Last October, Brian was a few weeks out from his first Ironman, and I noticed that almost all of his mental gears had switched over to single-track mode. He was re-reading parts of Going Long: Training for Triathlon’s Ultimate Challenge by Joe Friel over and over again, and then he’d change it up with Becoming an Ironman, and then he’d go back to Going Long. He was making all these lists about gear and nutrition and training, worrying over them repeatedly like prayer beads. The process of preparing for his Ironman consumed him in those final weeks.
I, being the loving and supportive wife that I am, contributed to his preparation by teasing him about it.
Well, the joke’s on me. With less than a month to go until the Keys 50, it is now my turn to obsess endlessly nutrition, gear and training, to make list after list after list, to read the same fucking book over and over again. In my case, that book is Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons, which I have now read three times in the past two months. My dresser is piled high with headlamps and flashing lights and electrolyte capsules and reflective vests, and my nightstand is all ultra, all the time. Currently I’m reading The Extra Mile: One Woman’s Personal Journey to Ultrarunning Greatness by Pam Reed and Fixing Your Feet: Prevention and Treatments for Athletes by John Vonhof. (By the way, I recommend the latter book for everyone who does any kind of sport or activity that has you on your feet for long stretches of time. I’m like five chapters in and already I am begging forgiveness from my poor feet for being so cavalier in the way I’ve treated them over the years. Seriously, it’s a must-read.)
The centerpiece of my preparations, of course, is my training. I’ve been following the plan in Relentless Forward Progress fairly closely, although I’ve swapped out the fifth run for a session of cross-training (and the truth is that I’m actually cross-training two or three times a week in addition to my running). Sometimes I worry that a 31-mile run (or in my case, a 34-mile run) and two 25-mile runs isn’t going to be enough but then I remember that I’m not the expert here and that the dude who wrote RFP wouldn’t have put it in several editions of his book if there wasn’t some legitimacy to it.
I actually had a moment a couple of weeks ago after a 17-mile run that led a total emotional meltdown. I had gone out in the middle of the day – which is what I am doing with all of these runs to prepare me for the heat – and the first seven miles had gone okay. I looped back home, filled my hydration pack with ice and water and my handheld with ice and Accelerade mix, ate some pb&j, and then I went back out.
And here is where I realized in retrospect that I made a huge mistake. Instead of coming back home after five miles to refill on ice and I decided to just do the last ten miles at one go, with a midway stop at a water fountain at a local park. When I reached the park, my handheld was empty so I filled it up with straight water. This was fine for a while, but when I hit the 14th mile, my legs began feeling as though I had run headlong into knee-deep Jello. My legs refused to move at more than a shuffle. When I bent over to retie a shoelace that came loose, I felt light-headed and dizzy. I walked most of the last three miles home.
Had it not been eighty degrees in the middle of the day, I would have sat down on the trail and cried. Instead, I waited until I got home so I could weep in private. I’d only made it a third of the total race distance. How was I going to make it another thirty-three miles? What had I gotten myself into? WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? I sat on the couch in my sweaty running clothes and sobbed. I sent a text to Brian telling him that I was absolutely terrified. I posted on Facebook: “Three and a half hours in hot sunlight and I’m pretty much dead. How on earth am I going to do this?” And then I cried some more while the house animals looked at me with what I like to think was concern (but was probably really “why such ugly noises and faces, human mommy?”)
Back when I signed up to do this race, I told some friends of mine that I wanted to take on a challenge that was going to turn me inside out emotionally, something that was going to make me hate myself and question my sanity and all that. This was exactly what I had wanted. Of course, it’s one thing to say that you want to take on a challenge that turns you inside out emotionally from the safety of one’s imagination, but it’s another thing entirely to actually experience it. But you know what? Just reminding myself that I wanted this made a huge difference to me psychologically, and so once I stopped wallowing in self-pity, I set about coming up with constructive ways to ensure my next long run did not end in tears.
I told myself that from that time forward, I was going to make sure I stopped at home after every hour of my long runs so I could get more ice and more Accelerade and so I could take an electrolyte capsule. (Fortunately I had some Enduralyte capsules from Hammer Nutrition kicking around, and after a couple of commenters mentioned taking salt tablets the last time I posted about this, I decided to try them out.) This was non-negotiable. I had gotten impatient and didn’t want to take the time to refuel properly, and I paid for it. Not only had I run out of energy way too early, but later that night my legs ached way more than they should have. Just an all around fail on multiple levels.
The following weekend gave me the chance at redemption. On Saturday, Brian and I took part in a 5K at a nearby park, which was notable for two things. First, it ended up being the first time I’ve ever finished as first female overall at a 5K, which was weird, since my time wasn’t anything particularly great, but also awesome, because I got a great trophy that is now sitting on a bookshelf in my front room. But more importantly, the fact that I was able to run a 22:50 5K (see? it’s weird that I was first female overall with that time) on a warm and sticky morning told me that my attempts at training in the heat have actually been working. So that was a confidence booster in more ways than one. (Seriously, the trophy is pretty badass.)
The following day, I set off for a 25-mile run. I did a few things differently this time. I applied a layer of Aquaphor to my feet as a lubricant. It felt weird at first to have my toes slipping against each other like that, but I got used to it pretty quickly. (I am now a convert as I pulled my socks off after the run and realized I had not developed a single blister anywhere on my feet, which is unheard of after a run of that distance.) I also opted for thin moisture-wicking socks instead of my normal Thorlos. I also slathered every inch of bare skin with sunblock. I used a sweatproof spray for my arms, chest, back and legs, and put a Neutrogena sunblock on the lower part of my face (so I wouldn’t end up with sunscreen-spiked sweat in my eyeballs) and all over my ears.
To deal with the heat, I switched out my visor for this hat, which has a swath of super-absorbent material running over the top of it. I soaked it in water, wrung it out a bit and put it on. Every time it needed a recharge, I just poured more water on it. And I made myself an ice bandana, which I did by laying a line of ice cubes across the diagonal line of a regular cloth bandana, then folded it over, rolled it up, and tied it around my neck. Dudes, I cannot describe how incredible this felt. I would go back outside in the blazing hot sun and feel as fresh as if it were a crisp spring day. All of my fastest miles came after I freshened up my ice bandana. I cannot recommend this enough.
I made a point to return home after every five or six miles. Every time I came home, I got more ice, I popped an Enduralyte capsule, I refilled my handheld with Accelerade, I made sure I had enough food. (I alternated between bites of Clif bar and pretzel sticks during my walk breaks, and drank a half a bottle of vanilla Boost every two hours.) I reapplied my sunblock, soaked my hat and went right back out the door.
My neighbors across the street were smoking in their garage every time I made a pit stop, and I’m almost certain they now think I am completely insane. I don’t blame them. When I try to envision what I must look like during these long runs, shuffling up and down the Pinellas Trail for hours, a bandana wrapped around my neck, a pack strapped to my back and a bottle in my hand, all that comes to mind is “high-tech hobo.” Just give me a moisture-wicking bindle and the look would be complete. I felt awkward at first, but then I realized I was basically dressed like Samantha from Desert Runners, and that made me feel less like a big stupid dork and more like a complete badass.
(By the way, I keep remembering this part from that interview with Jennifer Steinman: “The thing that I always say is the difference between the people who made it and the people who didn’t make it, the defining thing is that the people who made it always believed they would and they never wavered in that.” There have been a couple of times I’ve caught myself saying, “If I finish…” as if out of deference to the possibility that I may DNF, but then I always correct myself to say “WHEN I finish…” I refuse to let the stories about DNFs sway me from my belief that I will finish this race.)
This time, my run went about as perfectly as one can possibly hope for. I gave myself the entire day for this run, which encouraged me to exercise some patience and not try to rush through things, and I let myself get as much ice and water as I needed. As a result, my pace was steady the whole time, and fatigue really only set in during the last half-mile, when my brain was like, “Yay! We’re going home! *slump*” I know I could have kept running for much longer if I’d needed to, though, and the way I was feeling, I would have been happy to do so. Something about those long multi-hour runs becomes more than just a way to get some physical activity. It becomes a spiritual practice of sorts for me, about as close to meditation as I am capable of getting, and I regularly experience moments of pure bliss while out on the trail. I am grateful that more of my runs are like the wonderful 25-miler and that few of them are like the horrid 17-miler.
Sure, I’m still scared, because I know this is going to be harder than I can even imagine, but I’m also excited to see what it’s all going to be like. I have a feeling it’s going to be amazing, but I also know that a big part of that is dependent on how well I prepare ahead of time. I hope I’m doing a good job. I think I am. I guess we’ll find out.