Like a lot of people, I have mixed feelings about social media in general and Facebook in particular. Too-frequent posting and skimming of these social streams can suck away time, shorten attention span and undermine the ability to live mindfully in the moment. I have to manage what might otherwise be an unhealthy addiction to online distractions and the instant gratification of “likes” from pseudo friends.
That said, I undeniably enjoy Facebook and have it to thank for occasionally making powerful connections that spark or strengthen genuine friendships. This is the story of one of those occasions. It led me to virtually coach an unlikely ultrarunner in her first 24-hour endurance event the other weekend.
The story begins one month ago on Sept. 27, and I admit, I was a little drunk at the time.
I was in Las Vegas celebrating with the other competitors and volunteers of the Grand to Grand Ultra (see race report for background). First I had a couple of beers, then some champagne and chardonnay. I quickly felt as effervescent as the champagne bubbles, since I had spent the past seven days abstaining from alcohol and running 165 miles across the desert on minimal calories.
While waiting in line at the bar, my friend Tana showed me a photo she had on her phone of my friend Dan Owings and me crossing the finish line in Southern Utah earlier in the day. The photo made me both smiley and weepy. It provided proof that I had completed an odyssey, and I wanted to pull that moment out of the past and hold it tight.
Impulsively, I posted the photo to my Facebook account, along with a ballsy caption.
A guy named Scott, whom I’ve never met but who is an ultrarunning Facebook friend, shared it two days later with his running group in Chicago, since he’s friends with Dan in the picture.
Then a member Scott’s running group, a woman named Erica, clicked on my name in the post because she was curious to know who I am. Two things surprised her. First, she recognized me as the person who writes this blog, which she had stumbled upon because she recently got the ultra bug and was researching the sport. Also, she noticed that she and I shared mutual friends on Facebook who are faculty at The Thacher School. She figured out that we had gone to the same high school, though a decade apart.
Out of the blue that day, I got a flurry of FB notifications from someone named Erica Moore. I wondered why a 35-year-old African American woman from Chicago was busy liking a lot of my photos of trail running and of my daughter at Thacher.
Puzzled, I looked into her background. When I realized we shared not one but two special connections—ultrarunning and our high school—I felt an instant affinity toward her. So I accepted her friend request, and we started messaging one another. We clicked!
Erica wrote back Scott on the FB thread:
This is Erica’s story in a nutshell:
She’s originally from Cincinnati and ended up at Thacher through A Better Chance. She knits fanatically and competes in Scrabble nationally. Last winter, she and her boyfriend Tom (whom she met at a Scrabble tournament, and who is an avid hiker) vacationed in New Orleans and Mexico, where they overindulged in local food and drink perhaps a bit too much. Returning to Chicago in the dead of the polar vortex winter, Erica felt tired, unfocused and determined to try something different to sharpen her mind and body. So she joined RowFit, a gym specializing in rowing and CrossFit.
When summer hit, she signed up for a local 5K with a woman from her gym. She wasn’t a runner then, but she became one within a matter of days. In a period of just a couple of weeks, she trained for and completed her first 5K on July 24.
A week later, she decided to try running longer than a 5K distance. “After 4 miles, something kicked in,” she recalls. “I felt good and wasn’t thinking about it, and I was like, ‘I could just keep running.’ That was my first taste of the runner’s high.”
A couple of weeks later, on Aug. 10, she ran her first 10K race. Then she signed up for a 24-hour event, the October 18 St. Pat’s Race in South Bend, Indiana. The small race features a 3-mile loop and 6-hour, 12-hour and 24-hour divisions. She reasoned that a 24-hour event is perfect for a beginner like herself, because she would not have to worry about making cut-off times to aid stations, as is the case in most ultramarathons. With this event, she could go her own pace and run as many or as few loops as she decided.
I asked her, “You do know it’s crazy, don’t you, to jump from a 10K to a 24-hour?”
“I’m a bit crazy!” she said. “I like to set big, scary goals and go after them with everything I have. I know what motivates me, and it’s proving that I can conquer what seems impossible.”
A Newbie’s 24-Hour
Early in the day of October 18, I posted this message on the FB wall of Erica’s boyfriend Tom:
“Please tell her I hope she’ll spend the morning cultivating patience and steadiness, and thinking about how she’s embarking on a journey. This journey will likely have a very rough patch mentally and physically every 4 to 5 hours, so she should expect and embrace getting through those low points rather than despairing about them.
“One other thing I hope you’ll tell her (perhaps save this for later during a rough spot)—today also is all about TROUBLESHOOTING instead of giving up. Undoubtedly, there will be problems like blisters, unexpected pains, etc. How she responds to them will define her day and lead to pride or regret tomorrow. She’ll show true grit by tackling the problems rather than allowing them to get the best of her.”
Erica started strong and stayed steady throughout the day, doing a little bit of running and then mostly fast walking.
She made it past the marathon mark!
Around 3:30 p.m. my time, 5:30 her time, I sent her this message: “Erica, as the sun starts to set, you may flirt with the idea of downgrading to the 12 hour. Don’t do it! You CAN go the full distance and you’ll be so happy tomorrow that you did! You’re doing great!”
Erica: “Thanks Sarah! You are reading my damn mind! That last 3-mile loop took over an hour. Taking a break, eating and switching clothes. My spirits are good, now to take care of my body. Foam roller!!!”
Me: “All the doubts you’re thinking and pain you’re feeling are normal and part of being an ultrarunner. Just ride it out, and hot damn, you’ll feel fantastic at 3 a.m.!! That’s why this is a crazy sport—so be crazy and do it! Also it’s really okay to go that slow. When I was doing the dunes at the Grand to Grand, I was going only about a mile an hour. When I paced at Hardrock, there was one mile that took us about 45 minutes. It’s still progress!”
She headed back out.
I worried that a low low would follow her high high, so I wrote:
“Remember how I wrote that you may have a serious low point and consider quitting every 4 – 5 hrs? In case you’re feeling that way now, repeat after me: ‘I will not throw myself a pity party. I will suck it up and be tough. I will walk the walk, not just talk the talk. What I am doing is certifiably hard core, and I will have pride that lasts forever for it. I am stronger than I think.’ Then, relax the muscles in your jaw, smile, and spend the next hour trying to remember as many stupid knock-knock jokes and dumb riddles as possible. You got this!”
Erica: “Love your posts, Sarah! Thanks so much for pushing me on!”
Me: “Sorry for all my comments but just have to add one more: I want you to know that the last thing I want to do right now is go on my scheduled two-hour run. My legs are tired from yesterday’s 28 miler. But I know I need a back to back run for peak training. You have inspired me, with your strength and determination, to get my butt out the door and do my run!”
Erica: “Don’t apologize for your comments! I love them! I need them! You’re helping me more than you could ever know!”
In the early evening, around 8 p.m. in Chicago, I posted to her wall: “So here’s something to stick in your back pocket for later: Trust me, the worst reason for dropping is because you feel tired and are sick of being out there and want nothing more than to stop. If you quit for those reasons, which seem completely legitimate and reasonable at the time, then you’re almost guaranteed to regret it later. DNFs are justified if it’s a serious medical issue, but other than that, don’t go there!”
Erica, about an hour later: “38 miles now. Last loop was tough. Tripping over roots, delirious and falling asleep while standing. I need 4-5 more loops to get over 50 miles. Nap time. 2 hours then the home stretch!”
Just after midnight, Erica woke up from a nap and posted: “Dug deep and I’m headed back out!”
I went to bed, and then after midnight I woke up and couldn’t fall back asleep. My phone showed a message notification from Erica’s boyfriend Tom.
Tom was understandably worried about Erica and torn about whether to encourage her to keep going. He feared she might be doing more harm than good and setting herself up for pain or even injury after the event.
Reading between the lines, I sensed that Tom was asking me to butt out, or at least to give Erica the green light to drop.
I, too, felt torn. What was I doing encouraging this person I had never even met to do a 24-hour event with inadequate training under her belt? Was I being irresponsible? Could I even be liable if she did in fact injure herself? I knew it must be very difficult for Tom to watch Erica go through pain and fatigue.
On the other hand, I had witnessed significant others worrying about their ultrarunning partner at an aid station and ultimately contributing to the runner’s DNF. I didn’t want Tom to diminish Erica’s resolve. If she were mostly walking instead of running, I really believed she’d be OK—sore and tired, but OK.
I also wondered, why was I so wrapped up in this person’s event? Why did I care so much? Something about Erica’s effort and personality completely hooked me. I wanted to do whatever I could to support her and get her to sunrise.
I wrote back: “I know it’s really hard to watch someone you care for go through this struggle, but I’m optimistic that after a rest she can get up and get moving again. I would encourage her to try getting out and walking one more loop. Just take it hour by hour. I know I don’t know either of you, but I do know that people can dig deep and work through discomfort, and she’ll really be OK and grateful for making the effort. It’s like you’re watching someone go through labor and delivery—almost harder to watch than go through it yourself!”
I added: “If or when she drops before the 24 hr time frame, she’s gonna want to believe she gave it everything and her best effort. Whatever the outcome, she’s done amazingly well for a first timer! To keep going past the 12 hr time is a huge accomplishment!”
Then I posted to Erica’s wall: “Hey Erica I just woke up—it’s 2am here—and I’m so impressed you’re still at it! If you’re awake and eating, you’re doing great! Just take it one hour and one loop at a time. Yes you’re exhausted and slow but that’s how it’s supposed to be at this stage! Just try to walk a little bit. Great job!!!”
She liked my comment and wrote back “thanks!!”
Me: “It’s mind over matter—if you don’t mind, it don’t matter. Erica = Endurance. Whatever the final mileage total amounts to, you are a hero, and you have learned a ton from this experience that will help you in any and all future challenges.”
Not long after, the sun came up in Chicago.
Erica completed her last loop.
In the days that followed, Erica and I kept in touch. She told me she signed up for a half marathon and wants to check off all the distances between the 10K and 50M.
The other night, we had a middle-of-the-night insomnia chat where we talked about life, and I shared how I was stressed out about some public speaking I had to prepare for and do a couple of days later. She boosted my spirits. Then I gave her some advice about the half marathon.
Yesterday, Erica ran her first half marathon.
I know this woman is going to go far, in ultrarunning and in life, and I’m really grateful I got to know her. I fully believe we’ll meet in person someday and maybe crew for each other at a race.
The best compliment someone can give me is, “You inspire me,” and it’s even better when I can reply, “You’ve done the same for me.”