The art of surviving life, 100 miles, and other things

How do you survive the longest run of your life? How do you keep your tortured body and mind going when the going gets impossibly tough? What do you tell yourself when you are shrouded in doubt? What is the answer to that ever confounding question for the ages: Why? Why are you doing this?

A week and a half ago, I stood excited, scared, and feeling naively prepared for the journey that lay ahead of me. I was going to run 100 miles. I was at Hell Creek Ranch preparing to run not only my first real ultra race, but my first 100 mile race. Let me paint you this picture. It was Friday, 4pm. It was 90 with the heat index. The sun was beating down on us and I was sweating just walking to the start line. The heat was unfortunate but really, it would be the most pleasant experience of my race in Hell. Really, I was in Hell, Michigan. Oh, the irony to be had.

I’m not sure how to divide out a race of this magnitude. There were 6 laps of 16.67 miles, but in reality, it wasn’t evenly split at all. So, I’ll start with what went right: Nothing. That’s what. And what went wrong? Everything.

A severe storm blew through Friday night, bringing violent wind that sent large limbs and small trees falling down around us, in the middle of the woods. Running while watching the trail ahead of you for the usual tripping hazards while simultaneously watching the sky, being honestly afraid for your life, as the forest caved in on you is NOT a good time. Had I been able to step off the course easily, I would have probably stopped right then but I was in the middle of the woods. The only way out was through. Then the lightning started and the heavy, steady rain that would not quit. The only upside was the storm dropped the temperature a good 20+ degrees. In the process of sprinting out of the woods, my friend and I got separated and lost for almost 5 hours. This meant, I ran out of food and water in my pack. It meant it was way past dark and I didn’t have a headlamp because I was supposed to be back hours ago. I ended up using the small, dim light from my dying cell phone that half heartedly showed me the way. This also meant I had been wearing my very wet socks and shoes for the last 8+ hours and nasty blisters were settling in.

When I finally made my way back to my crew, I was drained not just physically but emotionally. We set out for another lap in the dead of night. Despite a hard fall, this was one of the “easier” laps. I lost my friend at the next aid station due to foot issues, but my race went on and time went on, ever so slowly. I started struggling a lot early Saturday morning, whatever lap that was. I called a good friend whining, crying, and desperately looking for motivation. I was feeling pretty awful and like I’d never stop running. My blisters kept getting worse and I just wanted it to stop. She talked me through my desperation and gave me the courage to keep moving. The rain had made the trails super thick and muddy and really hard to pass in spots. I fell 2 more times, luckily, with no real injuries.

I lost track of all time. I lost track of where I was and what I was doing and I just kept going. And going. And going. Every aid station, I cried because I was so relieved to see people again and not just an empty trail. I knew I was either last or very close to it after getting lost early on. I was so isolated out on that trail, I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming this or really doing it.

I forgot what lap I was on, my Garmin died, I confused the folks in charge because I got lost, and they were missing some of my info for previous early laps. Because of that, I thought I was on my 3rd lap, not 5th. Regardless, on my actual 5th lap, a friend appeared on the trail ahead of me. I thought I was hallucinating, but she was really there. I ran, ok, more like slowly shuffled, to her crying and so thankful to see a familiar face I could barely find the words. She encouraged me and stuck with me until I could see my crew again. My kids and mother in law were there and I was overwhelmed with exhaustion and emotion. We made new friends with the experienced ultra-marathoners next to us and they helped fix the damage that was my feet. 2 blood blisters the size of my thumbnail, 4 blisters in between my toes, a huge blister on the pad of my foot, and another on my heel. They did everything they could to tape and bandage me up. My feet were so swollen I could barely get them back in my shoes. And once I did every step was agony. Pure torture. I winced, audibly gasped, cried tears of pain, and grit my teeth with nearly every movement.

I set out for what would be my last lap. I thought I was going to end up running 73 miles in all and take home a 100k finish at the very least with this lap. I still had no idea I was heading for 100 miles as planned. My husband, not a runner, not trained, not even dressed for something of this magnitude, agreed to bring me in my last lap. He was going to run 16.67 miles on a whim, just so I wouldn’t be alone. I don’t remember much of this lap. I wasn’t really running, I was limping and barely moving my feet. I cried a lot, desperate, hysterical, rantings of an exhausted woman on the edge. I remember flip flopping between thinking we are going to make it and thinking we would never, ever make it. Many times, I didn’t care how close I was, I just wanted to stop. My husband brought me through the most miserable hours of my life. When I stepped out of that forest for good and saw the finish line ahead of me, I couldn’t believe it. My husband was walking, I was holding his hand, slowly shuffling next to him in a pathetic attempt at a run. I crossed the finish line in 29 hours and 44 minutes. Just 16 minutes away from the 30 hour time limit. I made it.

I went home thinking I had run 73 miles, not 100. A week later my results still stood and the race director had emailed me back, confirming, yes I had in fact run 100 miles. There was no way around it. My splits weren’t right because the early ones are missing and included in the later ones, but that didn’t matter. I was second to last anyhow. I made it. That’s all that mattered. But I couldn’t have done it without my family and friends. If I didn’t have people behind me and people that knew how important it was to do this, I wouldn’t have made it. This was not my solo endeavor, there were so many other people that made this journey possible.

So how do you survive? Simple. Just keep going. “Keep the end in mind” as my brother in law would say. In life, in running, and in other things, it’s going to be hard. You’re going to want to quit. You’re going to be standing all alone in the black of night, in the pouring rain, exhausted, defeated, and asking yourself why. Why am I doing this? Only you can answer that question. Only you can decide if it’s worth it to keep going.
-Road Warrior Kathy

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The journey of 100 miles….

The journey of 100 miles begins with a single step, but more specifically it begins this Friday at 4pm! After nearly half a year, it all comes down to this. The course limit is 30 hours so obviously that is my goal, but really my bottom line goal is just to get out there and do everything in my power to reach that 100, no matter how long it takes. There are certain things in life that you just know are going to hurt you, change you, and promote growth in you. Running 100 miles for the first time ever is one of those things. It’s going to be hard – really, really, really hard but it certainly won’t be the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I have this small polished silver stone that has the word believe deeply etched on it. If you run your hand across it, you can feel the outlines and grooves of the word itself. I’ve clutched that stone numerous times in my life. I’ve turned that stone over and over in my hand as I watched my little boy being wheeled away from me in a hospital bed not knowing if they’d ever wheel him back to me. I’ve felt the weight of that stone in my pocket as I fought back tears and pinned down my scared, wild-eyed and thrashing 2 year old son to put in yet another IV. The stone was on the counter the day I held my son’s MRI in my trembling hands. That one thought from the stone “believe” was on my mind time after time while I watched my son unconscious and seizing wildly on the floor in front of me. Believe that he will be ok somehow or someday and if he’s not, believe that I will be ok with that somehow or someday. That’s all we can do is believe.

So what on earth does any of that have to do with running 100 miles? Nothing really. And kind of everything. For me, the two are linked. They are undeniably, inextricably tied together, running and my son’s life. Running is not only the way I heal myself but somehow the way I heal my son. I absorb the power in these miles. It transforms me and helps me project that hope onto him. And as we are facing another skull surgery for our son this month, I need that power and I need that healing. 100 miles is so much more than just another race, it’s our life. It symbolizes the long, treacherous road we’ve been on with the most desperate of lows and the most joyous of highs. Just like the race, we don’t know what’s going to happen, how it’s going to play out, or how much suffering there will be – we only know to keep going, forging ahead to that finish line, and believe that it will all be ok, somehow or someday.

September is Craniofacial Awareness Month. Just one of my son’s major health issues is that he was born with a birth defect of the skull called Craniosynostosis, but no one knew. He went undiagnosed the entire first year of his life. His official diagnosis came from his surgeons at 14 months old. Craniosynostosis inhibits brain growth and can cause increased intracranial pressure, seizures, eye problems, developmental delays, and more if left uncorrected. Symptoms to look for include an unusual shaped head, a hard, raised ridge along the affected suture, slow or no growth of the head, and a soft spot that closed too early. If this could be your child or a child of someone you know, I encourage you to speak to your Doctor. Knowledge is power and we need more power!

And with that short public service announcement about Craniosynostosis, I must leave you. Look forward to one wicked race report coming soon!

-Road Warrior Kathy

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AIM High Endurance Awards

What are you doing on Thursday, November 6th of this year? Because you should be going to the AIM High Endurance Awards! If you’ve never heard of it or been for yourself, you are missing out. I had the distinct privilege of attending the event on the inaugural year it was held. For some reason, they gave me The Inspiration Award. While I was then and still am truly, deeply honored and humbled, don’t let it fool you for a second! I’m not really all that inspirational and am in fact, quite average. I don’t do anything that somebody else couldn’t do; I’ve just been given a unique set of circumstances.

Regardless, there I was, having been utterly terrified of public speaking my entire life and stepping up to a podium in high heels hoping against all hope I wouldn’t fall. I stared out at a sea of very intimidating faces and was sure I was just going to pass out right then and there. Instead of speaking gracefully and eloquently like I had imagined in my head, I panicked and blurted out just one sentence before I started to get choked up. I shakily re-gained my composure and forgot the rest of what I wanted to say. I got out another two sentences in record time and hightailed it back to my seat red faced and with my hands still shaking. While my acceptance speech left much to be desired, the event itself didn’t. It was an amazing night honoring the people, charities, and supporters in our community. I was able to rub elbows with some local running greats and important people in our community, feast on delicious food, and simply enjoy being a part of such an amazing group of people. Best of all, we were supporting Alternatives in Motion, a wonderful non profit that assists with all sorts of mobility needs.

The AIM High Endurance Awards recognize the everyday athletes out there going above and beyond. Not necessarily the elite, fastest, top 1% but everyday people like you and me. If in a single year, you have completed the Metro Health Grand Rapids Marathon, the Fifth Third River Bank Run 25k, and a half-iron or full-iron distance triathlon at the Grand Rapids Triathlon or the MiTitanium, you are automatically awarded The West Michigan Endurance Award. You will never see my name on this list because I don’t swim, but I know many of my fellow runners that fit into this category!

We all know someone who deserves to be recognized, who does so much for those around them, inspires others, or helps in ways that are too many to mention. You can nominate someone you know for one of the following awards below:

The Lifetime Contribution Award
The Individual Accomplishment Award
The Inspiration Award
The Corporate Dedication Award
The Outstanding Charitable Contribution Award
The Moving People Forward Award

I encourage you to look it up, check it out, and put it on your calendar! It’s a good time for a good cause. We hope to see you there!

-Road Warrior Kathy

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Nothing worth doing is easy

Last Saturday, I woke up at 4 am because today was the day. Today I was really going to run 50 miles.

As I got dressed, I felt a glimpse of what Clark Kent must feel when he changes into Superman. Here I am: just a regular person, a mom of 2 kids, married for 10 years, working a normal job, and doing normal things like losing my car keys and quick washing the dishes in the sink before I have to leave. But once I put on my running gear and lace up my shoes, everything changes. I am not a normal person anymore. I am stronger, faster, braver, and more capable than I was before. I am someone different: an adventurer, a fighter, and someone willing to test their limits.

Adele Garcia, a former Road Warrior from years past, joined me at 5:30 am and we set out to run 50 long, long miles. I had a pit in my stomach, the nervous and excited energy that you get before you do something really big or something you are not so sure of. There was no turning back now. I hit the start button on my Garmin and we ventured into the dark with only our headlamps to show us the way.

The first 30 miles I must say, flew by. We talked, we laughed, we joked around, we took pictures, we told stories, and we bonded in a way that only fellow runner friends can. There is something different about running alongside someone early in the morning for hours on end, it’s something realer and truer than anything else you can do. There is no need to impress anyone, there is no way to skirt who you are at the core because it just comes out whether you want it to or not, your guard comes down, and your secrets feel safe between the two of you and the ever growing road beneath your feet. And for the first 30 miles, we stuck side by side, drinking in our long run, enjoying each other’s company, and unburdening our past, present, and future. It was nothing short of amazing.

When we stopped for food around the 30 mile mark and I realized how much longer we had to go still, something became unhinged in my mind. I started laughing hysterically – crazy, maniacal laughter that I couldn’t quiet. I was laughing so hard I was crying while my running partner Adele, and my husband/crew chief, looked at me like I might be losing my grip. No one else was laughing but me, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t make myself stop. It was exhaustion, desperation, and anxiety coming out. Things took a turn for the ugly very quick in the 30’s.

The miles ticked by slower than anything I had ever seen in my life, we were running indefinitely and hysteria threatened to overtake my fragile mind. Everything hurt, the sun was blazing down on us with no end in sight, and we were only now just over half way there. Both Adele and I were struggling. One of us would feel better while the other felt worse, then the roles would reverse. The fun run was officially over, now it was more like a death march to the end. There’s not much I can say about those miles except they were extremely hard. The range of emotions that rises up in you when you’ve been running for 8+ hours is staggering and uncontrollable. Tears for no reason, anger for no reason, and complete and utter exhaustion for good reason, When running is no longer fun, you have to remind yourself why you are doing it and what you want out of this. It was hard to remember during some of the dark miles. And then it was like running through a fog that suddenly lifts, because around mile 41, I found a second wind. I ran with renewed passion, finishing the last 9 miles faster than the first 9 miles. Watching Adele fight for it was awe inspiring too. It didn’t matter what was happening, she was still moving forward, always moving towards her goal. We both finished hours over our projected goal time of 12 hours, but still, I consider it a wild success because we both finished.

In running, in life, and in nearly everything, we have a choice. Keep moving or quit. It’s as simple as that. So when you want to quit, remember why you are doing this, remind yourself what you want out of this, and fight for it if it’s worth it to you.

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Cloudy skies ahead

We’ve all been there before. It’s the run that takes away nearly all of your hard earned confidence in a matter of minutes. It’s the run that makes you feel like the slowest, sluggish, most out of shape person that has ever attempted to run. In a single word – it’s excruciating. The first question that comes to mind is what’s going on. A runner’s brain tends to be logical, methodical, and usually operates within a definite have a problem, find a solution mentality. But sometimes, into the most logical part of that brain sneaks the black could. The black cloud is powerful; it can overtake even the most self-assured runner if the conditions are just right. It seeks out fear and doubt and amplifies it in your mind. The black cloud makes you feel like a failure before you’re even done trying and before you’ve even had the chance to fail. The black cloud is not above shaming you for every decision you’ve ever made and for every failure (legitimate or not) that you’ve ever tried to bury and forget about. Yes, the black cloud sees it all and uses it all to hand out its harsh judgments without mercy.

Welcome to the deep, dark recesses of my mind just last week. It was Saturday morning and 24 miles were on the schedule. I am training for my very first 100 mile ultra marathon in September. I am not a stranger to the ultra marathon but this 100 mile race will be by far, the longest I’ve ever attempted. Anyhow, back to Saturday morning: less than 2 miles into my 24 mile run and it became clear that this was going to be one of those excruciating runs. The black cloud pushed its poison into my mind immediately and didn’t let up for the next 22 miles. The black cloud wiped out every accomplishment I’ve ever had. The black cloud brought shame and guilt with it and told me if I lost these last 20 pounds, it’d be much easier to run. The black cloud went for the jugular, taunting me for being selfish and for spending so much time on running when I could be at home with my kids and judging me for spending so much money on running shoes when I could be setting it aside for my son’s medical expenses. The black cloud was sure I would never, ever, in a thousand years, be able to finish 100 miles. I mean, I was struggling terribly just to survive these 24 miles and I wasn’t even a quarter of the way there. When my resolve was weakened and I was truly wondering if I’ve gotten in over my head, the black cloud mocked me “Let’s just leave these kinds of feats to the real athletes, shall we?”

I put on my angry face, gritted my teeth, and obsessively watched my Garmin move slower than I thought was even possible. At one point, I took it off and jostled it around a bit, sure that it was broken. Luckily, or perhaps unluckily for me, it wasn’t broken; I was just going that slowly. I scolded myself, I threw myself a big pity party, I got good and mad about not being able to do what I wanted to do, and yet I didn’t give up. I dug deep, I held on, and I pushed through it. As my driveway came into view, I was overcome with emotion. I started to cry from sheer relief at being done and also to be rid of that hateful black cloud. Once I was done running and thinking clearly again, I realized with some embarrassment that the hateful black cloud is me. There is no escaping her. Secretly (or not so secretly anymore), I’m afraid that I can’t do it. I’m afraid that I’m not good enough, not fast enough, not thin enough, and not disciplined enough. And I won’t ever be able to stop that voice in my head until I can give myself some credit for the past and believe that I really can do whatever I set my mind to. A friend gave me a wonderful magnet from Fellow Flowers that says “And when she realized she was brave enough, everything changed.” It’s a great reminder about the power of our own voice.

Running has a way of bringing out the very essence of life in each mile like that. There’s no escape from who you are and what lies beneath the surface. So this is what I want you to do if the black cloud comes for you. Just for right now, just for this run, and just for today, shut down that black cloud. Be proud of yourself even if you are not where you want to be. Be proud of what you can do even if you aspire to do more one day. Remember where you have come from, what you have survived, and what you have done in order to get here. Believe that you have done the best that you could given the circumstances, know that you have made mistakes but learned much from them, and realize you are always progressing towards something better. We choose what the voice in our head has to say to us – make it something worth listening to.

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