Sunday, May 13, 2007

Memories from the Ice Age Trail, my first 50-miler

Since yesterday was the 26th running of one of my favorite ultras, I've been thinking about the Ice Age Trail 50 and about how I felt the night before my first ultra 8 years ago. Here's what I wrote about this fabulous race and my christening into the world of ultrarunning:

I still remember much of the details of my first ultra (that's why this is long), but a few things stand out. I was at the pre-race meal the night before the Ice Age Trail 50 miler, my first ultra. I had absolutely no idea what to expect. I had only run on trails and hills a few times and I had not run a step beyond the marathon. To top things off, I was recovering from a bout with bronchitis that kept me from running for 2 weeks prior to the run.

I remember quite vividly the emotions I felt as I wandered through the room looking at the display of previous year's buckles and awards. And there was this picture of a runner bent over after crossing the 50-mile finish line. He looked like he was yacking something up, but I loved the picture anyway. It represented my large dream that night. I got choked up when I saw it. Somehow, it made my fears and looming feelings of inadequacy surface. I really did not feel like I belonged there. I remember looking around thinking, "I am not like these people" (Ha! So little did I know then!) I actually became quite overwhelmed as I wandered about, acutely aware of the casual laughter and chatter among the other runners. Are these care-free people who are sitting around talking and eating voluminous quantities of food actually the RUNNERS in tomorrow's race? I wondered. It all seemed surreal to me.

I remember the doubt. I had such doubt! I hadn't really even committed myself to toeing the start line. Maybe I was fooling myself into thinking I could run 50 miles. Oh, what was I thinking...! And the more I thought about it, the more I doubted.

Feeling the pull of the downward spiral, I knew I had to force myself out. I had noticed 2 men sitting and talking and laughing at a table of their own. There were books laid out on the table. I meandered over, and to my surprise, the book that I had been wanting to buy was stacked on the table. One guy looked cool and calm; the other looked like a jester both in dress and character. They were both happy guys. So, I spoke.

"Hi, can I see this book?" I interrupted their laughter, and when they turned to me, I immediately felt transparent, exposed. They must know I didn't belong here. I was not an ultrarunner. Just someone fooling herself into thinking she could be.

Well, they immediately engaged me and the one guy introduced himself and asked if I wanted him to sign a book. "What!?" I looked at him and then at the cover and then at the name. Yes, it was Bob Boeder, author of "Beyond the Marathon: The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning!"

I decided to offer up my confession. I told them that this was my first ultra and that I had no idea what I was doing. I only knew I wanted so bad to finish and get one of those buckles. "Any advice for a first ultra?" I asked.

My question must've seemed strange to them because they both chuckled and Bob looked at the other guy and asked him deliberately, "So...what would you recommendation to this lady about how to run an ultra?"

I did not understand why my question seemed comedic; I was quite serious.

The jester replied: "Well, what you do is this...when the gun goes off, you run as fast as you can for as long as you can and hope you make it to the finish line." This was again followed by more chuckles and 'insider' kind of smiles.

"Don't listen to him," Bob advised. "Just go out there and put one foot in front of the other till you finish."

We talked a little more and Bob signed my book: "To Lisa -- Good luck in your first ultra - the Ice Age 50 Miler. Bob Boeder. 7 May 1999, Whitewater, WI."

I clutched my book and shook hands. "Thanks Bob, and thanks, uh....?"


"Thanks, Eric. Good luck tomorrow."

(pic: Me and Dave Dowd at the start)

So, yes, I toed the start line, and I ran the race. The first 30 miles were a cinch. I LOVED being out there. But 30 turned to 40 and soon every single bone and muscle in my body hurt. I mean really hurt! My feet, my hips, and especially my knees. I waddled into the aid station at the 40-mile turn around. I had absolutely no idea whether I could physically make it to the finish, but I knew I must keep going. I had to try. I made it another couple miles, hobbling along, when another runner came swooshing up behind me. He flew by, but slowed enough to encourage me: "EVERYBODY makes it from here," he said and took off.

(pic: My brother Gary, his 2 kids and my dog Natasha wait for me before an aid station)

The words he left behind for me stuck to my aching body, and I was suddenly flooded with hope. I thought for the first time that I might really be able to finish. I just might be able to do this thing, cross that finish line. I remember I started to cry...just a little. And I repeated that runner's words aloud over and over again.

(pic: gettin' some sugary M&M's at an aid station)

I desperately dragged on till the last aid station, but I didn't know it was the last aid station. "How far is it?" I asked. "It's 2 miles and you have an hour to do it -- you got it, girl!" Aw, damn! I started crying again! Could I really have just 2 miles to go? No, this can't be for real, it can't be...

Then, as I rounded the last curve before the finish, I heard "GO, LISA!" I looked behind me for another Lisa, but as I neared, I saw it was Lorraine Bunk (one of my forever idols), clapping and cheering ME in. She had long finished the race and was back on the course cheering in the stragglers. "Lorraine! I think I'm gonna do it!" I said as I took her extended hand as I ran by.

And then, right around that corner...the finish. I continued my hobbled run and crossed that finish line! The flood of emotions that hit me was far more than any marathon or other accomplishment in my life. It was a true struggle and I had to dig deep and face the unknown and face my self-doubt and overcome. And the reward...ah, the reward! Simply life-changing. And as you all know, the story goes on from there.

BUT, one more extraordinary memory from that day must be shared. You see, not a few minutes after I finished, I was approached by the jester now well-groomed and dressed in normal clothes. "Congratulations on finishing your first ultra, good job." I thanked him and asked him how he did. Modestly, he said, "Well, I had a good race." I egged him on for an answer. "5:59, broke the 6 hour barrier."

I was stunned, didn't know what to say. Of course, I congratulated him and all, but I do not know what I said, I only remember that he, the winner, the winner who broke 6 hours on this course, the jester in the funny looking tights who looked so calm and care-free the night before, took the time to congratulate me on my 11:36 finish.


By the following year, I had completed several more ultras and was a bit more confident. That year at the 40-mile turn around, 10-miles from the finish, I swooshed up behind a struggling runner. I slowed to encourage him: "EVERYBODY makes it from here...Good job," I said as I made eye contact. And remembering, I continued running, a lump in my throat and gratitude and joy in my heart.

(PS - Y'all know who the "jester" is, right??)


Bob - said...

"EVERYBODY makes it from here,"
I Love it Lisa & very timely, because now coming out of DV camp. I am now focused on my "first" 50 miler in the Tetons in Sept..

NO other race is planned or desired, I want the FULL Experience of toeing a 50 miler & thinking like you did but actually a lot more because my last race was a 5k in 1997--LOL (which I hardly remember)

... THIS is what will make this 50 miler event so special, NO marathon first, No 10k, No Half Marathon... right into a 50 miler, yes a bit nuts maybe but I wouldn't want it any other way!

I say ALL this because this morning I was thinking --GEESH two 25 mile loops what the heck am I thinking, then I smiled and said "STOP THINKING Bob & have a good training today" :-)

Thanks again Lisa for a great re-cap, you had me teared up a bit when that guy said "Everybody makes it from here" :-)

Olga said...

Awesome! You made my eyes to well up. I think so mnay of us if not all can recount that first ultra, that doubt, that finish - and that our own "Eric" Clifton:) Now you are the one who teaches so many myself including to put one foot in front of another - for a very long time...

Backofpack said...

Beautiful Lisa. I don't know who the jester is, but I'm glad he came by to encourage you. And now, as Olga said, you are the experienced one, offering encouragement and inspiration to others. What goes around, comes around!

Steve Ansell said...

Great story, Lisa. Very inspirational and I love the idea of passing on a new tradition to another runner the next year. Just awesome!

kelly said...

Wow, Lisa, great story. It certainly took me down memory lane to my first ultra. Thanks for sharing your story.

Adelyn said...

Thanks so much for sharing that Lisa! I can't believe it was such a (relatively) short time ago that you ran your first ultra. It was really comforting to hear you voice all those newbie concerns that you had in your first one, and to see how far you've come. Gives hope to those of us just starting out in the sport :)

What a lovely anniversary to commemorate

Kendra Ralstin said...

I really enjoyed your memories and reflections, too, Lisa B! It's important to remember that unmitigated joy of our first finish, before things got more complicated and demanding. Or, before we allowed them to get that way!