Runlikely: A 50k Training Journey

Two weeks ago, I pooped my pants during an 11-mile long run.

I have come very close to bowel bombs in the past, namely while hiking a ridge on the PCT after brazenly eating extremely spicy pasta out of a hiker box the night before, but I’ve never actually failed to get to a natural or manmade commode in time.

In this case, I was running a paved rail trail in the Seattle area—long, smooth, flat—and caught between a housing development to my right and the Samammish River to my left when my stomach cramping went from idle threat to GI emergency. I was .3 miles from a certain bathroom, and I was nearly sure there was a porta potty a mere .1 miles ahead. But it didn’t matter—I didn’t make it.

Instagram story on the day in question.

I’m not a runner by nature. I didn’t play sports growing up. My freshman year PE class required high school students to run a mile in under 15 minutes in order to pass the class; I achieved a 14:59, which I maintain required numerical fudging on the teacher’s part. I spent a few weeks one summer trying to learn to run with my mom, who would plod slowly and consistently while I sprinted and collapsed again and again. Another summer after college I started trying to jog to and around the manmade lake near my apartment in Tempe, Arizona, sometimes briefly getting a sense of what it might be like to enjoy running (sometimes my legs would tingle like they were eager to keep going even as my lungs spasmed) but never actually enjoying it.

But even as a non-runner, I did slowly start to enjoy exercise. I did a lot of yoga; I hiked a lot of miles. Two summers ago, frustrated by the hour drive required to reach any trailheads, I started a Couch to 5k training program to try to build cardiovascular endurance for the summer hiking season. My shins ached for weeks, but I caught the bug, and I started training for a trail half marathon. That ended in a pulled groin muscle. The following summer, I signed up for and started training for another half marathon—then coronavirus.

This summer I’d planned to do the same: train slowly for a half marathon. After leisurely running a 5k loop near my house, I started a run/walk program. But less than halfway through the program, I realized I was already capable of a half marathon distance. It wasn’t exciting. I needed something bigger to train toward or I’d lose interest before summer even rolled around.

Enter the Wy’East Howl, a 50k trail run at Mount Hood: 31 miles, 6,050 feet of elevation gain, 5,000 feet of descent. It’s July 31st, just under three months away from the flat half marathon I’m running on May 2nd.

This is an ambitious goal for me. I’ve backpacked 21 miles before (in the greatest shape of my life, although also while battling a stomach illness), but never come close to running that distance, let alone 31 miles.

The nice thing about ultramarathons is that speed, for most people, is not the point. Finishing is the point. Hiking uphill is encouraged. Walks happen. But there is a time crunch—I have to reach the third station at 20.7 miles within 6.5 hours; I have to reach the end within 10 hours. Those are generous times for flat courses, but elevation gain and trail conditions make everybody run slower. On pavement, an easy pace for me—the kind of pace I’ll need to maintain in order to cover 30 miles—is around 13:30/mi. On trail, it varies wildly, from 16 to 18 to 20+ minute miles. I’ll need to average 19 minute miles over the whole course to make that happen, something I don’t know that I can do.

Of course, that’s assuming I make it to the starting line to begin with. I’ve injured myself running before and it took me out of commission for months—that could happen again. The training could be more than my body can handle. Or there could be other impossible to imagine disruptions (pandemics happen) that could make the race impossible.

But I want to try. I want to go from feeling like an unlikely runner to a likely runner. So I’m calling this 50k training series Runlikely, because like the word impossible, it feels like it contains both sides of the attempt. “Do you think you can run 31.3 miles?” “Ha! Runlikely.” But maybe I’ll surprise myself. Run? Likely.

A few weeks ago even a 7 mile long run seemed unlikely.

I don’t have speed. I’m not lithe and aerodynamic. I don’t have years or experience. What I do have is tenacity. In the case of the unfortunate fecal fiasco, I waddled to the nearest porta potty. I finished my business, texted a few people for levity, cleaned myself up and kept running.

I’m hoping this blog will be a weekly record of the attempt, successful or not, of putting one foot in front of the other. Even when shit hits the, er, pants.

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