By Iain Nelson
The ironic thing about me writing this is that I don’t like the act of running. I think it’s silly. It’s the journey I enjoy and even crave! It provides an opportunity to be social, diet (the ability to eat anything you want), challenge, frustration, experience, and of course all the highs and lows, good days, bad days, and GREAT days! I would compare running to a job you don’t actually like but tolerate because of the perks and people you get to work with. If I’m being honest, I was the guy that used to make fun of runners when I saw them on the street, either early in the morning or late at night. I just couldn’t comprehend why anyone would run anywhere, it seems so inefficient! I reluctantly decided to take up running as an alternative to lifting weights and at the urging of a few of my co-workers. I couldn’t just run for no reason and without the idea that I was making progress so I followed Hal Higdon’s marathon training plan, with absolutely no intention of doing a marathon (or any other race). It served as a guide for me to figure out how far to run and on which days. Left to my own devices, I would have chosen to not run, so at least a training plan kept me on a schedule.
Fast forward several years, living in Detroit I found a really awesome and supportive running group in the Royal Oak Area Runners (ROAR). I still didn’t intend to do any races but quickly found I was missing out on social events because I refused to race. FOMO caused me to sign up for a few local 5k’s so I could join in the fun and socialize a bit more. During this time, I was able to join my brother in Atlanta and ran the Peachtree 10k for four years in a row, we turned it into a bit of a tradition and it was great fun trying to one-up each other and improve our times year over year! By the way, the Peachtree 10k is an awesome event and I’d highly recommend it for anyone looking for a destination race and experience!
After 6 years in Detroit, I moved home to Syracuse. This is really where my running life went crazy (in a good way…. I think)?!?! On a whim, I decided to sign up for the CNY Bread Run half only a few weeks prior to the race and without any training whatsoever! I think the longest run I had done to that point was 8ish, maybe once but I thought “If I could do 8, certainly another 5 wouldn’t be that bad!” I finished in a little under 2hrs, which I was I pleased with. To my surprise, I actually enjoyed the challenge and really enjoyed the course and solitude the distance provided. Shortly after the CNY Bread Run, I signed up for the Tromp town Half. Although I was trying to replicate the feelings and emotions, I could not. As a matter of fact, I found myself questioning my sanity and wondering what the hell I was doing about a mile and a half into the race! A part of me wanted to turn around but my pride wouldn’t allow it so I broke through the early mental barrier and continued on, focusing instead on the sights and sounds of the course while also solving the world’s problems! From that point my running continued without too much direction but with the intention to maintain whatever shape and condition I’d built. After trying out a few different run groups in the Syracuse area, including SOH4, FF, and Kitty Hoyne’s Run Club, I decided to join the distance program to take advantage of the coaching and structure, and of course to socialize!
During the summer of 2015, I had some time and thought I’d volunteer at a couple of races so while I was in Fleet Feet Syracuse, I looked up on the board to see what races were upcoming, found a couple and reached out to see if volunteers were needed (Note – volunteers are ALWAYS needed!). I had no idea what to expect and I don’t think I even knew it was an ultra but I showed up at the assigned time, met Pat McHenry and Tim Hardy (RD) and peppered them and other volunteers with questions about the whole concept and wrestled with the idea of why someone would do this (spoiler alert – still haven’t figured it out). As I watched intently all day, runners of all abilities and body shape came through the aid station and I was absolutely in awe of their will and determination. The hours wore on and I began to think about if I’d be able to push myself to the extremes these runners had! After the race, I began doing research and learning about ultra’s and training programs, quickly deciding for myself that I was going to train for the 2016 edition of the GLER 100k. My first task was to sign up for the Fleet Feet Syracuse Distance Program. I knew it maxed out at the marathon distance but that it would be a solid, stable program for me to follow, I could add in whatever other mileage I needed to. The second step was to create my training calendar! A year on, I toed the line of the GLER 100k, my first ultra. I was hoping for about a 10-12hr-finish time but had NO clue or realistic expectation of where I would end up! I didn’t tell many people because I didn’t want a crowd there supporting a potential failure but to my surprise and delight, I stumbled across Coach Cherise at some point during the race, it was great to see someone I knew and to have an actual person to speak with for a few minutes! The few people I did tell (family) were more than a little concerned about my health and well being! 14.5 hrs after starting I crossed the finish line and was overwhelmed with emotion! I was doubled over crying and I couldn’t stop, literally, could not stop crying (most of it ugly crying!). There were several messages from friends and family asking my whereabouts and if I was ok, so I quickly texted back and assured them I was relatively ok.
Prior to the race, I thought I’d do one and be done with the ultra distance but a couple of weeks beyond the GLER 100k I was perusing Ultrasignup and found Mendon Ponds 50k, so I signed up! I was hooked and haven’t looked back. Since then, I’ve added in some other distances (50m, 50k, and 100m), and even crewed for some friends. There are a few things that keep me coming back to ultra races: the atmosphere and camaraderie among “racers” is so supportive, and it almost surprises you the first couple times. Everyone is so positive, nice, welcoming and helpful! It goes without saying but the challenge certainly keeps me coming back. I guess I’m in search of the outer limits of my comfort zone and abilities. I begin each race with a lingering doubt about which side of the thin line between success and failure I’ll land on. I can’t say enough about the personal journey (physical, emotional, spiritual and mental), running ultras takes me on. This applies to all of us runners, as no journey is the same, no matter the distance or pace. The idea that few people even attempt an ultra is also appealing to me, which I think speaks to the camaraderie and support ultra runners give to each other, even during the race. The shorter distances are far more competitive and I’ve found racers don’t really talk to each other. Not true in ultras, we all support, chat and check on each other. There’s nothing like lining up for a race with less than 100 people, all looking at each other and wondering the exact same thing (“holy smokes, what are we doing?”). Of course, being outdoors, on trails and in the woods is the environment that enables all of these thoughts, feelings, and emotions to come to the fore. If you’re comfortable being uncomfortable then ultras are for you but with all of us, there’s a tiny bit telling us to find our comfort zone and to push beyond it. I’m not in it to win races but I suppose at the end of the day, my aim is to find the limit of my comfort and then to break through it and establish a new limit and new goal to meet. All of our “races” come down to this idea that we are testing ourselves to find the outer reaches of our strengths of will, determination, and abilities.
My last race, which certainly tested every ounce of all the things I’ve just written about, was November 2018 at the Chattanooga 100, which takes place in northern Georgia. It was my second attempt at the 100-mile distance and one I’m proud to say I finished! I could not and would not have done it without the support from my Fleet Feet Syracuse family, Coach Michele, and my brother in Atlanta. Coach Michele was a tremendous influence and is the person responsible for me running it at all. Through a critical part of my training I accepted a new job and was traveling a lot, which put a severe damper on my training. Without the support and encouragement of Coach Michele, I would not have done the race, let alone finished it. She also crewed and paced for me, sacrificing time with her friends and family to come down to GA and experience the race first hand. The details of that race and a race report is for another article but what you need to know is that the race pushed my mind, body, and soul to the max. I went well beyond my comfort zone and found some new limits, which I intend to break! The experience was priceless and one that will stay with me forever. Ricky Bobby was wrong when he said, “If you’re not first, you’re last!” because in ultra running, every finisher is a winner, as is each person that toes the line.