Thursday, February 21, 2008

Excerpt: Running Through The Wall

In this excerpt from "Running Through The Wall: Personal Encounters with the Ultramarathon," Sophie Speidel discusses her first ultrarun. Sophie has gone on to become an excellent ultrarunner with some very tough races and top finishes under her belt. Read more about Sophie and her ultra adventures at her blog. I'll post a follow-up interview with her soon to see how her training strategy has changed over the years.

Confessions of a Happy Ultra Mommy

Name: Sophie Speidel

Age: 40

Residence: Charlottesville, VA

Years running: 20+

Years running ultras: 2

The journey to my first ultra, the 2002 Holiday Lake 50K++, probably began when I was a child. I have fond memories of playing for hours in woods near my childhood home in Princeton, NJ. When it was cold and my friends wanted to play inside, I could always be found outside, exploring. As a young teacher, I convinced the school where I was teaching Physical Education to help finance a nine-day Outward Bound course in Western North Carolina. The mental and physical challenge of long-distance hiking around Pisgah National Forest struck a chord within. Despite the pain, I really liked this stuff! I did my first triathlon in 1988, and my first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, in 1990. My time at Marine Corps was a respectable 3:40, after a long day of struggling with an IT band injury. I then took a few years away from triathlons and marathons to start my family. My husband, Rusty, and I have three children, ages ten, eight, and five.

When my youngest child turned four, I decided that I wanted to improve my fitness and return to racing the sprint triathlons I had given up ten years prior. My neighbor Susie Burgess, a mother of five, was training for her second Ironman, and she asked me to join her for Tuesday morning workouts at the pool, in addition to my running and biking workouts. Susie is such a great training partner because she is a mom and understands the demands that family and work can put on a woman. I believe it is important to be around other women who can relate to what I am doing, not women who come up to you at parties (as they have done to me) and ask “are you still running like a crazy woman?” I work full-time as a counselor at an independent school, so I needed to be creative and flexible in scheduling my workouts. I began to get up at 5:00 a.m. in order to be home by 7:00 a.m. to get everyone off to school. I learned to be more organized the night before…I would organize my clothes or pack my gear bag and make the kid’s lunches. As I found that I enjoyed the way I felt after early-morning workouts, it became part of my regular routine. I used to try to squeeze in a run in the afternoon, but the morning afforded me more guilt-free time, which of course made my training more enjoyable. I started to go to bed earlier (around 9:00 p.m.) and found that I was less interested in staying out late on the weekends. This was fine with the kids, since this led to more “family movie” nights. My husband, who is a former triathlete and runner and now enjoys biking, has been very supportive and understanding of my new lifestyle. We do make time to go out together, but I’d rather spend time with him that go to a huge party. On the weekends, he does breakfast duty while I get in a long run, but I don’t have the luxury of training for more than 3 hours at a time. When I read about other ultrarunners getting in 8-hour runs in the mountains, I am jealous but also grateful that I am able to do what I do. It works for me.

After a season of racing sprint triathlons, I started talking to a colleague and friend, Peter York, about his ultrarunning experiences. Pete is a veteran of the Holiday Lake race as well as the popular JFK 50 miler, and he told me that given my age, experience, and desire for a challenge, “the time was right for an ultra.” I laughed at his suggestion, and didn’t give it another thought until I read “To the Edge,” by Kirk Johnson. In his book, Johnson tells his story of running the Badwater 130-mile race in memory of his late brother. I was particularly taken by his reflections on the “mystery of endurance.” I have always been fascinated by adventure stories about ordinary people who have survived the elements and long distances, and “To the Edge” was a prime example. I also read a story about the Hardrock 100 Mile race in Outside Magazine, and I started entertaining the idea that running an ultra just might be a great new challenge for me. I signed up for the 2001 Richmond Marathon with the idea that it would be good training for the Holiday Lake 50K++ scheduled for February 2002. I told my husband of my plans. He didn’t believe me at first (“you want to run how many miles?”), but he has since become my biggest fan. I also told my running friends and mentors, all of whom embraced the idea, supported me unconditionally, ran with me, and helped me all along the way. I don’t think I could have trained properly for Holiday Lake without them. The friendships I developed with them is one of the main reasons I want to keep running ultras.

My training for Holiday Lake began in earnest in August as I started preparing for the Richmond Marathon. In addition to long runs in and around my hometown, I also included at least three days of swimming and water running, as well as a weekly spin class at the gym to give my legs a break and to maintain fitness. I also did one day of speed work on the track. As the Holiday Lake race approached, I tapered just like I would for a marathon. I felt rested and ready. I arrived at the race site the night before and stayed in a small cabin at the park, rooming with three other women. We were all first-time ultrarunners. I tried to get to bed early, but sleep was hard to come by. I was excited about the race, and a little nervous.

The alarm went off at 4:50 and I began to prepare for the 6:00 a.m. start. It was quite cold that morning. I ate pop-tarts and drank water and green tea (what I usually had in training), milled around the lodge with the other runners, and at the last minute changed from running tights to shorts. It was a good thing, too, because the temperatures climbed into the 60s later that day.

When I decided to run the Holiday Lake race, I committed to run the race slow and easy, just to finish and not worry about time or place. After all, it was my first ultra. Unfortunately, I have a very strong competitive streak and before I knew it I had run the first six miles in a too-quick 8:30 pace. But I was feeling good, so I didn't think too much of it. I was running with a group of guys who were also first-time ultra runners, and we got into a great rhythm that was hard to abandon for a slower, more conservative pace. I also neglected to walk the uphills as I had been advised to do. That would turn out to be a big mistake! At the first stream crossing, David Horton (the Race Director) informed me that I was the second woman, which of course just got me going even faster. All was well as I entered the turnaround at mile 16 in 2:25, and then I saw who was behind me: many more women! A couple miles later, as fate would have it, my IT band started to tighten (having never done so in training), and for the rest of the race I stressed about getting passed and about how to run with a tight IT band. I walked all the uphills the entire way back to the finish. Another woman passed me at mile 25 (going uphill!), and that really deflated me. As the pain in my leg increased, it was all I could do keep the run/walk pace going. I had to really dig deep to find the mental fortitude to keep moving. I had no intentions of quitting, but I did have a few intense conversations with myself on the subject. I think my experience in other sports definitely prepared me for the mental discomfort of the race, and having played and coached team sports helped wash away any notion of stopping. In a national-level lacrosse game, with your team depending on you, you can't stop just because it hurts!

A rush of adrenaline over the last 100 yards helped me cross the finish line in style. I finished in 5:17, the 3rd place woman. But I was hurting. All I wanted to do was lie down. Finishing that race was the hardest challenge I have ever faced, childbirth (three times!) included. But I did it, and overall, I enjoyed it. I definitely got what I signed up for! And just like childbirth, the memory of the pain faded quickly and I soon found myself planning my next ultra.

Training for and running my first ultra has allowed me to explore a beautiful world that I otherwise would have never discovered. I have given myself a real gift: the goal to finish an ultra, and the satisfaction of having reached that goal. Life is so much more interesting when we have something to look forward to outside the routine of work and family. Ultrarunning is a sport anyone, at any age can do and enjoy. You don’t have to be fast, just willing to set goals and challenge the voice inside that says “You can’t.” You can. Sure, training for an ultra is hard with a young family of five. It requires flexibility (if my husband has to go out of town, I either take the day off, or get a sitter), communication with my family, a sense of humor, and the realization that it is all for fun. Training and racing are tremendous gifts that I am giving myself and that my family is giving me. I try to never take it for granted. My family has been incredibly supportive because they know this makes me happy, and a happy Sophie is a happy Mommy!

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