Becoming Ultra: How I Started Trail Running and Signed Up for an Ultramarathon
I didn’t always consider myself a trail runner, but now, on the brink of becoming a trail ultramarathoner, I realize how trail running has always been important to me.
*Required disclosure: this post includes affiliate links. If you make a purchase using one of my links I get a small (at no cost to you!) commission or discount. I promise to only link products that I'd recommend and use myself. I strongly encourage you to first consider shopping small and locally, even if it means I don't get the referral commission. Otherwise I really appreciate your support: blogs are expensive to run and maintain and I'd like to get out of the red one of these days, thanks!
It has been a ridiculously long time since I’ve been active on this blog, and yes, I miss it, but on the other hand it’s been thrilling to have such a fast-paced summer.
So if I haven’t been blogging, then what the heck have I been up to?! (The responsible and mostly true but boring answer is I’ve been busy with my job - technology moves fast and creating innovative technology means I have to move even faster.) But the more exciting thing to say is I’ve been running trails.
Trails and running. These are two of my favorite things and I somehow conned several of my friends to spend most of the summer doing exactly these two things with me as several of us trained for a trail half marathon and a few of us trained for a trail ultramarathon.
A trail ultrarunner. This spring I had an inkling that perhaps I might have aspirations to be exactly that. I love the trail and all my hiking and backpacking adventures, but I also love the speedy thrill of running. I hardly thought of myself as a trail runner because, even if I ran trails regularly, it wasn’t my primary means of training. I didn’t live in Colorado and hop on a trail every day before work; I just made it out to the occasional run-venture, so it felt a little fraudulent to call myself a trail runner. But as I discovered a bit surprisingly, I’ve done a decent bit of trail running compared to the average runner.
I guess I first ran trails on the ten acres my parents owned when I was a very little kid growing up outside Atlanta. Eight of those ten acres were fenced in and when we let the Siberian Huskies loose every morning and evening they would take off across the landscape like a pack of wolves. They’d dart past the garden and orchard - fenced off for the peach trees’ protection from the dogs and the dogs’ protection from the blackberries - and across a spreading meadow with grass so tall that in the summer you could only see parting waves where the dogs ran and where, if I ventured, I would quickly become swallowed up and lost under wild wheat-like stalks taller than me.
The Siberian Huskies loved the wooded area of the property though. Not all the dogs ran into the woods; if we were boarding some dogs - Briards or Newfoundlands or some other working or herding breeds - they would eye the woods and skirt its edges but those other breeds never ventured deep under the trees. The Siberians though sang with joy as they ran through the woods. They’d sprint and leap between trees, round hard through corners, spray up red pine needles, and come out the other side of the woods panting with joy. On the rare occasion, if they’d already run the circuit of the property a couple times, they’d stop in the woods and howl - a thrilling, wild noise.
I don’t know how old I was - six? maybe younger? - when I first followed the dogs into the woods. I’d been following them into the edge of the woods little by little, keeping to their well-worn trail in the heart of the trees, but I always balked when the wide path of the entrance trail split into singletrack furrows as each dog took its favorite route through the woods. Finally though I followed them deeper, a little afraid as my eyes adjusted to the darkness between the dense trees, but then I caught sight of a flash of white husky tail and I kept chasing them.
I remember one dog named Rosie leapt through a V in a tree, and that image of her midair is as vivid as any childhood memory. I remember how Phil - the handsome grey-and-white jock of the pack who’d been in Calvin Klein ads - ran along the fenceline, pink tongue bright against the gloom. I remember how Skylar, the alpha, was just a black and white blur in the shadows; he was the swiftest, smartest, and most confident dog in the group, and the deepest and darkest part of the woods were his playground.
I wanted to run like that, I realized. To twist and leap and cut and play. To feel the joy of the wind as it whistled in my ears and to scrape past pine bark and skid around oak trees. To run silently on a path of soft pine needles, stealthy and swift. To not be afraid of the dark woods that dominate childhood fairy tales and wild imaginations. I loved the woods, and envied the dogs their speed and surety.
And so I ran with them, with the Siberian Huskies that I sometimes pretended were a pack of wolves (because what else is a group of seven huskies to an imaginative seven-year-old), through our property in Georgia and then our successive properties in North Carolina, always chasing them, always struggling to keep up, but always getting a little faster and more confident.
Until, eventually, I stopped chasing them. Maybe the pack was getting older or maybe as a teenager I just wanted to get my chores done and talk to my friends on instant messenger. I didn’t have the urge to run through the woods with the dogs anymore. There was no point in pretending they were wolves; what was the point in romanticizing them when they were just huskies in a dwindling pack, and they didn’t even howl anymore, not since Grady, their last indisputable alpha, died.
It wasn’t until the year after college that I ran in the woods again. McCrae and I moved into an apartment complex directly across the street from Carolina North and I determined that from my doorstep, out onto Carolina North’s Pumpkin Loop and back it was three miles exactly. That loop became my regular running route where I went every couple days to run with Ryder who was just a puppy, his paws and ears and skin floppy as he grew awkwardly, first getting longer in the leg or shooting up ears or springing up in some other mode of doggy adolescence.
Even then, when I mostly ran in Carolina North, I didn’t think of myself as a trail runner. I always assumed that a runner was a runner, no matter the location. It didn’t occur to me to make distinctions.
I suppose I became exposed to the idea of “trail runners” when I got more involved in my local running community. Fleet Feet offered some trail running training programs and I started paying more attention to news about professional runners - Shalane Flanagan and Meb Keflezighi mostly, but sometimes whispers of names like Scott Jurek and results from races like Western States and Leadville. I heard bits of trail news from both directions - from the running world and the hiking world - and when I ran across trail runners in the wild they were always the dirties and wiriest of the bunch: the affectionately-named dirty hippie hikers of the running world.
Trail running as a separate entity really blossomed in my mind when I read Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run* and Natural Born Heroes* and Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run*. These books distinguished for me trail running and ultrarunning as a separate culture and experience, representing the blend of the best (in my opinion) elements of running and hiking/backpacking. Dirty? Gritty? Laid back attitude despite lots of pain? Smelly? In the woods? Good chance of injury? Possibility of startling some wildlife (possibly something that might kill you)? Incredible views? Not being able to believe your body just did that? Yep, that all sounded perfect - sign me up!
In March I tried out trail running in earnest when I signed up for the Fleet Feet Expedition Series outing to Hanging Rock. The idea was that at the crack of dawn in March we’d all pile into some vans and drive to Hanging Rock State Park - me and twenty-four of my “I’ve never met you before” closest friends. Our goal was to tackle all five peaks in the park via a trail run, covering a distance of about 10 miles. I had my hydration vest with me and I was eager to try it out. My Altra trail runners* were all set and ready to run and I couldn’t wait to get started. The sky was streaked with peach and dawn came half-heartedly, but the van during the drive was merry and runners happily chatted about trail races they’d done or wanted to do and favorite trails to run. I knew several of the trail names from backpacking - the Art Loeb Trail and the Shut-in Trail - and I prickled with excitement at the idea of running them eventually.
But as we got close to Winston-Salem a hush fell over the van. Our windows fogged up and when I wiped a clear patch to peep outside I saw snow on the ground. Snow! It had stormed the night before. In Durham it had just been rain but two hours northeast of us it had apparently accumulated a few inches of snow. And we were going to run in that. I grinned anxiously and eagerly.
We arrived at Hanging Rock State Park and the world glistened. Snow flecked like glitter in puffy mounds, catching the morning sun and blinding us. Ice on tree branches sparkled sharply against a brilliant blue sky. We stepped out of the vans and the snow crunched under our trail shoes while elation crackled inside me.
We started on the trail towards Moore’s Knob, taking off quickly up the trail, skidding across snow while rhododendron branches slapped our faces. We had been split into a few small pace groups, but looking at the wiry runners in my pace group I felt a bit of adrenaline rise up - joy and panic together - at the idea of keeping up with these athletes and I worried I might start off too fast and crash or that I would be too slow, once more a back-of-the-pack runner. But even so I leaped after them, bounding across log bridges and up steep stairs, climbing and climbing and gasping as the group spread wide apart until finally I chased just the fog of my own hot breath in the forest as I climbed through the snow.
I was shocked to find that I was not too far behind the other faster runners when I reached the summit. These were people who chase after Boston Marathon qualifiers and who always looked impossibly fast as they disappeared at the start of long group runs, and here I was on a (albeit very relaxed and casual) run catching up to them. It was strange and a little exciting as I scaled the firetower and felt the cold wind tickle up goosebumps on my skin, pausing for only a little while before I chased them again.
There’s one part of the trail descending from Moore’s Knob to Cook’s Wall that is thrilling when you run, especially if you dart through snow chasing after another trail runner who looks like he’s flying over the mountain. Reckless abandon. Controlled falling. We slipped and slid over the snow, barely keeping our feet under our bodies as we fell forward and down the mountain, faster and faster, more reckless and bold. That sensation is somewhere between falling and flying, and I decided I needed to feel that wildness over and over again.
It was more than a little fortuitous that one of my friends was training for the Bryce Canyon Ultra Marathon, so we made up a bucket list of trails in the Triangle and started tackling them. Then several of my friends decided they wanted to sign up for a half marathon trail race in August, so we all spent the summer stumbling (and sometimes tumbling) over trails across North Carolina. I couldn’t believe my good luck - every weekend I got to be outside on a trail running for hours experiencing that wild abandon on the inclines and somehow I’d conned my good friends into joining me. Every weekend I loved it more - the woods; the trail; the occasional copperhead that I didn’t see and stepped over; and that elation when I crested a summit, caught sight of the next peak, and, stepping off, suddenly seemed to fly.
We did that trail half marathon in August, which was possibly the craziest race I’ve ever participated in (it’s wacky enough it warrants its own race report) and now, a month later, I’m days away from becoming a real live ultrarunner. The Table Rock ultra waits for me: 50 kilometers of mountain running through Linville Gorge, and my emotional status is currently “can’t-eat can’t-sleep reach-for-the-stars, over- the-fence, World Series kind of stuff.”
At one point I got nervous about running an ultra. I’ve never even run a marathon! I skipped 5Ks and went straight to the half marathon, and now I’m skipping marathons and going straight to the ultra. A couple weeks ago as I looked at the elevation profile and the time cutoffs self-doubt crept in and I asked McCrae, “What if I don’t finish?”
“What if I don’t finish? What if I don’t make the time cutoff and they pull me from the course?”
“Liz, no matter what you’re going to spend a whole weekend outside. In the mountains! That’s pretty much your favorite thing. You’re in your happy place all weekend. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t finish, because you’ll be outside doing what you love.”
Oh yeah. He’s got a point. So off I go into the mountains, and maybe by the end of the weekend I can proudly call myself an ultrarunner.