Going Ultra: Thoughts on Endurance By Andromeda Romano-Lax

On a crisp fall day two weeks ago, my family and I hired dog sitters and headed away for the weekend to run thirty-one miles along a Vancouver Island trail called the “Galloping Goose.” Thirty-one miles, or 50K, is the minimum distance for an “ultra.” You may recall that according to legend, a messenger named Pheidippides ran 25 miles from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce victory. He dropped dead on the spot.

Since those times, many athletes have broken the 25- or 26-mile barrier without perishing. But I am no natural athlete. I am a turtle. I take regular walking breaks. I doubt myself at the start of every run. Yet several years ago I began dreaming of accomplishing this distance in the same way many of us begin to dream of writing books. Can such a thing really be accomplished without great genes, talent or confidence? Can every major goal in life really be accomplished by anyone—one page or one step at a time?

I don’t need a psychologist to tell me that I run to write, and I write to run—as do Joyce Carol Oates, Haruki Murakami and Malcolm Gladwell. Running is a good time for thinking, plotting and problem-solving. But running is also the metaphor I turn to in order to believe that I will never lose the capacity to finish books. Every time I lace up my shoes, I’m reminded that incremental effort and regularity are the keys to most accomplishments. A page at a time. A step at a time. It’s worked before. It will work again.

For the first ten miles of the Galloping Goose trail, everything went perfectly. The weather was dry. A river tumbled through a canyon alongside the wooded path. The food and drinks we’d stashed behind trees were still there, where we’d left them.

Then we hit mile 14, and after what felt like an hour but wasn’t, mile 15. Maybe we weren’t drinking or eating enough, even with the stashes and the snacks in our pockets. Maybe the trail was too hilly. Maybe we’d undertrained or overtrained.

In any case, the proverbial “wall” was approaching and we hadn’t even hit mile 20. All three of us had done better than this on training runs, yet now, all three of us were suffering, not to mention a new kind of knee pain that was forcing me to take extra walking breaks. If I had to walk every two minutes, how could I possibly run the final sixteen miles? I was willing to limp to a late finish – I had specifically visualized needing to walk the final two to five miles, if necessary. But I had most of the route still to go. Despair and incredulity set in. I knew this would be hard. But did it have to be this hard?

If you’ve written a book—if you are, perhaps, trying to write one at this moment—then you know the feeling. The middle of a book is a doldrums zone that will challenge even the most experienced writer. Promising premises lose their luster. Storylines become knotted. Cliches, verbal tics and empty gestures multiply. Characters that should be fully-fleshed begin to seem like cardboard cut-outs we’ve glued to popsicle sticks. We bang them against each other, trying to rouse them to explain themselves.

And still, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. (Another horrible cliché!) The end seems impossibly far away. And the end isn’t really an end, because then we’ll be facing revisions which often take longer than the initial draft. Who can survive this? It’s daunting to write even a bad book, much less a good one.

Nearing the car we’d parked as a supply point at mile twenty, I was afraid to talk, lest I say too much and admit we’d already failed. I asked my husband and daughter what they thought their odds were for finishing our run.

“Five in ten,” Tziporah said.
“Me, too,” Brian said.
I winced at my knee pain and said, “it’s about a two for me. I don’t know what to do.”

This was my dream, not theirs. My daughter had just interviewed for a new job and would be moving cross-country in a few weeks. My own body was so tired from summer training runs it couldn’t imagine a second attempt anytime soon. This was our best 2020 shot.

“Let’s not talk. Let’s just get to the car.” We had extra food and energy drinks stored there, coffee in a thermos, band-aids and Advil. “We’ll fuel up and then we’ll see.”

At the car, we gave ourselves ten minutes and then we set out running again. Eleven miles to go, but we woudn’t think about that. Instead, we focused on surviving just two or three more. Sunset was less than an hour away. Temperatures were dropping.

In a half hour, the caffeine or the banana or the Advil kicked in. I focused on form and on breathing. I stopped limping. We hadn’t used headphones or music as an aid before, but we used them now, sharing two iPhones between three runners, taking turns.

At mile 23, we knew mile 26 was possible, and suddenly, we were running better than we’d run at mile 15. At mile 26, we high-fived and I felt lightheaded with the knowledge that we still weren’t done. This part of the trail ran along the ocean. The bay reflected the last bits of sunlight. The horizon blazed orange. We still had over 5 more miles to go, back to the car. It would have been okay to walk it in, but we didn’t need to walk. My legs felt like concrete stumps, but they were still moving.

For the next hour, the simplest possible mantra kept running through my head. “This is ultra. This is ultra.” Because every mile now took me past the marathon mileage—past any mileage I’d ever attempted. The strange feeling inside me wasn’t pride. It was more like some kind of strange honor. I felt like I was a guest in a new country—a place of fragile feelings and particularly vibrant sights and sensations. I wanted to drink it all in: every smell, every shadow, every shiver. A mother black bear with two cubs appeared on the trail ahead of us, then vanished into black woods. The moon glowed brighter over the bay as the sky darkened. Headlamps on, we kept going, with smiles on our faces.

Sometimes, pain and exhaustion worsen after the midpoint. And sometimes they don’t. Sometimes it’s possible to go further than you thought you could ever go. But you won’t know until you step over that threshold. It’s a scary place to be—and sometimes, a lonely one. You’re still reading this blogpost, but I’m sure you agree: no one cared if I ran that ultra. It was my arbitrary dream. That’s all. Many people won’t be championing you to spend another three months or year (or longer!) on your book. They won’t get it. You may be out there, running those last miles in the dark, all on your own.

I offer you this final metaphor, when you reach the “ultra” stage of your own writing project. Let’s call it any point that comes beyond what you thought this project would demand, the part that comes after you’ve almost quit—the final fifty pages or one hundred hours you thought you’d never manage to endure.

It’s a special place, perhaps the most special. At this point, everything is new, every bit of effort is to be commended. You’ve lasted beyond any hope of lasting. Curse, cry, laugh, groan—it’s all fine. If you can’t run, walk, and if you can’t walk, crawl. There’s no turning back, now. You just have to finish, as we did: on the verge of tears, incredulous, and struck with the giddy thought that we could have run another few more miles, if we’d had to.

Andromeda Romano-Lax is a 49 Writers co-founder, novelist and book coach who loves helping people draft and revise their books, as well as thrive during the many stages of a writer’s life. Her fifth novel, Annie and the Wolves, will be published in February 2021. Visit www.romanolax.com or email her at aromanolax@gmail.com to sign up for her book coaching newsletter.

3 thoughts on “Going Ultra: Thoughts on Endurance By Andromeda Romano-Lax”

  1. Anna Maria Parkinson

    As a one- time competitive runner, with 15 marathons, too many half- marathons and numerous other races to count, and one ultra under my belt, I really related to, and loved this account of personal achievement.

  2. Hey Andromeda, I had no idea you were such a runner! Here, I sit on this beautiful Halloween day, trying to muster the energy to put down the book I’m currently reading and simply go for a walk! Running a mile, let alone 31, seems completely unachievable! Well done, my friend, your words here are very inspiring, I shall go, get dressed and get me arse out the door!

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top