If you're not an athlete and you're reading this, you're probably asking, "How does a person go from normal to THIS?"
If you're a runner, but not an ultrarunner, you're asking, "How does an ordinary runner develop the endurance to run 135 miles in the blistering desert heat of Death Valley in the middle of summer? How does a runner go from 5Ks and 10Ks to ultradistances in extreme conditions?"
You want to know what drives a person to do this, and the answer to the logical question that follows, "How can I prevent this from happening to me?!!!"
I promise you it didn't happen overnight. I didn't wake up one morning with a fever and rash and go out the door and run 50 miles.
I have been running nearly 25 years and I did take the slow, gradual route of increasing my running and racing distances. I have run over 70 official marathons and ultramarathons in that time, and countless ultra-length "unofficial" races and training runs. There were many noteworthy events and people who influenced and inspired me along the way.
When I was a kid in school I was younger and smaller than the other kids. My motor development was always behind, and I never had any coordination. I didn't see very well either, started wearing glasses at age 8. If a sport involved a ball or some object I had to swing or throw, forget it. The ball would always end up hitting me. I was the nerdy kid who got picked last, and I frustrated my P.E. teachers.
I was hardly out of shape, though. At home I rode my bike all over the neighborhood and jumped on my pogo stick for hours. I had great endurance and could stay on that pogo stick forever, and go up and down stairs with it. Puberty ended my pogo stick career, as we didn't have jogbras yet in those days.
In junior high they made us start running laps and I liked that because no one could really watch you. I felt self-conscious in PE class because of my poor motor skills, and running was something that didn't require coordination or being picked on a team. The first time I ran a timed mile in P.E. class, I can remember the teacher jumping up and down by the side of the track, cheering for me. I was one of only two or three kids to run faster than 8 minutes for the mile and my teacher was completely shocked that I was capable of doing something well in P.E. class!
Somehow that year I ended up on the track team doing the 400 yard hurdles, something I SUCKED at. There really were no distances for girls to run at that age or in that time, 1975. That was the end of my childhood running career.
In high school I went out for track but again, there were no distance options and I didn't stick around long. I was the slowest sprinter and couldn't make it over a hurdle to save my life. I joined the backpacking club instead. Ten mile hikes with a 40 pound pack on the weekends were preferable to bruised shins and scraped hands.
In college, my senior year at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, I got interested in bodybuilding and joined a local gym and started lifting weights. I was being encouraged by some of the people at the gym to try a bodybuilding competition. My friend and classmate Kirk Apt was a runner and was starting to pick up his training to run his first marathon, and I started running a 6 mile loop after class with him on a regular basis.
Kirk talked me into running a 10K in Phoenix and we went to the race. I ended up getting some kind of age group award and received a trophy after the race. Kirk looked at me and my trophy with envy and said, "I'm supposed to be the runner!"
A few weeks later I was entered in another 10K and got another award, improving my time by a couple of minutes. We graduated that spring and before long I was running 10 mile races, half marathons, and in 1985 I ran my first marathon.
In 1987 I was living in Colorado. I was training for a marathon and was driving from Crested Butte to Breckenridge early one morning to run a half marathon race. On the way, I drove through Leadville. It was early on a Sunday morning but there was some kind of event going on downtown. I saw people who looked like runners, some were limping.
Having plenty of time, I pulled over for a moment. There was a banner that said something about 100 miles. I asked someone on the street, who said it was a 100 mile race through the mountains. I drove the rest of the way to Breckenridge feeling both humbled and charged up. I tried to imagine what it would be like to run that far. I won the half marathon that morning in what was a huge PR for that distance!
In my fifth marathon I ran my lifetime personal record, officially 3:07 but I spent 6 minutes in the portapotty early in the race so I count it as a 3:01, before the days of electronic chip timing. Regardless, I never broke that 3 hour mark even though I tried several times and it never came together. I'd always get injured one way or another.
Along the way I'd lived in Crested Butte and Gunnison, and met Dennis, moved to Fort Collins, and we got married in 1990. He was one of the top distance runners in the US and was running for Reebok, and he was on the US team at the World Cross Country Championships in 1990. Dennis is one of the mentally toughest runners I know. He'll try any distance, including burro racing, too. He's earned several nicknames for his running style over the years, including "The Truck".
By 1990 I was getting frustrated with my inability to stay injury-free. I tried orthotics, cross-training, stretching, massage, acupuncture, rest, and anything else I could find. Kirk told me he was interested in running ultramarathons, and thought it might help me if I tried running slower, long distances. I didn't know anything about ultras except that people ran slow, but I was fascinated by the idea of running so far. I saw an ad for Ultrarunning magazine in the back of Runners World and got a sample copy.
I remember riding my bike on the trainer one winter day and reading Ultrarunning. I was in awe of Ann Trason who was tearing up the record books at the time. I read that issue cover to cover. I don't think I missed a word. Afterwards I wanted to go out and run all day.
As soon as I started building my mileage up that spring, I started extending my runs beyond what I'd ever done before. In May of 1991, at age 27, I entered my first ultra, the Doc Holliday 35 mile trail run in Glenwood Springs and finished in 7 hours. I can remember the shoe-sucking mud that year and the pure joy of finishing. Someone I didn't even know came up to me afterwards and hugged me and said, Congratulations, you're an ultrarunner!
In 1991 my friends Kirk and Gary both decided to run the Leadville Trail 100 and I was going to pace Gary. Both Gary and Kirk finished. I knew that I would be on the starting line the next year.
We invented the Ph.D. run, aka the Pre-Holiday Depletion Run, the Quadrennial Quagmire for leap year & Wally's birthday in 1992, and found all kinds of challenging routes to run in the foothills west of Ft. Collins. In the summer we would spend weekends training on the Leadville Trail 100 course supported by the hospitality of Mike's parents who live in Leadville.
Above Right: Wally crewing me at the Leadville Trail 100 in 1996.
Below: After my first 100 Km race in Colorado Springs in 1992, Dennis & I walk back with everyone along the course. Sid Snyder is in the pink shirt second from the right.
In 1992 I ran the 100Km distance for the first time, at Sid and Gail Snyder's race in Colorado Springs. They live in Oregon now and have been great friends over the years. I do well in road races as I have the leg speed that many ultrarunners don't, and years later I found out that I set a state record at that 100 Km race in 1992. I have no idea how long that record stood but I think it did for quite a few years.
In 1993 I ran Leadville again and was in great shape. Unfortunately I didn't have my eating figured out and I couldn't get enough calories in early. On Sugarloaf that night there was a snowstorm and I got extremely cold, when I arrived in May Queen at 86 miles that morning I ended up staying in the heated tent for 3 hours before I was ready to go to the finish. I finished, but didn't improve on my time.
In 1994 I had bunion surgery, I'd been suffering too long with my painful left foot and decided to do it for my 30th birthday. I guess you could say ultrarunners are masochistic, we do crazy things on our birthday like run our age in miles, or get long-delayed foot surgery.
At some point early in my ultrarunning years I read an article in Ultrarunning magazine about Ben Jones, Mayor of Badwater, the famous medical examiner-ultrarunner from Lone Pine, CA who ran Badwater and cooled himself off with some crazy thing like an ice-filled coffin or body bag during the race. He also completed an autopsy one year, during his race, on some unfortunate hiker (not a runner) who was found near Badwater. Ben went back after the autopsy and finished running the race!
Having grown up in Arizona during my teen years, I knew what the heat felt like, and it intrigued me, hearing about this race. I had visited my parents during the summer and went running, and the heat never seemed to bother me. But at that point, I was trying to figure out how to improve on 100 miles, and 135 in the desert seemed way out of my league. I knew that someday I would do it, but it wasn't on the radar at all.
I entered Leadville in 95 but got a stomach virus three days before the race. I thought I was recovered enough but I ended up missing the time cutoff at Halfmoon at about 70 miles that year. In 1996 I went back again and finished.
In 1997 Dennis decided to run Leadville and I took a break. Like I said, he is the toughest runner I know. Early that year he ran his first two ultras, a 50 km and a 50 miler. In August at Leadville, he not only finished, he ended up in third place, in under 21 hours. If that isn't enough, he perfected what our friends Kirk & Keith call "The Bagoomba Training Method". That's where you run about 30 miles a week all summer and your longest run is 26 miles, once, and then you go and run the Leadville Trail 100 and finish third. Enough said.
In 1998, I finished my fourth Leadville. In my four finishes, my time was always 29 hours and change. We moved to Arizona in late 1998 and I took a break from running long ultras. I was having some problems with my energy levels. I'd feel good for several months, have plenty of energy, and then I'd slide into this low-energy state, couldn't concentrate, feel terrible while running, and I wanted to sleep all the time. After a few months, for no apparent reason, I'd feel better and run well again.
This turned out to be a thyroid problem which went undiagnosed until 2003, and it took more than a year after that to get thyroid replacement medication right so I felt good again. From the time we moved to Arizona in 1998 until 2004, I ran a few ultras and marathons, but my performances were inconsistent and I was unable to run any long ultras during that time.
I paced my friend Ken at Badwater in the summer of 2003. I felt good in the heat, I had more energy but still was having trouble with thinking clearly, concentrating, and reading. I wanted to go back to school for nursing, but I knew I couldn't do it until I solved the problem of whatever was making me so fuzzy.
A new endocrinologist and a change in thyroid medications in early 2004 got me to the point where I was not brainfogged for the first time in about 2 years.
I decided to start the process of going back to school for nursing, something that I'd been putting off since I wasn't able to study and didn't have the energy for so long. By late 2004 I felt good enough to add a part-time job as a CNA to my personal training schedule, and was running enough to maintain a decent level of fitness. I was finishing my prerequisites for nursing school. While I was in nursing school I ran the 24 hour race at Across the Years each year, my "token" ultra, which helped me feel like I was still connected to the ultra community!
I got into nursing school in 2005 and graduated in August 2006. Dennis and I had been wanting to move back to Colorado and a new hospital was opening in Loveland the following year. I came up and interviewed and got offered a job at a hospital. Dennis got a job at the new hospital and we sold the house and here we are in Fort Collins.
Over the past year I worked hard to rebuild my fitness. I ran ten different races last year, five marathons and five ultras. I ran 149 miles in my first 48 hour race to qualify for Badwater.
And here I am today, on my 44th birthday, in my hazmat suit.
It is going to be a FANTASTIC YEAR!