It’s hard for me to believe that it was two and a half years ago when I ran my first ultra race: Strolling Jim 40 Mile Run. I was bound and determined to prove to myself, my family, my friends..anybody and everybody.. that I could turn my once drug addicted self into someone inspirational. Someone worthwhile.
I’ll never forget how incredible that day felt. It hurt so freakin’ bad, but every single mile was just so beautiful. Beautiful not just because of the scenic countryside, but because I spent hours of it dealing with myself. I took those hours of being alone and dug deep into my heart. I slugged it out with any mess that I felt didn’t belong in there. I always say that every mile that day was a mile further away from who I used to be… and that’s completely true. Because when I crossed that finish line -with Temper Trap’s “Sweet Disposition”- filling my ears (yes. random)….I became a different woman: confident, strong, and completely renewed.
Photo by Ray Krolewicz
As a result of my first 40 mile therapy session, my running naturally progressed further. I ran my first 100 mile run that December, just 2 years after I started running entirely. I learned how to use the hard things I had been through in life, and turn it into powerful running fuel. So when I was faced with adversity during that race, I could easily overcome it with thoughts of things that I’d conquered that I felt were worse. Immediately after that 100, I only wanted to run ultras more and more. I was addicted to the act of running. It just felt so good to move and to conquer things in my life. I needed it…
But eventually, I got way too much of a good thing, and ended up destroying my body more than a few times because I literally could not stop mentally. If you’re a follower of this blog, than you’ll remember when I nearly died at Fort Clinch 100 when my body almost succumbed to rhabdo. Then again, at Hinson Lake 24 hour, when I tore two muscles and stress fractured my hip. I was scaring everyone around me with my “inability to except boundaries”. I knew that, but I refused to quit. I wasn’t done hashing it out with myself. But at Ancient Oaks 2011, I came full circle. I used that race as an opportunity to prove to myself and everyone around me that running ultras were good for me, and that I NEEDED them… because I did. I finished that Ancient Oaks successfully, and felt complete satisfaction in knowing that I left everything on the course….everything including my need for running therapy.
I NEED To Do This….Right?
Fast forward to this year, and it’s been nothing but sunny smooth sailing. Things haven’t been easy in my life this year, but I’ve never been more content. I’ve felt no real need to run since Ancient Oaks last year. I’ve felt no need or desire to push myself in a way that I used to. Instead, that desire was replaced with adventure. And I spent the year traveling and running in places for the sheer beauty and act of running.
By fall of this year, though I had done of ton of crazy adventure running and playing in the woods, I hadn’t done any real racing of any sort.
…Guess I should sign up for a 100… I thought.
So I sent Mike Melton, RD of Ancient Oaks an email requesting an invite to run his race. I was invited to run, I filed it into my brain as a “must train”, and that was that. Over the next few months though, I never put in any serious ultra training. I had every intention of doing so. Instead I just screwed around on the trails taking every day in stride. Whatever happened, happened.
I didn’t feel like busting my butt and training hard again. I didn’t feel like taking hours away from my family on the weekends, or waking up at an ungodly hour to get any miles in. So I simply just didn’t train more than I felt I could squeeze into a normal week.
Daniel, Jen, and Amber, whom I talk with every day, all told me to back out of the race, because they could tell I didn’t really want to do it, but I insisted that I needed it:
“I need to run a 100! My blog is about running 100’s for crying out loud!”
“I haven’t done a 100 in a year. I’m gonna lose cred if I don’t do something again.”
“I know I’ve been out running long in the wilderness but what does that count for? I need a 100 on paper!!”
Every reason seemed completely logical to me. So despite my lack of caring or training, Daniel and I decided to make the trip down to Florida with the kids so I could give Ancient Oaks 100 another go. The race is in South Florida near the coast, so we made a long weekend out of the trip, and decided to spend our time at the beach. Our family needed the weekend together. Dan works 3 hours away, so we don’t get to see him during the week much, and both of our kids are in school full time this year. Getting the four of us alone together doesn’t happen as much as we would like it to.
So needless to say, I was a little bummed when Saturday finally rolled around and that meant I had to leave my family at the beach and go race.
“I need to do this…right? I haven’t finished a 100 all year. But, do you think I can even finish?” I said as we drove down to the race.
“Sure you can finish easily. It’s just a matter of if you want to. Personally, I don’t think it matters that much to you any more.” he said, “But I know you’re gonna go for it any way. You always have to learn things the hard way.”
“But this is what I’m about. This is the kinda crap I do. I’ll be fine once I get out there.”
“Well then go do it! Go finish another 100. It’s only a day. I’ll have fun being alone with the kids. A daddy day. I hardly get to see them any more. Just enjoy your day out on the trails!”
Out Of Place?
We got to Ancient Oaks with just a few minutes to spare before the start. I found Mike Melton ,the race director and a long time friend, and gave him a big hug and thanked him for inviting me out to his race again. Then I found my buddy Bruce, and together we waited for the race to start.
“You’re gonna do great, Ash.” Bruce said, knowing that I was completely under trained. “Just relax and have fun.”
I’m definitely relaxed, I thought, as I looked at everyone around me, maybe too relaxed. I realized after observing the fellow racers that I felt very out of place. I wasn’t wearing any gear or even holding a water bottle, I wasn’t a bundle of nerves or excitement. I had not put any preparation into doing the race this year. But none of that bothered me… I just wanted to run in the woods.
(*Please take note of the insanely legit #AASugar shirt. Photo by Michelle Matys)
Mike Melton shouted a quick GO! and we all took off for 29 3.4 mile loops of sand and twisty technical trail running. I settled into a comfortable pace with the lead pack and quickly fell into a good groove chatting with Shannon McGinn, Bruce (Sung Ho Choi), Brad Lombardi, and Will Glover.
Though I was expecting immense pain to cripple me early on in the race, that really didn’t happen. My left knee was hurting like a mother, and the chronic Joplin’s neuroma pain I’ve dealt with for years was flaring up, but I tuned it out like I taught my body to do years ago. After a few loops, I began to really enjoy myself! It wasn’t until 20 miles in, when I randomly started puking my guts up onto the trail did I start to question my decision to be at the race.
…are you freakin’ kidding me? I’m puking already?? This can’t be a good sign…
Turns out, due to my racing rustiness, I had forgotten to take any electrolyte replenishment the first few hours of the race… oops. Mike Melton helped me get my act back together with these random magic papaya pills–sounds like drugs but they’re actually available at Walmart–and got me on my way again!
By the 50k mark I had completely found my happy running place. Man, who cares that I hadn’t raced all year because puking or not, my legs didn’t skip a beat. I was loving life, loving running, and totally immersed in the moment. I cranked up my ipod and literally just started rocking all the frick out to Dead Sara mid run…. not gonna lie, it was pretty crunk, and I pray to God that nobody saw it. (Dead Sara Weatherman video is below for those of you unfamiliar with her awesomeness.)
Thanks, Dead Sara. Anyway…That vibe lingered the majority of the day. 100 miles or not, it simply felt good to be out there running.
…Maybe this thing was a good decision after all…
As the day progressed, I kept running and pushing. I was enjoying running in the woods and running well, and surprised by how little the run was taking out of me. The only thing I was truly battling was my inner desire to be at home with my family.
Songs would pop up in my playlist that made me think of my kids, or Dan. And Lil Jon’s Get Low came up making me think of mountain running with Amber. And I just kind of got sad. I felt deep down that my heart wasn’t totally in this race, and I’d rather be doing other things at the moment. But at the same time, the tough side of me was shouting Shut the frick up and run you big baby!!!
I had kind of adopted Michelle Matys and Brooke Berns as my quasi crew. And often when I would see them, I would explain that this mental struggle was going on in my brain. They would remind me to stay in the moment, and that I would see my kids in the morning. I was thankful for that. Because I honestly needed to be reminded that I needed to race. It kind of sucked to realize that, but they kept encouraging me through it. I wasn’t expecting any crew help until well into the night when Caleb Wilson and Jen Vogel would be coming out to push me through to the finish, so I was very thankful for Michelle and Brooke!
Loop after loop went by and I continued running alone. Somewhere around 60 miles or so, as evening fell, I was getting a little tired of running. However, I knew I was there to run a 100, so I stayed my course. I headed out into the woods for another lonely loop and stumbled upon Dave Krupski, a fun loving ultrarunner. I guess he could sense my lack of true motivation…
“Keep running hard!” he shouted to me, “It’s AshRuns100s, not AshRuns50s!”
I laughed at his remark and shouted back, “Hey Bueller,” noticing his Ferris Bueller shirt, “How’s ’bout you come out and run a lap with me. I’m getting lonely!” He agreed and we took off into the woods together.
I realized once we started moving that Beuller (Dave) may or may not have consumed a smidgen or so of alcohol, and his spirits were exceptionally high. In fact, they were higher than mine.. And that’s saying a lot, because the amount of energy in my giddy ultrarunning infused brain is pretty hard to duplicate. I started off the loop by feeling out his humor level and quoting lines from the movie Zoolander. When he responded with the same amount of dorky quotes, I knew that we had the same sense of humor and the loop was going to be a blast. I instantly pulled out my Roofus voice, you know, the crazy voice I lock into when I’m having fun, and insisted Dave do his own Roofus & Dangemon-esque voice. He did. And I named his character Buellah. And from that point on, until forever, Dave Krupski will be known to me as “Buellah”. Not Buell-er, but Buell-ah. Big difference…
So Buellah and I spent that entire loop walking and running through the dark woods, laughing our freakin’ butts off about the most ridiculous crap I couldn’t even begin to tell you about. I literally stopped running several times and just stopped to hold my gut and laugh….because my stomach hurt so bad from laughing. It reminded me of being out in the woods with my best friend, Amber. It just felt so dang good to be having fun.
…This is the kinda stuff I love! This is FUN!… I thought to myself. I appreciated the direction my brain was going in, because I really needed to be distracted from the fact that I wasn’t that into the race.
After finishing that loop, we walked by the aid station and Mike informed me that I was winning the race because Shannon, the kick butt chick in front of me had decided to drop.
I kind of chuckled to myself when I realized I was winning…. Winning? Pshhh. I ‘m not winning this race…. I thought. I mean last year–LAST YEAR I was winning. I was trying. But this year,…shoot. I was just out in the woods hangin’ with my friends.
Shortly after realizing I was leading the race, Jen arrived. I convinced her to come out into the woods with me and Buellah in an effort to keep moving and distracted. I had imagined all along that once Jen, one of my best friends, made it to the race to pace me, that we would turn into a drill sergeant combo of work like we had the year prior, and we’d get the crap done. The funny thing is though, the exact opposite happened.
We weren’t running or cranking out any hardcore ultra moves. Nahh… we just let the true nature of our friendship come out, and we started doing what we do best: laughing. So, walking through the forest with flashlights and tossing around an insane amount of witty and ridiculous banter…the 100 mile race continued…
And I was okay with that.
The loop with Jen and Buellah started out with us laughing about the irony of me winning a race that I had no business being at…
“Ashley, here you are barely moving, chomping on a d*** twizzler, acting like some fool named Roofus and you’re still winning this thing?’ Jen laughed.
“Yeah Ash, this is the most epic most inspirational display of winning I’ve ever seen.” Buellah chimed in.
It was so funny, but I needed to get my act together. I was out in the woods pranking people and causing a ruckus, …and winning a 100 mile race was the absolute LAST thing on my mind. The irony of it all was actually pretty hysterical at the time, and fueled even more laughter for the rest of that loop.
The night continued in that manor, with me semi running [mostly laughing] circles of trail with Prophet Jen, Buellah, and Caleb (whom I renamed Llamaqueesha…just don’t ask…) until I only had about a marathon left in the race.
…A marathon? That’s it? Pshhh… I can do that in my sleep…I thought to myself.
I kept on moving easily, and the battle of missing my family didn’t pop into my brain much, because I was distracted by the fun of being with my friends. And as long as I was having fun making memories with them, then I was going to be okay…. because at that moment, I was doing what I needed to do…relaxing and having fun.
One Crappy Marathon Attempt!
I looked at the clock and realized I had about 7 hours until the 24 hour mark of the race to finish up that marathon which would bring my race sub 24- likely a bit faster than I had done last year. I was confident I could do it physically– mentally though I’ll admit I was a bit scared. I knew I had nothing deep to dig from. I knew I had no demons to battle. I knew I had no reason to push myself to the edge. But I continued to move.
…Just gotta move…
“Dude, Jen.. I can be done with this thing soon if I just hurry up and run.” I said to my friend.
“Yeah quit messing around and go finish this thing. You only have a marathon left” she said.
I remembered back to being in the same place last year when Jen was with me on the exact course, saying the exact same thing… “You only have a marathon left.”
That night it had lit a fire under my rear and I took off running harder than I had all day, and finished the race strong. I took a swig of Mountain Dew...because Mountain Dew tastes phenomenal in an ultra…I grabbed Caleb Llamaqueesha and some headphones and I took off running… but I had no fire under my rear this time. There was no real motivation. I just felt like running..
…and man I ran so freakin’ fast… So fast…. Caleb was behind me shouting at me to slow down, but I didn’t care. I was almost to 80 miles and every move felt like my first step. I was on top of the world..and secretly I was trying to see if I could make Caleb trip up on the technical trail, because he’s a barefoot junkie and was wearing his special little barefoot wonder sandals and I thought it’d be funny if he tripped… (just kiddin Llama. You know I love you.) But regardless, I was running good and really feeling it.
Caleb and I finished that loop together strong. I only had 7 loops to go to finish the race. I refueled and asked which of my friends was planning on going out with me…but the answer I got was like water on fire:
Jen had fallen asleep in her car, because-duh- it was the middle of the night.
Caleb had to go home- because it was the middle of the night.
Buellah was running with Brad, the guy he was actually there to crew…because it was the middle of the freakin’ night.
….Frick. I gotta go it alone? In the middle of the daggum night?….I thought.
And that tiny little thought, my friends, was a complete game changer for me…
Holy Crap. What Am I Doing Here!?
You see friends, I run alone 99.9 percent of my life. I run alone on trails. I run alone in the dark woods. I run alone in mountains and during long long races. I just really really like to run alone!! In fact I think it’s BEST to run alone because it builds mental toughness for moments just like the one I was experiencing! I even mentioned this on a TrailRunnerNation podcast recently.
So why was I all of the sudden bothered that I had to run alone??
Because I knew that I would be alone with my brain. And I knew that deep down, my brain wasn’t the same brain that attacked this course the year before. I didn’t need to be out here running this thing like I did last year….. I just didn’t want to admit that.
So I stuck my headphones in and trudged into the forest, far less enthusiastically than I had done the 20 some odd loops before this one. I could tell right away that things were changing, and it was out of my control. I suddenly felt the fatigue that had accumulated over the day and I began to walk. Not run-walk. Not power walk. Just straight up walk…like the walking-dead-zombie-without-a-brain walk.
The fun had gone away, and with it, my spirit.
I walked a couple miles and then the battle with brain began. Just like I knew it would.
...What the heck am I doing here? This isn’t fun any more. Screw finishing this thing. I wanna go home..
Whoa… I had NEVER had such a flippant thought during a 100. [EVER!!!!]
Ash, you’ve been low before. It’s just a part of the race, pick yourself up and go finish. You know what to do… I reminded myself.
But that’s the thing. I didn’t have any REAL interest in getting my act together and finishing….I quickly begged God to give me some clarity, then thumbed through my iPod searching for any ounce of motivation to propel me forward. I stumbled upon Sweet Disposition, and the memories from my first ultra race came flooding into my brain. It impacted me so much, but instead of taking off in a triumphant run, I literally just stopped and sat on a bench to process all of my thoughts.
(..I know, I’m really freakin’ emo …& can over analyze an orange.)
The music played, and I just sat and thought. That day-that first ultra- that was so special to me. It meant everything to me to finish that race. I needed it so freakin’ bad in my life. Same with my first 100, and Santa Barbara, and Ancient Oaks the year before. They were all such important milestones in my life, so why didn’t I care about this one?
I realized, while sitting on that stupid bench in the middle of a dark Florida forest, nearly 80 miles into a race that I was winning nonetheless, that I had NEEDED all of those races. They all came at perfect times in my life when I was going through some form of hell, or I needed to deal with demons from my past. They weren’t races. They were journeys….
It finally occurred to me that all of my reasons I had stated that I needed to run this race weren’t deep enough to carry me any further. There was nothing deep. Nothing spiritual. Nothing profound. I was running it for pointless superficial crap, and since the fun of it was over, my brain finally gave in.
….Holy crap. What am I doing here? I don’t need to run 100 miles. I didn’t need it at all. I missed an entire day at the beach with my family to be out in the freakin’ woods for no reason at all..
I suddenly felt an overwhelming repulsiveness at my decision to be out there all day. I pulled my knees up onto the bench, and buried my head in between my legs. I began to cry a couple of tiny “oh crap, I’m so stupid” tears. I have no idea how long I was there. I didn’t even put a watch, I realized, adding to my frustration. I eventually laid down and looked up at the stars… trying to get a grip on what all I was feeling.
I realized that I was a completely different woman than I was the last time I raced the course. Last time I needed the run. I needed it for therapy. This time, I had no need for therapy, therefore I had no need for the run. The realization that I had grown and changed so much was all pretty overwhelming, sad, and beautiful at the same time.
At some point, I guess I just thought so dang hard about it all that I actually fell asleep. Because the next thing I know, there was some random crusader leading me through the dense woods with me semi sleeping, saying something about getting me back to the aid station. I must have zombied all the way back to the start, because I have no idea who that man was, where he came from, how he found me, or anything… but I owe him a thanks. (Seriously, if you’re reading this random nice dude, please please shoot me a line so I can thank you personally!)
So I’m Done..With All Of It.
When I got back to the aid and finally woke up a bit, Jen was there, and I told her I was ready to go home and see my family. Of course she was there to fire back with the typical pacer stuff:
“Ashley shut up. You have like 12 hours to finish 20 miles before the cutoff. You could walk it backwards. Just stop talking and go out there and do it.”
“Jen. Seriously. I am kinda pissed at myself for even being out here. I could’ve spent the day with my kids at the beach. I didn’t need to do this today.”
“Well you already did 80 miles of it. Go finish what you started. You’re whole life image is based on running 100 milers. You can’t not finish. Imagine how much cred you’d lose for that.”
“I know. I know. I mean I could finish if I want to. I JUST DON’T WANT TO. I don’t give a flying frick who thinks what. I shouldn’t have even come out here today.”
“I told you you shouldn’t have! I told you that!! But now you’re already out here. Finish what you started!!”
At “finish what you started”, I felt a little plucking at my inner gut heart strings, so I picked my tired self up and started moving. I was shivering in my own sweat, my body unable to warm myself from a day of running, so Jen draped her sleeping bag over me and we started trudging towards the trail to do another loop.
“Atta girl.” Jen said.
Everything in my entire brain was telling me to call it a day, but “I needed to finish what I started” so I kept moving.
Jen tried to distract me, and we laughed together, but we had only walked a little less than a mile when I stopped dead in my tracks.
“Jen… I can’t do this. I’m not going any further. I know it’s not real for me. I don’t need to finish what I started today. I finished what I started a long time ago. I don’t NEED this anymore. I don’t need to keep moving..”
I bent over and thought long and hard about what to do next. Then I looked up at my friend and said, “I’m going home.”
She knew I meant it and she didn’t try to argue with me. Instead we just turned around and walked back to the aid station. I was still freezing cold, and exhausted, so I went inside of the only unlocked building- a bathroom- and laid down on the wet floor….look people, crap happens when you’ve ran 80 miles in the woods and had some strange life realization, okay?…and sorry Jen for putting your sleeping bag on the “venereal diseased floor”.
I slept for an hour or so – while everyone came in and snapped pictures of me passed out cold on a bathroom floor -and then I woke up, wrapped the blanket over my head, and cried silently into my shirt for a long long time.
I’m not sure exactly why I was crying, but I know it wasn’t because I wasn’t going to finish the race, or because I was hurting in any way. I think I was crying because I realized something that I realized a long time ago and refused to admit: My love affair with running 100 milers was over. And there was finally no denying that fact. I think I was mourning the loss of interest in what was a very special and important thing to me.
Time To Close The Book
Michelle popped into the bathroom and I asked her if she could grab Mike for me. I knew I needed to explain to him what was going through my head. Mike has been there since the very beginning of my journey, and has witnessed the ultra therapy play out right in front of his very eyes at my first ultra, his 40 mile race, and the year prior at Ancient Oaks. We’ve talked a lot about the emotional highs and lows in life, and how it’s all connected to running…
Mike came into the bathroom and plopped down right in front of me.
“What’s goin’ on Ash.”
“I think you know.” I said between tears. “You know me. You know what these races mean to me.”
“Yes. I know.”
“I’m just too happy in my life to finish right now. I can’t push another 20 miles Mike, because I have nothing left to push with. I can’t do 100’s anymore, I just can’t. I conquered everything I needed to conquer in my life, and now I’m done. I feel like going out there for another 20 miles will just take me back to that therapy zone, and I simply don’t need to experience that any more.”
“I know. I understand completely, Ash.” Mike said, wrapping me up in a big bear hug. “If these things aren’t good for you right now, then you don’t need to do them. Just like recovering alcoholics can’t go into bars.”
“You’re right. It’s time to close the book. I know it is.” I whispered between tears. We stayed locked in a hug for a few minutes as I cried on Mike’s shoulder, and he fed me more words of wisdom and encouragement. As I leaned back and wiped my eyes, I smiled at my friend, “Thank you so much, Mike.”
I knew for sure in that moment, it was time for me to go home….
My 100 mile journey was complete.
So what now?
Over the days that have followed Ancient Oaks, I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my life and everything that’s happened over the past few years. I learned so much. I always do.
Toeing the line of a 100 mile race without a real reason or a need to do so, in my opinion, was one of the most pointless things I’ve ever done. Why did I go? …My image…? Just because..? Everyone else does them….? I don’t know, but none of those are good enough reasons! You know, I think the running realm, and constant bombardment of social media has skewed our images and ideas of these 100 milers. We all feel like we’re supposed to do them all the freakin’ time, or we’re supposed to do them period.. like if you decide to be an ultrarunner, well you better just go ahead and decide when you’re gonna do your first hundred.
But, why? Why do something SO challenging, SO painful, and SO time consuming without a real need to do so?
I feel like tackling a 100 is supposed to be more of a journey.. a pilgrimage in your life. And for me, they really were…Trying to finish one for superficial reasons can never give anyone that deep satisfaction that they crave. That’s true for me or anybody.
I’m positive that I will reach another time and place in my life when I need to use running 100 miles as a way to resolve things in my brain. Positive. Because that’s just the kind of person I am. But right now, things are just too good in my head to try to do something that requires a screwed up brain from me. Instead, my body and brain are craving adventure and laughter with my family and close friends.
During Ancient Oaks–that’s when I felt happiest– when I was laughing in the woods with my buds, and that is definitely what I need more of in my life right now.
The journey from my first race to this last attempt was incredibly powerful, and I’ll never forget it. These races have helped me grow into the woman that I am today. But the woman I am today isn’t the woman I was yesterday. The woman I am today doesn’t need a ton of running therapy, or a 100 mile run. She just needs her own two feet, her family, her friends, some miles and a couple of mountains.
And as long as I’ve got that and I’m smiling, …I’ll be okay…
Thanks for reading my race recap of the Ancient Oaks 100 Mile Endurance Run. It was a tad different than the stories you’re used to from me, I’m sure. But it’s me nonetheless. Don’t worry- I’m not done ultra running. I plan to spend 2013 adventuring across the globe running style with my family and friends, and I’m throwing in a couple of Under 100 ultra races for fun in there to keep me fit. Let me know your thoughts on this story by commenting below! Thanks for reading! 🙂 ~Ash