From Thru Hiker to Ultra Runner

When I got back from the AT last year in early October, I started looking for something to do in my free time. Something that would challenge me as much as hiking did. Something that would push my mental limits and utilize the condition my body was in after hiking 2,189 miles. I figured running was probably as good as anything, but I knew I didn't enjoy running on road, so I started going to my local Metro Parks here in Columbus to get some miles on the trails. The feeling of running with dirt, roots and rocks beneath my feet rather than asphalt or concrete reminded me of hiking, in turn flipping the switch for my love of running. 

Prior to getting home from the AT, I had never run more than a 5k and definitely didn't enjoy it. Sure, I sometimes ran on the treadmill to get cardio in or something like that, but by no means was it something I wanted to do. I had done a few 30+ mile days, plenty of 25+ mile days, and sustained those miles for days on end, so I figured if I could hike that at 3mph+, I could probably run those distances with some hiking mixed in at a much faster pace. I started looking into some Ultra Marathons (anything over 26.2 miles) in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park area and settled on the Run for Regis 50k that was taking place in early February.

I had around 14 or so weeks to train, so I signed up for it. My motivation went through the roof right off the bat. I picked up a pair of Hoka Challenger ATR 3's, an Ultimate Direction SJ 3.0 running vest, and hit the trails pretty hard for the first few weeks. I put in the work and by the end of December, I had ran my first 10+ mile stretch without any walking. Not only that, but it was at a respectable pace of around 10 min/mi on trail. Not too bad, eh? 

After the honey moon phase wore off and I realized that I was going to be running 31 miles, I began to lose a bit of interest and dialed back my training. Actually, to be quite honest, I went into complete shut down and stopped training all together.

About 3 weeks of absolutely no running led me to the starting line of my first 50k. My brother and his girlfriend drove me up to the Park because honestly I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to use my legs afterwords. We got there in the early part of the morning pre sunrise. The ice formed a layer across the grass and the breath emitted by mouth seemed to linger in the cold air for longer than normal. I went in to get my race packet and jacket and waited. I didn't know a single person that was racing, so I kind of just made small talk with some people that were waiting. 

Going into the race, I felt fairly confident even with my lack of training, but arriving to the starting line and hearing everyone talk about their past races, I immediately felt inexperienced, and truthfully, a little out of my element. 

I chatted with my brother a little bit before they called us to the start, and I can vividly remember him being completely and utterly astonished that I was about to run the race. It was frigidly cold, 31 miles was a long distance, and the thought of running for 7 hours was pretty ridiculous both to him and I, but clearly I couldn't back out at this point. An air horn went off in the distance and that was my signal to head to the starting line. 

As I walked to the start, I wanted to make sure I was in the middle of the pack to get a sense of pace and how the race would go. Again, I had never raced in general, let alone this distance. The first 3 or so miles I ran middle pack, alone with my headphones in. Around that time though the course opened up to a field and the next thing I knew there were a few guys running the same pace as me and we kind of struck up a small conversation. The guys I began talking to were Jeff and Matt, two seasoned Ultra runners who were quick, determined, and out there for the pure joy of it. They both love running and participate pretty heavily in the Ultra Community. We got to talking and I explained to them that this was my first race ever and that I had recently just finished the AT. They both snickered and laughed. It was ironic that I never ran before, but had just hiked the AT. They were as impressed as I was confused about the race up to that point. The next thing I knew, we had arrived at the first aid station, pressed on to the second, and the third. I had spent the last few hours of the race completely lost in thought, conversation, and grit. I was feeling good, fueling even better, and surprising myself with my endurance. Up to that point, my longest run had been the 10 miler that I did. I couldn't believe that I was already 2/3 of the way done with my first ultra. 

Then I hit mile 23. The mile that I couldn't run. The mile that I hiked at a 3mph pace. The mile that Jeff and Matt stuck with me to push me into the next aid station. I was exhausted, sore, ready to be done, and not prepared for the last stretch. I didn't have a specific pain or ache or anything. I was just exhausted and tired. I had never run that far before. I had never pushed my body to that extent. Even on the 30 mile days I pulled on the AT, I was able to rest and take breaks as needed. I was only walking, and let me tell ya, running is much, much different from walking.

I got to the aid station at mile 27? and was prepared to stop. With only one loop left, I had done more than a marathon and was satisfied with my effort. I told Jeff and Matt that I didn't want to continue, and they didn't leave until I got up and started running again. 

The community within Ultras is overwhelming. Everyone sticks together and motivates each other. It's a family. I picked up my feet, determined to finish at that point, and crushed the last loop, finishing in just under 7 hours and accomplishing my goal of not only finishing, but finishing sub 7hrs. What a feeling of success and excitement as I crossed that finish line. My brother was waiting for me when I got there, and I honestly couldn't control my emotions. I was exhausted and for the first time since the AT felt content with myself and my effort. Joy, pain, and pure uncontrollable bliss filled my heart and I lost it. That was the closest I've come to feeling the same way as I did when I stood on top of Katahdin. Pure, unadulterated bliss. 

IMG_4837.JPG

I was hooked.

Onto the CDT:

From the time I finished my first 50k to when I left for the CDT this year, I ran frequently, but didn't follow any specific training plans as I wasn't prepping for a race. I was doing everything I could to get in shape for the CDT, as big mile days are pretty much needed right out of the gate. I went vegan as far as my diet was concerned. I picked up rock climbing to do on my off days of running, and by the beginning of June, I was feeling pretty ready for big mile days and what the CDT had to offer. 

Fast forward to July 7th of this year. I began my hike in Glacier National Park at the Chief Mtn. Border Crossing area with Lavender and Sonic, two friends I had met through the AT. We had permits for 6 nights in Glacier, and being a National Park, you have to play by their rules. We kept our pace pretty moderate for the first week as we got back into the routine of hiking everyday. By the end of the first full week, we were consistently pulling 20 mile days. Some turned into 25+ mile days, while some even clipped the 30 mile marker. I was in much better shape at the start of this trail than I was last year on the AT, and I immediately recognized that. 

One month and 757 miles later, my average daily mileage was just below a marathon per day. 

The more I hiked this year on the CDT, the more I began to think about actually pursuing some longer distance races in the off season. A lot of the time on trail, I would maintain a 3.5-4mph pace with a bit of jogging here and there, especially on the downhills and flats. The idea of running a 50 mile race, or a 100k for that matter began to probe my thoughts. I wanted to see how far and long I could push my body in the right conditions. Thru Hiking by no means equates to the right conditions to do those giant, sustained mile days, but I figured I'd give it a shot at some point during the hike. 

After we went through the Winds and I recovered from giardia, Mayor and I decided it was time to try a 24 hour push, with a goal of pumping out at least 60+ miles in that time frame. We left town at around 6:30 A.M and hit the trail around 7:00 or so and set off on what would be my longest day on trail, and in general. I wasn't sure what to expect once I passed mile 35, as that was my biggest day up to that point, but I was as ready as I was going to get. 

IMG_7423.JPG

From dusk till dark felt like a normal day on trail. We crushed as we normally did, stopping every few hours to rest, eat, and drink as much as possible. I was feeling quite good physically and even better mentally. We hit a water cache that had gatorade in it at mile 35, and continued to press on until around mile 37 when we set up for dinner and to watch the sunset. 

IMG_7424.JPG

From mile 37-47 of our push through the Great Basin of Wyoming, things continued as normal. I busted out my headlamp, and stayed pretty steady as far as pace was concerned. Mayor was a bit behind me that stretch and as I came to the next water source, I waited and watched Mayor stroll in with his headlamp illuminating the trail in front of him. When he arrived to the source, we filled up and sat down; our biggest mistake during that night. We immediately began playing out scenarios that involved sleeping and hiking significantly less miles than we wanted. As the plans started to be put into effect, we both realized what was happening and began to hike again. We didn't want to sit still for too long, but we were exhausted at that point. 

From mile 47 to 63, when we finally called it a day and slept for 3 hours, exhaustion, hallucinations, and just pure insanity took hold. We meandered on throughout the night, no longer needing our headlamps due to the full moon that was overhead lighting up the trail in front of us. We heard coyotes and wolves howling. We stumbled upon a heard of cows that frightened us beyond belief, and hit our last water source of the night at mile 55. The spring was located within a wooden fenced in area, and as we approached we could see our buddy Mousetrap sound asleep in his tent right next to the source. I immediately began to fantasize about sleeping, and before I knew it, I was sitting down with my pack on, in my shorts and rain jacket, slowly dozing off into a deep slumber. With Mayor sitting next to me, he realized that I had literally fallen asleep for a few seconds and somehow managed to motivate me enough to get up and continue on. 

The last 8 miles actually flew by. We ended up passing a power plant in the desert that had a fence around it with horses running wild beyond the fence itself. As we rounded the corner and hit our goal of 63 miles in under 24 hours, we both knew that sleep was around the corner. We found the first flat spot, set up, and fell into a deep slumber. 

3 hours later I was awake, roasting in my tent from the desert heat. My legs worked, but hardly. I was sore, tense, and extremely dehydrated. We gathered our things, packed up, and got to the next water source.  A spring hidden in a pile of cow shit with cows gathered around isn't the most eye catching source, but nonetheless, we filled up, drank, signed the log book that was next to the Batchi Ball set and kept hiking. Over the next day and a half, we hiked another 37 miles with a full nights sleep in the middle. 

IMG_7425.JPG

As we pushed into Rawlins the following morning, we were both in disbelief that we had just hiked through the basin in essentially 2 days. 

My thoughts were running wild with anticipation of running another ultra when I got home. Not only was I ecstatic to compete again, I was looking to step up my game and enter a race that was maybe a little out of my league.

Next step:

Enter the Georgia Death Race; probably my most idiotic move to date. I signed up for the lottery, got in, and all of a sudden I had a 68 mile race with 40k of elevation change waiting for me at the end of March 2018. I couldn't believe that I had gotten into the race itself, but also that I was going to attempt such a thing. Sure, I did 63 miles in one go in the desert with a pack on, but the elevation was minuscule compared to the GDR that I was now going to be participating in. 

Along with the GDR, I'll be running the Winter Buckeye 50k here in Ohio at the end of January, the Run for Regis 50k in Feb, and tons of training runs in between. 

My confidence level is far beyond what I initially thought it would be when I started this endeavor a year and a half ago. Personally, I think thru hiking can translate quite well to trail running, and Ultras specifically. The mileage is important, but time on your feet is more important. Thru hiking teaches people to be patient. To listen to your body. To fuel your body as needed. To push your mental, physical, and overall limitations that are probably arbitrary to begin with.

Conclusion and Final Thoughts:

If you can hike 20 miles in a day, you can probably hike 30 miles in a day. If you can hike 30 miles in a day, there is a very HIGH chance that you can run a 50k. 

Think about it, no heavy backpack weighing you down. An aid station that provides drinks and food every 6-10 miles. Other people cheering you on and motivating you to continue. Really, running a 50k which is 31 miles, can be easier than hiking a 31 mile day because of those reasons. I think a lot of people doubt their ability to run because they don't enjoy it. I found joy from running because it was the only thing I felt that pushed me like thru hiking did. It was and still is the only form of exercise that can be attained at home that is as fulfilling as thru hiking. 

I like covering big distances. I like pushing my limits and finding where my boundaries are. I love being on trail, covered in dirt, sweat and grime, and embracing it. I absolutely love being at my breaking point and pushing past it.

For anyone reading this wondering if they can run an ultra, or should, do it. You can and will accomplish your goals if you put the time and effort into it. Thru hiking has led me to places I never thought I'd end up, and at the finish line of a 50k is most certainly one of those places.

Fuel your body correctly, train if you feel the need or want to, but pick up your trail runners, hit your local trails, and hike or run. It's all about being outside and enjoying what nature has to offer anyways, so why not right?

Honestly, I want people to pursue their passions and find other ways to enjoy trails other than thru hiking them. I want people to get motivated. I personally need to be motivated, and reading and writing my own thoughts and progressions helps with that. Ultra running is truthfully not much different from a huge day on trail during a thru hike. Like I said, if you want it, you can get it. You are capable.