In 2017, I decided I was going to run a 50k. If you’re reading this, you’re of one of two minds on the subject. You’re either scoffing at the idea of needing a whole year to work up to 50 kilometers because you are a superhuman, or you’re doing the math in your head (“50 kilometers is… 31 miles? Can that be right?”) and wondering why on earth anyone would want to do a thing like that.
Well. Don’t be impressed, because—spoiler alert!—I didn’t do it.
I ran a marathon in June. It was hard. It was on trails and forest service roads at high elevation, beginning in Fairplay and heading up to just over 12,500 feet on Mount Sherman, which was lower than the race’s usual turnaround point because the snow from there was impassable. The first thirteen miles were up, up, up, and the second half was all down, which was just as hard. By the time I arrived at the finish line, an embarrassing number of hours had elapsed, and I had to work up the energy to stagger back to the car.
The next day, I signed up for a 50k.
That’s a thing I’ve tried to tone down over the years, actually, the impulsive decision-making. I don’t dabble; I get an idea and go with it, all the way, even if it’s half-cocked. The marathon was hard, I reasoned, but it wasn’t an ultra. I wanted to run an ultra (or, rather, I wanted to have run an ultra.) Ergo: the 50k.
I signed up for a popular beginner-friendly race called the Bear Chase, which is held at the very same park where I used to run cross-country meets in high school. If I could finish, I figured, I could set my sights on a race I’d wanted to do for years, the Antelope Canyon 50k. Maybe I’d even do the 50-miler, I thought—maybe I’m going to get really into ultrarunning!
But that’s not what happened.
I trained sort of haphazardly for the race, in part because I struggle to commit to anything, let alone a rigid training schedule, and in part because of my right IT band. Every time I ran more than a few miles, I felt an uncomfortable tug behind my right knee. It got worse going uphill, it got worse if I ran faster, and eventually, it just got worse, period.
I lolled around on my living room floor with a foam roller. I saw a chiropractor. I whined about it to my friends. And then, three days before the race I wasn’t sure I was ready to run in the first place, I slipped and fell on a three-mile tune-up run in the rain. I tweaked my knee ever so slightly, but it hurt badly enough that I had to walk the two miles home. By that night, my knee looked like a hideous, misshapen grapefruit, and I had to throw in the towel.
The weekend I was supposed to become a capital-u Ultrarunner, I headed to Rifle to climb with friends instead. My right leg bothered me enough that I felt justified in having dropped out of the race, but not too much to have fun in the rain.
And then I let myself take a break from running. I’d spent six months using most of my free time to shuffle along, and I was sick of it. When I started up again a few weeks later, something funny happened: three miles in, my right foot went numb. It happened again the next handful of times I ran, and I found myself with a conundrum. What did that mean?
So I went back to the chiropractor, who wondered if it was not my IT band but instead sciatica, which I thought was something 20-somethings didn’t have to worry about. I saw my doctor, who scheduled an MRI of my brain. I met with a neurologist, who showed me pictures of my brain (which was very cool, and also my brain appears to be totally normal).
The neurologist poked and prodded and asked if I could feel this and that on my toes. I explained my symptoms. I waited for his recommendation, which I was sure would change my life, making me the ultrarunner I always wasn’t sure I wanted to be. He cleared his throat.
“Try lacing your shoes a little looser up near your ankle,” he said. I tried not to roll my eyes or burst into tears. He took a breath, and I perked up again, waiting for him to tell me acupuncture would have me running like an Olympian in two weeks.
“And why don’t you try a pair of shoes with some more cushion?” he mused, “What are those really ugly ones all the dads are wearing now? Get yourself a pair of those and see how it goes.”
Hokas. He meant Hokas. They look like this:
I’ve always preferred a more minimalist running shoe, but a neurologist told me that wasn’t working, so I sucked it up. I borrowed a pair of my mom’s giant bouncy castle shoes and ran three miles with her. And very much to my surprise, something sort of magical happened.
For the first time in four months, my foot didn’t fall asleep.
Don’t get me wrong. I still felt like someone who hadn’t really been running for the last four months. I felt the familiar tug in the back of my right knee. But if these big, beefy shoes can get me three (maybe more!) miles without tingling toes, maybe I’m on the right track. Maybe I’ll run that 50k in 2018, after all. That remains to be seen.