Zero to Fifty (Miles) in Fifty (Days)
Or, Putting Ego On the Altar and Raising the Knife
It’s July 21st. I’m at mile 33 of the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 miler, moving more slowly down the trail than I’ve moved all day, and I’m beginning to realize that I’m in over my head. I am still jogging, but just barely. I take stock of my situation, and here’s what I come up with:
-my longest run in the injury-impeded training cycle for this race was 15 miles
-so far today, I’ve run well
-that will not remain the case for much longer
-just a few miles ago at 30 miles, I encountered the legendary climb out of Diamond Peak, a sandy road straight up a mountain, gaining 1700 feet in under two miles
-I had never even known hills before attempting to climb that particular hill (which featured: a 35-minute mile, incredible views, and also at least three varieties of tears)
-it is getting more and more difficult to stay upright, let alone keep running
-and the kicker: I am, apparently, finally, out of legs.
I begin to walk.
It’s June 1st. 50 days before I’m supposed to toe the line for the Tahoe Rim Trail 50 miler in the Sierra Nevada mountains. I sit on the front porch of my house in Indianapolis, lace up my shoes, and limp a slow, painful, flat, single mile. I smile the whole way—this is a victory, a massive improvement to be running at all.
The story of the 50 days between those two moments is a story worth telling, but it isn’t the story being told here. Instead, here’s the movie montage version: a series of 7 a.m. PT sessions, sweating and lurching around on the carpet, with the purpose of surgically removing from my stride the limp that has made its home there; hours spent bent over a stair-stepper at 11 p.m. in a cheap local gym franchise, watching individual drops of sweat dislodge from my chin with every step and drip between my ever-climbing legs; more 3-mile runs than I can count, each of them a solemn and idiotic prayer to the Running Gods that they’ll transform into 50-mile fitness.
Too quickly, it was race day. In the pre-sunrise darkness, I squatted far back in the crowd of runners and re-laced shoes that had been laced 3 or 4 times already that morning. When the race started, I waited for a space to open in front of me, and then I took my first running steps of the day. I fully intended, with those first steps, to run as much of the next 50 miles that my body would allow me, whether that meant 10, 30, or somehow 50.
I’m not an idiot, contrary to what I’ve written so far. I knew that it was supremely dumb and masochistic to somehow hope that 15-mile fitness in flat Indianapolis would translate to anything but pain and misery for 50 mountain miles at elevation. But there has come a point in every many-houred run I’ve ever been on where a certain pointed ignorance is critical to survival. So I cultivated ignorance, or at least I hoped in an ignorantly optimistic way.
I hoped that when I ran out of running legs, wherever that was on the TRT course, I would still have hiking legs and the desire to keep moving. I hoped I would learn something about myself at the edge of my fitness during this race, which capped off a period of my life that had seen loss, bad mental health spirals, and a lot of internal questions—a little fear, a heaping quantity of ego—on whether or not I was meant to run well, to run fast, to run at the front.
In the early miles, I hiked often. I watched trail come to life as the sun rose, pausing often to soak it in. I took time at aid stations. I respected the mountains, the elevation, my body… “patience” was my every inhale and exhale. And yet sometime around mile 26, riding the high of a 5-mile downhill that was so easy to cruise it felt sinful, I started to entertain the old notions. Could I sneak into the top 20? The top 10? Under 10 hours?
The hammer fell around mile 33. It came down hard, and the blow was made greater by the good-hearted but ego-centered dreams that I’d been dreaming during that long descent a few miles earlier. By the time I bottomed out at 35, I could not run at all. My stomach had turned against me. I was staring down the barrel of 15 miserable miles of hiking on toasted legs, made more miserable by what I’d just imagined for myself, for other-Ryan, during these next 15 miles. What’s worse, I’d had no good training block to prop these confident dreams up on, and so I’d propped them up using something internal: my identity.
For the next many miles, I suffered. I walked when I could and sat on the side of the trail when I could not. Though the physical suffering was incredibly real, mostly I suffered internally: when the dream had failed to come to fruition, I felt that it reflected back on my identity. I was not someone who belonged at the front, who ran well in the late miles. As I followed the next miles of ridgelines, surrounded by some of the most stunning views of Lake Tahoe and the Sierra Nevada mountains, I had eyes only for my own suffering, for the crumbling of my image of myself. (Locals will tell you that smoke from the Mariposa Fire was obscuring some of the best views, but at least half of the times I was knocked off my feet were from sheer overwhelming awe.)
And then the unexpected happened.
It’s mile 43. I am on top of a mountain meadow, picking my way through wildflowers at 9000 feet. It’s the highest point of the course. To my left, in Nevada, the sounds of thunder are rolling in, the first storm all day, coming from a wall of black clouds that are obscuring any view of a way off the mountain. To my right, looking over Lake Tahoe and into California, the late afternoon sun is lighting up the lake and the surrounding peaks. I feel as if I have been walking for days. I’ve been passed by a few people, each of them offering water or nutrition, but I’m all filled up. I just have no legs.
I have just left the last major aid station on the course, Snow Peak, staffed by a troop of Boy Scouts. They’ve taken incredible care with me, handling me like the fragile being that I feel myself to be. The Boy Scouts chattered and teased each other—they have camped overnight up on this remote pass and will be here for almost another full night and day, incoming storms or not. When I leave their care, I start walking again. Now the thunder is getting louder and a wind is whipping across the Snow Peak summit—in the realest sense, there is electricity in the air.
I start to run. I’m as surprised as anyone, to find that out of the shell of myself that I’d become, I am alive again. I am grinning and also holding back tears and also wincing with every step. There are seven miles of gentle downhills until the finish. There is a storm behind me, bearing down. There is nothing to prove, for me or for anyone… but there are miles to be taken at a run, if I want to. And I want to.
The last seven miles of my TRT 50 race were the farthest thing from pretty—in fact, they may be the ugliest miles I’ve ever run, milk miles and taco-10ks and eggnog races included (stories for another time). But it felt brave in the most vulnerable way, to find way past the edge of my fitness that I could still run, and then to lean in to that dark place. I finished in 24th place in just over 11 hours, which are numbers I’ll likely never remember; what I’ll forever remember about my second 50-miler is what it taught me about my ego, and how it felt to run from the storm.
Ryan Horner is a Roam & Run athlete, as well as a reader, a writer, and an ultrarunner. He lives in Indianapolis, Indiana, and makes running-related videos about his training and his running life on his video blog (ForTheLoveOfRunning) at www.youtube.com/c/ForTheLoveOfRunning. You can also find him on instagram at @ryan_horner_