This Is the Grueling Reality of What It's Like to Run an Ultramarathon
One ultrarunner recounts a harrowing race through Death Valley—which is just another day as an ultramarathon runner.
[Editor's note: On July 10, Farar-Griefer will join runners from more than 25 countries to compete in the race. This will be her eighth time running it.]
"One hundred miles? I don't even like driving that far!" That's the typical reaction I get from people who don't understand the crazy sport of ultrarunning-but that's the exact reason I love running that distance, and even farther. I balk at the idea of driving that far, but running 100 miles? My body salivates with just the thought.
That doesn't make it easy though-far from it. Take my last experience running the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon-a race that National Geographic proclaimed the toughest in the world. Runners have 48 hours to race through Death Valley, across three mountain ranges, and on 200-degree ground temps.
My crew had tried everything to get my body to urinate. It was mile 90, mid-July, 125 degrees-the type of heat that melts shoes on pavement. With 45 miles left to go in the Badwater Ultramarathon, I was rapidly dropping from my starting weight 30 hours earlier. I had problems throughout the race, but as with any ultrarunning event, I was convinced this was just another hurdle, and that eventually my body would give in and I would be back on the course. I also knew that this wasn't a flare-up from my multiple sclerosis (MS), but more that my body wasn't going to make my race an easy one. (Check out these insane ultramarathons you have to see to believe.)
Several hours earlier, just before the mile-72 checkpoint in Panamint Springs, I had first noticed blood in my urine. I was convinced that it was because my body hadn't recovered from having run the Western States 100-mile race just 15 days prior-a grueling 29 hours of running straight from one morning to the next. My crew and I decided to place my wooden stake (a requirement when a runner temporarily pulls from the race) in the sand a few miles before Panamint Springs to get to medical attention before it was too late. We drove in and explained my situation to medical-that my body hadn't been processing fluids for hours, and when I had last checked, my urine was a mocha color with a tinge of red blood. I was forced to sit and wait until I could urinate, so a team of men could decide whether I could continue the race or not. After five hours, my muscles were convinced I was done, and that we would soon be heading back home to the comfort of Hidden Hills. But my body responded, and I showed the medical team my blood-free urine, making me eligible to continue. (Get a glimpse inside one runner's experience with another insanely difficult race, the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc.)
The next thing to tackle? Find my stake. This meant going back the opposite way from the finish. I don't know what could have made my mental funk worse. My fatigued crew (which consisted of three women, all professional runners, who would take turns running with me, feeding me, and making sure I didn't die out on the course) jumped back in our van in search of my stake. After an hour, my frustration started to build. I told my crew, "Let's just forget it-I'm done." And with that my stake suddenly appeared as if it were inviting me back to the course, not allowing me to quit. Every muscle was fatigued, my toes and feet bloody and blistered. The chafing between my legs and in my armpits felt more intense with each burst of the hot relentless wind-but I was back in the race. Next stop: Panamint Springs, mile 72.
The last time I #ran any real distance was in November #2016 at the javelina #100 #mile #ultra #marathon - here with my pacer Maria, #film #director Gaël and #buddy Bibby baby rubbing my tired #legs (; I'm feeling a bit nervous about my (lack of) #training for #Badwater - I know the pain I'll endure #running #135 #miles and I know there will be many #obstacles to #overcome and I know I will give it more than I will give it my all! I'm in it to "fin"ish it #finish #7 #mom #runner #fight #MS @racetoerasems #runforthosewhocant #nevergiveup #running #healthy #eating #blessed
A post shared by Shannon Farar-Griefer (@ultrashannon) on Jun 19, 2017 at 11:05pm PDT
During the eight-mile climb to the top of Father Crowley (the second of three major climbs in the race), I questioned my sanity for being in such an enduring and painful race. This was not my first time running Badwater, so I knew what to expect, and that's "the unexpected." When I reached the top, I knew I could start running the slight decent to mile 90, checkpoint 4, Darwin. As my feet went from a staggering shuffle to a forward motion I started to feel alive, but I knew something was wrong again. My body wasn't wanting to eat, drink, or urinate. In the distance, I saw my crew van parked and waiting for my arrival into Darwin. They knew we had serious issues to deal with. In this sport, processing fluids is very important. If you aren't careful about consuming enough calories and fluids, and your body doesn't release fluids, then your kidneys are in danger. (And ICYDK, you need more than just water to stay hydrated during endurance sports.) We'd tried everything, and our last attempt was placing my hand in hot water, just like the high school gag we played on our friends to make them pee-but this didn't work and it wasn't funny. My body was done and my team made the decision to have me withdraw from the race. It was late Tuesday afternoon, and I'd been up for more than 36 hours straight. We drove to the hotel and the next checkpoint, mile 122, and cheered on runners coming in. Most looked beaten, like me, but I was just sitting there, beating myself up more and thinking, "What did I do wrong?"
The following day, I flew to Vermont for the Vermont 100-mile race, which would take place three days later. The 4:00 a.m. start time was another challenge, being that I was on West Coast time. My feet were blistered, and I was lacking sleep from my 92-mile Badwater attempt. But 28 hours and 33 minutes later, I finished it.
The next month, I attempted to run the Leadville 100-mile ultramarathon. Due to the torrential thunderstorms the night before the race-plus pre-race jitters-I could barely sleep. The race starts at higher than 10,000 feet elevation, but I've never felt stronger in a 100-mile run. I was almost to the highest point of the race-Hope's Pass at 12,600 feet, just before the 50-mile turnaround point-when I got stuck waiting for my crew at an aid station. After sitting for almost an hour, I had to get back on the course, or I'd miss the time cut-off. So I went on alone, up and over Hope's Pass.
Suddenly, the sky turned black, and fierce rain and wind were hitting my face like cold, sharp razors. Soon I was crouched under a small boulder to seek shelter from the storm. I still had only my daytime wear of shorts and a short-sleeve top on. I was freezing. Another runner's pacer offered me his jacket. I continued on. Then off in the distance, I heard, "Shannon, is that you"? It was my pacer, Cheryl, who had caught up with me with my headlamp and rain gear, but it was too late. I felt the struggle from the cold, and my body was starting to get hypothermic. Both Cheryl and I forgot to set our watches to mountain time and thought we had an extra hour to spare, so we took it easy to get my body back on track. When we got to the next aid station I was planning on having some hot chocolate and hot soup, and changing my drenched clothes, only to find out that we missed the checkpoint cut-off. I was pulled from the race.
When I share my stories, many people ask, why torture yourself? But it's the stories like this one that people want to know about. How boring would it be if I were to say, "Yeah I had a great race, nothing went wrong!" That's not how it works in any endurance sport. There are always challenges and mind-boggling obstacles that come with the territory.
Why do I do it? Why do I go back for more? There's no real money in the sport of ultramarathon running. I'm not a great runner at all. I'm not talented or gifted like many in my sport. I'm just a mom who loves to run-and the farther, the better. That's why I go back for more: Running is my passion. At 56 years old, I feel that running, weight training, and focusing on a healthy diet are keeping me in the best shape of my life. Not to mention, I think it helps me fight MS. Ultrarunning has been part of my life for over 23 years, and now it's part of who I am. Although some might feel running 100 miles through the rugged mountains, and 135 miles through Death Valley in July, might be extreme and harmful to the body, I have to disagree. My body has been trained, designed, and built for this crazy sport of mine.
Don't call me crazy. Just dedicated.