An Original & Gutsy First 100-Mile Ultra
The story of a runner who did it her way
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Hello, spring! I am still waiting for your colors and blooms, but I feel change in the air.
Where we live in Colorado, the landscape is brown with mud and dead grass, white with patchy snow. The aspens won’t leaf out, and the first shoots of green grass won’t sprout, for a couple more months. Everything is melting rapidly, creating footing that’s icy in morning and slushy or muddy by afternoon.
Last weekend, I traveled back to LA and woke before sunrise to run up Temescal Canyon Park at dawn. The crowded trails in the coastal Santa Monica Mountains usually look sadly dry and worn, but Sunday morning, I caught them at their annual peak of natural beauty and felt fortunate to welcome spring there. Wild daisies sprouted trailside, and the hearty sage-laced chaparral smelled pungent. Everything felt fresh by the ocean—my ponytail frizzed out from the moisture—but the climate was just warm enough to run in short sleeves and shorts. The heady experience made me excited for summer to come to southwest Colorado.
Speaking of change, I’m starting a new part-time job tomorrow. I’ll write about it later. Let’s just say it’s an adventure, and I expect to draw on the traits cultivated by mountain running, including patience, adaptability, resiliency, endurance, humor, and staying positive.
A client of mine from Berkeley, Crystal Wright-Bickford, has prompted me to reconsider how it would feel to run long distances without any race on the horizon.
She hired me as a coach last October to help her run 100 miles for her 40th birthday, which she celebrated last week. She had never raced and has no interest in racing; in fact, she’s averse to it. She wanted to run her first 100 on her own, on a route she would design, with only her husband and a friend for support.
Previously, the farthest she had run was a solo 40 miles by doing repeat loops in the regional park near her house. When she emailed me about her 40th birthday ultra idea, she struck me as kind of loopy, in a good way.
I’m sharing Crystal’s journey to her first 100 in part because I’m so focused on and motivated by the races on my calendar (as detailed last week) that I find it thought-provoking to meet a runner like Crystal who doesn’t want to line up to compete with others or rely on an event’s organization. It’s also refreshing to find a runner who doesn’t feel compelled to share her accomplishments on social media. We tend not to hear about low-profile, modest runners because they’re quiet and private. Crystal keeps her Strava postings hidden and only uses Instagram to see family and friends’ photos, not to post her own.
Many of us, in 2020, got a taste of how running without racing feels when the pandemic canceled events, and then we celebrated the return to racing with renewed appreciation for trail running with camaraderie, competition, and the support of aid stations and course markings.
Crystal has a different view and approach, and she finds it strange that people view her desire to run ultras alone without racing as unusual.
“I’m trying to understand why it is unusual,” she said. “The more I talked to people about this idea [of running 100 miles on her own], the more it became clear that this was not the norm. Why don't more people do these kinds of things on their own? Why not go run some distance one has never tried before? I've always loved this running stuff just for the sake of it.”
I told her that her view and spirit are in synch with through-hikers, just not as common among ultrarunners. A lot of ultrarunners also share the desire to design original routes and go on wild adventures, and many run solo routes for FKTs (fastest known times). But, unlike her, they tend to come up in the sport the traditional way of running races and graduating to different ultra distances at organized events before branching out on their own.
A part-time dental hygienist, Crystal got into running casually with her husband in her late 20s, only three to six miles a couple of times a week. Last year, however, she became more hooked on running and began to educate herself about ultras.
She contacted me after reading my book. “I wanted to be guided by someone who has loads of real-world experience running long distances,” she wrote on the questionnaire I sent her after she contacted me. “You also have 10 years on me in age [actually, 12], which I find relatable and important when progressing as a female who wants longevity and wisdom in this sport.”
We started structured training plans during the last week of October. How would I get this rookie ready for a solo, self-designed 100-miler in less than five months?
I fast-tracked her training, even though she had not been running consistently the prior three months. We needed to complete the bulk of her endurance training by mid-February to allow for a taper. I designed a fairly aggressive training plan that began with building her cardiovascular engine through high-intensity workouts a couple of times per week, increasing the duration of the long run, and layering in strength conditioning. We also got creative with the times of day she would run, and with sometimes timing her meals before training runs, to adapt to ultrarunning at different times of day and digesting on the go. I also had her watch ultrarunning films and listen to podcasts to enhance her knowledge and boost her motivation.
She didn’t need much of a boost—she had plenty of determination. Early on, I asked her to make a list of why she wants to run 100 miles by herself (as opposed to taking the traditional path of running shorter races in preparation for a 100-mile event). I needed to understand her motivation and goals. Among the things she wrote:
“I love being self-sufficient. To me, doing a long distance without aid stations or traditional support taps into an ancient capability that is so powerful and meaningful because it supersedes modern-day values. Self-reliance, and using the body to its max capacity with very little else, aligns with my values. …
“I never liked technology, and I find that the world turns more and more away from what is tangible and real. Lives are lived through people’s phones or social media facades. It’s inorganic and unauthentic. Running and specifically going long distances makes life very, very real. Even the discomfort is comforting. …
“I have an obsessive love of maps. This run taps into getting from point to point with my own body. I could happily obsess on this all day….
“I want to be my most amazing self at this stage in life. …”
OK, cool, I thought. Let’s get you ready!
One thing I noticed early on: Crystal has loads of potential. She sent me a video of her running, and her biomechanics looked nearly flawless. And she’s fast.
She had never been coached to do speedwork, and she took to it like a retriever chasing a ball. On January 25, at the end of a tough 10-mile mile speed session that featured a 3-mile, 2-mile, and 1-mile interval, she ran a 6:16 in the final fast interval in spite of fatigue from the earlier miles.
The coach in me really wanted to see how she’d do in a race. And I wanted her to take on the challenge of trying something new. So I strongly encouraged her to try a 50K race in January as a training run. Who knows, I told her, maybe you’ll like it.
On January 16, with nerves and excitement, she headed to a 50K in Woodside south of San Francisco. The race coincidentally was called Crystal Springs.
To say she did well is an understatement. In her very first race at any distance, she placed 2nd in 5:34, and perhaps could have won if she had been more aggressive. (I coached her to be conservative with her pace, since it was her first race.)
Crystal noted a woman running ahead of her, who ended up winning the race, and wrote in her training log, “Being a newbie I did not have the confidence to follow her, and I was bottle-necked and stuck in the massive group for the first 4 miles. I had no clue how and when to pass and felt super frustrated. By the first aid station, I was so sick of running with people, I didn't stop and just booked it onward.”
She found her stride and cruised on a hilly trail course with more than 4700 feet of elevation gain. “I celebrated my fitness, felt appreciation for your guidance, enjoyed the trees, soft trails, and birds. No, I still do not like running with other people, mostly because a lot of mental energy is wasted on thinking about those around you. But yes, that was such a cool experience and like nothing else I've ever done in my life! I was so freakin' excited that I did it. Now I just need one of those bumper stickers for the back of my van that says, ‘I survived an organized event,’ ha.”
Three weeks later, on February 5, she tried it again—she lined up at the Golden Gate 50K in the Marin Headlands—and again placed 2nd. But this time, she didn’t enjoy it at all. “I actually wanted to quit the entire time. I couldn't get to my mental happy place. It was crazy! Somehow I placed second again, but I was miserable the entire time.”
That was it for her ultra racing experience. But her 100-mile debut was still to come.
Crystal designed a 100-mile route that crisscrossed the East Bay trails in the hills above Berkeley and Oakland, and then she ran a connector trail to the suburbs south of Walnut Creek, ending on a safe and simple bike path for the final stretch. She timed her run to be a couple of days following her 40th birthday, when the moon was full.
I got completely wrapped up in tracking her progress. I didn’t want to be a helicopter coach, but I couldn’t help texting her mid-run a couple of times.
At around 7:30 p.m., she messaged that she was at mile 58.
She told me afterward:
“My all-day mantra was, ‘It’s just one day of my life.’ A day could be spent far less interesting or could be wasted on a phone or device. I’ve spent loads of time thinking about my motivators for running, and even wrote some down to hide in my vest pocket in case things got tough, but I never looked at it. It all boiled down to the one phrase that periodically came into mind: ‘It’s just one day.’”
I went to bed, then woke up at around 4:30 my time, 3:30 a.m. in California, expecting her to be somewhere in the 80s for mileage. I checked in and she texted back “97.2.”
I couldn’t believe it! Less than a half hour later, this came through:
She finished 100 miles on trail, with 10,000 feet of elevation gain, in 22:08, which is phenomenal for a first-time 100-miler, especially one on a self-designed unmarked course. Her Strava says 19:36 because that’s her moving time; the 22:08 captures the elapsed time, including when she paused to get food and check in with her husband and friend.
I felt over-the-moon happy for her and inspired by her self-determination. She didn’t need a finisher’s medal or a T-shirt or any Instagram post, just the full moon and a hug from her husband at the end.
The next day, she shared some of the highlights and reported that she did well fueling along the way.
“I couldn’t believe the amount of odd combinations of food I could put down! … I’ve read about this aspect of ultrarunning and couldn’t wait to find out what kind of weirdness I would want,” she wrote. “Highlights were ramen, chocolate milk, Snickers, bananas, Spam musubi, pickles, Coca Cola, Gu and Hammer liquid carbs, Smuckers Uncrustables, oranges.”
She said everything went “smooth and effortless” until 70 miles. “After mile 70, the legs and feet started to ache, I started checking my watch frequently and told myself to chill in the pain cave, and this was what ultra runners talk about, so embrace it.”
I asked her to sum up why she ran solo.
“So many different reasons. I was curious to know my own personal limits. … I like the freedom and flexibility of building a route, running a route, changing it up as I go along. The 40th birthday thing just seemed like a great excuse to enter a new decade strong and memorable.”
As for what’s next for her, she perked up when I told her about the Fastest Known Time website. She wrote back, “I checked it out... UH OH! Am I already planning the next thing?? … I like this website :)”
I want to publicly thank Crystal for letting me share her story, and for the opportunity to coach her. Having a client like Crystal reminds me why I became a coach.
What she wrote me the day after her 100 actually made me teary.
“I think it’s so cool that you yourself have chased endless personal goals and then all your life experience has trickled down into affecting and shaping my life for the better,” she said. “That is just pretty freakin’ cool the ripple effect. You’ve given me tools for the next decade and beyond. Awesome.”
Also, about a year ago, I embarked on a solo 54-mile, point-to-point run on the middle third of the Rimrocker Trail from the town of Nucla to the Utah border, and then met my husband to camp. Here is the report. Crystal’s experience has inspired me to consider running the final section of that route, from the end point in Moab back to the campground at the Utah border, later this spring.
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