I’m running an ultramarathon and it’s all Cheryl Strayed’s fault

The Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

The Seven Mile Bridge in the Florida Keys.

Last autumn, I finally joined the rest of the literate free world and read Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed, and of course I adored it.  I was swept away by the audacity of her undertaking, how she threw herself into this foolish pursuit with only the most limited understanding of what hiking the Pacific Crest Trail demanded of those who tried to take it on.

I adored the sense of adventure that permeated the book. It wasn’t the faux-romantic sensibility that spurred a billion Alexander Supertramp wannabes off to seek their inner Thoreaus in the wilderness, but rather what I figured adventures like this are more like: hours and days of tedium and pain punctuated by episodes of sublime transcendence that make the blackened toenails and odd chafing patterns seem like a paltry price to pay.

I’d read her book shortly after reading Challenging the Pacific: The First Woman to Row the Kon-Tiki Route by Maud Fontenoy, who left her comfortable job to spend months rowing solo across the Pacific Ocean, and while Fontenoy’s story appealed to me, it was Strayed’s book that made me open my eyes and say, I want this for myself.  I wanted to put myself to some great physical test that would reduce me to a quivering blob of terror, that would force me to plumb the deepest parts of my soul, that would make me hate myself and question every decision I’d ever made.

But I also had some limits.  I did not want to go for long without a hot shower or without sleeping on a mattress.  (I say these things much to the disappointment of Brian, who wanted to hike the Appalachian Trail after reading A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, and who now also wants to hike the PCT. Sorry, baby, but this petit fleur needs her beauty sleep.)

The answer came to me almost instantly: I would do an ultramarathon.  Like a lot of people, I had been intrigued by ultrarunning ever since reading Born to Run, but the reality of doing one seemed so far-fetched that I couldn’t imagine actually doing one.  But if I wanted to do something that scared me with its audacity, then wouldn’t now be the time?  And wouldn’t this be the thing to do?

I leapt off my bed and ran to find Brian, then told him, “I want to do the Keys 50-miler next year.”  The Keys 50 is a race I have been eying ever since I heard about it. The race has two distances – 50 miles and 100 miles – and it runs along the Overseas Highway through the Florida Keys.  The 50-miler starts in Marathon and ends in Key West, and I’ve heard the race director planned the Keys 100 to be run in May so as to mimic the heat of Badwater.  Basically, it’s a tough-as-shit race.  People who DNF do so not because of the distance but because of the heat.

Despite this, I love the Keys because in my heart I am secretly Jimmy Buffett with a ponytail and boobs, and once I decided to do an ultra, the 50-miler seemed like the obvious one to sign up for, as the course takes runners over miles of bridges that cross Florida Strait and through all of the various Keys until all of the finishers pile up in a sweaty heap in Key West, where we will all recover with mojitos, Sunset Ale and conch chowder.  Yes, it would be difficult, and yes, I will probably lose a toenail or five, and yes, walking will probably suck for a few days, but it also sounds like an incredible race.

So last November, we paid our registration fees and we signed up.  I didn’t write about it at the time because I wanted to focus all of my mental energy on preparing to go sub-4:00 at the Clearwater Marathon. But then the Clearwater Marathon came and went, and I still didn’t write about signing up for the Keys ultra.  We are now five weeks post-marathon and I am finally choosing to write about it.  Why?  Well, I guess the reason why can be summed up with that simple warning: “Be careful what you wish for because just you might get it.”

I wished for a challenge that scared the shit out of me, and I got it.  I am terrified of what I have signed up for.  I am frightened, and if I am going to be honest, questioning my sanity a little bit too.  I’m not the only one.  I told a coworker what I planned to do and his response was, “You are not well, girl.” He laughed as he said it, so I know he’s half-joking, but I think he’s half-serious as well.

But I am also incredibly excited, and as I make my way through my training, which includes a four-race ultra challenge that I completed this past weekend and a single-day 33-mile trail run coming up this weekend (which I guess is technically going to my first actual ultra), I feel my confidence increasing in small yet perceptible increments. Yes, it’s all new and it’s scary and it’s totally out of my comfort zone, but that’s exactly what I wanted.  That’s what I remind myself every time I feel a little flutter of panic in my chest, that this is exactly what I wanted.  Being scared and doing it anyway is the whole freaking point.  And it’s with that in mind that I keep pushing ahead.

What about you?  Have you deliberately set out to do anything recently that scares you?  Do you have anything you’d like to do that freaks you out?  Do you plan to do it?

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43 responses to “I’m running an ultramarathon and it’s all Cheryl Strayed’s fault

  1. Born to Run and Wild both had the same effect on me! I’ve yet to actually DO anything about it. But I like the idea of physical challenges. I’ve started testing my body in the last year and I’m amazed at what it’s able to do. Best of luck on your ultra!!

    • Thank you! I suspect those two books had the same impact on a lot of people, actually. There’s a NYT article out there about The Wild Effect, because evidently a lot of people are now hiking the PCT as a result of having read the book.

    • Oh jeez, those New Zealand great walks are immediately going on my list of things to do before I get much older. Holy smokes, they look amazing. Sending this to Brian right. now.

      • And they have huts along the way to stay in. I just love that idea. I’m keen on walking and camping but not carrying tents. I’ve done bits and pieces of them but would love to do more. And bonus: no wolves, cougars, bears!

  2. when you think about it, what better way to be completely wasted away in Margaritaville?

  3. As someone who used to live in Florida, I simply can’t imagine running that many miles along the water. Bring sunscreen!

    I’m really excited for you and I’d like to read about your training! The leap from half marathon to marathon was fraught enough for me, so I’m very curious about the training involved to go from marathon to 50-miler.

    • Ooh, where in Florida? I live in Largo right now.

      I never leave home without a layer of sunscreen. I’m thinking that this race will also require a long-sleeved white shirt and one of those hats with the tails that drape over your neck. That sun and heat is sure to be brutal.

  4. That sounds just amazing. I’m afraid of my little old Olympic distance triathlon this summer. I’ll have to channel my inner Caitlin that day! Your experience this weekend really helped to motivate me (I have to silence the voice that keeps reminding me that I’m almost 50 and you’re not even 35 yet). Thanks!

    • You are going to rock that Oly triathlon. I just know it. I was totally intimidated the first time I did one – that swim, oy vey! – but the second time out, I trained well and enjoyed every minute of it. I’m looking forward to hearing more about your experience training for it.

      Also one of the things that rules about endurance sports of all kinds is that age is no deterrent and in fact is actually an advantage, because you are likely to be a lot more tougher mentally and much more persistent than someone who is a lot younger. Just something to think about. 😉

  5. I loved A Walk in the Woods. They were both crazy.

    Doing the ultra looks audacious, but I have every faith that you’ll come through (perhaps sans a few toenails, but what’s a few toenails when ultimate victory is at hand). Good luck! Looking forward to reading about the training and the race.

  6. This is so amazing and exciting and brave and crazy and every other adjective in my brain!! I really can’t wait to read about your experience. I too, had that thought after reading Wild.. but didn’t go so far as to sign up for anything. I like to think that one day I will do something that scares the sh*t out of me, but I’m not sure I have the gumption to go through with anything that big. I did go skydiving a couple of years ago, and was so scared that I actually made peace with the fact that I was about to die in the seconds before I jumped. Obviously, I didn’t die, and it was truly an amazing experience.

    Anyway, best of luck to you, and I can’t WAIT to hear about your experience. You’re going to lose a few toenails, but in the end it will be well worth it, and you’re going to kick total ass out there 🙂

    • Oh god, skydiving…I used to think I’d like to try that some day but I ended up taking that off my list a couple of years ago, mainly because I kept thinking that I didn’t really want my cause of death to be “jumped out of a plane for fun.” That said it does seem really awesome, and I’m impressed that you’ve actually done it.

  7. Good luck, I have many ultra running friends. Personally I DNF’s my 2 attempts at a 50 mile race. The first I regret because I weighed finishing vs a race later in the year, the 2nd it just didn’t go well from the get go – one should not expect to run 50 miles if you come to the start kind of nauseous. After the 2nd I decided maybe it wasn’t where I wanted to go for now. Maybe in a few years.

    • Oof, I’m sorry to hear that your attempts at 50-milers didn’t work out, and yeah, starting out already feeling ill sounds pretty miserable.

      I’m preparing myself for the possibility that a DNF is in my future because it seems like they happen pretty often, and not for lack of preparation on the part of the racer, either. Sometimes the spirit is willing but the body just doesn’t want to go.

  8. I’m looking forward to hearing about the ultra – both the training and the experience. The thing about doing something that scares you is that it’s really freaking scary…but the trick is to get there bit by bit, whether that’s back-to-back long runs on Saturday and Sunday, or 33 miles at a go.
    “Hours and days of tedium and pain punctuated by episodes of sublime transcendence” — sounds a lot like Type II fun to me (Google it!). I do want to through-hike the PCT or AT, or at least big chunks of it, one day, because I’m a crunchy backpacker trapped in a fast-moving urban environment 🙂

    • I have never heard of Type II fun before but I love it! A lot of what I do is Type II fun, although the cool thing is that as I’ve gotten stronger at running, I can actually enjoy the run more as it’s happening, instead of primarily feeling good after I cross the finish line. But yeah, Type II fun is totally accurate, and makes me feel a bit like a masochist, to be honest.

      I hear you on being a crunchy type trapped in an urban, modern environment. I sit in my cubicle and sit in my car and spend a lot of that time yearning to be outside. It’s part of why I will only run on a treadmill when it’s stormy outside. Even when it’s raining or cold, I’m still happy to be outside.

  9. Late last year we were starting to plan a trip out west elk hunting. I’m from the flatlands of the Midwest, used to neither inclines nor hiking with a heavy pack (packing out animals if we were successful). So I had planned to begin training for that here in March- probably 5 miles or so of hiking was the plan, working up to 90-100 lbs on my back, around 80% of my bodyweight. I was terrified and had practically no idea how to begin, neither really did any of the trainers at my gym when I asked. So I was going with the sort of training my boyfriend and his brother (our would-be hunting partner) did as Marines: hard hiking, increasing weight (none too gradually). As it turns out, the trip isn’t panning out- nobody’s talking to anyone else, and we should have been buying tags and supplies by now. Maybe another year.

    • Oh boo for that. Not only because the trip isn’t happening but also because of the communication breakdown. I hope you get to take this trip sometime soon.

  10. Wow! This sounds so scary and amazing. Very brave of you to sign up and actually attempt it, all the best of luck! I’m running my first ever Marathon in May. Only started running two years ago and got hooked. Did three halves over two years, but want to push the challenge further. Really nervous, but with proper training anything is possible!

    • That is very true. One of the best things about following a training plan is that it not only gets your body ready for the endeavor but it also gets you in shape psychologically so you aren’t in a complete state of panic when you start off.

      Good luck with your marathon and your training for it! I’m assuming that you’ve started your training at this point?

  11. You are so brave and inspiring! That is just amazing. I can’t ever imagine doing something like that – I am a big baby and would quit after five miles.

    • LOL, I would hardly consider you a “big baby,” especially with all you do. We’ve just all got different things we enjoy doing, and for some reason my thing that I enjoy doing is running for long periods of time.

      • I suppose you’re right. The events in my competitions only last 75 seconds at most, so I think it’s the thought of how many hours (days?) this will involve that impresses the hell out of me.

  12. You got this! You’ll find the experience terribly empowering and inspiring… that moment when you realize you actually ARE capable of anything 🙂 Rooting for ya!

    • Thank you! And pardon me while I fangirl for a second, but I read your book and LOOOOVED IT so much. And I love your blog, too! I got really excited to see your comment because I’m such a huge fan of your writing!

  13. I’m currently reading Wild and feeling the same way about trying something challenging – like backpacking the Tahoe Rim Trail. Before I started reading the book, I was actually thinking about the whole “you should set goals that scare you” type of thing. I’ve worked my way up the trail race distances over the last couple of years – 5K, 10K, half, 25K, 30K, and I plan to run a trail marathon this fall with my end goal on doing a 50K next year. However, the distance that really scares me is 50 miles. I finally said it aloud a couple of months ago to my boyfriend, so maybe it’s the first tiny step toward running a 50 mile race? We shall see. Anyway, best of luck to you in your training! Looking forward to following your ultra marathon adventure.

    • Tahoe Rim Trail is beautiful and doable. Besides, you are never that far from civilization. Have fun!!

  14. I read Cheryl’s book too and I loved the ballsy-ness of it. Good luck on your race! (BTW, I too, am a petite fleur who needs to sleep in a bed.) 🙂

  15. We live in Tahoe and almost everyone I know has done some kind of ultra. What I love about any trail race (as opposed to the roads) is the friendly vibe, the cookies, the quiet….I’ve done numerous 50K and one 50 miler and they are more fun than any race I ever did before ( even Boston marathon! Gasp!). Don’t be terrified, it’s so much fun….come to the mountains!

  16. Go get ’em girl!! I’m super impressed with your initiative. Running an ultra marathon is on my bucket list but there are several other things I’m focusing on before I make the jump. Good luck with training

  17. Eeee! That race in the Keys sounds pretty amazing! I was signed up to run my first ultra last weekend (a meager 55k) but had to bail before training even got started because of a couple ongoing injuries. I’m on the road to recovery now and hoping to finish my first ultra this summer (maybe with a donkey in tow). Good luck!

  18. Caitlin,
    I enjoy your posts enormously, and send my very best wishes for this new challenge! My own ultra marathon happened on my bike last summer, when my husband and I did a charity road race from London to Paris (273 miles) in 24 hours and 14 minutes. Two years ago, if you’d told me I would manage that race, all under my own steam and almost within my goal time, I would have laughed in your face!
    I’ve blogged about the experience on my own site (theactivistclassroom.wordpress.com), and as a guest on Fit Feminist and Almost Fifty (check out the series here: http://theactivistclassroom.wordpress.com/2013/07/11/learning-on-the-run-or-in-the-saddle/).
    Run safe and good luck!!
    Kim Solga

    • Wow, that race sounds really fabulous! I’m really in awe of your ability to stay on your bike for so long, and without really having any serious mishaps. I’d be afraid of falling off my bike at some point, and the clip-in pedals make it even scarier because it’s not so easy to dislodge your foot.

      I’m checking out the post now and I have to say I agree with the idea that energy gels and sports drinks is not sufficient to get you through that kind of an event. I ran a race that took about a quarter of that time this weekend and I was eating real food the whole time. I probably would have bonked if I’d tried to stick to gels and sports drinks.

      • The real food vs gels and bars thing continuously makes me puzzle. As the wonderful woman, Jo McRae, I train with says, eat real food as much as possible during a race and your body will take care of itself; use gels and bars for emergencies (as I did at the end of a painful sportif last weekend, and gratefully so!). Still I see big vats of sports drink and gels at every feed stop, with plenty of ‘junk’ stuff like high sugar treats to supplement. I don’t think I can more than speculate (and precariously) about the reasons for this (no doubt economics play a part, with sponsors donating loads of free stuff), but I’m going to venture a guess: the gels and bars are part of “MAMIL” culture and support many middle aged male cyclists’ image of what amateur (and pro) cycling is. Scarfing a gel fits the dude-in-Lycra image, just like not getting “chicked” fits the image. I don’t want to belabour this (as I said, probably precarious) equation, but anecdotally it makes sense to me, and, let’s face it, guys run the amateur cycle racing world, certainly in the UK, and they notoriously run the pro world. That’s not to say all guys support this attitude, of course; at the end of L2P, we rode into Paris with a personal trainer called Andrew who was busy telling me his ideal feed stop menu. It included plenty of high quality carbs and sounded delicious.

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