Issue 12  •  Spring 2013

Ultra Girl: Why I Ran Fifty-Six Miles On Purpose

Written by Andrea Henchey


Why? Why? Why? Why would you miss out on time with friends? Why would you put your body through that kind of pain? Why would you regularly get up (long) before dawn? What are you trying to prove? What are you “running from”? Who are you trying to impress? And on . . . and on . . . but this isn’t just what other people ask. This is what you ask yourself when your alarm clock goes off at 3:45 a.m. or your IT band is throbbing and you’ve got another fifteen miles or more to go. Fortunately, I recently had ten and a half hours of straight-up running to reflect on these questions and others . . . like how I got myself into this craziness to begin with.

When I moved to Africa a year ago, it wasn’t to come to the running motherland. After an unsuccessful attempt at finding a job in Portland, Oregon and a strange, serendipitous encounter in a Connecticut Starbucks that involved tears and eavesdropping, I found myself off to teach at an international school in Namibia—a country I had to Google. It was a leap, but I figured that if it was good enough for Brad and Angie, it was good enough for me. I wanted to make some new friends in my new home, so I joined a running club because, well, I like running. No big deal.

But before I knew it, I was training with some of the most competitive female runners in the country and racing all over the place. Since we all enjoyed our long runs in the veldt, talk naturally turned to popular ultramarathons in South Africa, such as Two Oceans (thirty miles), and Comrades (fifty-six miles). As someone who was wildly inspired by Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run, the idea of moving beyond the standard marathon (twenty six miles and three hundred and eighty five yards) had major appeal. To those who didn’t understand the urge, I explained that it was sort of like George Mallory’s famous reply to the why-climb-Everest question: “Because it’s there.” (BTW, I always thought it was Sir Edmund Hillary who said that. He didn’t. He did, however, say, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves,” and “People do not decide to become extraordinary. They decide to accomplish extraordinary things.”) But what’s most appealing about ultras, I think, is that these races are a test, not only of your body, but also of your mind.

Running side by side for hours, matching breaths, heartbeats, and footfalls, makes for a kind of closeness one rarely experiences; it invites a kind of openness and honesty that seems, to me, at least, less possible or available in everyday interactions.

Let’s get back to those whys, though. How about that first idea: missing out on time with your friends. Well, sure, I’d say, your social life changes—dramatically—but I wouldn’t say for the worse. In fact, this insane training brought my group of running buddies closer than we ever could have become in “regular” life. If you think about it, running really is an intimate activity. I mean that, of course, in the old Latin root kind of way (“closely acquainted, very familiar,” from L.L. intimatus, pp. of intimare “make known, announce, impress,” from L. intimus “inmost,” “close friend”). Running side by side for hours, matching breaths, heartbeats, and footfalls, makes for a kind of closeness one rarely experiences; it invites a kind of openness and honesty that seems, to me, at least, less possible or available in everyday interactions. So while you might miss out on the wee hours of a few parties or even have to pass on an event here or there, the friendships you develop through running make those small sacrifices worth it.

Maintaining and growing the friendships you have outside running can be tricky, but most people will be understanding and supportive. I would not claim that I found the magic balance this year—I didn’t—but I believe that you can keep all of your valuable relationships healthy through this kind of training. I might even argue that the time away makes you value the moments you do share more highly. And if someone wants to drop you because you didn’t stay out for another glass of wine, do you really need that person as a friend anyway? Probably not.

But what about the pain? Do you need that? Yes and no. While I’m not a huge fan of the “no pain, no gain” type of thinking, I am into the idea of finding one’s edge and pushing right up to it . . . or past it. I like exploring what the human body is capable of. I would be lying if I said training for and participating in marathons and ultramarathons doesn’t hurt. It often does. But this pain teaches. The “pain” of rolling out of bed and lacing up when all you want to do is hide under the covers, teaches discipline. The pain of an injury like plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the thick tissue on the bottom of the foot) teaches you about your body, how to modify your technique, when to back off or when to push (or when to buy a new pair of shoes and arch supports!). The aches and fatigue you feel after a long, long training run become bizarrely satisfying—a badge of your strength and determination, proof you’ve earned the right to feel proud. It’s good pain. I should mention, too, that the flipside of pain is pleasure, and this kind of running releases a deluge of your own personal pharmaceuticals. Runner’s high—the effect of endorphins (the same opiate-like goods produced during love, orgasm, and the consumption of spicy foods!)—is legit. Like, totally. It feels awesome.

And you know what else is awesome? Seeing the sun rise above the mountains. Catching a rainbow. Watching a herd of oryx crash through the bush right in front of you. Actually feeling fully awake and alert when you show up to work in the morning. While I confess that I often tried to wrangle out of the earliest runs (why don’t we do a few loops in the afternoon???), the predawn meetups made for some intensely beautiful experiences. Many a morning I nodded to my boy Orion before getting in the car. Sometimes I’d get both moon and sun runs. So many of the most stunning images in my mind’s “album” come from these early morning sessions. Actually, most of my favorite memories from my time here in Namibia are somehow connected to running.

Which is probably why I’m able to (mostly) dismiss those other questions: What are you trying to prove? What are you “running from”? Who are you trying to impress? I don’t know. I tell myself I just want to see what I can do with my mind and my body. I know I use running to deal with stress . . . but does that mean I’m running away from my problems? Usually it feels like I’m running towards a solution. Impress? Other than that lacrosse coach from junior year who suspended me from the team for not being able to run far enough and fast enough, I think I’m just trying to impress myself. And if that competitive streak comes out, I’ll try to channel that energy into some positive pushing for next year’s Comrades training. Oh, yes, there will definitely be a next year.

How could I resist? Not only is there the “back-to-back” medal to look forward to, (when one completes “up” and “down” runs on consecutive years), but Comrades is just a race so thoroughly unlike any other. The crowd was (and I suspect always is) truly incredible.  This year, at least, it seemed as though there were just as many cheering on the side of the road as there were running! All sorts of folks came out to show their support by shouting encouraging words or offering up treats like orange slices and cookies. Probably my favorite bit was that people said my name (it’s on the race number) when they hollered at me. One “Looking beautiful, Andrea, keep running!” from a fine looking man gave me feel-good fuel for at least an hour.

Speaking of men, I had a few handsome running buddies over the course. It almost felt like boot-camp speed dating—try getting through the usual “Where are you from?” and “What do you do?” while pushing through this incredibly demanding physical challenge. Because it was damn difficult. Yes, the crowd is great. Yes, the scenery is beautiful. Yes, the endorphins are pumping. But it got really, really, tough there at the end. The first forty or so miles felt like a breeze and just flew by. The last ten, though, were absolutely brutal and felt like another full marathon. Before the race I had come up with a series of mental tricks (it’s less than nine 10Ks!), quotes and dedications I had decided would get me through the race. I ignored all of them except one: when things got so bad that I wanted to stop running and just walk, I asked my late grandfather for help. This may seem cheesy or weird, but I don’t care. When the going got rough, I asked Papa for help. I think he came through, because I did it. All fifty-six miles. And I can’t wait to do it again.

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