateful for whatever comes next, and for what I can still do to make life enjoyable.

Eating and Running (and eating some more)

Last Friday I went to my friendly neighborhood healthcare facility for a routine physical exam. When I stepped on the scale as part of checking in, I got a surprise.

You see, for over a week I’ve had a nearly insatiable appetite. Everything I eat, no matter how filling or how much, transubstantiates into Chinese food. It started the moment I crossed the finish line at Trail Marathon last weekend, and has not yet let up.

Distance runners call this condition “rungry” and when we’ve got it bad, things can turn ugly. “Never get between a runner and his carbs,” someone said one day when I rather aggressively lunged for a piece of cake after a race.

When it’s really bad, we don’t even use our hands! (Actually from a Pi Day race.)

But with me, being rungry is infrequent and unpredictable. After the Potawatomi Trail 50 last month, I wasn’t all that hungry. I even had a sore mouth and throat that made eating difficult for a couple of days. (I’ve since learned it was likely due to a very dry mouth from long hours breathing hard.)

Trail Marathon Weekend, with 39.3 miles over two days, was a different animal. Chocolate chip cookie? Don’t mind if I do. Oh look, that one’s broken, gotta clean that up. And that one, too. That evening at D&D I ate my usual excessive amount, and things have continued like that since.

Okay, so what weight do I want to be? That depends on what race is coming up. For shorter distances (5K to marathons) I aim for a “race weight” of about 158 lbs. For ultras I like to be a few pounds heavier, since speed isn’t critical and they create a large caloric deficit. So for taper week before TMW (which I train for like an ultra) I tried to eat more while cutting back on exertion. Recovery week was also light on exercise, so that plus heavy appetite should have equaled some weight gain.

And yet the scale at the health center read 155 lbs. Ultra prep eating, plus a week of being “rungry” and I’m underweight! I didn’t weigh myself before TMW, so I don’t know what my pre-race weight actually was. It’s possible I was even lower, which could explain why I was low on gas the final miles on Sunday.

So what now? For one, I’ve stopped worrying about my appetite. I’ll let my body tell me how much to eat, as long as I feed it the right stuff, of course. And I think I’ll start charting my weight on a weekly basis. Not for diet control, but to see if I’m at the right weight for what I’m training for. With my focus this year shifting to getting faster at short distances, I need all the data I can get.

Gotta go. Hungry again.

You have no idea how hard this is.

Oh, and my height is down from my historical six feet to 5-11 ½. I have been drinking more coffee lately. I guess Mom was right.

When the Runner is Ready

IT MUST HAVE BEEN THE FATIGUE.

I’d just finished the Potawatomi 50 and was seated at one of the base camp picnic tables, removing my soaking, mud-caked shoes and examining my feet. To my surprise I had no blisters, just a raw spot on one toe. Pretty amazing given what they’d been through.

Next to me, a woman about my age was conversing with someone about the trail. She’d been pacing one of the ultrarunners and her knees were acting up. She said something like, “I wish I’d been doing this twenty years earlier. I could have done more loops.”

As an introvert I’m not comfortable butting into other people’s conversations, but my natural restraint was offline. Maybe it was the finisher’s high, or the need to talk to someone after a long day of solitude, or I was just too damn tired to feel awkward. At any rate, I spoke up.

“Hey, Emily,” I said. (I knew her name because it was printed on her hat.) “As one person who discovered running later in life to another, let me tell you that I would have been a terrible runner twenty years ago, because back then I hated running. I wasn’t ready.”

Not that I follow my own advice, of course. I too have “wasted” plenty of time musing about how good a runner I’d have been had I started in my twenties or thirties. No matter how successful we are at something, don’t we fantasize about being even better?

When I was younger, I imagined myself as a famous golf pro (Arnold Palmer was my hero) and even more unlikely, a basketball star. But I’d never, ever, imagined becoming a runner. Nothing about the sport appealed to me; it seemed like a lot of pointless, unenjoyable effort.

And my life back then, with career challenges, raising kids, and other interests, was already full. To train and race like I do now wasn’t feasible without giving up something else I enjoyed. Then in my mid-forties, more time and mental space freed up for new pursuits. Add in my desire to remain physically fit, and the way had opened to give running a try. I’d become ready for it.

I don’t find it surprising that trail ultrarunning has so many participants over forty. I think the “long haul” aspect of it appeals to folks who’ve lived long enough to acquire some perspective. They’ve developed the discipline to see something through when the path is unknown and the end is a long way off.

In the 2016 Kettle Moraine 100, my first hundred-miler, 73 out of the 133 finishers, and six of the top ten, were age 40 or older. And a 74-year old finished too, less than a half hour before the cutoff. He was the first-ever runner over seventy to complete that particular race, but for him, victory and fulfillment wasn’t about his finish time. It was about getting over that line. As it was for me at that race, too.

I finished number 96 out of 133. The crowd went wild. (Trust me.)

As for Emily, she accepted my unsolicited advice with grace, and we chatted about ultrarunning, the trail conditions, other stuff. I don’t remember the specifics, but it was a pleasant conversation. She even said it was nice to have met me. (Whew.)