By Stacy Kline
Running was always something that was casual for me. In fact, I remember years ago I was buying new shoes, and I told the person fitting me that I was a “seasonal runner” – meaning I only ran when the weather was absolutely perfect. Back then I was running roads around my neighborhood, understanding absolutely nothing about what I should be doing to properly fuel and pace myself. Plus, road running just hurt so I never really had any motivation to push into it deeper.
But then a few years later, I discovered the local chapter of Trail Sisters, and the thought of trying out trail running really piqued my interest. I’d always loved hiking and being in the woods and the thought of running on softer terrain with more interesting things to look at sounded much more appealing. After attending my first group run and learning that you could “fast hike” (aka walk) the hills, I was hooked. I also met some really inspiring and encouraging women who convinced me that I was capable of doing a lot more than I thought I could. These same women helped me land a job at a local outdoor gear shop, Cumberland Transit in Nashville, where I met friends who were doing even harder things in the outdoors. Seeing this and being forced into a global pandemic made me want to challenge myself too.
I dug deeper into trail running, trained, and completed my first race (the gorgeous River Gorge 10 miler in Chattanooga), and by the end of 2021, somehow my friends got it into my mind that I should do a 50k. Not exactly knowing what I was getting myself into, I thought, why not? Should be fun, right? Before I knew it, I was signed up for the Yamacraw 50k(ish), and I was headed into the physical and emotional roller-coaster of training for my first ultra-marathon.
I honestly had no idea how to train for 34 miles of running. Luckily, a friend, who had done many, agreed to help me out. Every week, she’d assign me a weekly run schedule. We started with smaller mileage and ran about 4 days a week which then progressed into 5 days. Weekly runs would be very easy (usually jogs around the neighborhood or easy trails) with longer trail runs leading into the weekend.
In the beginning, I got the lovely privilege of experiencing hill repeats (a manic nightmare, but an evil necessity). Training was also an opportunity for me to experience how to stay fueled and comfortable during longer runs answering important questions such as:
-How many calories an hour should I eat?
-How should I balance electrolytes to water?
-What kind of clothing won’t cause chaffing?
Since training for your first 50k takes about 6 months and Yamacraw wasn’t until May, I got to experience training through all weather conditions — snow and sub-zero temps then rain, and then heat. My body was truly getting it all.
As my longer runs turned into 13, 15, 18, and 20+ miles followed by more long runs (usually only a few miles less than what the day was before), I learned that this was going to take some serious mental grit. There were days when training was tough. I got incredibly sick of always running, running, running. By April, I was tired and ready to get the race over with. My flat feet were giving me all kinds of problems, and I experienced one too many ankle rolls.
Training was getting incredibly uncomfortable, and there were times when I wondered if finishing this thing was even possible. Training for an effort like this started to feel selfish. Running was taking up all my free time. I spent a lot of time alone and away from my friends and my partner. On these days I had to dig in and remind myself of why the hell I was doing this in the first place – I set a goal, I wanted a challenge, and though sometimes miserable, completing “my longest run ever” over and over again was really rewarding.
Many times I leaned into the support of my partner and friends who reminded me that I could still move even if my muscles and joints ached or if I was tired and that it was okay to listen to my body and take the time I needed to rest and recover. The days when running felt amazing solidified this notion. By May, I felt incredibly strong and continued to surprise myself at what I could do. I was ready to trust the training and give it ago.
As race day approached, I discovered 3 things that were going to be key to race day success:
- Salt Pills (in addition to Skratch Labs electrolyte mix)
- Salty Britches Anti-Chafe balm
- Spring Energy Gel – Awesome Sauce flavor
I sweat a lot and quickly learned, during the first heat snap, that I was going to need more than just Skratch electrolyte drink mix. A friend recommended I try taking salt pills in addition to drinking Skratch. I took them every 30 minutes with food, and though I didn’t turn into Wonder Woman, I think they did help keep me above the fray.
Again, I sweat…like, a lot. I discovered Salty Britches through work and really liked it compared to some other chaffing balms out there. I found it stayed on longer and didn’t sweat off. One downside, however, is that it’s sticky so it can be annoying to apply.
Lastly, eating can be a challenge when you’re putting in a long effort. Spring’s Awesome Sauce Energy Gel became my favorite thing to eat. It goes down easy and tastes exactly like applesauce. Plus, it has more calories and carbs than other energy gels so that’s a win to help keep you moving.
Race day was humid. I was nervous. But when I started, I quickly dialed in. My strategy was to just move about from aid station to aid station. I felt really good until about mile 20, and then I started to enter into the ultra-marathon pain cave. My feet were wet and the friction turned into painful blisters, I was chaffing in a new place (go figure), and by the last 7 miles, it started to downpour, and my stomach started to turn on me. My mantra to keep moving became: “You never have to run again. This is your last run ever, what do you have to lose?”
But something that’s really special about Yamacraw, aside from the course being incredibly fun and beautiful, is that you get to finish on a bridge that brings you across this magnificent river. This means that as you keep getting closer and closer to that bridge, you can start to hear the cheers at the finish line. Hearing this makes it feel real. It’s like angels welcoming you into the gates of heaven. At this point, you know you’re going to finish. 9 hours and 42 minutes later, I crossed the finish line in shock and in tears. I had done it.
Was it hard? Yes. Did it hurt? Hell Yes. Did I have fun? Weirdly yes, type 2 fun, of course. But in the end, I could not have done this without the support from my friend and coach who helped get me strong and ready and was always encouraging, even when I felt like I was failing. I also couldn’t have done it without my partner, who followed me to every aid station, made sure I was eating & drinking, changed my socks, and kept cheering me on. Would I do it again? Maybe. I’m still enjoying the lack of routine and plan to enjoy the summer doing more than just running. But there is something to be said for completing a goal and doing hard things. It fuels your soul, puts you in touch with yourself, grounds you, and makes you present. And that’s something I think that we’re all striving for and that’s something that’s worth chasing after, no matter what it is.