An exercise of gratitude: I barely survived the Zumbro 50 Mile run

Hi John, thank you so much for your hard work to put on the Zumbro race. I was a first time 50 Mile finisher and I barely made it. What a brutal course! It broke me absolutely sideways.

[Strava activity here]

On the start of the second lap, just after cresting the first hill, just before 5am, the light and darkness started to vibrate and I began to hallucinate. I had to stop running to re-center myself. I couldn’t run without hallucinating again. For 4 long, slow miles, I beat myself down. My self-talk was a downward spiral of negative. I was walking slowly.

I was giving up.

I was going to finish the 2nd lap, get into my car, and drive away without telling anyone.

Eventually, I waddled to the first aid station. The volunteer told us we still had time to finish. We could do it if we just kept moving forward. I realized that I could still make it if I just walked the remainder of the course… for 11 more hours. The sun started to rise. At the top of that next hill, I suddenly got mad. I cursed the course. How dare Zumbro punch me back and think it had won? I stamped my feet, threw a tantrum, and screamed into the woods that I would beat Zumbro just to spite it. I kept going.

11 long hours of hiking later, I sprinted as fast as I could across the finish line. A volunteer handed me a coke. I collapsed into a folding chair and started to cry. I bawled my eyes out, convulsing with agony and relief and gratitude that I had entered the darkest place earlier that night for those 4 miles. I had decided to give up. But my legs had just kept moving forward.

Thank you to the volunteers, thank you to you, and thank you to all the other participants. Every single runner that passed me wished me good job and good work and good luck. There was no way I could have finished by myself.

Thank you for pushing me to grow beyond my limits.

Credit to Mike Wheeler here

On a mountaintop, I see my future self

Each time I hike to the top of a mountain, I get a strange but familiar feeling. I wake up. I feel like the last months were all a dream. Standing there, looking out over the wilderness, I feel real.

Something is going on here. Maybe mountaintops bring us closer to heaven; summiting is an accomplishment that brings us purpose; the beautiful landscape is awe-inspiring. But that’s not quite everything.

On top of a mountain, I feel connected to my previous selves that also summitted mountains. Spacetime creases, bends, and folds inward on itself. Suddenly, my life is a continuous moment: just those mountaintops. Everything else between those moments falls away.

Then, my future self looks back at me from the next mountaintop. And I know there’s more climbing to do.

Grant at the top of Zugspitze (Sep, 2017) – Notice the look of excitement but with terror

I’ve been training a lot for this Zumbro 50 Mile Race in early April, 2022. The full course boasts 6,750 feet (2,057 meters) of elevation across 50 miles (80.5 kilometers). The elevation gain is about the distance of the Kentucky Derby. Thinking of the elevation gain in these terms makes it more manageable. But by the last lap of this race, I will dread every gentle rise like a mountain to summit.

That’s the point of Ultramarathons: to push yourself beyond your perceived capacity. In that sense, mountaintops are like finish lines. At the finish line of my previous race, I saw my future self looking back at me from the next finish line. And I knew there was more to come.

The next thing…

I’m onto my next adventure. I realize now that physical races are something special for me. They incorporate body, mind, and spirit in a way that is engaging and empowering. I rise to the occasion because I have to. These challenges force me to be better.

My next long-term goal, as of now, will be an ultramarathon running race. Or a running/hiking/walking race. It feels right. I ran the marathon slowly during my Ironman marathon, and I want to know that I can run longer. So, I’m looking into 50K and 50M races next year. I bought a new pair of shoes. I’m seeing a chiropractor. I’m changing my walking and running gait. I got a book. I’m listening to experienced ultra runners.

The odds are stacked against me: I’m heavy (more than 200 lbs / 94 kg). I am stocky and not built like a runner. I don’t have a coach. I hate the 3 Hs: Heat, Humidity, and Hills. I never really learned how to run: I just ran.

So, it’s a perfect challenge.

There’s something special about an Ultra that has a time cut-off. For a first-timer like me, I’m just hoping to finish. I don’t care what position I finish. I’ll be happy to arrive in last place, as long as I’m within the time limit. There’s something special about showing up to a race and not knowing whether you can finish it. Either I’m within the time cut-off or they drag me out on a stretcher.

So, my next challenge will be finishing a long distance within a certain time limit; but it’s not finishing under a specific time or pace (other than the time limit). Ultra time limits have some buffer. You don’t have to run fast to finish within the time limit. Some Ultras can be finished at the pace of a fast walk. But they’re so damn long and difficult that some races have more DNFs than finishers. So to me, the challenge is making the distance, not the time. I actually don’t know if I can physically make that distance at all.

There’s another thing I looked for in this next challenge. I want to do something big in an area in which I can do something smaller. For example, I can run a mile. So, why not run 30 miles? 50? 100? Maybe the next challenge after this will be an entirely new sport. Who knows.

I have to train more to get there. Specifically, I need to train my mind to invest all-in on this challenge. I need to prove some things to myself. I’ve run two full marathons already. Both times, I’ve hit the wall that broke me and I slowed to a walk. My best time is more than 4 hours. My next goal is training to run a sub-4 hour marathon. That pace is exactly 9:09 minute per mile pace for 26.2 miles including rest stops. I’m aiming to run under 9:00 minutes per mile to buy myself time for rest stops.

After a couple weeks of training in October, I spontaneously tried to do it. But I failed after 19 miles. I analyzed what went wrong and set a new date. Below is my After Action Report.

Anyway, I’m going to spend the winter running either way.

Now I’ve just got to decide for which race to sign up.

19 miles out of 26.2 Miler: After Action Report on 2021-10-10