by Sarah Foote
We all have a path. Perhaps it’s more fair to say we all have a tangled mess of many paths. We go about our daily lives mostly content to cruise along the path unfolding in front of us. Until suddenly we’re not satisfied with simply cruising, and everything changes.
Last May I woke up on a path I didn’t recognize. I had been in a comfortable routine, taking care of my kids, running and knocking out my usual training miles when--bam!--I found myself suddenly embracing an unknown side of me, taking on new challenges and pushing further with no idea what lay ahead. Running was unexpectedly taking on new significance and I was happy to delve in.
I’d been a runner for a little more than a decade, guided by a simple mantra: finish, don’t die. That’s how I’ve approached both training and races and how I’ve kept cruising along. It’s been good. Last May, when I ran my first trail race and first ultra-distance event, I approached the starting line of the Trailfactor 50k with the same time-tested mentality: finish, don’t die.
I live in Portland, Oregon, so the Trailfactor 50k is on home turf. I trained for months on the same trails we raced, and thought I knew what to expect. I could anticipate the terrain and knew where the tough hills would be, the tight corners, the biggest roots. I could see the aid station locations in my mind before we started. I had done my homework and was ready to go.
The race was beautiful, and hard, as expected. I felt comfortable heading out of the fourth aid station at 21.4 miles, with a hand full of Pringles and a smile on my face. Two thirds of the distance was done and everything was going as planned.
Six grueling miles later, I shuffled into the final aid station feeling wrecked but determined to finish. I checked in with the aid station crew, grabbed a quick munch, and turned to leave. That’s when I saw it.
“50k AID 5 | Total Miles: 27.3 | To Finish: 3.8,” the sign said. It was then that it hit me: 27.3 miles?! I had broken into a new zone, ultramarathon distance. The tears were unexpected. “Badass,” I thought.
I shuffled out those last few miles and was greeted at the finish by my loving and supportive family and friends. I crashed into my husband’s open arms for the stinkiest hug. His smile was as big as mine. My parents beamed, congratulated and hugged me. They were so proud. I turned to my 3- and 5-year olds, smiling and offering me chocolate milk they brought especially for me. “Mama, can I have a drink of your chocolate?” Ha! Best finish line greeting. Of course, I shared. And I hugged them good and tight. My dear friend and training partner, who had finished half an hour before me, embraced me, teary-eyed, and simply said, “we did it.”
I rode the runner's high from that race for at least a week, a constant smile across my face. During the days that followed, I began to reflect and gave the quick-and-dirty race recap many times. Hugs, high fives and congratulations were abundant.
Completing the 50k changed me, though I realize now that transformation had been long coming. I have spent a considerable time since the event contemplating my identity: Who am I now? I find myself in the midst of a personal rebranding, excited, energetic, and nervous all at once. My intent is to show the real me--as I’ve recently come to discover--and to more fully represent myself to all of the people in my life.
As with all humans, my collection of identities is complex: I am a mom, wife, sister, daughter, friend, and colleague. And I am a runner. For a decade that’s been true. But now there’s more. I am a trail runner, ultrarunner, and adventurer.
Trail running has taught me that I am capable of more than I ever imagined. When I run trails I feel primitive, grounded, and wild. Trail running has opened my eyes to a new world of adventures. It pushes me to the limits of my comfort zone, but makes me confident that I will succeed. During the past year I’ve taken part in adventures I never before imagined: I ran with my brother on the Pacific Crest Trail, celebrated my wedding anniversary with my husband on a tough 13 miler in the Columbia River Gorge, paced a friend during a 100 mile run and found myself in complete awe of her strength, courage, and grit. I discovered how nasty the “North Nasty” (11 mile loop with 3,000 ft of climbing) can be during a torrential downpour, and checked off all but a couple miles of the Forest Park Conservancy’s 80 mile “All Trails Challenge.” And, I finished two 50k races! If you had told me five years ago that I would do these things, I would have laughed at you. Goes to show how important it is to never say never.
I love the outdoors more than I ever knew: the fresh air, the sound of chickadees calling, and the smell of newly broken pine branches. I thoroughly enjoy getting dirty and running in the rain and mud. I find solace in the forest and crave adventure and exploration. I want to reach new peaks and share adventures with people I care about. But I will also continue to spend time running alone, listening to the sounds of nature and my labored breath.
The need to rebrand is simple. Running my first 50k had a profound effect on my self-identity. Running has always made me happy, and finishing a race has always made me proud. But stepping into ultra-distance trail running changed how I see myself in general, not just as a runner.
My family is my top priority and I aim to have my personal growth and evolution benefit them too. I run long distances in nature because when I do what feeds my soul, I am the best person I can be for all the people in my life.
I am a trail runner. I am an ultrarunner. I am an adventurer. And I love it.