I got an easy breezy message from Julie about giving an informal chat on motivation, inspiration and creativity at the Museum. With some hesitation, I accepted her invite wondering, what in the world could I possibly have to offer to the staff at the Anchorage Museum.
When I received the more detailed invite via email, I had just woken up from a nap in my bathrobe after a morning workout that left me weak and sore to a house that looked as if I was living with a fraternity.
When I saw the list of speakers, I panicked, certain I would never measure up to the accomplishments of the folks here today. So I contacted an expert, a friend who has been inspiring people every Sunday for 30 years about overcoming obstacles and change. He told me to tell my own story honestly, to own it and know that what I have accomplished is unique and no small matter.
So, Good morning, I am Sarah Duffy and I run 100 mile races.
I honestly believe that running, especially ultra-running has allowed me to become a happier and better human being.
In 2010, after completing a number of marathons and my first 50K, I asked my two most experienced ultra friends if I was ready to run 100 miles. Each had their own very different response, but when my friend yelled, “100 miles, YES! You can totally do it!” I believed her.
I signed up for my first 100 miler in Arizona in November 2010 and from Nov 2010 to Nov 2011, I completed three 100 mile events in three different states.
During the first 100, I ran 15 mile laps in the desert for over 28 hours. I experienced flash flooding, hallucinations of white ducks in the desert, excruciating blisters and the brightest, most brilliant sunrise I had ever seen.
My second 100 here in Alaska had me run from Hope to Cooper Landing and back. I shared the first 50 miles with my enthusiastic mentor and we laughed and sang and talked until things went downhill for her and she had to end her race at 50 miles. The second 50 miles took me from the lowest of lows to the best power nap in the tundra to the angriest I had ever been. I was so frustrated and overwhelmed by the monotony and pain and fatigue of running 100 miles that I left my pacer behind at 80 miles and sprinted into the 88 miles aid station solo and ready to get the race done. It wasn’t until I had visions of a small rabbit trapped in a cage, a black bear sitting by the side of the road and a woman with long braids and a flannel shirt cheering me on that I leapt across the finish line completely joyful, proud and appreciative of my experience.
In November 2011, I conquered a 100 mile race in CA. In involved 22,000 feet of climbing over the course. The hills never ended and I sobbed in exhaustion with each ascent I made. The bright golden eyes of a mountain lion in the dark at 3am 70 miles into the race set me straight. I yelled and banged rocks together and explained that I had two young kids at home. Please let me pass. I finished the race well under the cut-off for a silver belt buckle.
I was hooked.
I had no idea what adventure, challenge and opportunity 100 miles would offer. I relished even thrived in the absurdity of moving through 100 miles without stopping. Ultimately, running 100 miles is a simple act. One foot in front of the other, eat, drink, keep moving. Relentless forward progress. I started to figure out that if I could be more comfortable with being uncomfortable, I could find success on the trail and in my life.
At the end of 2013, I had an idea. The Grand Slam of Ultrarunning includes 4 of the most challenging, competitive 100 mile races in the country all within 12 weeks of each other. My chances of accomplishing this were slim and hence the concept of the Alaska Slam was born. In the early, hours of morning on a pre-dawn run, I announced to my running mates that I would complete all 4 Alaskan 100 mile races in 2014: The Su100 in Feb., the White Mountains 100 in March, the Sluicebox 100 in June and the Resurrection Pass 100 in August.
It sounded foolish, exciting, egotistic and humbling all at the same time. It felt do-able and impossible, like no big deal and a bite bigger than I can chew. It made me wonder who I think I am. I’m no professional athlete or even a talented athlete for that matter. On the other hand, it was one race, one run at a time. It was a chance to step out of the daily path that makes up life and shoot for something bigger. It is an accomplishment made of smaller accomplishments, but each of those smaller accomplishments takes commitment and perseverance and getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.
The first two winter races involved pulling a sled with required/necessary gear. Training to run 100 miles is one thing but training to run 100 miles with 25 lbs. of gear behind you is another. Training involves multi-hour jaunts dragging a sled. This means leaving behind my family, my work as a teacher and home responsibilities and heading out.
So with a 6 hour sled pull on the training calendar, I multi-tasked with an empty sled, a dry bag and a to-do list in hand. I dropped the van off for an oil change downtown and headed to Costco on Debarr. Kimchi, nuts, cheese, cat litter, laundry detergent and coffee in the dry bag and off I went. Pulling substantial weight in groceries I headed south and east to the Chester Creek trail and began a parent teacher conference via cell phone as I pulled my groceries. I discussed educational interventions with one of my parents from Northern Lights overpass to Valley of the Moon. I’d say it was almost a 3 mile conference.
The security guard kept an eye on my sled at the Wells Fargo Branch while I deposited my check. I headed north on C to my school office on Fireweed to makes copies for class. My groceries stayed nicely chilled on the brisk January day.
From here I continued north to coffee at Snow City downtown, why not, I got all my errands done. From Snow City to Ak Sales and Service was a straight shot down 5th and my 6 hour sled pull was in the books.
I should probably mention the honks, hollers, waves and comments from passersby while trudging around town. It must have been an odd sight to see me trudging through midtown pulling a dry bag the size of a small child behind me. On another sled pulling run, a woman near Hilltop honestly asked me if my child was in my zipped up duffle on the back of my sled. All I could say was, shhhh, she’s sleeping.
The two winter races, Susitna first, then White Mtns were tough in cold, dark unfamiliar country. Your body is working so hard to stay warm and deal with the extra weight you are pulling. I couldn’t eat enough calories to fuel this endeavor. My pace slowed way down.
During the Susitna, I found myself in the middle of a frozen bog in the middle of the night lost and alone with a -20 degree sleeping bag wrapped around my body to try to stay warm. This race continued on for more than 32 hours, it felt like it would never end. I had to focus on one spruce tree to the next to keep moving. The voice in my head was on repeat, just walk to that tree, ok now run to the big tree, you can stop and walk at that tree up there. It was tree to tree for a long time.
At 89 miles in the middle of a roadless nowhere I saw a parking lot full of cars and cried tears of joy knowing I could quit, call my husband and get a ride home. The Alaska Slam plan was dead before the end of the first race. Fortunately, I think, this parking lot was a figment of my calorie deprived imagination and I continued on for another 11 miles to finish the race.
The WM 100 north of Fairbanks was a similar and completely different challenge. The new landscape was a novelty for the first 40 miles, as this was my first time exploring the White Mountains. I had company too. A good friend from Anchorage and I spent the first 60 miles together telling stories, sharing secrets and learning about the important chapters in each other’s lives.
The long climb up to the mountain pass slowed me down and I got cold. I kept seeing a man on a snow machine behind me, keeping his distance, but keeping an eye on me at the same time. And this time he was REAL. He was the sweeper. I was in dead last place.
The stars sparkled and shot through the dark sky. Ribbons of colorful northern lights danced and waved just above the mountain ridges. I can still see that sky in my mind very vividly.
The 19 mile section of trail between 60-79 miles took me almost 7 hours. I kept waking up on top of my sled, not knowing I had laid down to rest. Each time I’d try to wake up and stand, shivering with cold I’d fall off trail into the deep snow.
I was sure I was lost and I did not want to go on, but in the middle of the White Mtns, I put one foot in front of the other and smiled my way into the sunshine of the next day.
I was the very last participant to finish that race in 35 hours and change. Last place- the red lantern. And when I crossed the finish line and stopped moving the greatest guy in Alaska at that moment handed me a grilled reindeer sausage and said, “Good job.” It sure felt like I did a good job, red lantern and all.
It was such a relief to have the winter races done and the dreaded sled got hung in the shed were it hangs untouched to this day. Two down and two to go. Bring on the running and the summer.
The Sluicebox in Fairbanks in June was daylight all night. Within the first mile of the race I joined forces with a person I now call friend. We spent the first 92 miles together. With each mile the friendship grew stronger and we shared the work or leading, encouraging and pushing until all we had left could only cover our own efforts. I signed up to run a race and found a new friendship in the miles.
The race was full of typical challenges- fatigue, nausea, soreness and boredom, but overall I felt capable, present and determined.
Two old friends met me with 3 miles left and their love and support carried me across the finish line. I fell to the ground, smiled and declared, “THAT was AWFUL.”
Four weeks later the final race of the slam was upon me- The Resurrection Pass 100. I was on my own this time. Bolstered by the experience of having completed the race before, yet I was still fearful of being alone at night in bear country and self-supported for the first 40 miles of the race.
My husband met me at 40 miles close to midnight and rode me up to Devil’s Pass turn-off. He let me sleep for 9 minutes in a willow shrub out of the wind and watched me vanish into the early morning light and over the pass.
At 70 miles I was handed a piping hot cup of strong French Press coffee, quite possibly the best cup of coffee I’d had ever. I wrote Mary a thank you note for that cup of coffee.
It was my confidence or the coffee that inspired me to leave the aid station knowing what was ahead and what I had to do. It felt long and I had to push through feelings of wishing I was further along, but I put my head down, ran and finished fast and strong in 26 hours.
A friend made me a lovely trophy- a gold pan with big gold letters that read ALASKA SLAM 2014. The big smile on my face in the post race posed photo wasn’t because I completed my goal. I was just so darn happy to be done with all the running.
It took months to think through, process and feel my Alaska Slam experience. It was once my life returned to a more typical structure that I came to appreciate what the completion of my goal had done for me. I caught myself taking lessons from the trail and applying them to my own daily grind. Be more comfortable being uncomfortable, bring my ego to what I do and know when to ask for help. Push through the pain and suffering-keep moving. Action fixes being stuck. And some days are going to be like the last 10 miles- tree to tree.
Two weeks ago the dog was sick and vomiting in the backyard. He couldn’t keep water down. My pre-teen was moody and angry and I was her target, the puppy puked on the door mat and the cat in the playroom. My at times demanding 7 year old had her 28th idea of the morning that required my assistance and it was just before 7am. All I could do was laugh. This is when life is like an ultra. It’s like walking through a frozen bog at -10 degrees in the middle of the night with a sleeping bag over my head. ABSURD!
Push through, stay present, keep fixing problems until there aren’t any left or at least until it’s time to take the kids to school.
Opportunity, beauty, innovation and inspiration don’t live where it’s comfortable. You have to stay with the discomfort. You have to be willing to meet it. The advice I was given during my first 100 miles with 10 miles left to go was “Embrace the suck.” It’s where the mountain lions, the northern lights, the new friendships and the really good coffee are.
I approach new situations and challenges with my ego. I start with the premise I CAN DO THIS. I can run 4 100 mile races this year just like the professional runner I heard talking about the Grand Slam. When it gets hard and I don’t know how or which way to proceed I ask a question. I listen. I ask for help. Julie’s invitation to speak today scared me, so I said yes and here I am.
Things pile up in life I think this is something everyone can relate to in this day and age. We make lists, check off what we get done and there is always more to do tomorrow. Mom, wife, teacher, ultra- runner, 2 dogs, a cat 2 rabbits and 4 hermit crabs; my responsibilities fall under many categories. Most days I find myself in my head worrying about how I am going to get it all done. It is then I am reminded of the last 10 miles. Just think tree to tree. Halfway through a 100 miles it is devastating to think I still have 50 more miles to go. It is even worse at 98 miles when you realize you still have 2 miles left. UGH.
So on the days when the list is long or when the mind can’t grasp how it all will ever get done, I go tree to tree. I remind myself that all I have to do right now is get the kids to school. That is where I am and that is what I am doing. Next I pick up some groceries. I can shop. I don’t mentally wander off to the next 12 things on the list. This allows me to be effective in getting tasks done. It keeps me present in the moment and there is joy and satisfaction and accomplishment there.
I used to wish that I had accomplished more, traveled extensively and challenged myself in more physically demanding ways. Running ultras reminds me that on any given day I can reap the benefits of my efforts. I can have any experience available to me if I am present. I can feel the satisfaction and opportunity within discomfort and whether I am in my own kitchen, on top of a mountain or speaking in front of a group, I am getting better at being uncomfortable.