On December 31st, 2016 I toed the starting line of my first ever ultramarathon. While competing in (and later finishing) this event I noticed a ton of similarities that running an ultra and completing a thru hike have in common.
Aid Stations Are Basically Trail Magic on Steroids
The ultra I ran was the Pistol Ultra in Alcoa, TN. They have a famous aid station, Woody's, that provides everything a runner needs to get through the race. From homemade trail mix bars and banana bread to salt and vinegar chips and even candy this little slice of heaven on earth will get you refueled and back to the task at hand. Much like trail magic, seeing this pop-up tent brought forth a flood of emotions and got me energized to continue onward. Seriously, when someone fills your water bottles for you so you can stuff your face and keep moving... that person is an angel.
(Photos of Woody's courtesy of the Pistol Ultra Facebook group)
Hike Your Own Hike Applies Here Too
So when I tell people I've completed an ultra they say "wow I can't believe you ran that far!" Honestly I did run a lot, but I also walked a lot too. I stopped and stretched a lot. In fact, according to my Garmin, I probably stopped for stretches, food, and sock changes more than 15 minutes during the duration of the time I was on the course. When you're hiking a distance trail you might take 1 zero day or 50 zero days (like I did on the AT) and you're still going to finish. When you're stopping to walk in an ultra no one is judging you, just like when you take that extra zero day in town. In fact, towards the end of the ultra if you can manage to run up a hill, no matter how small, someone who sees you doing it starts cheering you on. That's support!
Your Fellow Runners Have Your Back
On my final lap on the way back to the finish I saw some ladies headed towards me - meaning they had about 9 miles to go. One of the women stopped and burst into tears. Immediately other runners stopped to see what she needed and how they could help her. Spectators cheered you by name and asked if you needed anything. Aid station workers, due to the cold weather, asked every person if they needed a hot drink. We offered up our foam rollers and muscle sticks to those who were in pain. Just like when you're out on trail and something throws a wrench into your day, others who know what you're going through offer to help you out.
The Hunger is REAL
About 15 miles into my race my stomach was ANGRY. I was so hungry all of a sudden I almost couldn't move. Much like when you're on a thru hike, when your stomach tells you to eat it is time to eat! I discovered for myself that much like a distance hike, my body responded extremely well to "real" foods versus snack bars, gels, and chews. When I finished the race we went out for an enormous pasta dinner and I polished off a gargantuan piece of cheesecake. I regret nothing!
Your Journey is The Destination
When I finished the AT my thru hike I was just in awe that I had finished. From that moment on in my life I realized I can actually do difficult things. I can COMPLETE difficult things. Until that point in my life I often quit when things got hard and uncomfortable. Since then, I've challenged myself outside of my comfort zone so many times. This ultra race, for me, was proving to myself that something I once thought impossible truly wasn't. I no longer find myself second-guessing my abilities once I'm in the middle of something. It turns out that my first attempt at an ultra wasn't as scary or unmanageable as I feared it would be. Much like every thru hike I complete, I come out on the other side realizing that I am capable of finishing something daunting.
While there are plenty of other ways running an ultramarathon reminds me of thru hiking, these are the ones that stood out to me. Have you ever run an ultra? Do you want to push the envelope and challenge yourself to a difficult or "impossible" feat in the coming year?