One side of me is supremely cautious, always prepared like a Boy Scout. I study forecasts before travel and pack for all possible weather. I carry water in my car and never let the gas tank go below a quarter full in case a natural disaster hits and we have to evacuate. I research, plan and calendar my kids’ summer programs as early as possible, with the systematic professionalism of a project manager.
The other side of me is impulsive, diving into intense experiences. As a teen and young adult, it led to the kind of partying and experimentation that, in the words of a teacher who tried to set me straight, put me on “a path of self-destruction.” If one hit, line or dose felt good, then I wanted all three at once.
But that impulsive side can lead to positive outcomes when the spontaneity comes from a gut feeling that something feels right and I shouldn’t miss an opportunity.
It’s what prompted me to encourage my husband to leave his work, travel nomadically and school the kids on the road for a year with no “Plan B” (and we actually did it). Months later, somewhere in the Outback east of Melbourne, it made me overcome my fears of jumping into a lake of murky, buggy water where things might bite or sting. With zero experience in open-water swimming and only a borrowed pair of goggles, I plunged in and swam across with a bunch of better-trained athletes so our family could compete as a team in a mini triathlon (our team name: “Gotta Try New Things”).
These two sides have battled within me for the past couple of months as I struggled to decide whether to commit belatedly to a milestone in the development of an ultrarunner: a first 100-miler. In this case, the Rio del Lago 100 in the foothills north of Sacramento on November 9.
Ever since close friends started running ultra distances about ten years ago and I did my first 50K in 2007, I’ve studied what it takes to do a 100 by reading the sport’s literature and watching others train for Western States. I’ve developed gradually, debating whether to sacrifice the time and energy required to train for a 100-miler. While scads of younger, less experienced runners took to the trails and graduated from the 50K to the 100-mile distance in scarcely more than a year, I bided my time.
It took me fifty marathons and ultras (lots of 50Ks, a few 50Ms and one 100K) to convince me that yes, I do in fact want to try the ultimate test of a 100-miler. And this would be the year.
So I made a plan to do everything right. I sketched out six months of training, hired a coach and ran intermediate races to work up to the 100-miler in September.
You might guess what happened: It went spectacularly wrong. Summer threw curveballs of unexpected challenges and changes of plans. I overdid it racing shorter distances and got injured. I took a couple of weeks off from running in mid-summer, stepped on a treadmill to test out my fitness, and still felt pain radiating in my lower back and foot. My best-laid plan turned into one big joke. It is pretty funny, now that I think of it in hindsight and now that it’s passed.
Yes, it’s passed, and what a difference two months makes. I did a 50K with about 6000 feet of elevation gain two weeks ago, and I had a 70-mile week of training last week. I’m feeling good, no joke!
About five weeks ago, after my first good long run, motivation surged back and I caught the bug again to fulfill my 100-mile goal. When I looked at the course and date of Rio del Lago, the cautious side of me said that’s crazy, that’s way too soon. Undertrained and underprepared, I could reinjure and DNF.
But the other part of me saw a great opportunity and a lot of reasons why it actually made sense to try it. Among those reasons:
- It’s a logistically easy course close to sea level—two hours from home, no complicated travel or altitude.
- Two of my most inspirational runner friends, Eldrith Gosney and Lynne Hewitt, are registered to do it, too. Eldrith, 72, has become a true role model and friend to me over the past year. Lynne, my Grand to Grand tent mate, is from New York, so this is a rare chance to see her. I feel like they’re angels on the course, and I want to share the trail with them.
- I trust the race director, Julie Fingar, to put on a well-organized event, and I’m familiar with much of the trail from previously running the American River 50 and Way Too Cool 50K. I won’t worry about event snafus or getting lost.
- A bunch of familiar faces will be racing and crewing there, making me feel part of a big happy tribe.
- I don’t want to wait until spring or summer to try a 100 because I have other plans for those seasons.
The reasons go deeper. I find it liberating to attempt something so big with only the minimal level of preparation, because it relieves me of my perfectionism. Instead of preparing perfectly to have the best debut possible at this distance, and instead of feeling a self-imposed pressure to fulfill what I think is my potential, I’m heading into it fully embracing the attitude every first-time hundred-mile runner should have: Just finish. Don’t worry about your time. Crossing the finish is victory, period.
Beyond that, I want to bookend the year on that trail, having done my first race of 2013 there (the Way Too Cool 50K) shortly after my dad’s passing. I visited my ailing mom last weekend in Colorado and visited my dad’s grave, which made me reflect more on health and mortality. I got that Kris Allen song “Live Like We’re Dying” in my head and am taking the message to heart.
I objectively know it’s ill-advised to debut at a 100-miler after only 10 weeks of solid training (which will include a two-week taper, so I’m really only talking about two months of good running post-injury). And my “solid training” is adequate for 50K or 50Ms but far less than optimal for a 100-miler. I’ll get in one nighttime practice run later this week but haven’t done the kind of grinding back-to-back daylong long runs that I should. I know, I know!
But this is one of those times I’m going to go with my gut more than my head. I’m registered for Rio del Lago and am going to do it because too many factors make it feel right. I’m feeling what I felt before I did the Grand to Grand Ultra last year: If I did not do it, I’d regret it and dwell on “what if?” Plus, I’m intensely curious. What will happen? Will I fall apart? Of course I’ll fall apart to some degree, but will I be able to troubleshoot and push through it?
Don’t think I underestimate the challenge of the distance. Karl “100 Miles Is Not That Far” Meltzer is totally wrong; it is that far, and as I climbed up to an insanely steep ridge around mile 25 in the recent 50K, I thought a lot about how I was only a quarter of the way through a 100, and what it would really take to keep moving for 24 or more hours. But I really want to go past my furthest distance of 63 and experience those nighttime miles in the final third of a 100-miler.
Ironically, sometimes I do things better when I meet challenges by the seat of my pants; that is, by responding in the best way possible in the moment and mustering my strength, rather than planning ahead and over-thinking it.
But I won’t completely wing it. I’m lining up two great pacers to run by my side through the two main sections from mile 54 to the finish. I’m figuring out what to pack in my drop bags and mentally coaching myself on how to push through the low points. I’m storing up inspiration and advice by reading some great race reports and listening to podcasts about first 100’s. Two I particularly liked were Eric Schranz’s interview about his first 100 on Ultrarunnerpodcast.com and the No Meat Athlete’s first 100 report. Got any others to recommend? Please share the link in the comment section below, along with any other advice you think will help me make it to the finish line. I also welcome tips on drop bag essential items that I might not have thought about (for example, Eric recommended a toothbrush and toothpaste, because brushing your teeth around midnight after chomping on sugary snacks all day feels great).
I may ultimately fail miserably. But if—or when—in the midst of the 100 I feel like I’m failing and can’t go further, I’ll try to see the humor in the situation and find a way through.
I’ll recall the moment when I stared down a chute of snow on a mountain run above Juneau, full of fear and dismay because I was cold and tired and realized I didn’t know how to glissade. I felt frozen, unable and unwilling to go further. Then I stopped thinking about it, took a deep breath and plunged down on my butt, hoping for the best. It felt painful and exhilarating all at once, and totally ridiculous. When I reached the end, I was so glad I did it.