By Myra Tejada
One question I repeatedly heard leading up to the race is “Are you crazy? Why 50 miles? Isn’t a marathon enough?” I tried to think back to winter of last year when I signed up for this race to come up with a suitable answer, but no matter which way I looked at it, the only thing I could come up with is “why NOT 50mi?” But after some thought this weekend, I now have the answer.
While I find marathon running to be extremely challenging, my 2009 lackluster results in marathon racing was beginning to affect my love of training, or running for that matter. Ask any runner and I think they will admit that half of the fun of running is the actual race with all its glory, while the other half is all the training, pain, and dedication that goes into it. It’s a twisted love affair that year after year and race after race, we keep coming back for more of it. Unfortunately, 2009 was turning into a different story for me.
After my PR in the 2008 New York City Marathon, motivation was at an all time low and looking back now, I think I was beginning to feel the burn out of training and racing. If I didn’t hit certain splits at the track or if I didn’t PR from my last race, I viewed the overall experience as a complete failure. I had run Boston in 2009 with barely any training under my belt and have the lackluster results to prove it and was very disappointed. When I came into the 2009 Chicago fall marathon, I had hopes of regaining my momentum and running a sub 3:30, but unfortunately, had to drop out at mile 14 due to sickness. Rather than chalking up the experience as “you win some you lose some”, I started to really get down on myself. An entire year of running and training and I had nothing to show for it. I started to wonder if NYC was going to be the highpoint of my running “career” and from this point forward, it was all going to be an uphill battle of failed attempts. I wasn’t going to allow for that to be an option, so I decided to get back to the basics. To get back to the feeling of that first marathon I had ever run years ago where I hadn’t put any pressure on myself and was just happy to run the race and finish. I watched a DVD showcasing the Western States 100mi ultra and saw the runners cross the finish line, totally exhausted, but with total jubilation. I was envious of them. I thought if I could get back to that feeling maybe I could fall in love with running all over again. But to do so, I needed to try something I had never done before. Something that challenged me. Something that could humble me. So, I went online and did some research, came across Dances With Dirt 50 miler, saw the race was in WI and a week before my birthday and signed up. The stars were aligned.
Mind you, I had NO idea how to train for an ultra. Marathons? I could give you the training schedule like the back of my hand. But ultras, I was in a totally different territory. I did some more research online and came across the Santa Clarita program and figured this was as good as any program. It focused on really long back-to-back runs on the weekend, followed by shorter maintenance runs during the weekday. This schedule fit perfectly with my workload, so I gave it a go.
What I quickly came to realize is despite the total mileage being seemingly low for the week, the long back to back runs on the weekend (i.e. 20 miles on Saturday, 10 miles on Sunday) were exhausting me. Also, my work schedule didn’t really allow for me to run 10 miles on Tuesday and 13 miles on Wednesday. For the last 2 months of training, I was averaging a marathon every Saturday, followed by an 8-10 mile run on Sunday. I’ll admit there were a few weekends I wasn’t able to follow this protocol. I guess you could say life got in the way. If I was working all week and running for a total of 12+ hours on the weekend, when was everything else going to get done?
Keep in mind that the pace I was used to running for marathons was not the pace the training manual recommended I follow. “Slow and steady wins with race” was the mantra, especially for first time ultra marathoners. That said, what would normally take me 2 ½ hours to run, was now taking me 4+ hours. The most time consuming training I have ever done by far.
Not to mention my diet had to completely be altered. Leading up to the peak of my training, I not only was fatigued, but also very lethargic. All I wanted to do was sleep ALL THE TIME and nothing seemed appetizing. On the advice of a friend, I went and consulted with a Sports Nutritionist, Monique Ryan. She was amazing. Apparently, I was not even close to consuming the calories I needed to be consuming to help my body gear up for the weekend runs, as well as allow my body to recover from them. I turned from a “normal eater” to a “garbage disposal”, eating 3000+ calories 3-4 times a day. Once I was able to get on an eating schedule, my energy picked up and I felt like a normal person again. I’m indebted to her, because without her program, I don’t think I would have been able to continue training for the race. She also gave me some personal advice. When I confided in her how hard it was to train for the ultra, she told me that less than 5% of her clients are female. That what the female body, mind, and spirit undergo when training for ultras is different than a mans. If it weren’t, more women would be doing it. This is interesting seeing that of the 64 finishers from Saturday, only 14 were women. As one woman on the race course said to me at mile 30, “we are women! Hear us roar!”
A few months out from the race, I followed another good piece of advice and went to the actual race course for one of my long runs. Running along the lake of Chicago, while beautiful, wasn’t necessarily the most beneficial, seeing that the race would total 8,500+ feet of vertical climbing. Not only that, but this race was all trail running, even some bushwhacking. I needed to get out there and give it a go, so my second 26miler, I went to Devils Lake and was quickly humbled.
Up until then, I had never run on a trail before (unless you could high school cross country 5k’s). All of a sudden, there I was, running 26 miles up some steep bluffs by myself. I was getting eaten alive by bugs, pierced by thorns on low hanging branches, tripped by rocks and tree trunk stubs, you name it, it happened. As I ran along the course (referring to last year’s course map), I remember saying aloud to no one, “what the hell did I get myself into?”. 26 miles took me a little over 6 hours. And this was during a cool, cloudy day. I ran the course thinking of nothing but the next step in front of me, making sure I kept referring to the map so I didn’t get lost (which of course I did plenty of times). For those 6 hours, I came across only one person. It was the most peaceful and serene run I’d had to date. I was having fun again running! At the end of the run, I thought, “if I can make it through 26 miles, what’s 24 more?”
WRONG! A few weeks later, I went back to Devil’s Lake for a 31 mile run. This not only included the same 26 mile run from weeks before, but also an additional 5 miles of bushwhacking. Long story short, when I finished the 31 miles, I cried a little, now thinking “I can barely make 31! How am I going to do 19 more!?”
As the day of the race drew near, I started to get a bit anxious. Despite getting the majority of my long runs in, I had failed to get my weekday runs in the way I would have liked. I didn’t feel very prepared and I had felt in better shape in previous races that I was for this one. Anxiety started to mount, and I was becoming very moody and stressed. I tried to stay calm and focused, but it was proving to be increasingly difficult. The best thing that could have happened to me was the Fourth of July weekend. Although I had come into the weekend thinking I would need to disassociate myself from my friends and any parties seeing I was only 1 week from race day and needed my rest and hydration, I decided to take the opposite approach and just have fun with it instead. As a result, I think I was able to calm down some and was surprised with just how at ease I was the week before and even the day before the race.
The day of the race finally arrived and the shot gun went off at 5:30am! About 94 50mi runners and 100 50k runners were at the starting line. I looked around to size up my competition and it took about 5 seconds to realize I was way out of my league. The majority were serious ultra runners who had run at least 5+ ultras in their lifetime. They were covered in tattoos, with multiple piercings, not even carrying water bottles or gu. Some men were without shirts, hat, or glasses. Just a pair of running shorts and running flats. I stood next to them with my ¾ running tights (to shelter my legs from the branches), camelback (to keep myself hydrated), hat and sunglasses (to shelter from the sun) and no tattoos. Yes, I was a virgin ultra runner.
As we were all corralled to the start line, there was no Star Spangled Banner, no jet airplanes flying overhead, no music (like from other big marathons). Nothing. Just runners shaking each others hand, wishing everyone good luck and then I heard “On your mark, get set, GO!”. Hard Core. I was off….
Thought running through my mind: “This isn’t so bad. This is actually fun!”
After climbing 900+ feet (a ski slope in the winter), we entered single bike trail running. Series of ups and downs, rocks, branches, downhills, dirt, weeds, puddles, you name it. For 4.5 miles, energy was high. Moral was high. Runners were talking to each other saying things like, “where are you from? Is this your first ultra? Passing to the left. What a beautiful morning”. During this stage, I met Mimi, a girl from Chicago who was also running her first ultra (although she had signed up for the 50k, I convinced her to switch to the 50 miler at the halfway checkpoint). We decided to stick together, at least until the 24.7mile marker. We had 6 ½ hours to reach that point. If not, we would not be allowed to continue the 50 miles, but rather would be diverted to the 50k course. For me, diversion was not an option. I hadn’t come all this way to be told by an aid station volunteer that I couldn’t continue on. That said, high noon it was.
Thought running through my mind: “Don’t panic. You’ve run this section at least 4 times. You know this. Just climb.”
This stage started the Ice Age Trail, with another 800+ feet of vertical climbing. By this time, runners were dispersed throughout the trail. You could hear voices/conversation through the forest which was pretty cool, but beyond that, it was just me and my breathing. Mimi and I made a pact to check our heart rates along the way by having short conversations every 15 minutes or so. That way, we could gauge if we were pushing ourselves too much. We walked most of this climb, careful to monitor our breathing and fluid intake. By the time we got to the aid station, we were dripping with sweat. My camel back felt like a ton of bricks. And it was only around 8 in the morning. It was hot, it was muggy, and we had a LONG WAY TO GO!
Thought running through my mind: “This is an easy part. Coast through it and enjoy the flat sections. Wait, am I staying hydrated?”
This section took us to Steinke Basin, a huge aid station and the station that would eventually become our decision point. We ran at a good pace to this check point, grabbed a snack at the aid station table, and kept pushing along. Next stop? Lake Aid (i.e. where my support crew would be waiting)
(I’ll take this opportunity to introduce the best support crew in the world: Mom and Dad Tejada, boyfriend Erik, and friends Abby, Kathy, John, Robert, Sarah, Jason, and Jamie. Parents flew from NC to see me run. Erik and friends drove from Chicago to spend the next 15 hours of their weekend cheering me on and being the best inspiration ever).
Thought running through my mind: “Ok, starting to get tired. Better save some energy for the climb to come. Starving.”
After running a few more rolling hills along Steinke Basin, we made it to Lake Aid. Immediately, I saw Sarah with her camera cheering me on. It felt great! I saw mom and dad too with smiles on their faces and just like that, I got a sudden boost of energy. The rest of the gang was on a 15 mile run through the back roads, so knowing they were also running in this heat and over some steep inclines make it a bit more manageable (just a little bit though). I knew I’d see them in 6.5 miles. So, I pressed on….
Thought running through my mind: “Holy Sh*T!”
The incline was endless. It was approaching noon. It was hot. I was radiating heat. My camelback was now 8 tons of bricks. My quads were hurting, I was feeling nauseous from all the gu I had, and I wanted to be done! Ever step I saw, every incline we came across, had me bent over, hands on quads, pushing my way up to the top. I began hating my life. This feeling was increased tenfold when we reached the bushwhacking part of the course. It was horrible footing, uphill, lots of rocks, lots of branches. I even started to feel claustrophobic. Where was I? The enchanted forest? By the time we reached Burma Road, it was a 1.2 mile out and back on a gravel road. The “out part” was uphill, the back part “downhill”. Relay runners were passing us left and right. I hated them. Its at this part of the course I decided to say farewell to my camelback. The amount of energy it was taking to carry was too much and I was going to need every bit of strength I had to finish this race. So, I left it at the drop bag section and just utilized food and water at the aid stations to get me through. By the time I reached Lake Aid, I saw my crew cheering strong. The clock was ticking and I had 1 hour and 10 minutes to make it to the check point. About 3 ½ miles until the big decision. And I was just coming to the hardest part of the course.
Thought running through my mind: “#$%& %^&#% * %$#^!” How much time do we have until noon?”
Climbing the East Bluff was the hardest part of the course. It was so steep and full of steps that went on forever. At one part of the climb, I was eye level to a hawk flying. That’s when I knew I was pretty high up there. Noon was quickly approaching and I was starting to panic because it was taking a lot longer to climb this bluff. People were really starting to fade at this section. Hardest part of the day was creeping upon us and there was zero shade. While a part of me was pushing to make it to the check point by noon, another part of me didn’t want to so that I wouldn’t be given the option and could just finish the 31 miles and call it a day. But I knew I would be disappointed in myself if I did that, so I told myself I was going to give it all I had…and with that said, I made the check point with 10 minutes to spare. My parents and Erik were there to cheer me on and I was so relieved I made it that I had almost felt like I had finished the race! Give me a beer and let’s celebrate! But the truth is I had to do stage 4-stage 6 ALL OVER AGAIN! Ever incline, ever step, every bushwhacking rock had to be traversed again. Some people dropped out from the 50 miler at this point. Others didn’t even make it by noon to be given the opportunity. As one of the last people to make the checkpoint, I made the decision to move forward. Erik poured salt in my hand, made me swallow it with water, and pushed me along. This is when the fun really started!
Thought running through my mind: “What was I possibly thinking when I signed up for this? I think I’m just going to stop right here, build a house from twigs, and live the rest of my life here because I honestly can’t move another muscle."
From this point forward, I was running by myself. Mimi was in much better shape than I was and ran ahead, as she should have. Every runner out there is there to run their race. It wasn’t fair for me to keep her behind if she could move faster so I told her to go ahead. I knew this is where the real challenge began. There wouldn’t be anyone there to motivate me or push me along. It was just me. And I have another 26 miles to go. Throughout this time, I did a lot of thinking. It was impossible to be any more fatigued then I already was, so it was just a matter of moving in a forward motion. My legs were shot. My hands were swollen. I was still nauseous. I could barely breathe in the 88 degree unshaded heat. This was torture. Is this what hell is like? I got to an aid station and once again met my cheering squad and I just wanted to collapse in their arms and beg them to say it was ok to stop. But, they know me well enough to know that after it was all said and done, I’d hate myself if I stopped. That it would take a tractor to haul me off the mountain before I quit. So, I moved along, one step at a time. I got back to Stienke Basin with only 2 people manning the aid station. I was told there had been a lot of dropouts, that there was only one person behind me. They asked how I was feeling and I told them whoever built the East bluff steps should be executed immediately. That was how I was feeling. Then, after a gallon of water was poured down my back, I was off. Next station: Road Kill
Thought going through my mind: “Dad? Is that you? Oh my god, I’m hallucinating!”
By the time I got to the next pit stop (which by the way, we were also asked along the way if we had been peeing to make sure our kidneys were ok), I was told the lady behind me had dropped out. It was just me left. I was saddened to hear the news because I had gotten to know Lidia a bit throughout the day. She was an inspiration to me. 54 years old and a veteran ultra marathoner. She had gotten sick along the course and had been admitted to the hospital once before because of too much salt. Although I didn’t see her drop out, my guess is she was nervous the same thing would happen to her. She couldn’t get herself to start running again once she stopped to walk and knew she didn’t have much left. Regardless of her having quit the course, she’s still an inspiration to me. I can only hope I’m doing what she’s doing at 54. At any rate, I had to climb up a mountain and down a mountain before I started on the final 4.5 miles of the race. Coming down the mountain, I found a groove and just started to motor down the path. 2/3 down the mountain and I saw what I thought were my mom and dad carrying water cups. I honestly thought I was hallucinating until I realized it really was them! They had heard that the aid station along the climb had run out of water, so they were making their way up to give me some. I was overcome with joy in seeing them, grabbed the water, and kept running along. They told me I wasn’t far from the bottom and that the rest of the gang was waiting for me. I think I even started to pick up my pace after hearing the news!
When I saw the rest of the gang, I knew I was close. Erik ran alongside me for a bit, telling me I was looking strong (funny, I thought I looked like total crap) and that I should be tasting victory at any moment. Only 4.5 miles to go. Although I was way behind schedule, the race directors allowed those of us posting 13+ hours total to continue on. They acknowledged it was a hot day and we needed more time to finish. So, once I was told I could finish the last 4.5 miles, I knew that within 1 ½ hours, I’d be done!
A volunteer wanted to run part of the course, and had started from Lake Aid. She was curious to see this part of the course as well so asked if she could join me. I told her not a problem (she had run down part of the mountain with me), and so off we went. This section was a repeat of 5:30am. It was the ski slope climb. The problem with having a running partner that is full of energy and has only run 9 miles to this point is the fact that she has more energy and is more talkative and enthusiastic. This combination couldn’t fare worse with someone that had been running 46 miles. I didn’t need to hear “come on! Run up the hill! You can do it!” nor did I need to hear “you ran this in the morning right? Are we almost there?”. That said, I thanked her for what she was trying to do, but I kindly told her to leave me alone, get out of my face, and let me finish the race alone. She understood and so off she went. I was alone again. Partly thankful, partly scared.
I was so tired at this point that I was starting to get turned around. We had been instructed to follow the pink ribbons for the ultra race (there were other distances being run that day) and 13 hours into a run, pink started to look like orange (which was for the marathoners) and even the ribbons were hard to see. For about 5 minutes, I got turned around and had to retrace my steps. I knew if I didn’t hurry up and finish, I would probably get lost. I kept stretching my neck looking for the clearing that directed me to the finish line. My legs were so much like jelly that there were steep downhills where I had to sit and literally slide myself down the slope. The deer flies were in full force and there was a swarm of them constantly buzzing in my ear. By far the longest 4 miles of my life. Then, the clearing came, and I knew I was home free.
The Final Stretch:
When I reached the straightaway, all I heard were cheers. In my mind, I was sprinting as fast as I could with Chariots of Fire playing in the background. I felt like I was entering a stadium full of cheers, that’s how loud everyone (maybe 20 people?) was cheering. I saw my parents, Erik, and all my friends just yelling their hearts out. I was laughing, crying, and trying to focus on the finish line. When I crossed it, I stopped in my tracks and bent over. A rush of relief took control over me and I literally fell into Erik’s arms and started crying tears of joy. It was over. I had done what I had set out to do. 14 hours 48 minutes later, I was an ultra marathon runner. 63rd place. 13 female finisher.
Hugs galore! Beer in my hand (Miller High Life, the champagne of beers)! Pictures every which way I looked! Flowers in my hand! Champagne chilled! It was a beautiful moment….despite all the pain it took, one that I wish I could relive again someday. It really was THAT special. After sharing a few stories (and apologizing to the volunteer who I told to get out of my face which she was awesome enough to understand where I was coming from), I ate a hamburger and we left. The race crew had packed up the finish line, cars were gone, and it was just me with my loved ones. As Raphie says in A Christmas Story, “All was right with the world”
So, would I do it again? Good question. I’m not really sure to tell you the truth. I’m just enjoying the moment for what it is. I loved the fact that when I crossed the finish line, I didn’t stop my watch. My race time meant nothing to me. I had met my goal of re-falling in love with running. It gave me joy again. And after running that race, I feel like I can do anything. But to answer truthfully, I want to concentrate on my writing for a bit. As many of you know, I’m in the process of making a transition from corporate America back to writing. After this race, I’ve gained my confidence back that I can do this feat and go back to school for my MFA and reach my next goal of being a published author in a few years time. It will take a lot or work and dedication, but I’d like to think training for this Ultra has given me a good foundation.
Of course, I couldn’t have done any of this without support, curiosity, and understanding.
A special thanks goes to:
My parents who made the race extra special! I really don’t know many parents who would start climbing 800 feet to give their daughter water. I love you guys and am so glad you were there!
Abby, Kathy, Jamie, and Sarah for being such great friends and inspiration! And for keeping me sane and making me laugh the entire way!
Robert, Jason, and John for being awesome eye candy to the rest of the runners (seriously, I was asked by a ton of women who my hot friends were). But seriously, it was awesome having you there. Flash, you were there from the beginning when I wanted to run an ultra years ago. Was really cool to have you there to see me finish it.
The Rasmussen Family for being such great hosts, cooks, and supporters. Thanks for letting me stay with you so much when I was training and feeding me such amazing food! You have welcomed me into your home and I’m very thankful and grateful for that.
And finally, to Erik who never for one minute doubted that I wouldn’t cross that finish line, even when I had my serious doubts. You always believed in me and helped me believe in myself again. You truly are my inspiration in every adventure you do and are not only making me a better athlete, but a better person. I love you.
That’s that folks….I’m sore, exhausted, covered in bug bites, and am limping from blisters. Would I trade any of it? Not a chance. Western States 100, you’ll be seeing me in the future……