The second her feet hit the track, she felt like a movie star. She became conscious of human noises –cheering, clapping, other feet falling into step beside her. After thirty-six hours, she had done it: Carolyn Hennessey had completed her first one-hundred-mile Western States Ultramarathon run.
She had spent half the night in the dark woods, the only sounds the owls, her footsteps, and her steady breath. She stopped occasionally to vomit–her body’s reaction to her attempts to consume food along the trail. The time pacers faded in and out, providing her with enough strength and encouragement to continue on. Relentless forward motion, she reminded herself.
The competition was solely internal: a personal commitment to accomplishment. However for Hennessey, finishing also meant overcoming mental and physical obstacles and fighting to keep control of her body while pushing it to the extreme. Despite the pain, discovering and defining her personal limits thrills her.
“I’m always curious about how far I can go and how long,” she says.
Meet the Runners
The category of ultrarunning encompasses a variety of races of different terrains and lengths. Technically, the distance is “anything over a marathon, which is 26.2 miles” according to Hennessey. Typically races range between fifty kilometers and fifty-miles races to one hundred kilometers and one-hundred-mile races. However, the longest ultrarun in the world is the 3,100-mile Self-Transcendence race in Queens, New York. Runners make 5,649 laps around the same city block, taking about a month to complete the race.
Although the concept of running for hours on end does not at first seem like a form of relaxation, individual runners learn to love logging these continuous miles. Hennessey started this practice young, beginning to add mileage to her high school softball team’s required two-mile warm-up before practice.
“I think I just liked that running made me feel free and got my heart beating,” she explains.
Growing up in the Mojave Desert, Hennessey appreciated the sagebrush and other parts of the breathtaking landscape she could see while on long runs. Running became an addictive form of self-competition, and she continued to add more miles to test her endurance.
“You find something in yourself that makes you keep going,” she says.
Hennessey ran her first hundred-mile ultramarathon in 2010, but it didn’t go exactly as planned when she began experiencing stomach issues at mile thirty-seven, vomiting for the next forty miles.
“I was so determined to finish the hundred-miler that it never crossed my mind that I would stop,” she says.
Although racing is often a personal journey, Hennessey values the time she trains with others. She and Kristin Zosel, whom she describes as a “kindred spirit,” met haphazardly on a trail when Zosel mistook Hennessey for someone else. The connection was instantaneous and they began running together.
This type of friendship is common in the ultrarunning community, According to Zosel. The sport brings together people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, ages and experiences that build unique friendships.
“You go through a lot of different emotions on the trail, you see each other when you are having some tantrums . . . maybe you’re working through some things in life with that run,” she explains. “And it seems like the bond that you form with those people is just stronger.”
Much like Hennessey, Zosel explains her relationship with running as a “slow love affair” that developed after playing sports all her life. Zosel never thought about running until she was in college and, looking for a way to stay in shape, she realized that running might be the best match for her.
“I did the Stairmaster every day and after a year of that I decided I was not going to be sticking with that for a lifetime.”
Running, on the other hand, she could.
Small laps on the road turned into large loops on mountain trails. “There was more a moment with trails where I discovered that, oh my gosh, why would I ever run on roads when I can run on trails?”
Zosel ran her first ultramarathon in Alaska–a fifty-mile long trek with no road access for miles. “That was the race where I discovered just how badly you could hurt but how incredibly euphoric you can be at the same time.”
She parked her car at the start, committing herself to a run of at least thirty-eight miles to the nearest road. Since then, Zosel has run a total of thirty ultramarathons, having most success with hilly fifty-kilometer and fifty-mile distances.
A Note to the Avid Runner
While Zosel and Hennessey continually run fifty-plus-mile distances, the journey they experience along the trail is not for the feint of heart. Longer races can take over a day to complete, and runners tend to encounter an unavoidable point of misery somewhere in what Zosel refers to as the “middle miles.” According to Hennessey, to achieve that coveted runner’s high, you have to first hit a “runner’s low.”
“You really have to test your limits,” she says.
On the trail, runners remember three common phrases to help them through the roughest miles:
One: Beware the chair. As runners approach aid stations along the trail, their mind welcomes the food, warmth, and people as a sort of salvation. But this can also be dangerous. Runners must not give in to the welcoming comfort of taking a seat because it can cost them valuable race time.
“The chair becomes this all-encompassing thing that’s pulling you in and you don’t want to leave,” Zosel describes.
Two: It never always gets worse. As the night drags on, fatigue–both mental and physical–sets in. One way to combat this is with the phrase “it never always gets worse.” In this way, runners find motivation knowing that the pain will not last forever, but for Zosel, it is also important to remember that the good feelings will not last, either.
“If you’re feeling terrible, you usually drink a little bit, take in a few calories, adjust your electrolyte intake, and within fifteen minutes, you’re back on top of the world,” she says, noting that it’s all about taking care of your body to maintain the runner’s high of feeling “on top of the world.”
Three: Relentless forward motion. The pit of despair, the deepest, darkest part of the journey where Zosel says she feels like giving up and stopping the race. At this moment, she says it is best to remember the phrase “Put your head down and go.”
“It may not be glamorous, it may not be fast, but as long as you’re taking steps forward you’re getting closer to the finish line,” she adds.
Zosel sees a strong metaphor between her everyday life and this fundamental aspect of racing. If life is moving forward, it is going somewhere progressive. The middle miles, or the part of the race where adrenaline has worn off and the runner begins to realize just how far he or she has to run, are the toughest to work through. The struggle becomes more mental, and the motivation to push oneself decreases.
Not Only a Runner
Life is a marathon, not a sprint. In running, Zosel and Hennessey embrace the trail one mile at a time. “I never think, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to run fifty miles today.’ It’s always, ‘Okay, the first-aid station is in six miles so I’m going to run six miles.” In their own lives, the same concept applies.
Zosel works as a physical therapist, in addition to raising a 4-year-old son. The answer? Get up early. “Sometimes the alarm clock has a four on the front, sometimes it has a five on the front, but that way I get my time in,” Zosel says.
At first, Zosel worried about how becoming a mother may affect her running. “From the time you become pregnant, you start worrying about whether you’re running too much or if you’re not running enough . . . or if it’s safe or if it’s not safe.”
Sensitive to her body’s needs, she continued to maintain her fitness during her pregnancy. “There’s no manual anyone can give you about how to treat your body,” she realizes. She enjoys time with her son, Jacob, who likes to bike with her and chase geese in the park.
Hennessey, a stepmother of three children, manages to incorporate family time into her work and running schedules. The time she spends on the trail running gives her time for personal reflection and balances her time with family.
“Running is a way–on a daily basis–just to clear my mind and process things. It’s a way to get closer to myself,” she explains.
While running may seem extremely separate to this part of her life, the individual benefits actually help connect her to the people around her. Her family members function as her pit crew for races, pacing her and providing encouragement along the trail.
Working in human resources and licensed as a family and marriage therapist, she makes time to travel with her husband and stepchildren in their Volkswagen Eurovan. On weekends, she sometimes rises early to fit in a run, then returns around 10 a.m. to join her family for brunch.
“The things that happen when you’re a runner only make you a better mom, I believe.”