Marin Ultra Challenge – 3.09.19

Marin Ultra Challenge, also known as MUC, offers 50 miles of some of the most scenic trails in the Marin Headlands and Mt. Tam. It is almost 11,000 ft of gain making it one of the toughest races in the Bay Area. Of course any 50 mile race on these trails is going to be tough, but MUC has something that the others don’t – the infamous Willow Camp trail, a beast of a trail that gains 1,800 ft of elevation gain in just 1.8 miles, after you’ve just gloriously plummeted down to sea level. March can be a dicey time of year for Spring races. You can usually count on cool temperatures, but as far as weather goes, anything’s possible. That’s all part of the challenge and charm of MUC. If it were easy, would any of us be doing any of this?

 

I ran MUC for the first time last year. I had run two 50 mile races to date, but neither had been anything to brag about. My first – AR50, I loved, but I in no way raced it. My second was Mt. Hood. I did well enough, but definitely died (see The Ultrarunner’s Dictionary for the definition of “die”) the second half. MUC would be my first really successful 50 miler. I felt I had the upperhand. I live in Marin and run on these trails frequently, but most importantly I am confident on these trails. Confidence is huge for me going into races, both physically but especially mentally. Being able to train on a course beforehand gives me confidence on race day that is critical to my performance. Little did I know that having some fierce competition would also be critical to my performance. For a large majority of the race, I was being chased by the second female, Katie Asmuth. Had Katie not been right behind me, I would not have run as well as I did that day. Last year, I ran MUC in 8:36:40 and was able to snag first place woman.

 

I guess I forgot to mention that MUC is one of the few races in the area (or just, period) that offers prize money. First place gets $500, second gets $250, and third gets $150. Each podium finisher also receives a pair of La Sportiva trail running shoes. It’s a pretty sweet deal for a local trail race. And running for some extra bucks definitely adds an additional incentive to run faster, especially if you are a poor college student.

 

This year Yuch and I decided to run MUC again. I’m still a college student (sort of), but I didn’t necessarily care about the money this year. I wanted the course record. The current course record was 8:23, and having run an 8:36 last year, I thought running an 8:20 was doable. It’s true I had a great race last year, but I knew I was stronger and had some miles under my belt. I printed out a pace chart and decided I’d go for 8:20. Having the fastest time on that course would mean a lot to me with the Marin Headlands being one of my favorite places to run.

 

 

As race day approached, RD Tim Stahler commented that the weather could be anywhere from “absolutely perfect to downright miserable”. This would turn out to be a fairly good assessment of the weather that day.

 

At 6:30 am, without a drop in the sky, we took off from Rodeo Beach. My goal? Run a little faster than last year. Without a watch, it would be impossible to know how fast I was going, but I had my little pace chart folded up in my hydration pack and would know if I was “on pace” each time I arrived at an aid station. Actually – I was wearing a watch, I just didn’t turn it on. There are two reasons I wear my Garmin, but do not use it for these longer races. Firstly, my Garmin won’t last long enough for anything longer than a 50k, so there’s no point. Secondly, I find it annoying and disruptive to have my watch monitoring my race. In a road marathon, it is critical for me to know my pace, but on the trails, seeing my pace fluctuate on the ups and downs will only stress me out and likely suck precious energy from me. So, I find it more useful to go by feel, and to keep myself in check with a pace chart with times.

 

Running along SCA. Ahead of schedule and behind on fueling

 

I was slightly ahead of my pace chart. I guess going by feel is not always perfect, but then again, I knew Willow Camp would offset my “perfect” pace chart, too. I was slightly ahead of my pace chart, and slightly behind on my eating. I always try and eat 100 calories every 30 minutes, but eating just didn’t seem desirable or compatible with the whole running thing. I ran with a couple of guys who were running their first 50 miler. I was impressed with their pace and ambition. I couldn’t keep up, and was bummed when they took off. Heading up Coastal to Pirate’s Cove, I met Katie Arnold, the winner of last year’s Leadville 100. I knew beforehand that she would be my biggest competition and I was looking forward to her pushing me towards a PR, even if it meant her leaving me in the dust. Unfortunately, she had dropped down to the 50k distance. Part of me was relieved (because she passed me), but the other part of me was bummed because I was truly looking forward to the competition, seeing how I compared to such a successful and strong runner, and potentially getting a big wake up call.  I wasn’t sure I would be able to get the course record or a PR without the competition there.

 

Arriving to Muir Beach as the rain begins to arrive

 

The rain started. I ran through Muir Beach. I had a drop bag at Cardiac and enough fuel on me to feed two. Heading up to Cardiac through Heather Cutoff and then Coastal, only wearing shorts and a t-shirt, I was soaked from the rain, but not yet cold. I hadn’t wanted to wear my rain jacket until it was absolutely necessary. I felt weak already going up Coastal. Not yet even 20 miles into a 50 miler, this was not a good sign. Maybe I didn’t taper enough, or maybe I’m just not as strong as I thought. At the top of Cardiac, I made my way over to my drop bag. In the minutes it took me to remove my gloves and refill my pack, I got cold very quickly. The rain was really coming down now and up there on Cardiac is no place to be during a storm. I put my jacket on. Another runner at the aid station commented that his current self was cursing his former self for not bringing a rain jacket. In attempt to console him, I offered “ah, you’ll be ok as long as you keep moving”. I couldn’t get my gloves back on and now my hands were freezing and wet. The second place female arrived at Cardiac, and I was out of there – gloveless. Ready or not.

 

Last year I remember having such a great time running down the Dipsea. This year I felt like I was in “emergency” mode. I was freezing cold and the second place woman was on my tail! I tucked my hands into my rain jacket and shivered. “I am so glad I am not that guy without a rain jacket”, I thought. Eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich while in emergency mode flying down the Dipsea is challenging. The trail was slippery, the ground was soaked, and my feet were soaked. Numerous downed trees slowed my pace past the already slow pace of the later technical stages of the Dipsea. I questioned if I could make it the full 50 miles. And then, I emerged from the rain and saw my first view of Stinson Beach and clear skies.

 

Leaving the Willow Camp aid station, I briefly caught view of the yellow rain jacket of the second place woman. Just. Keep. Moving. I had trained on Willow Camp and felt like we were friends. Maybe not the best of friends, but we had become acquainted enough so that it wasn’t a surprise or scare when we met again. I knew I would be power hiking most of the way, and running when I could, so that is what I did. The key to power hiking is to hike with intention. I never just throw in the towel and “walk”. Power hiking is not walking. My intention (and motivation) was to get to the top of Willow Camp and be done with it, and to reap the benefits with the pleasantly rolling single track back over to Cardiac. How can you not be motivated by that?!

 

View from Willow Camp. Picture taken 3 weeks prior to MUC.

 

I caught up to one of the guys, Casey, who had passed me early on. Then I caught up to the other guy, Taylor. I was so happy to see them again. I was taking in fuel regularly – a totally random combination of bars, Gu Roctane Summit Tea, cookies, PB & Js – and feeling strong. Taylor and I ran together to Cardiac, where I picked up the-always-positive Moriah, precisely at 11:22 am. Somewhere in Muir Woods we picked up another MUC-er, Ryan. We passed a runner with trekking poles. The rain and wind were now behind us, and it was safe to remove the rain jackets. Running with Moriah, Taylor, and Ryan for this brief period would end up being the most memorable part of my race. I have often heard about the special bond made with other runners during times of suffering, but never quite experienced it myself. Usually I run alone, and so I thought maybe these bonds only happen on podcasts or in the back of the pack. During my time running with these guys, I had so much fun and not once did I think about how I was feeling or if I would be able to make it. I loved that. And so I was sad when I left them at the Deer Park aid station. I didn’t need anything, so Moriah and I just kept moving.

 

Running along Deer Park with Taylor, Moriah, and Ryan

 

Oh, right. I guess I forgot to mention that at some point during the race I learned that the course had been cut short. Had I paid attention to the Facebook post the day before or Tim’s announcements at the race start, I would have known this. Instead, I learned from one of the other runners during the race that the course had indeed been cut short due to “storm damage”. We would not be ascending up Miwok and descending down Dias to Muir Beach, cutting approximately 2-3 miles from the 50 mile course. The culprit: that darn Redwood creek bridge that was still out. In short, I would not be able to attain either a course record or a personal record. I would be arriving to Muir Beach earlier than planned, and I just hoped Dan was ready for me when I got there.

 

Dan was early and ready to go, and off we went. All I had to do was get up two(ish) more hills, Middle Green Gulch and Old Springs/Wolf. Middle Green Gulch 40 miles into a race is quite different than Middle Green Gulch on fresh legs. I went for the run/hike with intention. I didn’t feel as motivated knowing that my goals were no longer possibilities, but I still didn’t want Yellow Rain Jacket catching up to me at this point in the race. Old Springs is the most gradual climb of all the Headland’s climbs, and I still couldn’t run the whole way. That is the most pathetic thing about these longer races. On Wolf, I again returned to the run/hike and before I knew it, the welcome sight of glorious Hill 88. It was all downhill from here. The final goal was to make it to the finish without a face plant. That final run down to Rodeo Beach is beautiful and fast. With the rain behind us, the day had shaped up to be a good one. I crossed the finish line with a time of 7:52:22. As Tim had so shrewdly predicted, the day was absolutely perfect with just a dash of downright miserable.

 

Dan, Me, and Yuch at the finish

 

I ended up getting the course record, but I am here to say that I do not feel good about it. I knew I could have gotten 8:20 on that course based on my pace throughout the race. I also know that there are dozens of women who could do that race faster, probably even faster than my not-even-50-miles time! I hope that as MUC continues to get more competitive and the trail running scene continues to grow, some strong woman will be inspired to blow my time out of the water, just as I was inspired to do.

 

Award by Elevation Culture

New Year’s One Day – 1.05.19

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In 2015, shortly after I starting dating Yuch, Yuch’s friend Garret invited us to come run with him for a couple of hours at night during a 24 hour summer solstice race around Chrissy Field in San Francisco. Basically you run around the same 1 mile loop for 24 hours, or as long as you can take it. Afterwards I was intrigued by the style of the race. I had never run longer than maybe 6 hours on the trails. The idea of running around the same loop on pavement for an entire day seemed painfully boring, painfully painful, and somehow… intriguing. For the next couple of years, I would return to this memory and think “I’d like to try that”. It bothered me that other people would have the same reaction, “That sounds terrible!” I wanted to know if it really was as bad as it sounded, and if it was bad, I sort of wanted to know what that might feel like. So, I did what any average ultra runner would do, I decided to see for myself.

 

Coastal Trail Run’s “New Year’s One Day” race typically takes place on New Year’s Eve and ends on New Year’s Day. Unfortunately, due to the inability to get the permits for New Year’s, the 2019 race actually took place the weekend after New Year’s. Although ringing in the new year by beating myself up was initially part of the draw of NYOD, I still decided it was worth trying. So I signed up to volunteer for a couple of Coastal’s races so I could get a free entry in. For some reason this “free” entry helped me justify the whole running in loops on purpose thing.

 

If there is one thing that I am pretty consistent at doing in life, it is being prepared. I hate going into things unprepared. Whether it is thru-hiking the Pacific Crest Trail, studying for an anatomy exam, giving a presentation, or running a race, I always massively prepare. I don’t really know why I sign up for these things that kind of freak me out. But, once I begin to train, study, etc. the fear of what lies ahead begins to dissipate. What was once completely overwhelming becomes doable. The unthinkable becomes thinkable. So it sort of surprised me that I didn’t really “train” for this race, in a way that I would another. The bulk of my training came from the earlier part of the year with successes at Marin Ultra Challenge, Miwok 100k, and Castle Peak 100k. Once the school semester and wildfires began, my training went downhill pretty quickly. I managed to squeak in a PR at CIM in December, but I would be relying mostly on a solid “base” for NYOD, minimal to average training the months before, and a 50 mile training run on the trails a couple weeks prior. I guess that was enough.

 

I did the research. I read blogs on other runner’s experiences at 24 hour races, what they ate and how they scheduled in periodic walk breaks. I emailed Garret who advised me to get some maximum cushioned road shoes to replace my Escalantes, warned me that the night was “Terrible. Terrible. TERRIBLE”, and told me that if I wanted to be successful, I needed to have a goal: Run 100 miles. Beat his record of 106 miles. Win. I intended on doing all three, plus I wanted the women’s record. This may seem ambitious for someone whose longest run is 62 miles on trail, and who had never run for more than 14 hours in a row before. I’m a realistic person. I did the math and 120 miles seemed doable. 120 miles would be my goal.

 

The forecast predicted rain. This didn’t worry me. Ok, maybe it worried me a little bit. But, I reassured myself. The nice thing about a 24 hour race is, it’s 24 hours. It can’t possibly rain for 24 hours straight, can it?

 

The forecast predicted 24 hours of rain. 3 days before the race I bought 2 pairs of rain pants online from various outdoor gear websites that ship 2-day. The day before the race, I received Patagonia’s Torrentshell rain pants and Outdoor Research’s Helium rain pants. Outdoor Research won – better fit, lighter weight, less bulk. I packed a rain jacket (also Outdoor Research), various changes of clothes, warm running pants, extra shorts and shirts, brimmed hats, wool hats, extra pairs of Injini socks, and 3 pairs of shoes. I was a little embarrassed at how much I was packing, but I had no idea what might happen out there. I had settled on a nice comfy pair of Altra Torins for this race, but the last thing I wanted was my nice comfy pair of shoes to get soaked and for my feet to get blisters. Just a 10 mile run in the rain from my house has been enough to inspire blisters! So I packed a pair of waterproof Lone Peaks, and several plastic produce bags to put over my socks in the event that all my shoes got soaked through. I packed a portable battery charger for my phone, an iPod, and my AfterShockz headphones, all in Opsak bags. I packed a canvas chair which Garret said was a “must” (even if it’s raining??) and my Chrome Dome umbrella. I packed various bars, gels, a tub of Gatorade, a tub of Gu Summit Tea Roctane, slices of pizza, smoothies, ginger ale, coffee drinks, Trader Joe’s Peppermint Hot Chocolate Mix. For some reason I thought I might be making mochas in my spare time. Did I mention this is my first time doing anything like this?

 

I stocked up on sleep the week before trying to sleep 8-10 hours every night if possible. I knew I couldn’t “bank” sleep that would be missed, I just wanted to be well rested. I scheduled three friends to come and run with me at various times in the race. Sarah would meet me in the afternoon, Yuch would come at night, and Joe would meet me in the early morning. NYOD does not allow official pacers, but they say it’s ok to have friends come out and run with you every now and then. Having these scheduled dates to look forward to would be hugely helpful in the hours that I battled by myself.

 

My mom dropped me off the morning of my race. I decided it would be wise not to drive myself for a couple of reasons. Not having an escape vehicle available to me would mean dropping in the middle of the night was not an option. Also, I wasn’t sure I would even be able to drive after all this. Yuch would be there in the morning towards the tail end of the race with his car. I posted the link to the tracking site on Facebook, also an important part of my race “strategy”. Knowing some friends and family may be tracking me always gives me a little more motivation on race day. It’s hard to explain, but it makes me feel like I am not alone and that I am being supported and “watched over”, similar to how I felt with people reading my blog and tracking my GPS when I hiked the PCT.

 

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At the start of New Year’s One Day. Let’s get this party started!

At 9 am on January 5th, 2019, with a sky full of ominous clouds, decked out in head to toe rain gear, I set off with 47 other runners to run around the lagoon at Chrissy Field, over and over again for the next 24 hours. With a forecast of on and off rain, the plan was to keep my body and feet dry and blister free, to take a 2 minute walk break every 30 minutes, and to eat 100 calories during that walk break. My two gear and food bins were set up under a tree for protection, with my handheld water bottle sitting on top. Every 30 minutes I would grab the bottle, take it around for a loop, take my walk break, eat 100 calories, continue the loop, then drop off the water bottle until 30 minutes later. This worked out well and I was amazed at how quickly 30 minutes would go by.

 

The rain was erratic. I started the race wearing the waterproof Lone Peaks, wanting to “save” my Torrins for the dry periods. Every time the rain would stop, I would stop at my bins, and change into my preferred Torrins. Then the clouds would burst and the rain would start up again, and I’d again change into the Lone Peaks. I did this about 5 times in in the span of an hour. This was not sustainable. Around 3 pm, when it looked like the sun was coming out and that perhaps we might get a break from the rain, I decided I had had it with the rain gear. I stripped off my rain pants and would run the last 18 hours of the race in shorts and a rain jacket.

Around 3 pm, Sarah joined me for about an hour and a half. Having run by myself for 6 hours it was really uplifting to have her company and I could feel my pace quickening.

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6+ hours in with Sarah

As it grew closer to sunset, my friends Paul and Kate showed up. Paul had a new Light Belt prototype for me to try and for him to photograph.

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Light Belt in action http://www.light-belt.com

Moriah and Phil showed up with a World Wrapps wrap that I had requested, the Island Teriyaki wrap, aka the best wrap in Marin according to just me. It has sushi rice, tofu, grilled pineapple, stir fry onions, peppers and mushrooms, and macadamia nuts. It is amazing and probably contains about 800-1000 calories total. To this point I had been mainly eating bars and my Gu Roctane drinks. For the next 2-3 hours, half of that wrap would sustain me.

 

Paul and Kate took off after the sun set to have dinner and watch some game on TV at the place Kate was housesitting. That sounded…cozy. They said they would be back in the morning, and that sounded nice, too. Before leaving, Noel arrived and gave me the scoop on the night time forecast. The night was forecasted to be dry.

At 8 pm, Yuch showed up with some thoughtful gear items, but most importantly several thermoses of coffee. Very sugary coffee. I wasn’t tired yet at 8 pm, but started drinking the coffee anyway. This was probably not a great move, as I would later find out that the coffee consumed when I really needed it in the middle of the night did not have as much of an effect. Yuch left by 10 pm, needing to get some sleep himself, before returning again in the morning. I would not see anyone else until Joe arrived in the morning.

 

My walk breaks became more frequent. As the hours clicked off and my eyes grew heavier, I began to think I “deserved” more gear stops and walk breaks. I would walk a lap and grab a cup of lentil soup or Cup of Noodles at the aid station. My stomach seemed to agree with both of these things. I seemed to be going to the bathroom very frequently (I suppose better than the alternative), but I soon began very tired of the extra stretch to the Port-a-potties. I was envious of the male runners who could just duck over to the side to pee. At night, I decided I could not waste any more time with the Port-a-Potties and began ducking behind trees and bushes too. I started listening to this podcast called The Teacher’s Pet, an Australian murder mystery. It didn’t really help me because it’s kind of depressing, so soon I changed over to the The Trail Show, a podcast about long distance backpacking. This helped for a little while, until it didn’t, and then I put on some music. I was having a really hard time staying awake and keeping up the pace.

 

At 3 am, an angel appeared wearing a headlamp and ready to run with me. It was my friend Dan! I couldn’t believe it when I saw him. I had not asked him to show up, and I didn’t even know that he knew I was there! As soon as he began running with me, I woke up immediately. I couldn’t believe what a difference it made just to have someone to talk to. I was awake again. Dan asked if I knew how many miles I had done. I said I didn’t. I hadn’t been keeping track. I was wearing a watch, but only to keep track of the time. He asked if I wanted to know, and I said, I’m not sure. I told him I should have done at least 90 miles by 3 am, and if I were to find out that I had not, that could be very discouraging news. He looked at the tracking board the next time we passed it, and again asked if I wanted to know. I asked him if it was good news, to which he responded “yes”. I gave him the ok, and he told me I had done 90 miles. This was reassuring, but also slightly nerve-wracking. In order to get 120 miles, I would have to average 12 minute miles for the next 6 hours. This may seem easy to you, but when you’re adding in walking, fuel, and bathroom breaks, 12 minute miles are actually quite challenging. A little while later, Dan informed me that the guy in the lead was going to call it quits at 100 miles, putting me in first. It turned out he couldn’t make it to 100 and ended up stopping at 98. I would later find out that his feet were trashed and unable to continue.

 

Not too long after Dan informed me of my mileage, I passed by the timing mat and heard the RD, Wendell, shout “Congratulations, Megan! 100 miles!” I couldn’t believe I just had run my first 100 miles! But, I was also confused, because it didn’t sync with what Dan had just told me about running 90 miles. It was then that I realized the 90 that Dan had been reporting was my laps – not my mileage. I had run farther than we both had realized. This was very uplifting news and enough so for Dan to feel comfortable leaving me on my own, with Lindsey Stirling on my headphones.

 

In the morning, Joe showed up to run with me. I asked him to run with me because it seemed convenient; he lives in the Richmond district. It also seemed fitting. Joe coached me when I ran my first marathon with Team in Training in 2008. I was not a runner before I met Joe. Now I had over 100 miles on my legs, and I needed him to distract me with his positivity and silly stories. The sunrise was huge. Knowing my mom, Yuch, Paul, Noel, and Kate would be showing up kept me moving. With the sunrise came the rain. The course record was so within reach that I told myself, “no more walk breaks”. When Yuch showed up he ran a couple laps with me before Wendell told me I had to run the rest of the race by myself. I was too close to the course record, and he didn’t want any controversy.

 

The previous women’s course record was 117 miles. As I grew closer to 117 miles, Joe would update me from the sidelines. “1 more lap to match the course record, 2 more laps to beat it”. On my last lap, I told Yuch “This is my last lap. I’m done after this”. I crossed the timing mat at 118 miles and stopped. My original goal had been to last 24 hours, but why did I need to continue if I already had the course record? It was then that Wendell informed me that I was averaging 11 minute miles and that I still had time for 2 more laps. I could not believe he was “challenging” me to 2 more laps. I told him “I’m done”, to which he responded “You’re going to regret it if you don’t hit 120”. I wasn’t sure I agreed with him at all, but when my friends began cheering and what sounded like “egging” me on, I went back out there, stunned but moving. With about 6 minutes to spare, I crossed the timing mat, logging 120.2 miles. This time, I was really done. I collapsed into Yuch’s arms in a puddle of relief, and then into my mom’s arms. I had just run continuously for an entire day and completed almost two times the length of my previous longest distance of 62 miles.

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Crossing the finish line at New Year’s One Day

As soon as I stopped running, my body began shutting down. I quickly began cooling down and began to dry my soaked body and change into warm clothes. Changing out of wet Injinjis into dry Injinjis is a difficult task for a crew to take on. Next time, I will make sure to pack non-toe socks into my post race clothes bag. The muscles in my right knee began to seize up and walking to the car was difficult. There would be no post-race mingling or congratulations taking place. I couldn’t believe my body had let me run strong for 24 hours, and so quickly make the decision to shut down as soon as I stopped.

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Kate snaps one last photo before I hobble over to thank Wendell for “making” me do 2 more miles
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Still smiling, as Yuch helps me to the car. My leg has yet to completely seize up here.

I nearly fainted in the car when Yuch stopped by Whole Foods to grab a couple of things, and began honking the horn in order to communicate with the other cars in the parking lot, who only thought I was crazy. I finally opened up the door and began soaking up cool air and came back to life.

 

Arriving at Yuch’s, I realized I could not walk. My right knee had totally seized up and I couldn’t bend it. I thought it was broken. Yuch reassured me it was probably just muscular, that I would have looked and felt a lot worse had I broken my leg. I couldn’t believe he parked across the street from his apartment. I had no idea how I was going to get across the street and up the stairs to his apartment if I couldn’t even get out of the car. He carried me the whole way, including literally in and out of the bath tub. I have never felt so helpless in my life. I apologized profusely, and vowed to Yuch I would never do anything like this again. Running 24 hours was fine, but the post-race crash scene was too much for me to handle. I worried that I had done some serious damage to my body. Yuch instructed me to stay in the Epsom salt bath as long as possible, and that it would help with my recovery. It felt like torture and I worried that I would faint and drown, which would be a sad ending to my glorious tale. I began taking in Ginger ale, followed by miso soup, and vegetable soup. The urge to faint went away as my blood sugar returned to normalcy.  Yuch spent at least an hour massaging my legs as I lay helpless in his bed with sopping wet hair that I couldn’t find the energy to comb out. After the massage I tried to sleep but it was impossible. Any time my right knee moved the slightest or rested against my leg or the bed, I would groan in pain. I am never doing anything like this again, I repeated to myself.

 

The recovery was pretty fast. By the end of the night I could stand up on my own and was able to moonwalk across Yuch’s apartment floors. By the morning I could walk almost like a normal person. And the following day I walked into work feeling like some kind of comic book character; superhero at night, unassuming paper pusher during the day. Maybe that’s what I like about ultra running and pushing my limits. Maybe it makes me feel special and superhuman in this body that can sometimes feel so small, fearful, and insignificant. Maybe I do want to do that again after all.