Remember March? The Spring Break that never ended? How could anyone forget? Way back then, I was training for the Irving Marathon. Hoping to finally nab that elusive Boston Qualifying time. When everything started shutting down, I held on to a micro-sliver of hope that my race still might happen. Right up until I got the cancellation email on the Tuesday before the race. Immediately, I knew I’d need to shift gears. I had some ideas, but I did not expect that over the next several months I’d be tackling the project of training for an ultra marathon (a 50 miler to be specific) in the middle of a pandemic.
And 7 of the longest months I’ve ever experienced later, here we are. Finally putting a bow on what, at this point, feels like the never ending story. Minus the friendly beast. Plus a lot of social isolation. At this point, I think we all know that “getting back to normal” is a comical notion, and that things are going to be very different for a much longer time than we ever anticipated. And that’s ok. Because we’ve all learned how to adjust and adapt, which is why I want to share my admittedly less-than-sane way of dealing with the Great Pandemic.
I ran. A whole lot.
Training For An Ultra Marathon….Now?
Why did I choose to train for a 50 mile ultramarathon? Well, to be honest, the height of the coronavirus shut down started at a somewhat transitional time for me. I’d been chasing that 3:35 marathon time for a few training blocks. I was getting fairly close, and I felt like I had a really good chance in Irving. But in full transparency, days of high mileage speedwork was starting to weigh on me.
I was by no means hating training. I was still motivated. Still healthy. Still seeing progress. But my legs and lungs were getting tired, and I was ready to focus on something other than three numbers on a clock. So when my marathon was cancelled, I had all the feelings. I threw a little tantrum. I ate all the chocolate. But I was also a little relieved.
Not that I wouldn’t be able to run my race. But I was relieved that picking another marathon to try to qualify at just wasn’t a reality. Because everything was cancelled. I didn’t have the option to keep training for a BQ, because there wasn’t anywhere to qualify. I would need something else to work towards.
And since I know myself pretty well at this point, I knew that if I didn’t make it a priority to keep physical activity in my daily life I would be an unbearable ball of anxiety. The world was insane. We couldn’t get hair cuts. We couldn’t see friends or family face to face. Going to the grocery store felt like being an extra in some bad Mad Max remake. We were stuck inside with no one other than our immediately family….all the time.
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As a human with a history of anxiety, this situation was not ideal for my mental health. It made me feel untethered and out of control. And without CrossFit, I knew I would need to find other ways to connect with my own inner strength. To remind myself that I didn’t need to control the world around, because I was strong enough to deal with whatever new circle of Hell it flung me in to.
What would make me feel strong? What would wear down my buzzing anxiety? What would give me a few moments of solitude?
Turns out the answer was simple. Train for a 50 mile ultramarathon.
How Ultra Marathon Training Was Different
Once I made the decision, I full on committed. I had no real clue if racing would resume by the time I was ready to run 50 miles, but I needed something to work towards. So I consulted the trail racing calendar in Texas (because the travel situation was laughable), and put my blind faith in the hope that by October things would be calmed down enough to allow for some small races to return. And that I would be physically ready. To run 50 miles. NBD.
So what was training for a 50 mile race in the middle of a pandemic really like? Well, maybe not so incredibly different from training in “normal” times. My training schedule didn’t look any different. Thankfully, trails near my home were still open, and my city didn’t restrict outdoor activity. Though I did have fears that I would potentially be training on a treadmill (not super ideal), I was able to train on surfaces that were pretty close to ideal.
There were a couple of ways that my training looked different, though. When I had previously considered training for more ultramarathons, I had always pictured myself with one or two training buddies. 20-30 miles is a long way to run on Saturday morning by yourself, after all. But with social distancing guidelines, I realized that the majority of my training would be a solo effort.
What I didn’t plan for was the fact that the virtual community would really step up its game. I quickly started reaching out to other runners that I “knew” from social media platforms to ask questions. I shared my goals and plans and fears, and I got an immeasurable amount of support. Women offered to join me in my 24 miles in 24 hour challenge and my 100 mile week. I had running buddies all over the country.
Pros Of Training Now
There were so many ways that I felt like training in this weird period of history was sort of ideal. Running all of the miles when the world felt like it was spinning out of control gave me a convenient place to some of the anxiety that I was experiencing. Moving my body helped me to feel more relaxed and able to problem-solve during a time when I really needed to be able to figure things out.
Running six mornings out of the week was often the only slice of “normal” I enjoyed. I was used to the routine of getting up, drinking coffee, and getting my shoes on every morning. The wake up alarm started going off a little earlier, but the routine was largely the same. Having that routine unmarred by the world around me gave me 90 minutes where I was able to set aside the chaos, and do what I was accustomed to. Having that small amount of normalcy gave my mind a huge mental cushion.
It also reminded me that not being able to control the world around me did not mean that I was incapacitated. I don’t have to control everything, even though I really want to, in order to be able to thrive. If I had sat in my home and just felt powerless every day, no one would have blamed me. Because that is a valid response to trauma. But I didn’t have to. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing. I could have really great mornings and really terrible evenings.
And finally, training for a 50 mile race wasn’t the worst way to stay physically active while all of the gyms were closed.
Place to put anxiety
Cons Of Pandemic Timing
But that doesn’t mean that training was without difficulty. I mean, really, there wasn’t anything that didn’t feel harder in those early months, and running was no exception. Having to balance homeschooling a kindergartner, working full time, and still doing all of the family things while running 90-120 minutes in the morning was not easy. My entire family had to learn how to adapt to what was going on at the same time that I was learning how to adjust a busy schedule with a demanding training calendar.
I also really struggled with the fact that I was essentially training alone for several months. I’m used to running solo fairly regularly, but I’ve never approached a full training block without any sort of running partner to join me here and there. Being alone for hours on the trails every Saturday was a wonderful break from reality, but even an introvert like me gets a little lonely at some point. I missed meeting up with friends, and I was so thankful to have a little more company these last few weeks.
It was also difficult to train without the benefit of racing. For most endurance races, I plan to run a couple of shorter distance races during training. It gives me opportunities to practice my race strategy and take advantage of a more supported environment on my long runs. I would have loved to have been able to run a half-marathon, full marathon, and 50k distance trail race leading up to this 50 miler, but that just wasn’t possible. But I absolutely jumped at the opportunity to run a 50k race as soon as I found one that was running.
Would I Do it Again
So, knowing what I know now about the way that history played out, would I still choose to train for a 50 mile race in the middle of a pandemic? The answer is so easy. ABSO-FREAKING-LUTELY.