Thursday, September 24, 2015

Reading, 'riting, recipe-ing, and running

It’s a wonderful thing to find the intersection of two of your passions. For example, I love cooking, and I love running, so naturally I’m drawn toward culinary creations that can fuel my races. Of course, at the point where you are obsessively chasing ridiculous distances, everything become fuel for races, even bugs that get stuck in your teeth during trail runs, so those two particular passions aren’t intersecting anymore; they’re both pretty much riding the same highway to hell-yeah. With reading and running, it’s a little different. I’ve read surprisingly few running books, and don’t feel all that strong a desire to change this despite my love of reading. Most books about running are memoir or nonfiction, which I don’t read much of ever (I prefer truth disguised as fiction over fiction disguised as truth), and as far as novels, there’s Once a Runner and … that’s about it, far as I’m concerned. There’s a sequel and a prequel to Once a Runner, neither quite as good as the first, as sequels and prequels are wont to be, though the sequel did at one point make me think about the topic of this post.

In the sequel, Quentin Cassidy, the trilogy’s hero, is past his running glory days, or so he initially believes. He was a miler in college, a great one, but for various reasons he gets it in his head to go after the marathon. What made me stop reading and start pondering was a conversation Cassidy has with a running buddy about how running has changed in recent years. “Running has become a big deal,” the friend says. “Remember how we used to drive for hours to get to some Podunk turkey trot somewhere, we were so hard up for races? Well, there’s hundreds of races now.” He adds, significantly, “You can look behind you at the starting line and see five thousand people lined up, but when the gun goes off, guess what? … You’re still racing against the same five or six guys you always raced against.”

This reminded me of something I saw in an article in a running magazine (which I also don’t read much of because they tend to have too many articles like this one). The title was something like “Is the hundred the new marathon?” and if you know running magazines, you can probably write the rest of the article yourself. Marathons are commonplace, it seems. Everybody and their semi-mobile uncle has one on their bucket list. Those 26.2 stickers are appearing on trikes. What’s a runner to do if they really want a challenge, something few people dare to do, something that will make eyes widen and jaws drop and prove once and for all that your first name is “Bad” and your last name is “Ass” and you live in Awesome City, population you? Run close to four marathons in a row, apparently.

And this led me to envision a running magazine article which I have yet to read but probably is out there somewhere or is about to be soon: is ultra running being dumbed down?

If you believe magazines, everything is being dumbed down. In fact, I rather suspect the proliferation of “is such-and-such being dumbed down” articles is contributing to the dumbing down. As soon as you see that question in a title, you can write the article yourself. People will argue that these days, so many people want to do X and don’t see any reason why they can’t do X so they all try to do X but they do X in such a half-assed way and X is absurdly simplified for their benefit and yet they still brag about their X-factor that people come to see the half-assness as perfectly fine. As a result, doing X exceptionally well is no longer given the respect it deserves because people will sniff, “Huh, my 6-year-old did that last month.” Ultimately these articles may begin with a sort of scornful head-shaking but they generally end with a weak “eh, it’s all good” attitude, because ultimately the dumbing down question is a pointless one. Even if the answer is yes, people are going to do it anyway, and regardless of the answer, what does it even matter?

Does it matter that the average time for marathons has gotten significantly slower in recent years as the number of runners completing a marathon has risen dramatically? Does it matter than many of them will never do another marathon? And what if the same thing happens to ultras—to the hundred, even, as unthinkable as that might have once seemed? Does it matter that ultra distances that once went up mountainsides now are as flat as a high school track? The obvious knee-jerk response to all of this is no, of course it doesn’t matter; one person’s accomplishment doesn’t diminish anyone else’s, and in fact the more people do something, the more we can appreciate those who truly do it well, even while the rest us get to enjoy a new experience. That said, there’s a reason these articles are written, and a reason I stopped to think about all this seemingly too-obvious too-pointless blather.

When I started running longer distances, I hated when people would congratulate me for “finishing.” I don’t just want to finish, I would bristle. A thing worth doing is worth doing well. Why would I want to go through all this training and hard work just to trudge across the finish line right before they take away the scoring mats? To say I did it? Anyone can do that, and if anyone can do that, why on earth would I feel like I did something special? I know this is an ugly attitude, but I have to be honest in admitting it was once mine—and in admitting that I still think this from time to time, when someone tells me a marathon is on their bucket list or boasts about their kid having written a novel. Something inside me cringes just a little, and that cringe starts ripples in my brain that threaten to swell into ranty tsunamis.

On the one hand, of course it’s great that people want to do challenging things. Of course it is. And why limit these things only to people who do them better than 99.99% of the population? Why can’t an ordinary person take on an extraordinary challenge? And yet, if you’re doing it to say you’ve done it, and you don’t care so much how you do it, and you don’t spend a whole lot of time learning how to do it, it starts to feel almost like you don’t really even like what it is you’re doing. I love running, so it irks me that people would see running not as a deeply satisfying part of everyday living but as something to “get through” so you can brag about it later.

And yet—there’s always another “and yet”—when I stop to think about the people I know who run these crazy distances, I’m not irked anymore. Not even a little. I’m overjoyed. Several of my friends ran their first 50-milers this month (as did I), several more ran 100Ks, and one ran his first 100. These are car-drive distances, done on foot. Some of those runners are crazy fast; one woman who did her first 50 did it in about 8 hours and 40 minutes, which to give you some perspective is roughly equivalent to running two back-to-back marathons at a 10-minute pace, which to give you some more perspective if that means nothing to you is fucking amazing. But many of the others would be the first to tell you that their finishing times were not anything even close to amazing—downright slow, in fact—and they never expected it to be otherwise. They aren’t ashamed of that fact, nor should they be; shame is not something that one should ever feel after running nearly continuously for over an entire day. Hell, I ran only a little more than half that distance in a thoroughly unimpressive 12 hours and I’m thrilled to my unattractively calloused toes.

Are we dumbing down ultras? Perhaps, but my 12-hour 50+ didn’t take anything away from my speedy friend’s 8:40, nor does her 8:40 mean that I should have just stayed at home in the A/C that sweltering Sunday and not bothered. And here’s the most important thing about all this: even though my 12-hour ultra was, shockingly enough, not always an enjoyable experience, it was an experience. Before it’s a goal, before it’s a challenge, before it’s a dream or an aspiration or a desire for glory and success, it’s something interesting I want to try. Believe it or not, there was never a time in that race when I wished I hadn’t decided to do it. I wanted to stop, frequently, almost continuously during the last loops, but as someone who is often called a pessimist, I believe in acknowledging that most of life isn’t going to be exactly the way you want it, and that being the case, most of life is about soldering on. Does it dumb down life that so many of us want to keep living? Irrelevant. We do. We do it in any way we can, in any way that makes it worthwhile and exciting, by reading, by writing, by cooking and eating, and sometimes by running for a really, really long time.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

50-50, Part 2

Saturday morning of the party, I went for a run. It was only the second run I’d done since my 50 miler, and despite having declared that I never wanted to run again after that 12-hour ordeal, I went out hard. I did speedwork. I did hills. And when I say hills, I mean hills, because I was in the Pacific Northwest, where unlike east-central Illinois, topography actually means something. After 45 minutes of going all out, I returned to my sister’s apartment feeling supremely satisfied. It wasn’t long, however, before I started to wonder if this run would end up being the high point of the day.

Once I had showered, my sister and I set about making party food. She had an ambitious menu planned from recipes in her “Four Ingredients or Less” cookbook, which makes it sound like everything would be a snap to throw together, except that fewer ingredients doesn’t automatically mean less work unless three of the ingredients are salt, pepper, and a parsley sprig and the other ingredient is a phone to call for delivery. There were cucumbers to slice, avocado to mash, cheese to shred, mushrooms to stem, stems to saute, stemmed mushrooms to stuff, stuffed mushrooms to bake, and hard-boiled eggs to peel and peel and peel. My sister, ever the perfectionist, spent a good part of the morning trying to pick specks of eggshell off the eggs without wrecking the whites—something neither of us had much success at. “Who cares,” I said impatiently after taking out yet another divot from an egg. “That part’s going to be on the bottom anyway. Nobody will see it.”

My sister did not listen. She wanted everything perfect. I left her to fuss over the eggs and set about mashing avocados, since I clearly prefer the messy to the pristine when it comes to food. At home cooking for me consists of mixing up a bunch of stuff and throwing it on rice, pasta, or a tortilla. It ain’t pretty but it eats good, and since the BF and I have contests to see who can chow down the fastest (the only race I almost always win), that’s all that matters.

I was also of the opinion that all of this seemed like an awful lot of work for a half-assed party. I’ve never been a fan of parties that are thrown on other people’s behalf; what the party-givers think would be an appropriate and manageable celebration is seldom what the party-honorees do, and inevitably one side is left stressed out and the other disappointed. My sister clearly thought a dozen people standing awkwardly around her living room eating deviled eggs made for a fine 50th anniversary party. (My aunt clearly disagreed and insisted on throwing a second party that evening at an overpriced Italian restaurant, since my aunt has a penchant for anything overpriced even as my sister maintains that if you didn’t get it from the clearance racks at Target, you paid too much.)

“I did it!” my sister exclaimed. “I got one shelled perfectly!”

Terrific. The guests were coming in less than an hour and the only thing we had to feed them was an egg. Suffice it to say my sister and I will never run a catering company together. Truth is, the fact that we were working together in the same room toward the same goal is more in common than we’ve had in ages. If siblings teach you anything, it’s that you can share most of your DNA with someone and still feel like you come from different planets.

And yet you can still laugh about stuff no one else understands.

“Did you like the invitations?” she asked with a grin. “I made them myself. All the store ones said things like ‘50 wonderful years’, which, well, that’s just wrong.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “More like ’50 years—why?’”

We cackled.

The invitations feature a photo of my parents and the caption 50 years, can you believe it? “This was the only picture I had of the two of them together, just them, and sort of smiling.” It’s not an especially noteworthy picture; they are middle-aged and don’t seem terribly enthused about whatever the occasion was. “Man, fifty years and only one picture.”

I shrugged. “That’s not really surprising, is it?”

“Nope. Not at all.”

The guests were punctual; we were not, still madly dashing about prepping the food and drinks, but at least that put us in the enviable position of having something to do and not being forced to mingle. There’s a reason people are so desperate to help the hosts at a party, and it has nothing to do with being polite since most hosts would rather you get the hell out of the way. My mother absolutely hates it when people try to help her when she’s cooking, so of course my father has to go in there and insist that she not work so hard, that she allow him to help, even though there’s very little he can do right, in her eyes, and whatever he attempts will inevitably be met with wrath and not gratitude.

Fifty years of that. Can you believe it.

My father had brought along one of the only two wedding photos they’d had taken fifty years ago. She’s in a dress that seems positively nunnish by today’s strapless, form-fitting standards, though my cousin (who of course went strapless and form-fitting at her own wedding two years ago) called it “elegant” and my mother explained how she sewed longer sleeves onto it in the car on the way to City Hall since it happened to be an unexpectedly cold day. In it they look only marginally less stiff than they do in the picture on the invitation. He’s seated in front while she’s standing slightly behind him. My aunt studied the picture with a frown. “Hmm. Isn’t he supposed to be the one standing and she’s supposed to be sitting?”

“That would be more typical, yes, but the photographer said he wanted to do something different,” my father explained.

I chuckled privately; these days even running-and-jumping wedding photos, once radical, have become commonplace. Fifty years ago, this was considered odd.

As good a precursor of things to come as any.

The food was ready. The guests were assembled in a lame-looking hokey-pokey-type circle around the living room, holding glasses of champagne or sparkling non-alcoholic cider. Everyone looked uncertainly around to see who was supposed to give the toast. Finally enough people looked at my sister, who raised her glass of sparkling cider (she doesn’t drink—told you we have very little in common) and said, “Um, here’s to another 50 years?”

People laughed and raised their glasses, but honestly, what else could be said? My mother, who had taken a cider, sipped at it and put it down. “Did I ever tell you how I met your father? I was at a party and I drank too much champagne!”

I just about dropped the bottle of bubbly. I knew they had met at a party but the other part was news to me, my sister too judging from her taken aback expression. “Uh, no you never told us that,” I said. Now I don’t feel so bad about some of the things I’ve done, though it would have been nice to have known this little nugget sooner. We tried to cajole her into replacing the cider with the real stuff, for old time’s sake, but she wouldn’t budge. Guess she doesn’t want to be making the same mistake again. So much for another 50 years.

Still, once again, they left the party together.

My sister and I cleaned up, or rather she did and I sat down to write, the way I knew she’d prefer it; she’s the neat freak, I’m the slob, though nobody other than my family has ever called me this. The way family defines you is unique, stifling, frequently wrong, but never entirely unshakeable. As we worked we marveled, patting ourselves on the back, at how well the party had gone. The food was perfect, pock-marked eggs and all, and we’d made just the right amount. Nobody squabbled; everyone, including our folks, had been on their best behavior.

“Yeah, that won’t last,” my sister said sourly, and I knew what she meant—and was sorry that she, living only 10 minutes away compared to my two time zones apart, had to deal with it far more frequently than I did.

Listening to my parents have a conversation is like listening to a popular song that isn’t very good. This again? Why do people like this crap, and why do I have to constantly be subjected to it? My father has never quite gotten the idea that conversation is a dialogue and not a series of alternating soliloquys. He makes statements when he talks, and doesn’t need much in the way of feedback other than to know that you’re listening. My mother picks one word out of everything she hears and attacks that word regardless of the context. Heaven forbid my father should say, for example, the word “education,” because then she will launch into the most vitriolic anti-intellectual rant a self-made working-class hero ever embarked upon—even if the context was a description of a terrible accident he saw on the news involving a drivers’ ed vehicle. Eh, scratch that comparison; their conversations are actually like two familiar songs playing at the same time, neither of which you especially want to hear again, and certainly not together; instead of harmony, there’s cacophony.

And yet sometimes maybe that beats silence.

Reading what I’ve written, I know I haven’t done justice to these two people. My parents are hard-working, responsible, intelligent, interesting, and thoroughly decent human beings, and as non-ideal as it was, theirs was still far from making anyone’s lists of worst marriages in history. And come on, they did stay together. There must be something to that. Damned if I can figure out what it is, but I guess I’m not supposed to figure it out. That there can still be unfathomable mysteries after so much time—maybe that’s as good a takeaway as any.


Part 1

Last weekend I ran an ultramarathon in which my goal was to complete at least 50 miles. This weekend I attended a party for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. The symmetry is just too perfect: fifty miles, fifty years, both endeavors beginning with hope, both inevitably entailing hard work, frustration, pain, and doubt, moments where you want to give up, where you wonder why you ever thought this was a good idea, yet ultimately—surely—rewarded in the end.

That all sounds lovely, but of course nothing is ever so clear-cut. A good analogy should provide insights into both sides of the comparison without oversimplifying either. Let’s see how far we can take this one.

I thought I was adequately prepared for my 50-miler. I’d trained well and felt no ominous twinges that might signal impending injury. But of course you’re seldom as ready as you think you are for any given endeavor, and with running I’ve found the more prepared you think you are, the less prepared you’ll actually be when the first unexpected obstacle appears. Everything from the comical (forgetting my shoes at home) to the health-hazardous (100-degree heat index that rendered me too nauseous to eat or drink) got thrown at me during my 50, and it ended up not exactly being a model for how to run a great race.

I don’t know how prepared my parents thought they were for their marriage, but I suspect that like most couples of their generation, they didn’t “prepare” at all. Marriage was just something you did, everyone did, got married and had kids. Divorce wasn’t something you did, so I imagine they didn’t prepare so much as resign themselves. That sounds terrible, I know, but my mother will tell you if you ask (and nobody asked her for a long time, so my sister and I didn’t know until we were well into adulthood) that the reason she married my father was to get her Green Card. My father will tell you he adored my mother, but he might also tell you that he had a very hard time getting her to talk about herself when he courted her, which makes you wonder just what it was he “adored” about her—some image he had in mind of the perfect wife, perhaps. As a result, it wasn’t a great match, to put it mildly.

You can only prepare so much.

Whenever I tell people I run ultramarathons (and once I’ve defined what an ultramarathon is) people drop their jaws in amazement, of course, but I can also sense them edging away from me just a little. Ultra running may be getting more mainstream by the minute, but there’s still a freakishness about it. It’s crazy enough to run 26.2 on a regular basis, but more than that? That’s just not right. I try to tell these people that it’s actually a lot less bizarre than they think—more a matter of stubbornness than athleticism. I wanted to quit so many times during my 50, but I kept going I think in part because when you spend most of the day locked in a quasi-epic internal battle between quitting and continuing, the battle pretty much becomes your entire world—a sweaty, smelly, achy painy misery-laden world that nonetheless is all you know. I want to stop. Why am I not stopping? What could I possibly have to gain by continuing to do this stupid thing? This will be my last lap, count on it. This next one will be. The one after this one, that’s it, I’m quitting. I can’t go on. I can’t go on. I can’t go on. And so you go on.

Whenever I tell people about my parents’ 50th, they inevitably do a little sentimental head tilt and go “awwwww.” And whenever that happens, I want to tell them to keep their heads level and their sentimentality minimal. This is not a marriage anyone would want to emulate, in my view, despite its longevity. My parents came within inches of divorcing several times in their lives together, and in the end, as near as I can figure out, they stayed together simply because at their age it’s more practical and sensible to have a roommate than live alone. At this point the end of their marriage is, to be blunt, going to be the end of their lives. They’re both in their 80s; they almost certainly won’t remarry after one of them goes, so this is it. They are old. Their bodies are breaking down. It’s scary to think of going through that alone; better, perhaps, to be aggravated by a familiar irritant than terrified by the unknown that lies ahead.

You keep going because you don’t know what else to do.

When it comes to any difficult endeavor, we think the question is “how much can I take?” But the answer to that is simple: anything. History tells us there is no limit to what human beings can endure. The tougher question is “how much do I want to take?” It’s tough because it requires thinking about consequences, always a big downer, and it necessitates balancing costs and benefits, which means being an accountant instead of an adventurer. And here’s where the analogy falters a bit, because there are some pretty substantial differences between running for 50 and marrying for 50.

I’d guess most people today would admit it’s better to get out of a bad marriage than to “tough it out”—the reason being that you don’t really tough out a marriage the way you do an ultramarathon. If your goal is to run 50 miles, the equation is simple: endure the suffering and achieve your goal. That’s what I did, and while it wasn’t pretty, it’s done. But while people go into marriage with the general goal of staying together forever, at some point that becomes a far less important goal than being able to enjoy everyday living. What does it matter if you stay together 50 years if the years are mostly unhappy ones? What do you get if you endure 50 years of a less-than-ideal marriage? A party with finger food from Trader Joe’s. An anniversary party, no matter how far you’ve gone, is pretty much just an aid station along the way, not the finish line.

That said, not a week after my 50 and I’m already thinking, OK, I did it, but I didn’t do it well. What if I had better conditions in which to run? What if I tried for a fast 50 instead of just any 50? When’s my next race?

Even when it ends, it doesn’t end, because the experience changes you forever.

Part 2: The Party (stay tuned)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Fortunate 50

I am not a believer in the culture of badassery that surrounds ultrarunning. Ultrarunners are not tougher than other mere mortals; they’re more privileged. If you are in a position to take on a physically demanding task voluntarily, and if you are able to make a goal for yourself in which nothing is standing between you and success but yourself, and if success or failure in that goal doesn’t affect anyone but you—well, I call that damned fortunate. 

That said, I’ll admit it’s hard to feel fortunate when the heat index is a hundred, you can’t use the bathroom, and you don’t have any shoes.

Last weekend I ran my 11th ultramarathon, a 12-hour race down in Fenton, Missouri, on a 1.4-mile loop course. Yeah, that’s right, once again I’d be running in circles, this time literally all day. It’s more fun than it sounds, really it is. For starters, you can eat all day long, anything you want, because you’re gonna be burning somewhere around 5,000 calories. With this happy scenario in mind, I started shopping for race food several days in advance of the event. Cookies, chips, peanut butter cups, peanut butter itself, bread, potatoes, chicken and turkey slices, hummus, coconut water, Cokes, Pop Tarts, probably would have included a rack of lamb if I’d had room in the cooler. I had fuel and hydration, I had sunscreen, S-caps, Body Glide, tape, water bottles, bandannas to fill with ice, a change of clothes and two changes of socks, and as I surveyed all of this in my hotel room the night before I realized I had not brought my shoes.

You do not panic in this situation. No, really, you don’t. You laugh. Not because you’re badass, but because, well, what the hell else can you do? It’s pretty damn funny. When you stop laughing, you become calm and practical. Having small feet means you could probably borrow almost anyone’s shoes and stuff the toes with socks, and surely one of the runners at the race would have an extra pair since most runners won’t be dumb enough to pack the food first and the shoes not at all. It’s not ideal—it is not even on the same planet as ideal—but it’ll keep your tootsies off the hot pavement. Even better, your running buddy is in the same hotel as you, so you call to ask if she has any spare shoes. She does, and they happen to be your teeny tiny foot size. Unbelievably fortunate. You also call another running buddy who will be coming down to the race the next day to pace some of it with you; he agrees to stop by your house to get your own shoes. Even more fortunate.

So far, no sweat. Plenty of that yet to come.

On the morning of the race, my running buddy, her husband, and I got to the park before dawn to get situated, set up our tent, and prepare for the long day ahead. I tried on her shoes, pleased that they were adorable pink Newtons, and tried not to think about how much unfamiliar shoes might wreck my body over the next 12 hours should I not be able to get my own pair. Every running guide ever written doles out the same seemingly too-obvious advice that you should never try anything new on race day, especially not new shoes, but such advice tends to be overlooked not by the rookies but by the veterans. Once you’ve done a few races, you start to realize that you simply cannot control everything, or even most things, about a race. After a while, you stop even trying to get control. It’s just running. So what if you forget shoes? Eh, you can deal with it. So what if the bathrooms at the race are still locked 20 minutes before the race begins? There are plenty of trees. Oh wait, this is a city park with lots of people around, and there’s probably a hefty fine if you relieve yourself publicly. Now we have another problem.

“This happened last year too,” one of the race directors said. “Parks & Rec is supposed to be here at 6am to open them, but they never get here in time.” He was saying this to me as he tried to pick the lock with a professional-looking set of lock picks. “We had to try to pick it last year too. Thing is, these are tough locks to pick. If they’d just used the weak kind most people have in their homes, no problem. This one’s strong.”

Good to know Parks & Rec uses the best, and that RDs know how to break and enter. “Did you get it open last year?” I said hopefully.

“Nope. Had to get the smallest person to climb through the window.”

I looked around back at the window, which looked only slightly larger than a mail slot. I have small feet but the rest of me is normal-sized and as badly as I wanted to go before the race began, I sort of hoped I wouldn’t be the runt of the litter.

A very small woman, her hair braided fetchingly, her outfit matching my borrowed shoes, spoke up. “I can go through the window!”

The RD looked her over. “How much do you weigh?”

“Ninety pounds.”

I have never been so happy to outweigh someone in my life.

We spent several minutes trying to figure out the logistics of getting the woman, whose name was Sparkle (I kid you not), through the small transom window. We rejected Fosbury flop and went with face down feet first. The RD and his son hoisted her up while I (at Sparkle’s request) photographed the whole thing on her phone. After contorting a bit to avoid the window’s protruding latch, Sparkle gave a happy shriek. “I’m in!” She looked taller, somehow, until I realized she had landed on the toilet seat—but luckily, not in it.

So now I had shoes and a bathroom, and a lot of food. What more could you need? Nothing, really, and in fact as I turned out, I could have shown up to the race with nothing at all and been fine. The truth is the more prepared you try to be, the less prepared you will be, because you’ll think you’ve accounted for all possible variables when you’re really just kidding yourself.

It was hot, you see, had been for a week. In the days before the race I watched the forecast with dismay as the predicted high crept up and up. By race day I knew the heat index was likely to reach 100, and I tried not to think about the fact that I’d not only be outside in that heat for the entire day but outside and running. This is not an intelligent thing to do. The nice thing about fixed-time races, however, is that you can easily stop whenever you want. Your goal is your own; if you decide you want to do 50K, you can stop at 50K, however much time is left, and feel successful—and smart, and still living, if the weather is dangerously sucky, which it most certainly was. The problem is I had a very specific goal in mind for this race: I wanted 50 miles, not 50 kilometers. Screw you, metric system.

On my two previous attempts to do 50 miles, I had to DNF at 30 due to injuries. I wasn’t injured at all during this race, and I felt strong and well-trained. Fifty miles in 12 hours seemed like an absolute cake-walk when I first decided to do this race—in fact, I secretly toyed with the idea of doing 60. Sixty meant an 11 pace with 5 minutes each hour for breaks. That seemed so very doable all the way up to point where the forecast started getting nasty. Even knowing the weather would not be playing nice with us I figured I had plenty of time.

You know when you take a wrong turn in the car and the GPS lady sounds all cranky when she says “recalculating”? That voice was in my head every loop. I kept having to recalculate how much time I had left to do the remaining loops I needed. If it had been 1.5 miles and not 1.4, it would have been much easier to figure out, but fixed-loop courses don’t often tend to give a damn about your mathematical convenience. I’d figured 36 loops would get me just slightly over 50, which meant a nice simple 3 loops per hour—except of course I full well knew it wasn’t going to be a nice simple 3 loops per hour. I’d want to do more at the start while it was still relatively cool, plus breaks would likely become longer and longer as the day went on. Everything became a math book word problem: If I keep going at this pace, I’ll get 50 with an hour and a half to spare. I’m most certainly not going to keep going at this pace so how much can I slow down and still make my goal? That is, during the first handful of loops I thought this way. Later on, of course, things changed quite a lot.

You know all that food I brought? I ended up eating almost none of it. The extreme heat made me extremely sweaty, which meant I lost electrolytes, and even though I took plenty of S-caps to make up for the loss, I was nauseous after just a couple of hours. At one point I tried to eat a salted potato, one of my favorite fueling foods. Took a bite. Untook that bite. Nope, that wasn’t going to happen. Next loop, tried to nibble on some bread and watermelon. Unnibbled. Nope and nope. A couple loops later, took a gummy bear from the aid station, bit his ear off, spat it out. Sorry, bear. That’s another nope.

So now I had a new problem: finishing 50 miles fueled by no more than a couple of slices of orange and a few sips of Gatorade. I wondered fleetingly if my desiccated corpse might end up fitting through that bathroom window by the end of the day after all.

Again, I was fortunate—massively so. My pacer for the race was a guy who once famously did an entire ultramarathon with a broken femur. This guy makes just about every other runner I know look wimpy—and sane. He was so not bothered by the heat that he even ran in sweat pants for a couple loops and consumed two burgers and a brat midway. Me, I couldn’t even say the word brat without throwing up a little. He kept me running even when my increasingly low blood sugar meant that I was expending more energy yelling at him than actually moving forward. There were whole loops where the only words I used were expletives. And yet we kept going.

At some point, however, the math was not adding up. We were going to run out of time before I got in that 36th loop, and we both knew it. At first I was massively pissed. All that suffering for nothing. Fuck. What the fuck. Why the fuckety fucking fuck was I doing this? Three attempts at 50 and I still wasn’t going to get it. So much for being awesome runner babe. I sucked, I fucking sucked, and I was very, very, very, very tired.

And yet we kept going.

It’s quite possible that this was a very foolish and dangerous thing to do, that I could have compromised my health in serious ways. That disclaimer made, we kept going. And then something inexplicable happened: math was wrong. Despite the fact that there was no way we were going to make 50, at some point nearing ten hours of running, my pacer told me we still had a shot. At 7:10pm with only 20 minutes left in the race, runners would no longer be able to run the regular course but instead would be allowed to run out-and-backs, each complete out-and-back totaling a quarter mile. “All you need are three more loops, Letitia. Three loops, and four out-and-backs, and you’ll get your 50.”

I started bawling. Not because I had a chance to get my goal, but because I had to keep going to get that goal. Stupid fucking goal.

Loop 33. The sun was starting to go down, cooling things off, too little too late. Stupid fucking sun.

Loop 34. I walked almost all of it. My pacer and I didn’t say a word to each other.

Loop 35. The final loop. I ran. I sobbed. The little hill. The newly planted trees with that mulchy smell around them. The basketball court. The shady section. The sunny section. The finish. I had 25 minutes left to go one mile and the RDs had decided to start the out-and-backs early. I grabbed my flag and trudged off.

When I got to that fourth out-and-back—the one, my pacer told me excitedly, that got me over 50—I waved my arms triumphantly and roared. I had done it! And I still had several minutes left! A victory out-and-back was in order.

Turns out math wasn’t wrong after all; we were. My pacer had based his calculations on 1.5 and not 1.4, so we were off by two-tenths. The next out-and-back I completed, my scorer pointed at me and said, “That’s fifty!” I looked confused. Hadn’t I gotten that last time? As a result, the moment I actually made my goal was a little anti-climactic, and I felt more puzzled than ecstatic. Of course, if you’d asked me my name I might have been puzzled at that point, but eventually I remembered what was most important: I got my goal. I even came in first place in the female masters division, which is the award category for women like me who have more years on the planet than sense in their head.

So I ran 50 miles on a day when most people didn’t even want to be outside at all, much less moving quickly (more or less) for 12 hours. Yet I still believe I am more fortunate than I am tough, because the truth is that everything went my way. No endeavor comes without obstacles, and my obstacles were made easily surmountable because I had help from a lot of other people—people with small feet, people who can slip through outhouse windows, people who will put up with a lot of cussing and whining and run almost the same distance without getting an award for it. I call that lucky. Feel free to call it badass if you wish, though; I won’t mind.