How going off the beaten path helped me find my truest course.
I was fifty miles deep into my run, laying in a creek sipping Gatorade trying to convince myself I was alive, and then my friends started laughing because one of them caught a toad. I laughed and soaked my hat with water, and right then I knew I would get through this.
So I got out of the stream, changed socks, and took off down the trail again for a couple more hours.
I’ve always loved running, but I only started competing in middle school. All of my friends were doing it and I couldn’t miss out. To be entirely transparent, I am not elite nor a champion of anything in high school. I barely qualified for my district championships and never had a shot at running in a state meet, let alone earning a medal.
However, since I found ultrarunning that has no longer been the focus of running for me.
To put it simply, ultrarunning is any run longer than the distance of a marathon. Traditionally, the 50-kilometer is the shortest ultramarathon distance and then there are races that span hundreds of miles and multiple days such as the Moab 240. The best part is the variance between races. There are official world records for 100 miles on the track that are sub-7 minute pace, and others have run fifty miles a day on the Appalachian Trail every day for forty days straight just to say they have the fastest known time.
I can’t remember when, but I stumbled upon videos of Jim Walmsley a couple years back when he missed a turn over ninety miles into the Western States Endurance Run 100-Mile Endurance Run, the Olympics of U.S. ultras.
This just blew my mind.
Really, it sounded unfathomable to me — but all the while I was hooked. I found myself learning all about Jim Walmsley and the unofficial running group, the Coconino Cowboys, that he formed in Flagstaff, Arizona. Every day I was watching another interview of a course record-holder or reading about a future attempt at a Fastest Known Time for some trail, and I started to realize that this was something I wanted to do someday.
It was winter break of my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh where I run club cross country and track. I went out on the local Rachel Carson trail for eleven miles of snow and over two thousand feet of elevation gain and remarked on Strava that “I am legitimately debating doing a trail ultra this summer. It has long been a dream of mine and I keep getting told to wait until I am older.”
My good friend Carter simply commented “Do it.”
So I signed up for the Laurel Highlands 50k and started hitting the trails for two or three hour runs every weekend, and promptly screwed up my knee after a half marathon. I took a whole month off and showed up on the starting line for the 50k with the confidence of a pain-free two-mile shakeout and a water bottle in one hand and a Gu in the other.
No one was under thirty years old except me, and I was beginning this race vastly underprepared. I toughed it out for a 5th place finish, an arm around my shoulder and a slice of pizza from the race director. Sitting in his fold-out chair, cheering for other runners way the hell off in a rocky parking lot, I decided this was the racing I was meant to be doing. Since then, everything has changed.
I don’t put pressure on myself to perform any more. Every run is a chance to just enjoy time on feet and push myself when the feeling is right.
For me, ultrarunning has become a place for the purists and masochists and a different brand of dreamers of the running world. I love a good workout, I live for races, but everything else can be boiled down to enjoying the disease of putting one foot in front of the other.
This attitude led to me signing up for the Greenbriar Endurance Runs 50-Miler with insane vertical gain and a midnight start. I started creeping up the mileage any way I could, finding new trails and getting into a rhythm and reaching some new levels of fitness and mental toughness. I was going out there and running up and down a tenth of a mile hill for hourS, and I ran one hundred laps on an indoor track to familiarize myself with pure mental endurance. And, with full honesty, I loved both of those efforts.
As with many other races, my March 28th race was cancelled due to the outbreak of COVID-19. I was absolutely dejected for all of twenty minutes, and then it hit me that I didn’t care. The race was just a vessel for my endeavor to push myself. With the support and encouragement of my training partners, it was decided that I would instead attempt 12 hours of running in my favorite park filled with great trails and elevation to just see how far I could go. I was calling it “the celebration of running.”
It lost the feeling of celebration much earlier than I thought it would.
I started at seven in the morning as the first car in the lot and breezed my way through twenty miles before having a friend join for some company. We finished the first marathon in a little over four hours, and I came through the 50k mark in five hours. Every five miles or so I would stop at the car to refill my handheld water bottle and slurp some pickle juice and get some salted watermelon in my body.
I knew from research and experience that I needed to intake calories and nutrients throughout, or I would seriously suffer the consequences of malnutrition.
I am not sure whether it was the unpredictably warm weather or a weak stomach, but at mile 37 I suddenly felt extremely dizzy. I stopped to throw up multiple times, and this cost me about fifteen seconds before I was back to a slow jog. I thought that I would feel better, but things got worse. Lightheadedness, fatigue, and mental weakness seized control all at once and I needed to cool down.
I laid down in a pool of the small creek that borders one of the trails and sipped Gatorade until I felt cool, and then took off again on the trail.
For the next 9 miles it went something like this: jog over to the steepest trail in the park, hike up to the top, jog a slowly descending two and a half miles back to my car to grab water and Gatorade, repeat.
When my watch dinged 50 miles at eight hours thirty-eight minutes I decided I deserved another soak in the creek. I could barely think straight.
If this was race day I would be done, but instead I was a sap with three and a half hours to try and reach my secondary goal of doubling my previous longest run by running 62 miles.
New friends showed up to serve as my makeshift crew, while also making sure I didn’t pass out alone on the trail.
This was when one of those new crew members, Zach, picked up a toad. He didn’t bother with asking me how the run was going, he just focused on the frog.
It was then when I realized I had to stop being sorry for myself, and get up and get out there and get things done. Truthfully, I think Zach knew that, too.
And so I trudged through the miles with occasional hiking to ease my cramping legs. At mile 57 or so I had a number of friends on the trail with me and I was going through it. I couldn’t really talk, but I knew I just wanted to get further.
Somewhere on the Clayton Trail I found myself again.
I broke away from my friends as they talked and two of them joined me as I let gravity carry my broken quads down the hill.
I have no idea what happened at that moment, but I was back.
I started running faster than I had at any point all day and stopped only once to grab water and new socks in the last hour of the run. Mile 64 ended up being my fastest mile of the entire day. With my friends around me I counted down the final seconds. Watch one read 64.98 miles, Watch two read 66.38 miles.
I hobbled to my car and laid down on the asphalt in pain, all the while everyone talked to each other with excitement. I turned on my side and cried a couple of tears.
I can’t tell you what that felt like, to be surrounded by my best friends who selflessly gave up their day to help me test my limits, and to just be absolutely unable to function. I eventually mustered up the strength to lay down in the back of my car, was driven back to a friend’s house where I crashed.
This isn’t me telling you to go out there and run for twelve hours. I’m not saying to run with the “time on my feet” philosophy. Really, I don’t even think you should start running ultras or more trails. But what I have learned is that I want everyone to appreciate the fact that running has so many facets, and we often don’t celebrate a lot of them. There are so many events, training plans and philosophies out there, it is just that we all have our favorites.
And as it turns out my favorites are a little off the beaten path, but I’ll never have to worry about losing the trail because I’m making it up as I go. Ultrarunning has long been dominated by thirty year old guys, most of which had success in the marathon or in college track and cross country before racing ultras.
But for the first time in a long time, this continued demographic is changing. We are seeing young guys, even Pennsylvania high-school no-names like Jared Hazen find worldwide success in the ultra community. He ran the Western States 100 for the first time at nineteen years old in 2014, and now he’s one of the best ultramarathoners alive today.
With the pandemic shutting down races I have been finding peace on the trails and thinking to the future. There’s such a slim chance, but I want to be one of those up-and-coming ultramarathon guys. This summer I’ll hopefully be attempting the Fastest Known Time on a favorite trail of mine, and in November — as long as races occur by then — I’ll be toeing the line at the JFK 50 Miler alongside some of the biggest names in the country.
Thirteen miles on the Appalachian Trail, followed by many, many more fast miles on the C&O Canal towpath and the flat country roads of Maryland sound like heaven to me.
On race day I’ll be itching to show what I have in me, but until then I’ll be enjoying time on my feet and preparing my mental game. I’ll be thinking about that toad that Zach caught, and how it made me feel. Moments like those are what gets you through the hardest parts of any race or workout or any hard moment for that matter.
Who knows what the next toad will be.
COLE BISHOP — UNIVERSITY OF PITTSBURGH // UNSPONSORED ULTRARUNNER
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