how to run further than you've ever run
Updated: Apr 25, 2018
How do you prepare to run further than you’ve ever run before, then run it three times on consecutive days?
It’s worth noting at this point that neither of us had ever even attempted to run a distance this great before and whilst Faith, an accomplished mid distance runner had a decent understanding of what we were about to endure. I was well and truly oblivious. During meetings with Columbia Montrail sponsored athletes to discuss the magnitude of the task ahead, as Faith asked questions about fueling, training schedules and probed for hints and tips. I was still trying to decide whether I should have Pizza or Chinese takeout that night.
As someone who champions the philosophy that people should only run if they are being chased you can imagine, I was feeling a little out of my depth. It was like a foreign language to me. All I really knew is that I needed to start running.
We made numerous attempts to run, but in a city covered in snow and almost entirely shut down by an impending ice storm, we had to get out!
We knew that the El Cruce was going to be at a reasonable altitude and tackle a substantial elevation gain so combining these elements into our training was going to be important. We looked for places to run that were high, steep and importantly… Not covered in snow. California and specifically the Joshua Tree state park seemed like a sensible option. Within 12 hours of another failed training run in the now ice covered pacific northwest. We were on a plane and headed for the desert.
We arrived and pitched up at one of the quieter camping zones in the park. As we sat around the camp that fire that night gazing into the night sky I couldn’t have been less prepared.
The next morning, we headed for a trail head that we felt would give us a basic understanding of what we might have to look forward to in Argentina. Starting at about 3500ft above sea level the 6.2-mile trail would gain and lose around 1200ft in altitude before returning to the trail head where we had parked the car. Desperate to get a much needed long run under her belt Faith declared early that she would be completing 2 loops, giving her a 12.4 mile run with a little under a 2500ft incline. Whilst I knew I needed to be doing the same I was reluctant to declare my intentions. Mainly because I wasn’t entirely sure I’d actually be able to complete two loops.
We set off together and joined the trail. Faith quickly went off in front which was to be expected and it wasn’t long, Mile 3 to be precise that I started to seriously question if I was even going to be able to complete one loop, let alone how I was going to finish the El Cruce.
Just as I approached mile 3 I developed a stich in my side. In no time I was in a heap on the desert floor. Combined with a tight glute (I’m sorry this isn’t more glamorous, believe me I wish it was) I was in agony and practically unable to move. The week before I had managed to run 8 miles. Surely I hadn’t regressed that much just because I had actually decided to order both Pizza and Chinese takeout that night?
Stretching out my glute as best I could I waited for the shooting pain in my side to ease. After a few minutes I was back on my feet and about to enter the hardest part of the trail. What Faith and I had overlooked is that 900 of the 1200ft incline per lap actually happened in the space of one mile. Mile 5! As I scrambled up the loose rock and descended the other side towards the car and the end of the trail I started to reflect on how horrific this experience had been. With my stitch now a thing of the past and my Glute easing I started to relate this run to El Cruce. What if El Cruce was like this? What if I got stitch? I wouldn’t just be able to stop. As painful as it was at this point I now knew what to expect. I mean, It wasn’t that bad.
As I got back to the car I took a moment to refill my water before heading back out for another lap of the same trail. This time I took the out and back approach to my thinking. If I run a mile from the car I have to run a mile back. That’s 2 miles, If I can manage to run a mile out and a mile back I may as well run 2 miles out, if I did that it’d only be 1 mile from doing half the circuit again. And if I did half the circuit again there’s no point turning back because it would be the same distance to complete it… this kind of thinking got me past half way on the second loop before I remembered, MILE 5!
After walking (crawling) this brutal section of the trail the remaining 1.2miles back to the car was easy by comparison, deceptively so in fact. It meant that you’d all but recovered by the time you reached the end of the trail and the excruciating pain endured during Mile 5 had dwindled to nothing more than the memory of a minor inconvenience.
As I approached the end of my final loop however I was starting to slow. I was hitting the wall! This is something runners the world over talk about endlessly, the point in a race where you’ve got nothing left to give. Where your body is rejecting every movement. It was something I’d never experienced before and as I fought against the natural reaction to stop and give up I remembered that if I was feeling this now… How was I going to feel on day three in Argentina with 80km behind me? I had to keep going! I had to prove to my body that I could reach this wall and jump right over it. It sounds silly but I felt that without ever having set foot in Argentina, If I stopped running now I had failed!
I headed back onto the trail. Despite every part of my body failing to respond to simple commands I knew that if I kept running now not only would I beat this barrier, I’d also have run further than I’d ever run before! As I reached 13 miles I smiled through gritted teeth at the knowledge that I’d just run my first ever half marathon. I used the same Jedi mind tricks on myself that had got me through lap two, 1 mile out and 1 back is…. Oh shut up! This was agony! I was pushing through a mental and physical barrier telling myself every step that it was going to get better…
MILE 5… I forgot about you!
Pressing my hands against my knees to help me make forward steps I made it up the incline for what was definitely the last time, I remember telling myself half way up in fact that if I did this now I’d never have to do it again… EVER!
Somehow I reached the top and began my decent to the car. Now hobbling more than running I made my way back towards the trail head. I knew faith would be waiting for me when I returned having also completed an extra lap for a total of 18.6 miles and I couldn’t wait to get back. My body was completely shutting down due to exhaustion but my mind just wouldn’t shut off. 18.6 miles is further than I have ever run, but I can’t stop on 18.6. Who stops at 18.6 miles?
With an unrelenting desire to survive I ran past the car, threw the car keys to faith and proudly exclaimed that I would not stop until I had completed 20 miles.
I took my first steps back onto the trail as an exhausted Faith shouted over to me that she had felt exactly the same and had also gone back onto the trail to clock up 20 miles of her own.
A lifetime longest run for the both of us if I could finish the job.
As I passed the 20 mile mark I was overcome with emotion. Exhaustion fueled pride. I have no idea what it was but somewhere along the line this run had meant something to me. The achievement had meant something to me. It had left me drained, physically as you’d expect but also mentally, and I had not been prepared for that.