Editor's Note (Nicole Nichols): When I learned my friend Susie was going to run a 50-mile ultramarathon, I was in shock and awe. Reading the recap of her race on her blog, which we're now sharing with you here, brought tears to my eyes. Her vivid, emotional and insightful journey from mile 1 to 50 is one that every person can learn from and relate to, even if you've never run a single mile.
After Saturday, September 15, 2012, I will never hear the words "50 miles" again and think about them in the same way. There are so many things, beyond the measure of mileage, that now describe 50 miles. Doubt, perseverance, deep friendship, dirt, overwhelming support, darkness, mental toughness, pain, family, hills, belief, tears, natural beauty, blisters, selflessness, labor, and VICTORY. Each one of these things played an important role in making my first official ultra-marathon a truly memorable, rewarding, yet unmistakably arduous day.
Leading up to the race one of the things I was most excited about AND most fearful of encountering was what's often referred to in ultra-sport as, the pain cave. In racing, it's a form of self-imposed suffering that you can choose to face head on or let it destroy you from the inside out. It's basically physical challenge at its max meeting mental challenge at its max. It's one of the main reasons I race--to put myself in the path of something challenging that will make me a better human and teach me something about life.
After waking up at 3 a.m., we headed down a dark, deserted country road, caravanning with the other athletes from The Holiday Inn into Kettle Moraine State Park. Our favorite pump-up CD, Cirque du Soleil's "Dralion", was blasting as we pulled into the park. The temperature required multiple layers even as we huddled around one of four outdoor space heaters provided by the race organizers. The small grassy area was almost silent with 250 athletes--200 of which were men--waiting to start.
Unlike many other races I've done, the announcers very casually called everyone up to the line at 4:58 a.m. and within minutes, we were off into the pitch-black of the morning. As we headed out of the start gate and into the forest, it was a breath-taking sight. There we were, bobbing head lamps in a wilderness under a sky packed full of stars. As everyone settled into their pace, I hadn't anticipated how spread out we'd be (at most points I was totally alone) or that the trail would be COMPLETELY dark.
As the sky above the pine trees got brighter and brighter, I let out a giant sigh of relief and looked down at my watch. I was on my intended pace but my heart rate was way too high and the adrenaline of the start was wearing off. Into labor with baby #1 I would go, as I set my sights on checkpoint #1 at mile 21.
It is during these times of extreme challenge that I'm reminded of the amazing mechanisms of the mind. I found as I ran toward that first cut-off, I was experiencing two different parts of my brain. My "maintain-the-status-quo" self was doing everything in its power to get me to stop, and to experience comfort, homeostasis. "You can't keep this up all day. Just walk as much as you want. Don't worry about actually finishing, any mileage will be an accomplishment on this terrain."
The second, equally powerful, "carpe diem" self was reminding me that my true desire was to continue forward. "You trained all year for this, Susie. It's one day of hard effort. You CAN do this. There is nothing in life stronger than you." If you've ever seen the Nike "Reincarnate" ad (above) it's a very similar ping-pong of the internal voices. Over and over, my mind played this game. At times, one voice would start to overtake the other, but for those first 20+ miles it remained pretty much an even match. At mile 21, my first baby was in my arms. I had made the first cut-off with an hour to spare. I could stop and sit for a moment to bask in its beauty. But not for long, I knew I still had two others to deliver.
Like a perpetual pendulum, the moments of power and pain alternated turns. As the day went on, I found the swings between the two points to be greater and faster. In moments of power, I felt guided by a deep internal knowing that I was stronger than anything the trail could throw at me. I felt a magnetic pull toward a finish, I felt as if I was exactly where I was supposed to be in space and time.
In moments of pain, I went outside of my aching body for strength. I thought of my best friend, Anya, who was just told by her doctors she wasn't allowed to run due to a disease she is battling. Her love of the sport is as deep as mine. I thought of another set of close friends, Katie and James, who just successfully made their way through three months of having their premature son, Brady, in the NICU. They showed such incredible endurance and courage through an unbelievable difficulty. I thought of the dedication and bravery of countless clients I train, and what we all do on a daily basis to survive/thrive in this life.
And, so, amidst the pain, I ran as if Anya's legs were my legs, Katie and James's strength was my strength, countless friends and clients' courage was my courage. It wasn't just me running; it was anyone who ever had a goal to do something risky, daring and out of their comfort zone. With this energy, I pushed toward mile 28 where I knew my whole family and my pacer Lee Ann would be anxiously awaiting my arrival.
To say that my family is supportive is a vast understatement. My dad, step-mom, mom, step-dad, sister, bro-in-law, two nephews and friend Lee Ann all made the journey from Cincinnati, OH to Madison, WI to crew us in our epic day. My sister made special, matching T-shirts. My dad spent an entire week working on overlaying the course map with the surrounding roads and figuring out the timing of each aid station.
My brother-in-law trained for many months to be able to pace us. My step-mom baked oatmeal cookies & her famous fudge bars to be stuffed into my gear bag. My mom and step-dad eagerly awaited me at each aid station and were there crouched beside me, silently touching my arm in my lowest moment of the day. Finally, my friend Lee Ann saved the day when she picked me up at mile 28 to pace me to the next cut-off and eventually all the way to the finish.
As I entered the aid station where pacers were allowed to join, I plopped down on the ground and tried to catch my breath. My nephews lifted my spirits with their fresh, young energy and shy smiles. As my family asked me how I was feeling, the only thing I remember saying was, "Let's just say, Lee Ann has a GIANT job to do."
As I got back on my feet for the next 7.1-mile stretch, Lee Ann looked me in the eyes and said confidently, "Susie, from now on just turn your brain off, I've got it from here."
We were on a tight time table to make it back to the mile 35 cut-off and I knew we'd have to run faster on the way back than what I had done on the way in. I remember glancing at my average heart rate (cumulative from the start) and it reading 89% (a number that is dangerously high for this length of time). I already had the skin of one toe completely gone, my back had been spasming since mile five and it was starting to travel down my right leg. But, somehow with Lee Ann by my side and the knowledge that I was more than halfway to the finish line, my "carpe diem" self kicked back into high gear.
Eat & Run I took note of this sentence:
"An ultrarunner's mind is what matters more than anything."
It became a mantra for me during training as I already felt that my mental capacity is naturally stronger than my physical abilities. Luckily, they can both be trained! As my physical pain increased toward mile 35 it was amazing and somewhat frightening how the mental muscle took over.
It's somewhat comical to me that the biggest gift of the day was one that was unexpected, if not resisted. Leading up to the race, I had been hesitant or indecisive of how I wanted to be paced. I tend to be an introverted, solitary runner and I assumed that having someone by my side would distract me. I also have a hard time letting go of control and trusting that others can do an adequate job (just some brutal self-honesty). But, as it turns out, distraction and direction are exactly what I needed.
For 23 miles, Lee Ann embodied selflessness, love and showed me the true connected spirit of running. Let it first be said that Lee Ann is a bad-ass athlete and veteran of many 50-mile (and one 100-mile) runs. I couldn't have asked for anyone more perfect who knows the territory and all of the associated feelings that go along with racing for hours and hours on end. She told me story after story to keep my mind in another place, she ever-so-gently nudged me to run more and walk less saying, "Let's take this gift," every time we'd hit a down slope or flat section of trail, and she continued to do the math to make sure we were keeping up with the cut-offs. We shared life history and life dreams as well as ran in silence. At every aid station, she filled me up with the proper nutrition and made sure we were set for the next section. More than anything, she was simply by my side and I knew she wanted me to get to the finish as much as I desired it.
I will never forget my time with Lee Ann in the forest. She taught me that it's okay to accept help, that sometimes we need to lean on each other to reach our goals and that ultimately I don't always have to be fearless and strong.
As we checked off the miles and got closer to the aid station at mile 40, I got word that Chris had made it across the finish. Picturing him crossing that final line gave me great joy and a surge of energy. Then, as Lee Ann and I made our way across an intersection of road and trail, I saw Chris hobbling out of my parent's car and I burst into tears. He had come back out on the course to cheer me on and make sure I finished! I took one salty kiss, we momentarily gazed into each others' teary eyes, and I was off into the woods once again.
Over the course of 50 miles, I got to experience one of the most beautiful trails in the U.S.--a section of Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail. I ran through pine forest, shuffled on sanded horse trail, snaked through tall grasses, traversed over miniature boardwalks and streams, and jogged across wide open meadows. But at the end of day, there was no sight more beautiful than a simple red arch with the words "North Face Endurance Challenge" printed on it. In what would be my fastest and final mile of the day, the tears began to flow.
In his book, The Lure of Long Distances, Robin Harvie argues that it's the return to a place called home that allows us to go out, put ourselves in the path of danger, and seek new worlds. After 50 miles, all I knew was that MY home were the people waiting for me at the finish--my family. A day of epic achievements had been accomplished, but none of it would matter without my home to share it with. And, yes, my third baby was beautiful.
About the Author
Susie Crossland-Dwyer has completed many marathons and triathlons, including the Louisville Ironman. After graduating college, she co-founded the life coaching company, ikigai (Japanese for “that which makes life most worth living”), to help others clarify and pursue their life goals. Through the process of leading others she discovered her own purpose: to help individuals find confidence and strength through fitness and healthy living. In 2010 she started studio s, a boutique-style fitness facility in Cincinnati offering personal training, Spinning and Pilates. Featuring programs rooted in the community and classes infused with philosophical elements, studio s is a breeding ground for others to find and pursue their passions. Susie is certified in personal training, group exercise, Spinning, Pilates (mat and reformer) and True Movement. She blogs about her life and fitness adventures at www.marburgreal.blogspot.com.
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