Graduation & Facing My First Ultra: Fears, Confessions of Bad Training, and Other Considerations

By Crista Tappan - April 10, 2013

Running with friends at the B2R course preview. Gorgeous!

Almost a year ago I was standing at the starting line at the Born To Run Ultramarathon. I was not running an Ultra, only a 10-Miler, but countless others were preparing to be on the trails through the day and into the night. It was the first time I'd ever witness individuals running such distances, and I didn't realize at the time how much that experience would change my life. I only knew one person when I arrived, and left with countless friendships that will hopefully last a lifetime.

A month back, I had the pleasure of doing a training run at the course in Los Olivos. There is truly something magical with being surrounded by a bunch of other trail happy Ultrarunners. Although I felt like a little kid compared to many of the seasoned Ultra-veterans, they welcomed me with open arms and answered my endless array of questions. I spent the majority of the time facing the Big Question: Am I ready to run my first Ultramarathon?

I counter my own question with another, Does anyone ever feel really ready for an Ultra?

Or this, What's an Ultra without a little bit of fear of the unknown?

Although I have not finished analyzing the data of my thesis, one thing that is clear is that Ultrarunners are vivacious, driven, motivated and enduring (no pun intended).

The last year, I have been pushing myself mentally further than I have ever been before. Creating my Master's Thesis has been the biggest non-physical challenge of my entire life. I took a leap of faith and decided to investigate trail and ultrarunning for it's unique effects on our well-being. I wanted to see if being on the trails improved our well-being over and above road running. I wanted to see if Ultrarunners were happier (as they seemed to be). The research supported my, for a lack of better words (forgive me), I took the idea, and ran with it.

I found myself last month, sitting next to the wise Ultrarunner-Photographer-Race-Directer-Extraordinaire, Luis Escobar. He had just finished giving his incredible presentation about his trips to the Copper Canyons and running with the Tarahumara. It's a rare thing to be in a room full of people that make you feel alive. It was like an invisible current of electricity running through the room.

Luis giving his Running With The Tarahumara presentation

The book Born To Run re-ignited my passion for running, eventually led to me running at last year's Born To Run Ultra, and motivated me in doing my thesis on trail and ultrarunning. Listening to his presentation was exactly what I needed to remind myself why I'm so passionate about trail running, being surrounded by nature, and the thrill of adventure. 

The lovely Nancy Kaplan trying on the traditional Tarahumara clothing!

After the presentation ended, I sat in my chair, really not wanting to have the day end or head back home.

And then Luis sat across from me, ready to eat his own lunch.

Here was my chance.

It only took me a second to know exactly what I wanted to say.

"So, I'm doing my Master's Thesis on Trail and Ultrarunning," I told him. "I hope to be able show that people who run longer distances in nature have higher levels of well-being and flow."

He listened and ate his food as I explained my ideas about nature and it's immense benefits on our well-being. I told him about the research I'd found, and how unique I felt Ultrarunners were in regards to their motivation, personality types, and passion.

"Have you read the book Why We Run?" He asked. I shook my head. "How about Last Child In The Woods?"

I shook my head. I had never heard of either of those.

"They both talk about exactly what you are going after. You should really check them out."

I wrote the book titles down, and thanked him for the recommendation.

"Did I mention I'm graduating on the 17th of May? I'll literally be driving right from my graduating to Los Olivos."

He laughed pretty hard at that, "You going to run in your cap and gown?"

I grinned, "Maybe the first lap."

* * *

A year ago, I figured I'd have plenty O' time to prepare for Born To Run. I envisioned myself training like a rock-star, completing my first Marathon in the fall and increasing my distances every week on a set schedule. I should really know myself better by now. I have a hard time remembering to water my plants once a week, let alone stick to an immensely challenging running schedule during my last semester of my Master's.

Life had it's own ideas for how I would spent my time. After my first half last year, I felt my energy quickly dissipate. What I didn't realize was that I was burning the candle at both ends. Coupled with a bad diet, I found myself in the middle of the winter out of running shape and feeling a bit lost. I got myself into yoga, but that is clearly no way to train for an Ultra. I told myself the spring would bring me my energy back, and maybe if I gave myself a little break from running it would help me with my motivation....

Bad bad bad. Bad idea. Let me just say that "taking a little break from running" turned into 2-3 months with very little mileage. And to further add to the results of my own thesis, I felt terrible from not running.

* * *

One of the most meaningful moments I had last year at Born To Run was while I was waiting to pace my friend Carolyn for the last 10-Miles of her 100-Miler. She had originally asked me to pace her just for the last 10 miles, but as I sat by the fire chatting with a runner named Flint, I found myself being talked into bumping up to the 50K.

"She's almost on her second to last loop now," I told him as I stared at the crackling fire.

"You should do the last two loops! Then it would count as a 50K!" He encouraged. 

"You really think I could do another two loops of ten?" I stared at him, bewildered. I was waiting for him to realize the ridiculousness of what he was saying. "I've only ever ran ten miles before! What if I hold her back? Or worse, I only manage one loop and then I can't do it. She needs me more for the last ten..."

"If you feel fine now, you can totally do it," He told me, with a twinkle in his eye. 

"Seriously?" I was startled that he believed in me when I barely believed in myself. It warmed my heart and I felt lucky to be surrounded with such incredible and motivating people.

"Bump up! Just ask Luis! Seriously!" His excitement literally had me in awe, and I saw him start to scan the area for the race director.

Luckily for me, Luis was distracted off in the distance with something. 

"There is no way I can do another two loops," I told him, feeling disappointed with the statement. "But I can definitely do the last ten."

He smiled, knowing he had achieved at least half of his goal of motivating me.

"If I'm up when you go to pace her, I'll cheer you on!" He said, smiling from ear to ear. 

Our short conversation filled me with a strange sense of strength I never knew I possessed.

Later that night, I ended up pacing Carolyn around 2:30 AM, for her ultimate win of first place in the woman's 100-Miler. I completed 20 miles in under 24 hours and could hardly believe what I had just experienced.

* * *

Photo courtesy of Nancy Kaplan

It's a month and a half until my race and I am absolutely petrified. What I didn't anticipate was how busy I would be this spring. My training wasn't just sub-par, it was almost non-existant. I now face the dilemma: Do I drop down to the 10-Miler, admit defeat before I even begin, or go for the 50K knowing I did not train nearly enough. If I do the 10-Miler, I can definitely pace someone and go for 20 miles again. But who knows, I have all weekend to complete the 50K, and even if I walked the last two loops, I could still easily finish in under 8 hours. 

There are lots of pros and cons. 

My biggest influence in the decision is my lack of wanting to back down from my commitment. And having to e-mail Luis and ask him to officially drop me down. On one hand, I have time on my side. On the other, why put myself through unnecessary pain if I'm not prepared?

Part of me feels like the best option is just to wing it. See how far my legs can take me, and if I reach a point where I can't go on anymore, then...I'll stop.

I asked my friend Mike Epler what he thought I should do, and being that he is currently injured himself, he made me feel better by saying, "Luis won't care if you want to drop down. You have plenty of time to decide."

I talked to my friend Dawn Marie Burke about it, too (I have a habit of talking out my problems, haha). She is more or less in the same boat as I (aspiring Ultrarunner, also signed up for her first 50K at Born To Run). She gave me many words of encouragement, and made me realize (once again) that Ultrarunners run through their hearts, not their legs. In a lot of ways I want to tell myself, If she can do it, I can do it!

And to completely even out the advice playing field, my friend Kevin Cody told me, in so many words, that he will carry me himself the whole 30 miles if I decide to whimp out after 10 miles.

To play devils advocate, Nancy Kaplan told me, "What's the fun in putting yourself through that? Just do the 10-Miler and party with the rest of us! Do the 50K next year when you actually have time to train for it. And then you can actually RACE it."

She has a good point. They all do.

I'm still afraid. I'm still unsure if I will conk out after only 10 miles. Or maybe I'll feel fan-freaking-tastic after ten, twenty, and will be able to complete the whole 31 miles. I don't know!

One thing I do know is, I'll never know until I try!

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