Following my most recent marathon in March of this year, I transitioned to swimming long-distance, cycling, and running to gradually prepare for an IRONMAN, my ultimate athletic goal. I planned to participate in an ultramarathon, any running event longer than the traditional marathon of 26.2 miles, after the insane triathlon; nonetheless, realizing the preparation for swimming will likely be gradual, I told myself, “Why not just run an ultramarathon now when I’m still in shape for running?” After all, I have been boldly claiming I should be able to run faster and longer on a flatter course than the infamously hilly Publix Georgia Marathon, a race many marathoners feel to be their most physically demanding marathon. Though out of the blue, I have consistently run for three years, and I did not feel running 50 kilometers to be an unreasonable step-up. Less common and popular than standard road running events, ultramarathons are usually held on trails and require more time to search and typically some driving. Out of the several 50-kilometer trail runs I encountered, I found the Wambaw Swamp Stomp, taking place on May 2, 2015, to be the most rational, considering the event’s relatively flat course and being neighbors with my state of Georgia. Once I signed up, for advice, I contacted two world-class ultrarunners, Sage Canaday and Ruth Croft, who suggested I concentrate on nutrition while running and train on trails.
I drove over seven hours to reach TrySports for the Expo and then my hotel in South Carolina, but, like before most running events, I could not fall asleep to recover the night before race day. Grumpy, sleepy, and beyond annoyed, I dressed up and hydrated early in the morning prior to discovering I forgot to pack my pair of earphones. “Oh. My. Gosh,” I panicked, intimidated I may have to run the longest race of my life without the psychological support of music. On the bright side, this freaking out utterly woke me up, and I thankfully found a gas station that sold cheap earphones that barely worked on my way to the Witherbee Ranger Station, where the race took place. Relieved, I praised God for saving me from coping with this burden. I, the youngest 50-kilometer participant, asked amiable veterans various questions about the course and trail running in general at the prerace. I felt a stronger bond and sense of community with every runner than I normally do in road races, as we only had each other and missed the crowd on the streets cheering us on with motivating signs.
I started the race up front with experienced and inspiring 50-milers and kept up for the first four miles. The frontrunners disappeared in the wilderness, and I as well passed numerous competitors. My chief concern related to getting lost, as I had not partaken in a legitimate trail race, let alone an ultra-trail race. This nightmare nearly came to fruition twice towards the beginning, but both times, I had a runner either behind or in front helping me stay on track until I became accustomed to the trail marks. I took this as God’s answer to my prayer, as I could have lost my ways without my two unintentional saviors. Confident early on, I even thought I could win the 50-kilometer category because I did not spot any of its partaker in front of me and believed I could keep up this pace for days.
All of a sudden, in the midst of this electric mood yet arrogance, I tripped. Even though I bounced back up immediately, I was worried that took much out of me in this never-ending run. Having sprained my right knee from that never crossed my mind, as I still remained full of energy and adrenaline rush and did not feel the pain until the midpoint, Aid Station C. I stopped to rehydrate myself on Coca-Cola, Skratch Lab, and water, and when I resumed running, I instantly felt unprecedented agony in my right knee. “Crap,” thought I, but the rocky and uneven path to Aid Station D did not help recover the leg, and my drastically slowing down became inevitable, especially with continuous inadvertent kicking of rocks on the ground, jumping over logs, dodging branches, and moving in mud. Runners constantly passed me, and when I turned around from Aid Station D to carry on with the main loop and returned to Aid Station C, I stretched while ingesting more fluids. When I restarted moving, the bad knee had already locked up, and I cannot even describe the torture. However, as always, I reminded myself, “Physical pain is temporary. When I finish this, the memory will last forever” and stomped my right leg to the floor repeatedly to numb the hurt. I felt barely anesthetized enough to continue running, but seeing no end and absolutely no person around but nature, I could not help but reflect on my post-college life and whatever made me happy to reinvigorate me.
When I eventually reached Aid Station B, I took some time to rest my right knee. Terrible idea. When I turned towards Aid Station A to continue, my right knee could no longer bend, and the suffering magnified. I tried the stomping-the-ground technique again to no avail. I decided to walk for the first time, although I hesitated, to hopefully smooth out my knee joint and give myself a chance to finish strong. This may have been my wisest decision of the day, as this one mile of walking revived my damaged leg just enough for me to continue the agonizing running. To fulfill 50 kilometers, I had approximately six miles to go, but according to the Soleus GPS watch I borrowed from a church friend, completing the original course included in the instruction packet would have meant closer to 55 kilometers than 50. I did hear from a volunteer at Aid Station B that the director may shorten the end to make the distance more accurate, which made me dearly hope for that decision to come to light.
I cannot explain my adamancy that continued to drive me forward. Individuals offered me painkillers, but I instinctually assumed relying on anything unnatural would be cheating and therefore rejected. Fellow runners—worried about my condition—occasionally passing me or coming back my way with a pat on my shoulder or word of encouragement certainly helped light up my mood, but I cannot fathom my willpower, or ego, to refuse to quit or receive any assistance with such a gruesome injury. When I finally arrived at Aid Station A, I was told the director had indeed abbreviated the race-ending back loop to make the run 50 kilometers even. With this joyful news, I garnered the little energy I had left in me and finished my first ultramarathon in 6:55:00 and twelfth place out of twenty-seven entrants. When I look back, I do not understand how I was able to run the last 20 miles on virtually one leg, but having completed this unattainable task handicapped makes me remarkably prouder, as I feel nothing can break me if this could not.
I continued to tell other runners, many with whom I made friends and conversed after the race, that I desired to feel I could not run any farther after the 50 kilometers, as if I did not, I would have regretted not registering for the 50-miler instead. My wish certainly materialized, and I will cherish this mad achievement for the rest of my life. People call half-marathoners “only half crazy” and marathoners “crazy.” What does that make ultramarathoners?