Last month I ran my second half marathon, the Santa Fe Thunder, as part of the Verde Juice team. Though I log 50+ mile weeks training for ultra trail marathons, including a 50-miler in December, the prospect of running 13 miles on asphalt was daunting. I worried about getting hurt pounding the pavement. Most of all, I worried about speed. Ultramarathons are all about long, steady—i.e. slow—distances. In a race this short, I’d have no excuse for not going fast.
Over the years, I’ve learned that first step to running any race is to go in with the right attitude. Negativity and resistance create tightness in the body that can lead to injury. I knew I needed to trade my fear for an open mind. Racing, like running, is a journey that carries you some place you’ve never been. If you pay attention, you will always learn something new, about running and yourself. .
It’s also important to set goals or intentions for races.This helps you focus your training and gives you something concrete to work toward. Unlike shorter distances, ultras have so many variables—extreme terrain and weather, altitude, physical and mental obstacles, gear issues—that I tend to keep mine simple: Finish. Don’t get hurt. Stay open to the wonder. For the Thunder, I added: Practice using shorter races as speed training for ultras.
The starting area was mobbed on race morning. A contingent of elite Kenyan Olympians paced the front of the starting corral. I knew there was no way I could keep up with them. The real challenge would be to hold myself back from trying.
As soon as the gun went off, the course began its steady climb to the high point, two miles to the crest of Old Taos Highway. I settled in and tried to find a sane pace I could sustain to the top without flaming out. At the ridge, the road curved steeply downhill. I knew if I ran it too fast I would waste my quads, so I held back just slightly, maybe 15 percent. Every time someone passed me and I felt the competitive side of me wanting to surge, I practiced reigning myself in. Soon I came to like this feeling of deliberate restraint, knowing that I had a reserve if I needed it.
Never before had I felt so hyper-focused in a race. There was no time to let my mind wander, as I like to do in ultra distances, where the sheer magnitude of the effort makes you feel like you’re hallucinating, transcending physical suffering into a kind of soaring mental freedom. There was no time to stop and knead my cramping quad as I would have in a 50-mile race, so I eased off my pace slightly and talked to myself instead. “You are strong, you are strong,” In races of any distance, visualization can be key in helping you reach your goals.
Ahead, I could see the blocky tower of Buffalo Thunder. One reason I love ultramarathons is because you can have a huge adventure on the trails and usually make it home in time for dinner. Now I saw the obvious appeal of half marathons: You can race hard and still get back before brunch.
I crossed the line in 1:27, good enough for eighth woman behind a strong field of elite road runners. My deliberate restraint had paid off—my legs felt surprisingly strong. And, best of all, I learned what it feels like to run fast within my own body, self-contained and steady, not swept up in competition or ego, awake and grateful for what the day had to teach—wisdom I know will come in handy in running as in life.