I Was Born To Do This
At the end of the workday on the day before I left for Illinois and The Hennepin Hundred 50-miler, I chatted with my boss about my pre-race mindset. I thought of the moment earlier in the week when I had stopped briefly during an easy run to pay attention in the stillness - to notice the fitness gained in training, the freshness of my body and mind from my taper, the damp autumn air, the sharpness of my senses from the extra rest I’d prioritized over the past week, the emotional satiation that comes from a training cycle well-executed and well-supported by friends and family. I told him, “My hope for Saturday is that I can really take it in. I don’t want to miss out on enjoying the race.” He said, “It sounds like you’re ready.”
While my nerves got a little jumpier over the next 24 hours or so, I tried to focus on all the preparation that preceded my arrival in Colona, IL for the pre-race safety meeting. As I settled into the relaxed atmosphere, I felt more and more at ease. I purchased the infamous “asshat” (featured in the photo below, courtesy of Scott Laudick Photography - free professional portraits were just one of many awesome things about this race!), and I sat down to look through the beautiful Field Manual. The first page contained a letter from Steve Buchtel, Executive Director of Trails for Illinois, that opened with the line “The Hennepin Canal State Trail is a beautiful wreck.” The letter goes on to list the ways that the trail is struggling but also the beauty that lies along it. (You can read the whole letter here.) Then we heard from Steve himself, as he discussed what this race means to him and to the trail, and I thought, “I cannot wait to see this trail. I’m so glad I’m here.”
On race morning, I felt surprisingly calm. I savored my cereal and coffee, enjoying the familiar quiet of the early morning - a calm mind means a calm heart means a calm stomach means smooth running - just like a Saturday long run. The ritual continued: Race clothes. Bluerub anti-chafe. Right sock. Right shoe. Double-knot. Left sock. Left shoe. Double-knot. Timing chip. Buff. Ponytail. Hat. Watch. Bib number. Right-hand bottle in holster. Zipper pocket closed. Left-hand bottle in holster. Zipper pocket closed. One last thing… a one-inch wide green rubber bracelet to remind me: “I AM NOT AFRAID. I WAS BORN TO DO THIS.” My husband Chris loaded the car, and we headed to the start line. My nerves started to fire up again, but as soon as we entered Sinnissippi Park, I was filled with a strange mix of melancholy and peace - this park, that “beautiful wreck” of a trail, the damp chill in the air, the months of effort that today would reveal how they changed me, and then the thought that let me know I was already at home with ultras: I get to spend the day running!
When the race started, I settled into a comfortable groove, without forcing a specific place or pace. My broad goal was to finish somewhere between 7 and 7.5 hours, but I also wanted to be able to enjoy the scenery, study my mind throughout the race, and be coherent enough to recall the lessons I could learn from the day. So I let my body tell me what felt natural, and 8:00 pace was where it landed within the first couple of miles. Just before the 2-mile mark, the course crossed the Rock River. The air temperature was about 60 degrees with a gentle mist. The bridge across the river was low, sitting right on a dam, and it was lined on one side with nautical lamps, still lighted in the dawn cloudiness. I heard a buzzing noise and looked overhead to see the photographer’s drone flying past me. I said aloud, to no one, “This is incredible.” The next several miles were a fun exploration of the trail’s varying surfaces. I passed through Aid Station #1 at mile 5.5 without stopping, and I was all smiles.
I was looking forward to Aid Station #2 at mile 10.8, the first time I’d get to see my crew (husband) since the start. I thought carefully about what I needed in order to continue my fuel and hydration plan. I arrived at the aid station, was briefly overwhelmed by how many people were there (which should have been obvious - all the spectators and crew left the start line at the same time and headed to that aid station to await the runners), grabbed fuel and my sunglasses from Chris as a volunteer refilled one of my bottles, and took off again. The next crew-access stop was Aid Station #4 at mile 19, and by that point I was in a solid rhythm, enjoying some sunshine and great views of beautifully unplowed fields. Once again, it was a very brief stop thanks to my well-prepared crew and the efficient volunteers. As I left the aid station, I thought, “This is so fun! I’m definitely doing another ultra!” I knew I had a long haul before I would see Chris again at Aid Station #7 at 32.1 miles, but I was motivated by the meaningfulness of this segment. In that span, I would run an entire half-marathon! How crazy and awesome! Also, 32.1 miles would be my longest run yet, by .1 miles!
As I neared Aid Station #7, I started to feel an anxious tightness in my chest. I was excited to see Chris, but then I would head into an abyss that was all new to my muscles and my brain. I spent a little longer at this aid station (but still only about 45 seconds total). I threw away some trash, refilled my pockets with fuel for the next segment, and topped off one of my bottles. I let my mind drift to the 32 miles I had completed and the 18 miles remaining, and it overwhelmed me a bit. I told Chris, “It’s getting tough.” He pointed out that the lead female was right there at the aid station too. I took off with something between a grin and a grimace on my face - into the abyss. I was born to do this.
Shortly after I left the aid station, I passed the lead female and we exchanged words of encouragement. I tried to stay calm and consistent - 18 miles is a long way. And yet, as my watch buzzed through mile 33 in 4:23:23, I was finally allowing myself to daydream about a possible finish time below 7:00. Within the next mile, I caught up with a male runner who was wearing a 100-mile race bib, and he mentioned that he was pretty sure I was leading the 50-mile race. I mumbled something about the other female close behind, and he said, “I mean overall. I think you’re in the lead overall.” Hoooooboy, talk about mind games in my already slightly fuzzy brain! I was focusing much more on my pace to stay on track for a 6:40 finish, but now I was also feeling chased, unsure of how much of a lead I had on any other runners besides the next female. Then I was attempting to prioritize these two goals that hadn’t even existed until about five minutes earlier! I tried to settle my mind and focus on the joy of spending the day on this peaceful trail. I was born to do this.
I arrived at Aid Station #8 at 38.7 miles, with a wave of relief and a whole host of other emotions. Chris assured me I was doing great, and I restocked my food and hydration. And then I started crying. I’ve tried to recreate the moment in my mind at least a hundred times, to find some clarity in the haze. But the haze was part of the recipe, already mixed into the batter and reacting with my tired muscles and the parts of my spirit that love to suffer. I’m really doing this. I’ve never run this far. I might win this thing. I still have 12 miles. I’m doing it. This is so hard. Keep moving. Then, aloud to Chris, “This is so hard. I’ll see you in five miles?” He said, “Exactly five miles.” I responded in almost a whimper, “Then four miles. Then three miles. The finish.” More tears, and I took off down a gentle hill. I was born to do this.
The next segment was the toughest for me mentally, as the novelty of “the farthest I’ve ever run” started to fade. Luckily, I thought this section was also the most beautiful of the course. The dirt, grass, and moss reminded me of the Indiana trails I had run during training. There were more trees on both sides of the canal, so it felt lush and cozy, like Mother Nature was welcoming me to Wyanet, IL with a blanket and a mug of tea. I remember feeling lucky to run through this hidden gem, and the serenity was rejuvenating. Still, by the time I arrived at Aid Station #9 at 43.9 miles, I was in a sort of shock from the mental and physical boundaries I had crossed so far that I was starting to sound like a broken record: “This is so hard.” But Chris and the volunteers were relentless in their support, and they refilled my bottles and kept me moving. I was born to do this.
The last aid station of the 50-mile race was at 47.1 miles, and it was right across a bridge from the finish line before runners headed into an out-and-back stretch. I saw Chris one more time here, and he asked if I needed anything. I told him, “I don’t know what I need. I guess you can take one of these bottles?” Those last three miles were the toughest three miles I’ve ever run. The course was open to the sun, and the temperature had risen a bit (although it was still only about 68 degrees), but it was more about the magnitude of it all - how much I’d already run, the feat I was about to conquer, and a little bit of sadness that it was almost over. I tried to balance remember this feeling with finish this thing as I focused on the simple task of putting one foot in front of the other. Then I crested a small incline, passed the aid station, crossed the bridge, crossed the finish line, and hugged Chris. 6:55, first place overall, course record. I was born to do this.
Since the race, I have pored over every photo and video I could find from that day - not only evidence of my experience at the race, but reminders of this beautiful course and this entire race that has a soul of its own. I’m trying to sear it into my memory, in the hopes that I’ll never forget its magic. The race director and staff, the Trails for Illinois group, the aid station clubs, the start and finish line volunteers, the other runners and their crews… My heart swells with joy when I think about how much effort went into the race by everyone involved but also how much the trail gave us in return, with its beauty and solitude and Midwestern heart-of-America spirit. The Hennepin 50-miler taught me that I feel at home with ultrarunning, and I can’t wait to return to this distance and this race!