A.T. Prep: Running My First 50k
Running my first ultra provided me with a front row seat to some of the struggles I could face on trail: abysmal ass chafe, self-motivation and embracing the suck. It also illuminated some of my core motivations for finishing the race as well as getting on trail: meeting new people, being unapologetically myself, embracing nature and pushing myself. And beer.
1. Mindset Matters
This one seems like a no brainer — but running the ultra gave me a solid idea of how to shift my thought patterns on trail. When I first started out running, all I could think of was the peanut butter bagel coagulating in my stomach and the ache of my leg muscles. My thoughts ranged from Jeez, can I even do this? to Why do people sign up for these crazy runs? Why do people exercise in general? However, soon, Olivia (my running partner and music soulmate) and I started eavesdropping on other’s conversations and jumped in on an older gentleman who was talking to a speedy woman about the multiple 100 mile races he had run. I balked, thinking about my current struggle to continue running a measly 3 at the start of this race.
I turned around and asked him, “How did you run 100 miles?!”
With a wry grin he replied: “Well, first you need an ice pick and a lobotomy. It’s easier after that!”
After making new friends, my mood began to improve — and with it, my pace. This taught me an important lesson for the Appalachian Trail: Mentality directly affects physical performance. (Shoutout to Appalachian Trials!) I began talking more positively to myself (first in my head and eventually out loud). I would think of mantras, like every step is a step closer to finishing! or You can do this, and you will do this! or It always never gets worse! The last one I picked up from a book I’d recently finished, The Pursuit of Endurance from Jennifer Pharr Davis. She’s quoting David Horton, one of the ultrarunning legends and an A.T. FKT holder.
I never understood what he meant — until this race. My knees would alternate in shooting pains and then it eventually fading away and coming back with a vengeance. I clung to the phrase, knowing my knees would be better sometimes, and sometimes not throughout the race. The pain in my knees, like my moods, would fluctuate, but I could always count on both changing.
I also began to think about everything I was grateful for. I turned to Olivia after we started our joint playlist together (would highly recommend this race strategy) and told her how happy I was we were friends, and how grateful I was to experience this with her. She replied the same — and automatically both of our moods were uplifted. I thought about my friends on the Ultrarunning Club at Virginia Tech who drove out to support, and how grateful I was to have such supportive friends encouraging me to do things I didn’t think I was physically capable of. I thought of how lucky I was to have legs that work and to be alive in general. Even though my legs were in a lot of pain — the pain meant I was alive, and that for those who couldn’t, I could go one more step.
I can imagine myself being open about my gratefulness towards close friends I make on trail, as well as thinking of everyone at home urging me on. As for the last thought — hiking the A.T. is such a privilege, I will try to do my best to appreciate things about my journey even on the most miserable rainy or snowy days. I can think of some mantras I’d recycle on trail: Every step is a step closer to Maine, and This is who I am, this is what I do. (The latter is another quote from Horton from Scott Jurek’s book North.) I’ll also keep in mind how much talking to a random person can boost my mood. Sometimes, all suffering needs is a friend.
2. Making Others Happy Makes Me Happy
After practicing my mantras and grateful thoughts, I realized how much making others smile brightened my mood. It sounds cheesy, but every time I grinned at someone else and waved my arms around, yelling “You got this!! Woo!” I not only looked really strange, but also made them smile. That quick bond with a stranger, formed from mutual suffering motivated a lot of my run. There is a certain camaraderie in all being in a tough race together. I even started smiling and waving to the race announcer every time I passed him (slightly out of spite after he remarked You’re smiling pretty big for having 25k left!) but all the same, I still enjoyed seeing him and my friends every time I passed through the finish. (It was a lap course.)
As I mentioned before, this race made me extremely grateful for all my ultrarunning friends. My motivation in the last few miles of the race was being able to see all of them, share this accomplishment and celebrate together. (And have a beer.) This race was a random one I had looked up a few months ago, after crewing for and feeling inspired by two of my ultrarunning friends, Davida and Acadia, who had just run a 50 miler and a 50k. I signed up for this race on a whim, not expecting anyone to come out. Within the three months between my sign up and the race — I suddenly had one of my best friends running with me and a gaggle of incredible and supportive friends crewing for us. This race that originally was just something random I was going to do independently became a joint effort, and I felt so much stronger with all of their support behind me.
This made me realize how important human connection will be out on the A.T. to me. It certainly won’t be a race (thank god) but it will have many hardships. I know I can draw on internal strength from noticing the supportive and communal nature of the trail, as well as thinking about all of the friends and family who believe in me. I take comfort in knowing there will be many incredible people to meet and walk alongside. I look forward to writing this blog, in a way, it’s similar to running by a pitstop point on an ultramarathon. I can share funky stories from on trail as I take a break and feel stronger for having a support system that laughs along with me. When it becomes harder to take another step — I know I can keep walking for everyone who has supported me throughout the years.
3. Embarrassment is Overrated
During the last two laps of the race, when I was beyond the capability to feel embarrassment, I began singing whatever I was listening to out loud. This encompassed terrible violently-belted-out renditions of The Eye of the Tiger, We Like to Party, and even Rasputin. Cringey music motivates me sometimes; I have no shame. If cringe-worthy music helps you take another step, then listen to it! Music can help reduce pain and motivate people. It’s worthwhile to listen to specific things that can help you. This made me realize how important previously made and downloaded playlists would be before I set out on the A.T.
I tried to make sure there weren’t runners around when I was singing so I didn’t disturb them, but I did terrify the occasional passing biker. Sometimes, the pain in my knees was so bad, singing aloud to myself (more quietly at times) was a way to reinforce motivational lyrics in my head and keep myself going. (Even if I was pretending to be Rocky.) Although this made me look slightly deranged, it also got me to the finish.
This is a valuable lesson to take onto the A.T. If it’s something that helps you, and it’s not harming others, but you’re hesitant to do it because you feel embarrassed — just do it. Everyone’s fatigued, everyone’s struggling, no one will care as much as you think.
Poop Alert: The same goes for taking dumps. The entire last lap of the race, I would quickly skirt off trail into the woods, attempt to poop and let out a nasty sounding fart instead. Then, I would scurry back on trail, petrified someone had seen me. It was a game of hide-and-go-poop from hell. I was convinced I pooped myself. I did not, by some miracle. Once I got to the bathroom at the end of the race, I had no shame in letting my bowels do their worst and release a symphony of flatulence — much to my own laughter and everyone else in the stalls. (I also took that opportunity to educate everyone on some really unpleasant chafing going on in my nether regions, causing more eruptions of laughter and farts.) It made me realize how silly it was that I was embarrassed in normal times to poop in public restrooms, when that’s what they’re literally there for. Everybody poops. I’ll remember that on the A.T. when I pull off trail to dig some holes, and hopefully it will stave my former poop shyness.
Although Olivia and I had trained for months beforehand, it was still one of the hardest things I’ve done, but also one of the most fulfilling things I’ve done. It’s made me excited about the mileage I’ll cover on the A.T. and convinced me to start training with my pack more. It made me grateful to have the opportunity to attempt the trail, and the physical ability to do so as well. It gave me a good idea of what 30+ miles feels like to run, and has made me realize how important it will be to slowly build up to higher mileage once I start the A.T., in order to avoid injury. It made me realize how deeply I value connections to my friends and strangers I meet along the way, and how important it is to tell them how much they mean to you. When Olivia and I were running, as we read the mantra “YOU can and YOU will!” on the back of a woman’s shirt who ran by, I said it out loud, trying to motivate us. Olivia turned to me and smiled, saying “WE can, and WE will!” Immediately, my legs felt stronger, knowing I was running next to and for a group of people who believed in the strength of camaraderie and accomplishing more than we believe we can. In the words of Wells Fargo, Together, we’ll go far.
After I can walk normally again, I can’t wait to get some more training in with my backpack and a new set of mantras — this time focusing on the wonderful people who support me on my trek to Georgia to Maine.
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