Sara Knutson running a personal ultra on the Ice Age Trail.
Question: What does it feel like to run an ultramarathon?
Answer: Less like a road marathon and more like a backpacking trip.
After completing a couple runs at that 26.2-mile standard, I wanted bigger, a new challenge, something to motivate my training.
Building to an ultramarathon provided the boost I'd been seeking. I'd go for a 3-hour run one day and drag my sore body out for another 10 miles the next. I ran repeats up the St. Mary's sledding hill. I did ab workouts every single day.
I felt reasonably prepared to tackle the 50K segment of the Ice Age Trail through the Kettle Moraine Northern Unit, especially with my family acting as a support crew along the way on the Saturday of the holiday weekend.
Once I got on the route, I found that I was indeed prepared for the physical demands of the trail. But where I thought the run would feel like a marathon + 5 miles, it more closely resembled a foray through the wilderness.
The terrain certainly factored into that.
“This is the trail?” said my dad during the segment he ran with me. He had a point. While the Ice Age Trail is fairly wide in places, there are stretches through fields where the grass comes to chest height and the only indication of the trail is some matted down thistle.
Additionally, the ample roots and rocks required planning each step. To take a sip of water or turn back to check on Dad was to risk a hard fall (which I succumbed to, twice).
But there was another, equally important factor - my normal sense of control transformed into a back-and-forth interaction with Mother Nature and my own body.
We runners, especially road runners, like to imagine ourselves in control of things. We plan out the routes we'll run, the distances we'll cover, the times we'll shoot for. Things may not go as planned, but they rarely deviate too far from expected.
When I backpack, that illusion of control goes out the window. I still map out my route and intended stopping points, but I do so in pencil. If it rains or my water filter breaks or the sunset is particularly beautiful, things will change. In the end, the environment makes its move, and I respond. The object is simply to complete the trip, and complete it well.
It was the same with my ultra. I timed the run, but out of habit more than anything else; I knew my pace on the rugged terrain of the Kettle couldn't possibly compare to my road times, and I wasn't at all certain of finishing when the starting temperature stood at 80 degrees.
My strategy, compared to a marathon, was absurdly simple: run, and then keep running. If it gets tough, walk up a hill. Keep drinking fluids. Do my best. Have fun.
If you substitute 'hike' for 'run', you have my strategy for backpacking, too.
As the hours passed, I found myself doing something deeply real and blessedly simple. It was just me and the woods and occasionally a family member for company. For 31 miles, my usual jumble of thoughts, hopes, plans, and worries thinned out into a steady run toward a single goal.
It wasn't so much exhilarating as satisfying, exactly the way a good wilderness trip feels.
It was fitting that the finish was marked in humble style - a line made of duct tape and the shredded remains of a plastic bag rigged up by my loyal crew.
The high of qualifying for Boston this spring was awesome, but the internal satisfaction and sense of right-ness from yesterday was, I think, something I equally needed.
If you can't spare a few days in remote wilderness, running for seven hours is a decent substitute.
Post note: Knutson ran the Ice Age Trail from Highway H, north of West Bend, to Highway P, near Glenbeulah. The 31-mile run, plus a wayward mile, took her nearly seven hours.