Last Saturday, I ran 31 miles to a party.
The celebration would not have been nearly as much fun had I not first put myself through the Siskiyou Out Back — S.O.B. — 50-kilometer ultramarathon that began and ended at the Mt. Ashland ski lodge. I was, after all, one of 193 guests of honor: those who finished the sucker.
It was precisely because I was a) reduced by exhaustion — quite frequently — to walking; b) fell face first in a snow bank; c) suffered through dry heaves; and d) ended up with two spectacular toe blisters that the finish line party felt so sweet.
Think of the finish line as a reward.
Along the course were four aid stations stocked with a variety of munchies and beverages. Mini parties, if you will. More importantly, at least two of the volunteers at each station were friends who cheered me on.
Had I run my first ultramarathon anywhere else, I would have missed out on this important social aspect of racing for more than five hours.
The long-time, hard-core ultrarunners tell me that this phenomenon exists at races hundreds of miles from home. The ultra community still is small enough that if you stick with it, they tell me, you see the same people over and over. My brother has raced triathlons up and down the East Coast for 20 years and tells me he sees very few people he knows.
Several of my running friends chose to cut their ultra teeth at this race. One of them is Felicia Hazel, race director of the Talent Harvest Festival run.
"It's really the whole event," Hazel explains. "Your friends are there, it's well organized. If it wasn't in our backyard, I don't know if I would have done it."
When your friends are ultramarathoners, there's another incentive to subject yourself to the pain.
"I paced a friend of mine for the last 20 miles of the Miwok 100-kilometer race (near San Francisco)," says Hazel. "I thought about her, and decided I should do a 50K. I didn't want to be a wuss."
I put myself through this ordeal partly for professional reasons. I've been writing about ultramarathons for the Mail Tribune and magazines for years. I wanted to write from experience. Physical and mental.
Although all the race participants run over the same rocks, roots and snowbanks, part of the shared experience of the ultramarathon is the necessity of overcoming the mental obstacles.
With a road marathon, you expect a flat and even course. There can be thousands of competitors and even more spectators along the route. Few surprises.
At the S.O.B., you face extended hills, tough footing, an average elevation that exceeds a mile. You go for miles without seeing a spectator. Toward the end, the nearest runner is often out of your sight. There's plenty of time for the voices in your head to mess with your equilibrium.
"You're exhausted. Stop and rest. Your hamstring/calf/toe is sore. You can always walk to the finish. Who cares if three people passed you in the last mile. You're road kill."
To combat the voices is to fight the extended mental battle, something you don't have the time or solitude for in a manicured road marathon.
Because of the late snow this year, the course was new to everyone, redesigned a week before the race. Both fellow rookie Felicia Hazel and I know the traditional course from previous training runs. Noone had time to learn the new course. It was doubly a journey into the unknown.
"It was like my mental safety net was gone," Hazel tells me. "So I tried to convince myself it was just a training run, and one that was fully supported."
My mental race began at mile 23, at the beginning of a 3-mile, 2,500-foot elevation climb known as the Time Warp. True to form, the time it took to run a mile here was truly warped.
It was the first time I had walked, and I walked most of it. I plowed through it by telling myself I could go back to walking if I would just run now 20, now 30 steps. Every time the slope eased up, I tried to run. It wasn't that I was out of breath. I was just bone tired.
I played these mental work-reward games with myself for the remainder of the race. When I was a half mile from the finish I started running hard. I knew this part of the course and I was close. I had no problem finishing strong. It got me thinking: I had a lot left. How much harder should I have pushed the last few miles?
Near the finish, the voices told me, "OK, you're almost done. You've proven you can do it. You don't need to run any more of these.'
It was thrilling to stop because I was at the finish line rather than because I was tired. It got me thinking. This really wasn't so bad after all.
The voices were back. "You can do this a lot faster."
Here's the strategy for next year. Wonder what it would feel like to run 50 miles.
Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org