The Painful Ecstasy of Ultrarunning

Midway through her first 50-mile trail race, Katie Arnold finds out that running may just be the easiest thing in the world—once you get over the competition, pain, and landscape that doesn't seem to want to let you finish.

    Photo: Jim Legans, Jr/Flickr

I am floating through the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Less than one week from now, a wildfire will skirt the edges of this high, open bowl of grass and elk, an enormous, scooped-out shell of a 1.5-million-year-old volcano. But I'm the only thing burning here today. I'm a body running, arms and legs firing in unison; my brain's along for the ride. It looks around, devouring everything in sight: chunks of glossy black obsidian strewn across the rocky double track, bleached white elk bones, ribs, far off in the grass, a lumpy skull. A dust devil swirls across the road ahead of me, dirt-brown cyclone throwing its arms in the air. I have never seen anything as electric.

It's May 25, sometime before noon, and I'm 20 miles deep into the Jemez Mountains 50-Mile Trail Run, in the high country west of Los Alamos, New Mexico. With me are a few runners waging their own private negotiations with pain, fear, and pride, and a handful of volunteers manning the aid stations, of which, in a 12-mile span, there are two.  I'm too far in to turn back. I have to get out of the Caldera on my own.

It's taken me months to get here. I spent all spring training my mind to endure fear: of the distance, of mountain lions, of losing, of getting hurt. In late April, I strained my calf and it rose fat and swollen and angry, chastising me for trying to go too far, too steep, too fast. It made me wonder whether I was really meant to run this far. I became a self-help junkie, desperate for any solution that might get me to the finish line, or even the start: rolling, taping, acupuncture, dry needling, Rolfing, omega 3 oil, massage, mountain biking, river trips, trail yoga. Finally, sick of wondering whether I'd be able to do it, I decided the only way to find out was to try. 

At the midway point, a man at the aid station refills my hydration bladder and informs me that it's 6.8 miles to the next stop. I stuff my fists with orange slices, put my head down, and keep running. My pace is faster now than it's been the whole race. I've settled in. I'm cocooned in the Caldera, music fills my ears—Taylor Swift, Rufus Wainright, LMFAO. I've stopped thinking. I'm just running.

I knew from the beginning that if I wanted a shot at finishing the race, I'd have to pace myself. So for the first 10 miles, I held myself back, riding the heels of other runners and talking off my nerves. I spent the first four miles running in the dark, talking to the back of my friend Jacob's head. After a while, Jacob stopped talking and began to pull away. He's a nuclear physicist. Maybe he knew something I don't about the the calculus of endurance races

A while after sunrise, I caught up to a guy from Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who told me he was one of only two competitors to finish a brutal 100 miler in Michigan last year, while guys sporting Western States buckles dropped like flies. We were running through the hot, charred remains of a forest fire; our footsteps spray a fine, silty dust, the summit of 10,400-foot Pajarito looming in the distance as a reminder of the big climb ahead.

Somehow, I managed to stay upright for the long descent from the summit,

and pretty soon I was at the ski lodge, where my husband Steve and a mob of volunteers were ringing cowbells and hollering encouragement from the deck. I surrendered my hydration pack for a refill, and placed my order with Steve: more electrolytes, please. Two Advil, a handful of salt tabs for my pill pocket, headphones for my iPod. I was half an hour behind where I thought I'd be, but I got there in one piece, and so far my legs were feeling strong. Self-restraint appeared to be working.  "See you in 20 miles," I called over my shoulder to Steve, as I turned my music on and pound of the wooden deck and into the forest again. 

I don't know if it was Gary Clark, Jr. reminding me this is the life, the life, the life, the trail cutting through ponderosas alongside a grassy meadow, or seeing Steve, but on the three-mile run out to Pipeline Aid Station, something shifted. My brain detached, a kite cut loose from its string. You take it from here, it said to my body. Suddenly, I was all legs, no thoughts. At Pipeline, volunteers gave me the once over. "It's hot and exposed out there," they warned me. "No shade. Watch the descent. It's straight down and super loose." As I scrambled downhill, my socks and shoes filled with pebbles, dust, sand, dirt. I could feel the grit sloshing around inside, but stopping wasn't an option. My body just wanted to run. 

Now I'm in the caldera, feet pinwheeling, body barely skimming the ground, mind inhaling every detail. The bones and dust devils. Runners approaching and then receding. Far in the distance, a shimmery pond  miniature toy trucks propped up on a stage set—the final aid station. Seven miles have disappeared beneath my feet. The backside of Pajarito looms up at me, trail disappearing into grass and ponderosas, unrelenting mountainside. Steve will be waiting on the other side to run the final 14 miles with me. All I have to do is climb out. Already I miss the scale and solitude, the simplicity of the task at hand. I almost don't want to leave.

Many people think running and racing is about speed, but really it's about slowing down. You may be moving faster than you ever have on two legs, but in the quiet of prolonged effort, time stretches out, elongates. You listen to a song you've heard a hundred times before, and it sounds different. You hear it with your body, not your brain. Your mind drifts away; you're moving on instinct. You are transported without leaving your body. You are purely animal, unstoppable. 

But that day in the Caldera, I become an ultrarunner, a speck moving through space, adrift between the enormity of earth and sky. For a little while at least, I don't think. I just look around at the hot blue sky, summer settling down on northern New Mexico, and feel my feet moving automatically beneath me, and do what comes naturally. I run.

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