Learning From The Past

The other day I started my spring cleaning. Yes it is January, but I chose to ignore the lurking reality of the frigid temperatures, falling snow, and gusty winds outside the confines of my house. As I foraged through a box of old pictures and papers, I came across my first-ever training logs. In my first years of running, I scratched distances and times on a traditional wall calendar. After two years, I transitioned to recording my information on an Excel spreadsheet. I hung these printouts on the refrigerator as a reminder of the work I needed to do, while also remembering the work I had done. I scanned over several years of documentation of time, distance, and faces to convey my overall feeling of my runs. Lifting paper after paper out of the box, I eventually uncovered two Believe Training Journals that I purchased to record my information. I distinctly recall the excitement when receiving these journals in the mail. In retrospect, I believe I had myself convinced that an extravagant journal such as this was the missing link to performing at the next level.

As I sat crosslegged on the floor, surrounded by a semi-empty box and piles of calendar pages, Excel sheets, and training journals, my mind flooded with memories of epic mountain runs and workouts where I pushed beyond what I thought I was capable of. I reminded myself of days were I ran despite sickness or a nagging injury. Somewhere during this reminiscing, I shifted from a mood of contentment to one of question. Over the years I have had all these workouts, adventures, races, and injuries, but had I taken advantage of the lessons that my training and racing taught me? Had I grown as an athlete because of my ultrarunning experiences or had I just been along for the ride?

Despite my self-imposed interrogation in trying to determine if I had wasted time and opportunities, within minutes of further looking over my old logs, I knew that this was not the case. There has been an evolution in my training and racing. I know this because my training has become more focused, more efficient, and more effective. I also know this because as the years have passed, I have toed the line against younger runners, faster runners, and/or better trained athletes, and yet I have arrived to the finish line before them. The logic I find behind these outcomes is the accumulated experiences over 12 years in the sport.

Take, for example, when I raced the Bandera 100k in 2015 with the goal of earning a Golden Ticket to Western Sates. Part way through the first lap, a man in front of me tripped and his immediate screams indicated that this was not just a bump or bruise. I pulled off the trail and attempted to calm him down. I stood on the side of the trail while other females streamed past and tried to assess his condition, all the while internally I was panicked. I wanted to throw my hands in the air and say, “That’s it, I’m done, it’s over!” The thing is, I didn’t give up because my past experiences on this course had taught me that runners typically run the first lap of this course too hard. I also knew from previous races that when temperatures are cool, runners do not always properly execute their hydration and nutrition. Once I was running again, I had plenty of time and distance to play catch-up, I just needed to use my past experiences and knowledge to keep me calm until I reeled my fellow competitors in.

This train of personal reflection led me to asking other female ultrarunners with various years in the sport how they felt about the evolution of their training and the value of experience. Here is what a few women had to say.

When I asked Kaci Lickteig, age 30 and who has now been in the sport for approximately four years, about her current approach to training/racing and if this approach has changed with time, she said, “My first approach at ultrarunning started by running monotonous amounts of miles with no speed or quality thrown in. It was just miles at whatever pace felt good for the day. I also didn’t add in nutrition to my runs, even long runs. I found that it worked at first, but it didn’t give me the potential I desired. That is when I chose to have a coach. From then on, I have been adding in workouts and quality runs. It is more black-and-white training versus gray monotonous training. It’s made me more versatile and I’ve not had overuse injuries since. It’s been a good change for me.”

When looking at training and racing goals over time, Meghan Arbogast, age 52 and with 13-plus years in the sport, shares, “If I have a poor performance, it is often because I set my goals too heavily on an outcome that was unrealistic based on my fitness or other indicators. When that happens, I shift my mindset back to, Take care of yourself, have fun, and let the result speak for itself. And when I have a great performance, I set that bar back up high and try harder next time. Somewhat of a vicious cycle, but it also tells me that I am not ready to give up training and racing hard.”

Gunhild Swanson, age 72, who has now participated in 70 ultras to date, believes that experience plays a role in both consistency and success in our sport. Gunhild explains, “I entered my first and second ultras on a lark, because someone talked me into it. I was the lucky successful novice. I enjoyed the process, and I learned a lot as I went along. I believe some of us can be lucky and succeed right off the bat, but the risk is great. Those who fail or have a bad experience may never give it another chance. To become a consistent ultrarunner, one must proceed a bit more cautiously and gain experience. I admire the runners who know themselves and their capabilities so well that they can run multiple 100 milers plus other ultras a year with great success. They are the ones we read about and whose names we are all familiar with. They are ambassadors for our sport and fuel this huge interest which generates even more races and participants. This ensures the continued success of our chosen sport.”

I was curious if there was an unforgettable or reoccurring lesson that these incredible ladies had learned throughout their years in the sport. Meghan shares that, “Just because you learn something, like how often you need to fuel, or how you need to take care of yourself the days leading up to a race, or that massage keeps you healthy, doesn’t mean you can just forget to do those things! I have messed up my nutrition because I just sort of forgot to pay attention, messed up my gut because I ate too much fiber the days leading up to a race, and I have let myself get close to injury by neglecting bodywork. I know better, but don’t always pay attention.

Kaci reveals that she has learned two very distinct lessons in her ultrarunning career so far. She says, “The first is to listen to the body. I have learned what kind of training load I can handle to reduce this risk. If I feel any odd niggle coming on, I aggressively attack it by resting and treating it before it becomes a chronic injury. The second lesson I have learned is that flexibility in training is very important in keeping me healthy. If I have a workout scheduled but have had a horrible day, lack of sleep the night before, and mentally I’m just not into the workout, I will push it back and complete it on another day. I won’t miss it, but I will adjust my schedule and get it in when it’s appropriate.”

Gunhild explains that a reoccurring lesson from her experience is that, “Meeting your goal in a race is in direct proportion with the work you put in to prepare for it. You might get lucky ‘faking’ it, but most likely you’ll pay for that.”

What has kept these ladies able to continue to run year after year? Meghan attributes her longevity to bodywork, bodywork, bodywork! The knowledge she has learned over the years, specifically from her physical therapist on recognizing bad running patterns and learning how to fix them, has led to a lot more years in the sport than she had imagined. Kaci recognizes the importance of adequate sleep–seven to nine hours a night for her–and maintaining her iron levels as key components of staying in the sport. Gunhild attributes her longevity to attitude, being thankful and feeling blessed to be able to cover the distances she can when so many others cannot.

All three of these women are phenomenal athletes and despite their variances in age and time in the sport, all have shown growth through their experience. Each of their perspectives are unique and show that a gift of our sport is that there is so much to be learned by each of us. The lessons we may learn might not be clear from the start, but each will be unique to what we put into our experience. Whether we have a good experience or a bad experience during a race, there is value in what happened. We learn from the highs, the lows, and everything in between as these experiences will not only help us as runners, but also as people. All three ladies, Meghan, Gunhild, and Kaci, have reminded me to regularly ask myself this question and to challenge you to do the same, What did I learn today and how can I take that knowledge and experience and apply it to my life and my running?

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What moments of your running past have informed your running present?
  • What have you learned from running that you have applied to the rest of your life?
Aliza Lapierre

finds peace and a sense of belonging while trail running. Her passion began by exploring the trails in her home state of Vermont and has been regenerated by exploration across the world. She continually works to redefine her perceived boundaries, while trying to inspire others to explore their capabilities as well.

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