Going the (Ultra) Distance
When I packed up my enormous backpack full of crappy gear and unpalatable food in the spring of 2003. I had absolutely no idea what I was getting into. All I knew was that as my friends drove away from the Springer Mountain parking lot all that was left for me to do was to walk. And walk, and walk… across the country.
I'd never really backpacked before and had really only done a smattering of day hikes in the previous 2 years. As someone who had been sedentary and overweight her entire life the task ahead of me was almost unfathomable. But I had taken up running 6 months prior and had shed 40 lbs. I had gained the confidence that I could at least probably cover 10 miles or so a day.
It turns out that I did much more than that. I completed the Appalachian Trail in 4 months and immediately began planning a thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, a trail whose existence I hadn't even known about prior to somewhere in Virginia. From the PCT I went on to thru-hike the Continental Divide Trail.
With the Triple Crown under my belt I looked for new activities to keep me occupied, especially during the winter months. Running 8 or 9 miles at a time wasn't really meeting that need to cover distance anymore… and that's when I discovered ultra-running.
Simply stated, an ultra-marathon is any race that is longer than the standard 26.2 miles of a marathon. However, there are other differences as well. Normally they take place on trails. While many are around 31 miles long, there are extremely long ultras that cover distances of 50 to 100 miles (or more).
While I was content to run 50k's for the first couple years, (after all, 31 miles is a heck of a long day by backpacking standards!) I was intrigued by the races at the more extreme end.
I had hiked 50 miles in a day a couple of times in the completion of my Triple Crown, but to run that far? That seemed incredible. Until I did it. And then I realized that I liked that better than running 50k. And if I liked the longer race that much more could I run 100 miles?
I ran my first 100 mile race in 2011. I was terrified. That was worth over 3 huge days of hiking mileage. And here I was supposed to complete it in less than 36. I set out toward the middle to back of the pack of runners. Together we climbed in the heat up the steep trail of Goat Mountain. We trotted down dusty forest service roads and gobbled grapes at aid stations.
About 20 miles or so into the race I climbed up steeply through the forest and popped out at a trail junction. The tree ahead of me had a familiar emblem on it: Pacific Crest Trail.The next 38 miles followed the crest and I ran where I had once walked. I spied the places I had slept, and where I'd drank years before. The memories were excellent distractions from the pain. Soon, darkness fell and I clicked on my headlamp. Into the night I ran.
The people I had run with in the morning I had not seen in hours. They were somewhere behind me. As my feet continued in a rhythm I began to catch and pass people. Many of them were much stronger and faster runners than I am. As dawn broke I reveled in the new day. I continued to pass people. They looked haggard from many miles and lack of sleep.
I finished the race in about 26 and a half hours. I was tired, but not exhausted. What in the world does this have to do with backpacking?
I believe that I excel at 100 mile races because of my long distance backpacking. Through thousands of miles of hiking in all conditions I have trained my body to pace itself. To not get tired. To burn calories efficiently.
In that same way, I believe my ultra-running has made me a better long distance hiker. It has taught me to go without sleep for days on end. To push harder than I thought I could. To believe my body is capable of more in a day. To take a 2,000ft climb in stride.
Distance is concrete. A precise measure of terrain covered. Covering that distance in different ways teaches your body different coping strategies as well as prepares you mentally for a variety of situations.
I stumbled into backpacking quite by accident and I found ultra-running in much the same way. However, they have proven to be complimentary forms of training, each enhancing the other.
This summer I have set my focus on climbing the highest 100 peaks in the state of Washington (this is a multi-year endeavor). While most of these climbs are short in distance their verticality and technicality more than make up for it. Some peaks may require 15 hours to cover 15 miles. My experience with the ultra-distance has again made its benefits obvious. I am not tired, even after an all-day climb. I have loaded my pack and run 20+ miles deep into the wilderness to climb peaks for several days and then run back out.
Once you have taken the leap and become adept at the "ultra"-distance the possibilities are nearly endless. With ultra-light gear you can take it to the next level consistently. My Gossamer Gear Gorilla pack has had a helmet, crampons, boots, ice screws, a harness, rope, and a lot of other things crammed into it. And it has handled like a champ, much to the amazement of my climbing partners who continue to carry their 7lb (empty) packs.
With the new skills I am learning I am excited to see how I can now move through the mountains in new ways, undeterred by both distance and terrain. The adventures on the horizon are infinite.
This post was written by Brand Ambassador Heather "Anish" Anderson.