I started racing ultras because of unusual family circumstances. For more than ten years my younger sister suffered from a horrific degenerative neurological condition known as Huntington’s Disease. In 2008 my brother-in-law invited me to participate in a two day 150-mile charity bicycle ride in the Colorado Mountains to raise money and to honor her. I knew that it was important to participate, even though I knew nothing about bicycles and had never ridden a real one. I grew up miles away from the nearest paved road, and we didn’t have bikes on the farm. My brother-in-law rented an expensive bike for me and helped me buy basic equipment. It was a large event and he was riding with some friends. When I showed up the morning of the start, they all looked at me with alarm. Not knowing what I was doing, I had my helmet on backwards and my gloves on the wrong hands. Not only that, when I came to my first stop, I was not used to the pedal baskets and I couldn’t get my feet out in time. I slowly toppled over like a cartoon figure. But I loved it, except for the descents. The serious bikers were absolutely amazing, shooting downhill at speeds I thought were only attainable by sportscars or small airplanes. Meanwhile I hung on for dear life, praying that I wouldn’t hit a bad patch of pavement and go down. The part I liked best was the long climb up to Royal Gorge Bridge near Canyon City, Colorado, the highest suspension bridge in the USA. I made it a personal challenge to ride the entire distance up while everybody else was walking their bikes. Still to this day my wife cannot believe I rode across the wooden planks of the bridge. I hate heights. But there was no way to go but forward, and trust me, I never looked at anything except the far end. By the end of the second day of riding, I was an endurance athlete again. It was the last, and perhaps the best gift my sister ever gave to me.
I first thought that I would become a triathlete. Isn’t that what all ex-runners do? In my opinion, there is only one problem with the triathlon: swimming. The closest we had to a swimming pool in the part of rural South Dakota where I was raised was a drainage ditch with waist high muddy water. As kids, we waded in it, but it wasn’t swimming. Occasionally the church youth group would travel the hour or so to the Holiday Inn indoor pool in Spearfish or Rapid City, but it wasn’t often enough to learn how to swim.
After returning from Colorado, I tried. I used the local health club pool and began a regimen of laps. But when your fasted stroke is lying on your back and waving your arms like you are making a snow angel, it just isn’t going to work. It was around this time that by chance I noticed Ultramarathon Man by Dean Karnazes in our local bookstore. I had known vaguely about ultra distances, but had the typical marathoners’ disdain for that kind of ‘racing.’ Nine or ten minute per mile pace? With aid stations every few miles? Aid stations where they serve grilled cheese sandwiches and bacon and chili? Are you serious? It didn’t sound like racing; it sounded like a day-long buffet with a little light jogging thrown in. Yet there was something about Dean Karnazes’ story which intrigued me and I started running again in the spring of 2008.
I knew that I needed good running shoes, so one afternoon I stopped by our local running store in Medina, Ohio. I told the woman who was helping me that I was going to run a 50-mile race in the summer. Not only did she not seem surprised, she was extremely knowledgeable and encouraging. By coincidence, it turns out that the very first person that I spoke to about ultras was Connie Gardner, the current USA record holder for the 24-hour race. By the time I left the store I not only had a pair of shoes, I also had a lot of great information. I had not even run an ultramarathon yet, and I was hooked.
Even though long distance running can be a solitary sport, one really cannot be successful alone. I am not talking here about crews and racing, although any ultrarunner will tell you that racing with a crew and racing without one are too completely different experiences– and one of them is a whole lot better than the other. What I mean is that the commitment of the mega-miles training, the exhaustion and pain sometimes when you are in between runs, and the time commitment of travel to races require either enormous spousal and family support, or a divorce. I am blessed to have a wife who is not only supportive, but enthusiastic. She is my crew chief, my greatest fan, and my butt-kicker (when I need it, mostly during the rough patches of races). A commitment to ultra racing warps most of life, from what is eaten to sleep patters to sex. I cannot express how appreciative I have been of her support and indulgence. My kids were older when I started doing this, so they weren’t impacted as much. Actually, due to the demands of parenting I don’t think ultras would have been possible when the kids were little.
After getting introduced to this wacky ultra community and crewing me for a few years, my wife decided to try one herself. So she set a goal of completing a 50k before she turned 50 years old. There was only one problem: she is a total non-athlete. She trained for almost a year, mostly walking with a little running thrown in. Gradually she was able to expand her distances. What she needed was a 50k race with no cutoffs. It all came together for her to participate in the Run Woodstock Freak 50k that was happening at the same time as the Hallucination 100 that I was racing. My middle son, 19 at the time, had also gotten the ultra bug and decided he wanted to race 100 miles, too. The course was perfect for us as a family. The course consists of c.15 mile loops. The 100 began in the afternoon and the 50k began the following morning. We were able to set up a tent at base camp (and, let me tell you, it is the craziest base camp ever–they really know how to do the hippie theme!). At the end of each loop we could get whatever stuff we needed and write each other encouraging notes. It was perhaps the most powerful ultra experience of my life. I finished first and was able to follow what was happening with my wife and son. She was really struggling during her last lap and called me at base camp. My son happened to be there right at that moment and told her over the phone “hang on Mom, I’m coming to get you.” Then he took off on his last lap faster than he did at the start. He caught her about half way through and sang to her as they pushed forward. I am not sure if she would have finished without him or he without her. As the sun was setting, they ran across the finish line together hand in hand. The emotions are still so powerful that I am trying not to cry while writing this.
I thought about this experience a lot this last week while I was reading Tom Foreman’s My Year of Running Dangerously. The author is a CNN correspondent and former runner who returned to the life-giving hobby he loved because of his daughter’s suggestion that they run a marathon together. When he was describing their experience and success in finishing, I was overcome with emotion and appreciation for my own family. I put the book down and broke into tears. And then I texted each of my boys and told them how proud I was of them.
As a long-distance runner, I can spend as many as 20 hours a week out running by myself. But I am not really alone. Every step is done through the support of my wife and my family. And I want to honor God and them by doing it with excellence. I hope my sister is proud.
4th Sunday in Lent 12