An Ultra That Became a Midlife Crossroads and Catharsis

Six weeks have passed since I surprised myself and several people watching by bursting into tears at the finish line of the Miwok 100K.

miwok finish

Getting a hug from a volunteer at the finish. Photo by Chris Jones

I wrote an article for Trail Runner about Miwok but neglected to write a personal race report. Preoccupied, I let this blog go dormant to focus on some other challenges and opportunities. Now I feel like circling back and making some sense of it.

Some races I focus on being a competitor, my mind sharply attuned to pace, form and physical sensations. This was not one of those races. Instead, the Miwok 100K was as much a head trip as a 62-mile race that climbed some 12,500 feet. It did not go as I hoped. My body chemistry got out of whack—I think I over-hydrated and therefore got swollen and wasn’t able to pee—and then my IT band unexpectedly flared up, making me limp and shuffle on downhills where I normally run strong. Getting passed by so many runners, and being more than an hour off pace from my hoped-for time, felt demoralizing.

But it was an important race personally in terms of prompting me to think deeply about what the hell I was doing out there and where I am headed.

My 45th birthday fell within days of the Miwok race, and through those achy miles in the Marin Headlands plagued by muscle cramps and doubt, I contemplated the passage of time and what I have accomplished but also missed midway through  life. My babies have become teenagers, and I have been with Morgan exactly two-thirds of my life (we got together in 1984 when I was 15, so it’s been 30 years now)—and these facts stunned me. I wondered how it could be that when I was a teenager, each year felt so long and momentous; but now, in my mid-40s, a decade can pass in what feels like a mere few years?

I also opened my mind to envision my dad and beloved dog. They both died last year, and it hit me they truly were gone and I’d never see them again. I actually imagined them on the trail in a hallucinatory way, hearing my dad’s voice and carrying on a conversation with him, feeling my dog’s fur and reliving some of the best, happiest memories. I released the pain and regret of negative feelings and ugly memories that overshadow my feelings toward my father and apologized for our misunderstandings. I missed him and my dog so profoundly that I shed tears on the climb up Rodeo Valley Trail at Mile 40, my vision of the sweeping views of the Marin Headlands blurring from tears and exhaustion. I can’t recall being such a mess—on the verge of falling apart emotionally and physically—to that degree during a race before.

The big questions piled on with each mile, as challenging as the terrain: Given how the years race by, what am I going to do with the limited amount of time left in my “prime of life”? Given that my well-laid career plans from my 20s fizzled, then what, besides running and parenting, do I feel really proud of and have I worked hard to achieve? And really, why the hell was I making myself run and hike so hard for more than 13 hours when it hurt so much?

That’s what an ultra can do: It can transport you way outside of your comfort zone, make you feel like you’ve lived a lifetime in a day, and then reduce you to tears.

When I thought about the “why” of training for and running this race, I rehashed familiar answers: to test personal limits, to explore new territory, to discover that I am stronger than I think, and to work through low points to experience intense highs. The overriding reasons involve growth and improvement. But then I asked myself, what good are those qualities and experiences if I can’t carry them over to my life outside of running?

For me, overcoming the challenges of an ultra does not automatically or easily carry over to  regular life. By contrast, many endurance athletes feel the way my friend Garett Graubins described when asked during this podcast interview how overcoming mental challenges in ultra races affects his personal and professional life. “There’s no doubt it carries over,” he said. “After you cross the finish line of one of these races, there’s this euphoric sense that there are few things  you can’t accomplish in your life if you just are willing to work hard, never back down and be as stubborn as a mule.”

During Miwok and in the days that followed, I recognized that I develop strength and talent as a runner in part to compensate for shortcomings I feel in other areas of my personal and professional life. At times and to varying degrees, I literally run away from challenges or opportunities that frighten me.

This weighed on my mind during Miwok because in the days before the event, I was asked to take on a leadership role that gave my stomach knots of nervousness. The role is chairing a committee on the board of trustees for a private secondary school that I care deeply about—a time-consuming multi-year commitment involving a campaign with tens of millions of dollars at stake. Rather than seize the opportunity and feel excited about all I could learn and do through it, I became mired in doubt, focusing on what I lack rather than the qualities I possess that made them ask me in the first place. I worried I would let others down, that my lack of business acumen would be exposed, and that I would not be able to speak intelligently in front of the committee or with the two wise and powerful men with whom I’ll work closely. In short, I experienced a deep fear of failure. I sold myself short to those who encouraged me to take the position, essentially saying I couldn’t do it and wouldn’t be good at it, before I had even tried.

During Miwok I realized I had to fundamentally change my attitude; otherwise, what good is being a hard-core runner who says “you can do anything you put your mind to” if that persona runs and hides once she gets off the trail? I became an accomplished trail runner because I put in the time and hard work of training over many seasons. When faced with challenges outside of running that seem daunting, I  realized I would have to give myself time and training to succeed in the long run, rather than pressuring myself to know everything and perform perfectly from Day One.

I vowed to take on that challenge and other opportunities—to “lean in,” as Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg advocates her terrific book, and to ask myself, “what would I do if I weren’t afraid?”

So, a lot of what I’ve been doing recently involves trying harder to carry over that sense of adventure—that willingness to try and work hard at new and difficult things, and to pace myself to learn and make progress gradually, rebounding from setbacks rather than giving up—to my life outside of ultrarunning.

I said “yes” to the board position and am working hard to climb that steep learning curve. I also said yes to some new assignments at Trail Runner magazine, and yes when Eric Schranz asked me to guest co-host some episodes—even though I cringed at the sound of my recorded voice and worried I would babble idiotically. I ended up having so much fun doing it that I hope to do it again. (Here are links to those episodes, during which we interviewed Liza Howard, Dakota Jones and Mike Wolfe.)

I guess the tears at the finish line represented a cathartic release of the fear of failure, the pain of discomfort, the loss of youth and loved ones. It wasn’t just that Miwok was physically hard and I doubted my ability to finish. It’s that on some level—though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, but I felt it—I knew I had to get to the finish to move on, and to seize and embrace the second half of life that lies ahead.

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15 Responses to An Ultra That Became a Midlife Crossroads and Catharsis

  1. Olga King June 10, 2014 at 6:54 am #

    “During Miwok and in the days that followed, I recognized that I develop strength and talent as a runner in part to compensate for shortcomings I feel in other areas of my personal and professional life.” Sarah, this is one of the the best of your posts. I love, love contemplating in blogs, and I so agree with so much you had said here, and had felt similar in many a races. Thanks for sharing.
    Olga King recently posted..Portland, as sweet as ever.My Profile

  2. Bob Burke June 10, 2014 at 8:38 am #

    Terrific post, Sarah. The deeper you go, the better your writing. Congratulations on choosing to overcome your fears to excel in many additional areas of your life.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences and thoughts in a personal manner that certainly relates to me, if not all distance runners. I hope one day to read your book, whatever its title.

  3. John Nguyen June 10, 2014 at 8:41 am #

    I love this post. You are a lot stronger and tougher than you think! We all see it. I think you’ll do awesome with the board position! You are very easy to cheer on and root for. Good luck with everything, Sarah!
    John Nguyen recently posted..Western States Training Update Q&A: The Final PushMy Profile

  4. Mark June 10, 2014 at 10:18 am #

    I’ve only done one 50-miler so far, so my experience is limited. But I found myself spiritually enriched, as well as physically enriched, during my ultra. There’s a lot of time to think on the trail, and my mind wandered to mortality and God, reminiscing about loved ones lost and making the most of time with the loved ones remaining. Thanks for sharing your experience.
    And I think you’ve been doing a great job co-hosting with Eric!

  5. Kim Russell June 10, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Enjoyed your words. You do a great job on the podcast and I loved the interview they did with you in the past. Hope you have lots of good runs and years ahead.

  6. Ian June 11, 2014 at 5:55 am #

    Wonderful post Sarah, And I’ve loved hearing you on the URP lately, please keep doing them.

  7. LukeD June 11, 2014 at 6:22 am #

    Saw your tears at the finish line; thanks for sharing what was behind them. And great job with URP; hope you’ll be co-hosting again.
    LukeD recently posted..Plans for summer 2014 (so far…)My Profile

  8. Doug June 11, 2014 at 6:28 am #

    I suffer from similar fears about taking on new roles, and I tend to shy away from challenges of a social nature, even when others think I am qualified. When it comes to exploration, though, through hiking and now running, and pure challenges of the body or of the mind, I am drawn in. I suppose it comes down to the fact that I am mostly an introvert. I can “switch on” and become an extrovert briefly, but it’s exhausting; more exhausting than running through heat and over mountains; more exhausting, even, than parenthood.

    Anyway, thanks for this. I’ll try to remember that humans can deal with exhaustion, and that it makes us stronger, and tough tasks become easier the more we do them.
    Doug recently posted..Moreau Lake State Park – 1 Jun 2014My Profile

  9. Andrew June 11, 2014 at 7:55 am #

    This is very brave, honest and heartfelt writing Sarah. Here’s to beginnings and all of the fun and challenge of the second half.

  10. Jenn June 11, 2014 at 2:59 pm #

    Really great post, Sarah. Olga’s comment quoted the exact thing I was prepared to praise you for. It took real courage to write and publish that. Ultrarunning doesn’t always make us stronger people, better able to handle all of life’s problems. Sometimes it’s really nothing more than an escape from those problems for a few hours. But that’s okay, too. I’m glad you found the courage to take on new and scary responsibilities. If Miwok gave you that, it was a great race, despite all the physical difficulties.

  11. Andrea June 17, 2014 at 9:48 pm #

    Boy did your post hit home! I struggle with the same thoughts -why can’t I tackle new challenges without giving into fear or frustration…. and where has the time gone -lol!
    I ran the same Miwok race but fortunately was able to shove my angst to the side and become entranced by the incredible views of the ocean and city….

    Thank you for sharing this post and encouraging others to “train” their minds to work toward new and challenging pursuits!


  1. Daily News, Wed, June 11 - June 11, 2014

    […] Read this: Sarah writes about stress, running, and overcoming life on the trail. […]

  2. New Site and New Directions for the New Year | The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More - December 3, 2014

    […] 2014 has been a transitional year professionally, and I’m feeling excited and motivated for 2015. My energy and commitment to develop new projects stems from a realization I made earlier in the year. I realized I was stagnating and holding back from starting something new, because I lacked confidence and courage. I confessed the following in my Miwok 100K race report, An Ultra That Became a Midlife Crisis and Catharsis: […]

  3. The Best Year Yet? | The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More - January 1, 2015

    […] At the Miwok 100K, I blew up physically and emotionally but had an epiphany during that painful race that I had to stop selling myself short and thinking “I can’t” or “I’m not good enough” when presented with challenging opportunities; that is, I needed to make my adventurous ultrarunning attitude carry over to my life outside of running. Otherwise, my running is really just running away to escape things I want to avoid. (See An Ultra That Became a Midlife Crisis and Catharsis). […]

  4. Flashbacks and Feelings on the Journey to the Western States 100 | The Runner's Trip: Run Long, Travel Far, Discover More - June 20, 2016

    […] Yeah, yeah, goody for me. Now I need to process the more complicated feelings, because on race day, I intend to stay focused, positive and business-like. As much as it’s part of the gift of ultrarunning to spend hours letting the mind wander, I’ll try during Western States to avoid ruminating about my entire past and contemplating the future (which I have done during past ultras, leading to embarrassing emotional breakdowns). […]

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