Clear Your Mind Of Can’t: Larisa Dannis’s USATF 50-Mile Road National Championships Report

[Editor’s Note: Larisa Dannis ran a 5:59:11 to win the 2014 Fall 50 Mile, which served as the 2014 USATF 50-Mile Road National Championships. Here is her report.]

I’ve always admired those who are able to quickly compose a blog post after a significant event. I’ve never been that sort of gal. As much as I love to write, words don’t always come easily to me. I am inclined to fret, ponder, and overthink–and in the case of this particular race, to completely disassociate as I struggle to process what took place out on the wonderfully scenic, rolling roads of Door County, Wisconsin.

This wasn’t meant to happen.

This was simply meant to be a training race, a tune up for the IAU 100k World Championships which are flying at me fast. Though I’ve run many ultramarathons, up until last weekend I’d never attempted a full 50 miles on the road. The Fall 50 Mile was intended to serve as an opportunity for me to practice fueling and pacing on this new surface. Some would call it risky to run 50 miles a month out from one’s goal event. Nonetheless, it was a risk I was willing to take. I needed to prove to this ever-questioning brain of mine that my body wouldn’t completely break after 50 miles of pavement.

And I’ll admit the thought of all that pavement terrified me. Typically I’m filled with joy and excitement in the days leading up to a race. However, for some reason my heart and head weren’t fully there this time around. I was exhausted and stressed. My legs felt heavy. I woke up every morning filled with fear and questioning. In a final, desperate effort to muster up some confidence, I gave into my superstitious side and purchased a small elephant charm for luck.

Larisa Dannis elephant charm

Elephant charm. All photos Larisa Dannis unless otherwise noted.

Even the day before the race had me deviating from my typical routine, filled with far more than perhaps I should have indulged in. Life’s too short, though, right?

  • Eating – Steak, roasted duck, and amazingly delectable Door County cherries? Yes, please.
  • Cider drinking – How could I pass up a local cider tasting with my mom?
  • Exploring – So many friendly, beautiful places along the peninsula, so little time.

Belly full and mind zonked, I figured I’d sleep things off. Once again, my plans were foiled thanks to a rowdy live band that kept the hotel rocking right into the early hours of the morning. Ah well. By that point things were so amiss that I resolved to simply try my best and embrace the journey ahead–good or bad. It amazes me how some of the most beautiful moments in life emerge from times where everything seems to be going wrong. My run at the Fall 50 was one such moment.

The day before I traveled to Wisconsin, a good friend gave me a small card with a hidden inspirational message. Always one for surprises, I figured it would be fun to wait until the start of the race to open it up. Shivering under the awning a few minutes before 7:00 a.m., I pulled the card (rather ungracefully, I’ll admit) from my sports bra and revealed the message inside. I did not expect the moment to be significant, but reading the words etched across its surface shook me to my core.

Larisa Dannis - clear your mind of cant

The gun went off.

And in one jolting moment, clear my mind of can’t, I did. A wave of calm passed through my body. Suddenly, I was running. Suddenly, I felt free.

As with all races, I went into the Fall 50 with two simple goals:

  1. To run with happiness; and
  2. To pace via heart rate.

For this particular effort, I would look to hold between 140 and 155 beats per minute which would keep me in a sustainable, aerobic state. If feeling strong, I’d give myself the liberty to push into the low 160s on the climbs–but would cap at 165.

With regards to fueling, I would use my tried-and-true combination of VFuel, Tailwind, and VESPA. The Fall 50 course is very well-supported, with aid stations located every four to seven miles. To keep things efficient, I planned on carrying a small, eight-ounce handheld and one gel throughout the run, which I’d swap out with my mom (aka crew chief extraordinaire) at each aid station.

I knew that as long as I stuck to my approach, I’d be content with whatever finish I was able to achieve.

One of my favorite aspects of racing ultras is the camaraderie. It’s very unique to our sport, and something I’ve increasingly come to cherish after experiencing the cutthroat, competitive nature of shorter road events. Much to my delight, I found myself running with a lovely group of folks right from the get go, including Carolyn Smith, Scott Dunlap, Mark Thompson, and Nick Purdy. Carolyn has been a huge source of inspiration for me since accepting a spot on the USA 100k team. It was an honor to run with her and to hear about her experiences racing internationally as a member of Team USA.

As wonderful as it was to run with others, I reminded everyone that I was pacing via heart rate and would need to adjust my pace accordingly to ensure that I remained within range. Slowly, our little group dispersed, and by mile 17 or so, I found myself running alone. The solitude was oddly peaceful. It provided me with a welcome opportunity to take in the glorious Wisconsin landscape filled with autumn color and morning light. Weaving through Peninsula Park, I fell into a zone of sorts.

Reaching the 23.7-mile aid station, my mom informed me that I was now in the lead. Inherently I’m not a competitive person, at least when it comes to competing with others. I’ve always viewed running as a personal endeavor, and find satisfaction and excitement through challenging myself to be the best that I can be on any given day. Thus, I kept a steady head about me and reminded myself to stay relaxed and in the moment.

Larisa Dannis - 2014 USATF 50-Mile Road National Championship

At about mile 45. Photo: Sandy Dannis

One of the things that made me nervous going into the Fall 50 were the mile markers along the course. I was fearful that seeing them would prove overwhelming, especially as I started to fatigue. However, as the race unfolded, I found things to be quite the opposite. I was struck by how effortlessly the miles were ticking by. Instead of dreading those distinctive red-and-white signs, I came to welcome them. Seeing that flash of color tucked on the side of the road served as a physical reminder that, yes, I really am making forward progress.

With 40 miles to go, I began counting them down. 10, nine, eight, seven, six…

At five miles, I swapped bottles with my mom one final time.

Four miles. You run this distance in training almost every day, lady.

Three miles. Wait, did I really just run 47 miles on pavement?

Two miles. Relax. Breathe.

One mile. Hold strong. Just one mile to go.

During the entirety of the race, I did not look at pace or time once. The only metric up on my watch was a tiny little number showing the beating of my heart. As that final mile unfolded, I started to wonder what my finish time might be.

Entering Sunset Park, I heard the blasting of loudspeakers and knew the finish clock would soon be in sight. Filled with adrenaline, I quickened my pace. Soon, I saw red numbers:

5:59.

My heart leapt into my throat. My eyes burned.

That can’t be right.

They held out tape for me.

Tape, I get to break tape? This can’t be real.

But it is real, Larisa. Clear your mind of can’t.

Larisa Dannis - 2014 USATF 50-Mile Road National Champion

Larisa Dannis, 2014 USATF 50-Mile Road National Champion. Photo: Sandy Dannis

On a dream day I was hoping to break seven hours. It was my ‘cursed’ 50-mile time goal for well over a year, thanks twice to bad weather, twice to bad race planning, and all four times to bad luck. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d break that six-hour mark, in the process possibly running the fastest 50-mile time by a North American woman in 20 years. The thought still keeps me up at night.

Running brings me a tremendous amount of happiness, and I am grateful every day to have discovered the sport. None of this would have been possible without the ceaseless love, encouragement, and support I’ve received from others. Thank you for believing in me, and for reminding me that no dream is ever out of reach if one is willing to work hard and follow her heart–no pun intended.

Larisa Dannis - 2014 USATF 50-Mile Road National Championship finish tape and medal

Some fun facts:

  • Calories burned: 4,246
  • Calories consumed: about 1,200 (8 VFuel, 4 servings of Tailwind, and 2 VESPA)
  • Average heart rate: 150
  • GPS track: http://www.strava.com/activities/211689811/overview
  • Footwear: Altra Olympus
  • Handhelds: UltrAspire 8-ounce bottles
  • Clothes: INKnBURN Ganesha Racerback Tank and a Victoria’s Secret athletic skirt ;)
  • Shades: Julbo Trek
  • HRM: Polar V800

There are 12 comments

  1. Justin_M

    Great job Larisa! I bet the time with your mom and the steak before the race probably didn't hurt…Question for other runners: how many of you depend on monitoring your heart rate? Does anybody do this during relatively flat trail ultras? Or even more mountainous ones? I'm just curious…it's not something I've thought too much of tracking…although I'm probably too slow for it to really matter.

      1. @SageCanaday

        Congrats to Larisa! Amazing time and performance!
        I wear a HR monitor for almost every hard workout/Long Run on trails/mountains/road (but not in races). It's cool to see the line go up on Strava.com as you go up a hill or when you start bonking during a long run and switch to burning mostly fat. That being said I also monitor pace via mile splits (always during races) and use that data as well. It's useful to see how hard you are working via HR when the pace you may be running uphill at altitude is very slow or if you were just tired and had a stressful day at work…. likewise it is also useful to see how hard your legs might have to speed up/pound on a downhill when your cardiovascular system is barely being taxed. I think the HR data as well as the mile splits (and any given time for a course you may run in everyday training) can be examined to see how your fitness is progressing and it all highlights the major seperation between training your cardiovascular system vs training your skeletal muscular system.

        1. Justin_M

          Thanks for the response Sage. It's great that myself and others can benefit from the attention to detail that you put into your training.

  2. Steve Pero

    You've come a long way Larisa, from when we first met many years ago up on Franconia Ridge in the Whites.
    Never stop using that HR, it's gotten you this far!

  3. tamonator

    I'm glad that Larisa was inspired by this quote, and it sure does make for an inspiring story, too. However, the quote is not "Clear your mind of can't." It is "Clear your mind of cant." Cant is "hypocritical or sanctimonious talk." It could be seen, perhaps, as amounting to the same thing in the mind, but the definitions are quite different.

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