February 27, 2017 Old Ghost Ultra Race Report (ultra personal)

The following post was written as a blog entry on runningforsacredrok.org 2 days after I ran the Old Ghost Ultra in New Zealand. The photo above is somewhere around kilometer 50, up along the tops of the Old Ghost Road.

Often enough I live fair and steady, making my way toward small and big goals of all kinds. Achievements and failures happen. Learning happens. As it is, I’m still integrating the events of a week ago, the sweet respite of easy visiting, sharing time and space with good good people; the stress-infused 48 hours preceding the race; and the 13 hour-long run day that comprised the Old Ghost Ultra. The darling elites were done in 7 to 9 hours time. I hold deep respect and wonder at their graceful rhythms across 85 kilometers of healthy and spirited forestland.

As an artist, I am process-oriented. As a human, I am also process-oriented. This can make goals and finished art projects a nebulous thing. Training for and running a race anchors me, bringing something concrete to my usual wandering sensibility. When I finish an art piece there is a very subtle sense of completeness and I’m quite ready to move on to the next project. When I finished the Old Ghost Ultra I found myself not entirely ready to let it go. The run was hard yet I wanted to get back out there into the forest. I also didn’t want to say goodbye so soon to old and new friends. When you run a race like the Ghost, even if you don’t spend a single minute together with any of your friends on the trail, you’ve bonded more deeply to each other because of the mutual experience. You get each other. And you silently exchange knowing looks when those who haven’t done it express varying degrees of verbal punches from the ever common, “That’s crazy” to “Why would you want to do that to your body?”  They’re just not your people. Move along. Life is short.

The race started an hour before sunrise. 140 of us snaked along on the single track trail, head lamps bobbing. The footing, hard loose chunks of rock. Serious ankle twisting territory and what seasoned ultra runners define as technical trail running.  Close concentration was needed from step one. I took inventory of my body at regular intervals for the first 17k, noting easy breathing and loose muscles but an overall energy deficit from the stress of tragic news back home that impacted myself and my son.

At the first aid station there was much fanfare and celebration. The race director generously extended a warm hug when I asked for one. It was what I most needed. After a quick 2 cups of water, a refill of the camelback and a few orange slices I was off again knowing that the next aid station was a long way off at 42k. A building queaziness set in a few kilometers later and stuck with me until the 2nd aid station where I was able to eat one of my 2 sandwiches from my drop bag. The sugary cliff shots were the source of my upset stomach and the protein rich sandwich did the trick for a while. I could have used 3 more of those sandwiches but that first one came at a good time with the next section of trail covering the steepest inclines. I could have used another hug too but running an ultra is no time to be greedy. In fact, it’s a practice of simplifying, shedding all that is not needed.

Whilst in the low points of tummy trouble a cloud of negative thoughts set in. I considered quitting. Every time I tried to push a little bit harder the nausea would force me to slow. I decided I needed to do a visualization. I imagined getting a bird’s eye view of myself on the trail. What I saw was an ugly smoky smudge surrounded by vibrant green life. I knew that I needed to shift. I needed to become green and healthy like the forest around me. Every time a negative thought arrived I changed it to an encouragement, often just a simple “go Lisa!” It did the trick and I would utilize the technique whenever the nausea came back.

Once up on the “tops” as the saddles between mountains are known in New Zealand, I glided as best as I could with about 25k to go. Fuel planning has been the hardest aspect of my training. I always come up short. I knew that without the cliff shots I was really behind on my calorie intake. I finished off my second sandwich and with 19k to go pealed off the wrapper of my last of 4 Picky Bars. Just not enough fuel. With 15k to go my eyelids starting drooping on their own. My body was shutting down. I kept fixated on an image of my body horizontal in a nice patch of grass at the finish. At 10k the thought occurred to me that I could just lay down right there on the trail. Somewhere deep in my mind another thought responded cautioning against such an idea. I listened to the latter thought and trudged onward. It was a game at this point of walking to the next kilometer marker and then running as best as I could for a few minutes to walk again. Repeat. At 2k I told my body that it knew how to run on auto-pilot and now was the time. One foot in front of the other I kept my mind focused on the image of spinning wheels at my hips and underfoot. A few minutes later I could hear the cheering at the finish. I looked up to see a set of stairs and encouraging faces at the top waving me in. I pretended to be affronted by the stairs but they were kind to me. The voices carry you at this point. There were all my new friends alongside the shoot with arms out ready to hive five me. I stumbled along and asked if I were the last one. They were all saying, “no no no, go go go!” As if a few seconds mattered. It was so lovely. I crossed the finish at 13 hours and 12 minutes which pleased me very much because my favorite number is 13. If I wasn’t going to run it in the 11ish hours I had trained for, my favorite number is alright by me. Hugs from Mal and Sal sealed the deal and another from the enthusiastic race director, and then the race day was done.