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  • Dylan Roche

The Adventure I Needed in 2020: A Virtual 50-Mile Ultra Challenge

“Be careful what you ask for” sounds like the type of advice you need when it comes to making wishes of an evil genie or a monkey’s paw — not when it comes to registering for virtual races like a 50-mile ultra challenge. But this is definitely a real-world scenario where such wisdom applies, as I learned last week.

And even though a virtual race doesn’t sound quite as intimidating as an evil genie, I’m here to tell you that it was definitely an adventure that tested my fortitude and made me come out stronger in the end. Call it my overactive imagination, but I really feel as if I went up against something otherworldly.

I found out about the Yeti Trail Runners through the recommendation of a friend, and the organization immediately caught my attention. It has a pretty simple mission: to move the trail ultra running community forward through developing strong relationships within parks and forests. And as someone who has felt in a little bit of a rut since the pandemic started, this online network was an exciting discovery.

After an initial day of exploring the website, I registered for my first virtual challenge: the Yeti 50-Mile Ultra. The idea was to complete 50 miles within the course of 24 hours, breaking it up into six runs that were each 8 miles long and completed every four hours. As someone who regularly runs distances of around 12 to 15 miles a day, the idea of an 8-mile run wasn’t too daunting. But staying up all night long to run around the clock? Well, I figured, it could get interesting.

I had until October to complete the challenge, but I felt eager. I wanted to put myself to the test as soon as possible. So much of pandemic life has been the same old routine. Even though I was doing other virtual races and enjoying every mile of them, I wanted something that would force me out of my comfort zone. And I wanted to do it sooner rather than later.

I was in luck: the middle of August brought a cool spell to the MidAtlantic Region — no humidity, nightly lows in the upper 60s, and daily highs in the low 80s. It was perfect running weather as far as I was concerned. Enough to break a healthy sweat, but not so overwhelming as the triple-digit temperatures we had endured earlier this summer (which I still continued running in, despite how gross it felt).

The forecast for Thursday, August 20, looked perfect — clear skies and the lowest temperatures of the week. I expressed my commitment to the adventure in a short video via Instagram, then set off on my first run at 8:00AM.

The excitement definitely proved good for me. I remember how much my adrenaline kicked in — almost as if I were running an in-person race. I kept wanting to push myself to go faster, but I deliberately held back. After all, I had five other runs I had to do that day. I needed to take it slow. When I got home, I felt good. I did a little bit of bodyweight strength training, completed a few writing projects, and even tackled a few chores.

Soon enough, it was noon. Time for my second run. Again, it felt good — I naturally went a little slower this time, mostly because I didn’t have the fresh energy I did during my first run. But by the time I got home, I still had plenty of enthusiasm and was thinking very highly of myself.

One part of the challenge I hadn’t considered was how I was going to fuel. By the time I was finished one run, rehydrated, and cooled down a little, I was only about two hours out from my next run. I didn’t want to eat a meal or even a heavy snack lest I make myself sick to my stomach. I realized it was going to be a long day of eating Clif bars and bananas. Fortunately, these had a great balance of carbs and proteins that I was going to need. It was just going to be tough to get sufficient calories, especially when I was burning about 1,000 calories with every run.

By the time I did my 4:00PM run, I was starting to feel a little worn out. And why wouldn’t I be? These were miles 17 through 25 — that’s a lot of running in one day! I got home from my run and lay down on the sidewalk outside my condo building, drenched in sweat, enjoying the feel of the warm sun on my skin, as I reminded myself that I was halfway there.

I took a brief nap just to recharge myself and enjoyed an extra couple of Clif bars to re-energize. This challenge was starting to get real. But I was receiving messages via social media from friends who were following along with my process and offering serious encouragement. They were also telling me what an inspiration I was, which felt both satisfying and humbling — here I was, thinking I was just being stupid and crazy by attempting a feat like this! People actually admired me for it?

My 8:00PM run was where it started to get really hard. It was dark by the time I returned home, and my body was starting to feel the physical effects of working itself so hard. My muscles were sore and cramping in ways I didn’t even know they could cramp. At one point, I was talking to a friend and started to laugh — the laughter caused my abs to seize up, almost as if I suffered a charley horse all up and down my stomach. Talk about a scary sense of pain!

I knew the next two runs were going to be the hardest. I was tired and hungry, it was late at night, and all I wanted to do was go to bed. But this was the mental part of a challenge — I knew I was physically capable of doing this, so now I just needed to force myself to keep going, not to give up. It was all about my mindset at this point. I just had to take it slow and keep putting one foot in front of the other.

I also knew that I was going to get a great story out of this when it was all over. “I can’t wait to tell people about that time I ran 50 miles in 24 hours,” I kept telling myself. I knew it would be the sort of accomplishment I would draw pride from, that would remind me of what I was capable of doing. And I knew it would be an inspiration to others, because those were the kinds of notes I was getting from people throughout the day. Sure, this challenge was rough, but I was coming out stronger for it. If only I could learn to overcome any obstacle in life that way! Why is it that ridiculous physical challenges we register for on the internet seem so conquerable, but major setbacks outside our control are so formidable? If I can run 50 miles in 24 hours, especially when I realize so much of it has to do with mental grit and determination rather than pure physical prowess, then I can do anything, right?

Well, as I expected, that midnight run was absolutely miserable! I avoided the bike trail where I usually run because I wasn’t sure how safe it would be in the middle of the night, opting instead to run through the residential streets surrounding my neighborhood. I always knew they were hilly, but I hadn’t comprehended just how hilly. According to my phone, my elevation gain over the course of my run was nearly 300 feet! I was sore, tired, cramped, miserable…if I weren’t so determined, I might have thought about giving up.

Fortunately, I had a friend who was able to provide some morale over the phone when I got home. I took a hot shower and bundled up in a jacket because my body hardly had the energy left to keep itself warm. Even though it was in the low 70s or upper 60s outside, I was still shivering. I took a walk around the block a few times to keep myself limber and stop from cramping up.

My last run at 4:00AM should have been easy — after all, I was almost there! But it still hurt, and even though I’m somebody who loves to run as much as I possible can, I have to admit that I hated every minute of this run. By the time I got home around 5:15AM, everything hurt. I was dizzy, dripping with sweat, shaking, lightheaded. I paced back and forth in front of my building, trying to cool down. At one point, I knelt down on the sidewalk and considered not getting back up. “Would anyone mind if I just slept here?” I thought.

Already, the sky to the east was growing faintly light the way it does just before dawn. I knew that I would soon see pink and orange around the rooftops and treetops if I stayed long enough. The day before, I had entertained the idea that after completing my last run, I would walk with my dog to the park and watch the sun rise while I reveled in my accomplishment. How naïve I had been to plan something like that. I wanted no part in such an activity now! “I’ve seen plenty of sunrises in my life,” I thought. “I just want to go to bed!”

I went inside and took a short shower before drawing the blinds in my room and crawling under the covers. Already, I was receiving congratulatory messages from people who were waking up for the day — how strange an idea that was! For me, it was still the night before, but for others, it was a new day. Their warm wishes were nearly lost on me. I was too tired to even be excited for myself.

I napped for a few hours and woke up around 9:00. Bright sunshine came through the blinds into my room. I remember rolling over to look at my phone and being greeted by even more messages. All of a sudden, what I had accomplished started to dawn on me. I had done it! This felt really good!

The rest of the day was a lazy one. I spent most of it migrating between the sofa, where I would nap, and the kitchen counter, where I would re-fuel with whatever food I could get my hands on.

There were two important lessons I learned from this adventure. One, as I already explained, was that I can overcome any sort of challenge, and even in my most desperate moments when I want to give up, the writer in me is strengthened by the thought that I’ll have a good story to come from it afterward — and that my story will be an inspiration to others.

The other lesson was one I hadn’t expected — I realized that despite how tired I felt physically, I felt spiritually more alive than I had in a long time. Breaking out of my comfort zone, hearing so much encouragement from others, doing something I had never done before…all of this made me feel inspired. That’s particularly cool when I realize how hard inspiration has been to find when living under lockdown during a pandemic.

Moments like these aren’t just going to come to us. We need to actively seek them out, and sometimes in unexpected places. Running this ultra turned out to be a great opportunity for personal growth, and even though it was hard, I’m glad I did it. Every experience like this means we enjoy a richer life, and a richer life makes you a better writer because you have more to draw from.

I don’t know what’s next on my schedule in terms of extreme physical challenges, but I don’t want to wait too long until the next one. I’m feeling pumped. I’m feeling motivated. I want to keep this kind of initiative going, and I want to keep chasing this rush. So many of us have resolved that we’re giving up on 2020, counting this year as a wash and hoping that life might start looking up for us again next year. I don’t want to give up so soon — I want to look back on this year and be grateful for all the opportunities it has given me, including this one.

So if you know of any crazy virtual challenges I can undertake, let me know. I’m already looking for the next one!

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