By Emily Erickson
Last weekend I ran an ultramarathon, my first long-distance race in more than two years. For anyone who doesn’t revel in extra-long distances or speak the language of a borderline-obsessed runner, an ultramarathon is any race longer than a marathon (which is 26.2 miles). This particular race, Race the Wolf 50k, was a grueling 31.4 miles up, down and around Schweitzer Mountain, with steep climbs and heat-advisory temperatures.
Despite the absurdity of the feat, long-distance racing is, at its core, a perfect mirror for life — the same lessons learned over years of experiences distilled into a single day of effort (and maybe that’s what I love about it).
The first phase of an ultramarathon is nervous excitement. It’s the same sort of prickly-anticipatory feeling that’s felt before anything with significant weight — a first date with someone you’ve liked for a while, an interview for a life-altering job, the confrontation that’s been a long-time coming — the feeling’s strength gaining intensity the closer the event comes to fruition.
On race day I gathered my gear and reviewed my nutrition plan (in long-distance running, your body needs to take in a continuous stream of calories in order to continue performing). Meanwhile, the chemicals of anticipation and excitement mixed in my body, buzzing in my chest and reminded me that, often, our biggest moments are built on the weight we give them.
I moved closer to the startline and the feeling ballooned into an almost unbearable, near-bursting size. Then the countdown — and all the anticipation wrapped inside of it — concluded. We were off, collectively scrambling up a mountain face, reveling in the first few minutes of what would be the rest of our day.
The second phase, the early miles of an ultramarathon, is one of calm; a resignation that the time for preparation and planning has passed, and that everything you need to finish is already inside you. This calm is tinged with gratitude and optimism — the expanse of possibility rolling out across the miles of trails and hours of day still uncovered.
I followed the line of racers up a mountain bike trail, savoring every switchback and ray of still-bearable sun. I listened to the chatter of the other runners around me, excitedly swapping stories of longer, more grueling races gone by, or of the incredible feats they’ve baked into future schedules. I was reminded of the power of relativity, the full extension of one person’s limit as another person’s “just beginning,” with every version of pushing that limit and pursuing accomplishment being worthy of the grandest applause.
After miles of ascent were followed by even more miles of descent, all just to ascend again, we approached the second aid station at the top of the mountain’s bunny hill. The aid station was positioned at the 14-mile mark — nearly the halfway point — and I could see the distant tent bobbing in my vision with every step. The gatorade-like liquid gurgled in my stomach, mixing tempestuously with the ever-growing heat of the blazing sun.
As I doubled over, gagging up the very fuel I needed to keep my body going, with more than 17 miles left to go, I was hurdled into the next phase of an ultramarathon: the part where your precious plan falls apart.
In the recalculating and scrambling to figure out my next best move, I was reminded of how abruptly the smoothest parts of our lives can be interrupted, with “I never saw it coming” or “everything was going so well” being replaced with “what do I have to do to keep going” in the face of adversity.
I decided on a new nutrition strategy and a walk-break to get me through the nausea, and plunged forward into the second half of my race.
Winding down the backside of the mountain, I rallied, allowing myself to be carried by the momentum of the seven-mile-long stretch of downhill, entering the next aid station with 21 miles behind me and 10 of the hardest miles still to go. As I trudged step by step up the fully-exposed climb from the bottom of the mountain to the top of the mountain and down and back again, emptying my stomach every 15 minutes, I was swarmed by the flies who I was convinced shared the same sentiment I did (that I’d surely die soon).
In my pure misery, I entered the “pain phase” of my ultramarathon, and was reminded that sometimes all you can do is keep moving forward, relying exclusively on your knowledge that whatever you’re experiencing cannot last forever.
Arriving at the aid stations and into the helping hands of volunteers, misting my body with cold water and and filling my pockets with ice packs and the fuel I needed to finish my race, I was reminded of all the other times in my life that I’ve had to lean on others — to humbly accept help to make it through my hardship.
Finally, as I descended into the final stretch of my race, I could relish the “finishing” phase of my ultramarathon. Battered, bruised and definitely worse for wear, I crossed the finish line with a feeling of accomplishment blooming in my chest. Surrounded by friends and family, I was reminded that accomplishments are always better when shared with the people you love (and who love you back).
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