This winter is different.
After I DNF’d (Did Not Finish) my last 100 miler, I was in limbo between recovery and restlessness. 75 miles and 30,000ft of elevation change takes a toll on the legs, and I took an easy week when we returned to Minnesota. As the days rolled on, I felt bloated with anxiety about the holidays. Like a a spile in a maple tree, running extricates that overabundance of stress so that it can be reduced into something useful.
My smoldering unrest caught flame and I started looking at races. I didn’t want to to lose the work I had put in all fall to slushy winter excuses. I no longer believe in off-seasons with running. I believe in the ebb and flow, as a wise running coach I met during a race once taught me. It’s good to take breaks when your body calls for them rather than letting the calendar dictate them, if possible. I let my gut lead the way and I registered for the Lone Star 100 in El Paso. In the Rocky Mountains. In February.
“WELCOME TO THE HARDEST, GNARLIEST, AND BADDEST RACE IN THE SOUTH.”
Winter is not an easy time to train. You have to wear five times as many clothes, it’s dark all times besides work hours, it’s dangerously cold, the weather is unpredictable, and not as many people care to share the miles with you. Minnesota winter ultramarathoners are still a strange and wild creature to me.
The day I signed up, I ratcheted down my training schedule. Training includes tracking mileage and planning trips to the gym, hitting weights classes and occasionally yoga. It also requires an increase in vegetables, lean protein, small and more frequent snacks, and twice the water consumption. I started setting the alarm earlier and running at least one 20-miler per week.
One of my goals this year is to really unlock the 20 miler.
When you train for your first marathon, there’s a certain mystique about one particular inevitable Saturday: the first 20 miler. It is, hands down, the most important training run before your race (and probably the most dreaded). In fact, a good training plan calls for three of them. As you run more marathons, more ultras, it becomes less scary — and painful. Even though I’ve run lots of them by now, that distance still holds a certain prestige in my mind. For 20 miles, I need to lube my toes. I probably want to bring a snack. I get out my pack. I wear my favorite clothes. I don’t just head out the door.
That distance takes long enough to schedule ahead of time, and long enough to start feeling your quads ache for glycogen. It’s also a tough distance to round up friends for. I learned this year that it’s even harder to do in the cold. My goal is to have 20s be the new 10. Any day, any time I want to know I can lace up and do it. I want to build up my base.
Just as I hoped, the impending race date tapped into my brain and relieved some of the pressure created by the dark heart of winter. Sometimes the best way out of a funk is to switch it up. It helps, too, to have a couple of really supportive friends who willingly suffer through the weather, the feels, the ebbs, and the flows together.
(That’s motivation you can’t get anywhere else.)
In 21 days I’ll be climbing to North Franklin Peak (7,192′) on my first of three loops. I hear runners say all the time that “ultras are more mental than physical.” I have always wondered how true this is. I think, just like your train your legs, you must train your mind to push through exhaustion and to stay positive unlike any other activity I’ve experienced. There will be a point, probably at about 4:30am, that my energy will wilt and my mind will be delirious. The reason we train is to be able to ride those feelings out, like a wave. It does not come naturally. You have to work hard for it.
The 100 mile game is my new mystery. I did it once, yes, but that doesn’t mean I’m an expert. After my first 50 mile I was beat up and exhausted; I swore it wasn’t for me. Now, 50s are my favorite race distance. Running is funny like that.
I’m still on the first half of the relationship with the 100. It beats me up, but I want to make it to the good part.