My body still aches, but my heart is giddy. I recently took a giant step toward achieving my 50-mile goal. 72,829 steps to be exact.
This August, I completed my very first ultramarathon, The Kodiak Ultra, a 50K in the local San Bernardino mountains. 32.1 total miles of hiking, running, scrambling, and at times shuffling, through dirt, sand, and rocks. Through peaceful pine forests, dusty trails, and breathtaking views at 8,000 ft. Through hours of quiet solitude, mercifully peppered with moments of companionable chatter. 32.1 miles carried me from euphoric optimism, through the pit of self-doubt, ultimately surrendering to fatigue and discomfort to finally accept that I was, indeed, strong enough to finish.
The endeavor took me 11 hours 21 minutes 20 seconds. I finished 210 out of 215 total 50k runners. And I feel glorious.
It’s taken me four years to get here from shattering my ankle in 2019. The injury that inspired my 50-mile race dream. Since then, I’ve gone through three additional surgeries and two rounds of Covid, before finally making it to the start line of my first ultra.
I think it’s fair to say I’m a changed person after the race. A stronger, more resilient person. Physically and mentally.
But something else happened on the course that I wasn’t expecting. An opening, a softening, an acceptance of myself and others that was not there before walking through the start line. I was shown such incredible selfless kindness throughout the entire course. Strangers believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Others encouraged me to keep going and told me I could do it when I was plagued by self-doubt. People I never met before did not accept me giving up. So even though the race was one of the most solitary experiences of my life, it was also a time I felt incredibly connected to others.
A huge bonus of the entire experience was getting to know a group of badass women that also braved the wilderness to conquer their first ultra race – just because it sounded like a fun bucket-list challenge. My kind of people.
And so it is with gratitude and pride that I can share some life lessons I learned from completing a 50K.
Tree to Tree
“Little by little, a little becomes a lot.”
There was a piece of the course, about 1/4 into the race, that ascended almost 2,000 ft in 2.5 miles. We had just come off a long luxurious downhill, dropping to just below 6,000 ft, the lowest point on the course. At the bottom, we were greeted by a water station, stocked full of snacks and hydration options, as well as, curiously, a Bloody Mary bar.
It was fairly early in the race, so I was still feeling strong and energetic. I indulged in sponging my neck with ice water, passed on the vodka and snacks, and resolutely turned into the mountain to begin the climb.
At first, I was mesmerized by the beauty of the single-track trail, ducking under low-hanging branches and moving through a wilderness that seemed virtually untouched.
My enthusiasm quickly wore off as my heart rate climbed and my glycogen depleted.
I frequently stopped to catch my breath and lower my heart rate. The distance to the aid station at the top started to feel impossible. The mileage on my GPS watch was barely changing as the minutes ticked by. I was moving at a snail’s pace.
I had to refocus. The exposed south side of the mountain was hot and dry. I started telling myself to just hike until the next shady spot before allowing myself to rest again. I had to break up the climb into smaller, more manageable pieces. At every shaded piece of trail, I allowed myself to stop for about 10-30 seconds, drink some water, catch my breath, then proceed on. When the trail turned and became completely covered in shadow, and I was completely exhausted, I told myself to just make it to the next tree.
Yes – just the very next tree in a forest of thousands. Sometimes it was 3 feet, sometimes 10. Sometimes I didn’t stop at all. The important point is I gave myself a shorter target, a smaller unit of success. The goal was no longer the top of the mountain. The goal was just the next tree.
And little by little, by just getting to the next tree, I eventually found myself at the top.
Sometimes in life, we feel overwhelmed by all we must do. The list of tasks can feel endless, especially if we are out of our comfort zone or trying something new. In hard times, even just getting through the day can feel insurmountable.
If focusing on the end goal becomes paralyzing and overwhelming – we must focus on smaller steps that can be accomplished immediately, however crudely. Hobbling to each tree is definitely not a representation of a graceful ultra-marathoner – yet inarguably a successful one. We have to keep moving forward – through the uncertainty, through the fear, through the discomfort and imperfection. The trees won’t come to us, we must move to them. Many small steps add up to big progress.
Find your tree and celebrate it. And after that, find your next one, and then your next, until eventually, you reach your destination.
“Only you can master your mind, which is what it takes to live a bold life filled with accomplishments most people consider beyond their capability.”
As I approached the halfway point of the race, I was emotionally and mentally crumbling. I was physically drained and questioning in my mind over and over if I could do it. I started telling myself I couldn’t. I began making excuses for my body, for my neck, for everything possible to grant myself the freedom to surrender my bib. I told myself I was barely making the time cut-off to the 18-mile mark and it was extremely unlikely I would be able to pick up the pace quickly enough to make the final cut-off before the finish line. I began convincing myself it would be better to tap out with my family at the mid-way aid station so they could take me home, rather than being pulled off the course miles away for missing my cut-off time and relying on course workers to get me back to the finish. My will had dried up, my belief in myself had vanished and my fighting spirit had disappeared. At mile 18 I was a hobbling, vacant zombie trudging forward – no, shuffling forward – with crippling self-doubt. When I saw my family at the halfway point, I broke into tears and buried my face in my husband’s chest, hoping he would comfort me and tell me it would be ok to quit. He didn’t. He graciously sat with me as I guzzled the deliciously cold diet coke I asked him to bring. He patiently waited for me to finish a granola bar. And then gently, but firmly, he told me to keep going. He was not going to let me give up on myself. Deflated, but secretly grateful, I waved goodbye to my family and the possibility of a warm shower for at least another 6 hours, and started back up the trail. Miraculously, I made it to the next checkpoint before the time cutoff where an aid worker barked at me to keep moving, pick up the pace and get it done. A little offended, I begrudgingly continued. There were 7 miles until the final aid station, and then 4.6 miles to the finish. I couldn’t comprehend that added together that was almost 12 miles. Overwhelmingly, almost another half marathon. No – I couldn’t look at it like that.
Tree to tree, I told myself. Tree to tree.
When my watch read 26.2 and I officially hit a marathon distance I felt a little spark of pride in the achievement. At that point there was less than a mile to the final aid station followed by a downhill run to the finish line.
And then, like a lightning bolt, I was shocked by a realization that stopped me in my dusty tracks.
There was going to be a medal at the finish line.
If I made it to the finish line but missed the time cut-off, I would not get the medal. I would leave with the bruises and pain, but not with the iconic racer’s symbol of completion. There would be nothing to hang next to my 20+ other race medals in my closet. No physical emblem to prove that regardless of my surgeries and injuries, I am still strong.
No. Absolutely no way was I going to finish the race without the medal. My fortitude strengthened, I mentally dug in, and I changed my mindset from “can I do this?” to the certainty that “I will do this.”
My belief in myself reignited, and I no longer doubted or questioned if I would finish. I KNEW I would finish. I decided I would. I took charge of my destiny. And I no longer gave myself an “out” or an excuse or reason to stop.
The switch in my mind flipped. How my body felt was no longer relevant. I cruised the rest of the way to the finish. With a smile.
David Goggins, an ex-Navy Seal, ultramarathon runner, and now motivational speaker, has famously coined the 40% rule. He says, “When we feel completely tapped out, when our mind is telling us that we are done – we are actually only 40% done. We still have 60% left to give.”
Most often, it is our mind that holds us back. Our biggest limitation is ourselves.
When life gets hard – and it always does – I think it’s important that we start looking inside ourselves for the change we want to see. Inside ourselves, we have the answers. We can always find a million excuses. A million reasons to justify why not and accept the easy path. There is always a way that the world has let us down. We can succumb to that and be victims of our circumstances, or we can face obstacles as opportunities to grow. If we want something badly enough, we will find a way. If we don’t, we will find an excuse. We must dig in and push through our own mental barriers. We have it in us. We can find our way, we just have to tap into our other 60%.
Say Hello To Strangers
“There are no strangers here. Only friends you haven’t met yet.”
-William Butler Yeats
I have always admired individuals that can start a conversation with anyone. The people that start talking to you on an airplane and by the end of the flight you are long-lost friends. The friendly strangers that connect with their Starbucks baristas, grocery store clerks, and servers in restaurants. I am not one of those people. I am the person that walks on an airplane, avoids eye contact, puts on my headphones, and pretends there is an invisible impenetrable wall between each seat. I stay around the edges of social gatherings, avoiding the energetic center. My heart rate increases if I just hear the words “networking mixer”. I have been called aloof, arrogant, and intimidating from the outside, while inside I feel shy, reserved, and oftentimes insecure.
Which is why it is so extremely important that I actually step out of my comfort zone and say hello to strangers.
I’m so glad I did at this race. Because I met George.
Before I said hello, I did not know that George is somewhat of a local ultramarathon celebrity. I did not know he writes and recites poetry, works in a running store, and is healing from an ankle injury. I wouldn’t have known that he drastically changed his lifestyle in his 40’s, quit smoking, started running, and now has completed over 40 ultramarathons. I would not have known that he still pushes himself physically and mentally at the age of 74, to, in his words, “kick the Grim Reaper’s ass.” George, with his hiking poles and flame-printed shorts, set a bar that I aimed to reach the entire 32 miles.
His kindness, support, and positive energy truly sparkled on the trail, a gem amid the boulders we hiked between. When I fell behind and my energy depleted, George’s steadfast presence in the distance ahead was a beacon for me to follow. We crossed the finish line together, and our glowing smiles in the post-race pics will be a beautiful reminder of the wonderful daily opportunities I have to connect with people around me.
George wasn’t the only friendly soul on the course I met. I also said hello to Camille, a thru-hiker in her early 30s who, although she has climbed thousands of trail miles, had never entered an ultra before. Her experience hiking gave her the confidence to try the race, so when she told me with conviction that, “getting the vert out of the way first will make the rest of the course feel easy” I let that hope bloom inside me as I struggled behind her up the steep climbs. When she turned and asked if I had any Motrin, I readily handed her my small supply.
I said hello to Eileen, another first-timer in her 50s who loves running and whose goal was just to finish. She did, with plenty of room before the time cutoff.
There were countless people on the course to connect with. The aid station workers were angels that eagerly refilled hydration bladders and offered encouraging words along with a variety of snacks, even freshly made quesadillas! The volunteer that barked at me to hustle at one of the checkpoints found me after the race and said, “see…I knew you could do it” with a congratulatory smile.
By running this race I was automatically part of a community of like-minded people that all help each other. A community that puts others first and would rather stop to help a stranger than focus on maximizing their personal race time. There was a very tangible feeling that hung over the mountain like a warm blanket, wrapping hundreds of people in its embrace, this sense that we’re all in this together and we’ve got each other’s back.
I would not have made it to the finish line without these strangers who did not know me, had no personal interest in my story, and had no real reason to invest energy in me. This community was a gift that I received with gratitude and humility. It leaves me eager and curious to offer a friendly hello to the next person I meet. Because I know without a doubt, that some of the biggest positive impacts on my life will come from people I haven’t yet met.
Find Your Tribes
“The more you embrace the weird, crazy things about you, the more you find your tribe.”
I like being alone. Aloneness and loneliness are two different things. I am not lonely when I am alone. By myself, I feel secure, confident, and calm. The loneliness usually envelopes me when I am with other people. When I am part of a group but feel like I don’t belong. Or when I am longing for a personal connection with someone, but the effort feels unreciprocated, the bond fragile or unbalanced.
It is because I am so comfortable being alone that I don’t often seek out new friendships. I would rather have a smaller pond of close relationships, than a wide ocean of friendly acquaintances. This works against me because inevitably I miss out on cultivating real friendships with great people.
When I do finally find that group where I belong, or connect with that individual with whom I feel seen and understood, I am motivated and highly productive. I grow as a person because I can challenge myself past my comfort zone while feeling safe and secure. Ultimately, the synergy of being with others results in more than what I could accomplish alone.
I originally intended to do this race on my own. Individually and independently, just show up to the start line, dig into my own head space, and get it done.
That changed when a fellow soccer mom heard from my daughter in carpool that I was running this race. She said it was a bucket list of hers to run an ultra and asked if I would mind if she did it too.
Admittedly, I had mixed feelings. Part of me jumped for joy at the thought that someone I knew would be so brave to sign up for this too. And yet, a small part of me was scared about the pressure of doing it with someone else and having to measure up to an unknown set of expectations. Putting my insecurities aside, I leaned into the opportunity and eagerly said “Yes! Of course! Join me!” And she invited two other friends of hers who are always up for an adventure.
When I met them on Friday night to get our race packets and enjoy a carb-load dinner, I was nervous. Would I feel part of – or separate from – this group of extremely fit, determined, and accomplished women? Would my fantasy of completing my first ultra be enhanced or diminished by opening myself up to new people?
By the end of the evening, as we expressed our excitement and fears to each other, I knew I had found a new tribe. A group of adventurous ladies who strive to balance the demands of family life while pursuing big dreams and goals. As we studied the elevation maps and strategized drop bags, my insecurities vanished. Not one of us had any real clue, we were all figuring it out together. We had nothing to prove to anyone other than ourselves.
The morning of the race as we ambled to the start line in the inky pre-dawn darkness, ruminating if we should bring a coffee with us, when we should time our bathroom stops, and what was the correct timing for our breakfast snacks, I felt incredibly lucky. So lucky that my friend took the risk to ask if she could join the race. Grateful that I stepped out of my comfort zone to say yes. It would have been a very lonely day without the energetic camaraderie of these women. Even though I didn’t really see them again until the finish line, just knowing they were out there somewhere, knowing that they were going through the same physical experience, and knowing we would come back together at the end, gave me fortitude and comfort. The experience reinforced to me, that I don’t have to be alone to conquer some of my crazy dreams. There are like-minded people in this world eager to jump on whatever crazy idea we have conjured up.
Whether it is racing a 50k, ballroom dancing, building a community center, joining a bible study, hang gliding, playing on a coed softball team, running a PTA board meeting, MMA fighting, or starting a pet rock club, we can have different people in our lives to fill different emotional buckets. No single person or group can fit all our complex emotional needs. How exciting if we can open ourselves to a variety of connections and enjoy, instead of fear, the differences in the people around us? We all have a little bit of weirdness inside of us – big dreams, bizarre interests, unique desires. We are not alone. As different as we may sometimes feel from the arbitrary standards and norms set by society, there are other people out there just like us. Others that will accept us, while at the same time challenge us, to maximize our personal potential. Life is too short to spend it with people that hold us back, or whose interests don’t align with ours. There are billions of people in this world. Billions of opportunities to connect. We can find many tribes. And when we find them, they will certainly help us blossom into the people we aspire to be.
When Things Feel Hard, Make Them Harder
“All things are difficult, before they are easy.”
One unexpected benefit I’ve noticed after my race, is my improved stamina. My mile times are faster, and it feels like my lungs have an easier time running at a faster pace.
At first, I couldn’t understand why running felt easier. I mean, I haven’t really run for over 6 months, since before my injury. My race was more of a hike than a run, so why would running feel so much easier now?
Despite my slow pace, there were times during the race when I felt like my heart was exploding out of my chest and my lungs were screaming for air. I think my VO2 max increased with every vertical step. I coughed for a week after the race, my lungs inflamed from gulping dusty air at a higher altitude.
But ever since then, I feel stronger, faster, and mentally more durable. When I’m out for a run, I find it easier to push myself, because in my mind I think – you can do this Shannon, this isn’t as hard as the 50k.
A few days ago I took a Hotworx cycle class – a spin class inside a sauna. The instructor asked, “Does this feel hard? Good! Now make the resistance even heavier!” Dripping sweat inside a 124-degree sauna, legs already burning at heavy tension, the last thing I wanted to do was make this experience even more miserable. Yet I dutifully turned the knob a quarter turn right and had to stand up to push the pedals up and down. When I finally backed off the tension, my previous effort was a breeze.
Why would we voluntarily make something that is hard, even harder? Because by doing so, we are making what once felt challenging, feel easy. Every time we crank up the tension, the difficulty, or the pace, we are increasing our stamina, our durability and our resiliency. When we push past our comfort zone, we create new comfort zones. And when we push past those, we are disciplining ourselves to view discomfort as a sign of positive growth.
So next time there is something that feels hard, something we don’t want to do, something that makes us uncomfortable, nervous, tired, or scared – don’t think, just do it.
Maybe it’s making the phone call to a family member you’ve been avoiding. Maybe it’s telling your kid “no” when it would be SO MUCH EASIER to say yes. Maybe it’s eking out one additional rep during your top set at the gym. Maybe it’s having the courage to ask your boss for a raise. Maybe it’s as simple as resisting that extra cookie or bag of chips. Or maybe it’s as deep and complicated as standing up for the truth when it feels unpopular or criticized.
One thing is certain. The more we do hard things, the easier they will eventually be.
Now I must ask myself a hard question – Am I ready for my next race? Am I ready to increase my distance and complete 50 miles?
I feel scared, nervous, and hesitant. So, the clear answer must be – yes.