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Chasing Speed

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People can get the wrong impression when you say you run ultras. They might say something like, “That’s incredible! I had no idea you were an Olympic-caliber athlete.”

“Thanks,” I say, “but honestly, anyone can do it.” I quote the old ultrarunners’ maxim, which is true, that the events are glorified eating and drinking contests. I can jog with a bellyful of burritos like nobody’s business.

Inevitably, people then ask how long it takes me to run 100 miles, which is usually followed by something like, “Say, what does that work out to as a mile pace?” They begin to do the math: “Wait … so, like, three and a half miles per hour? Oh.”

Then my ego gets touchy. It wants to explain that comparing road miles to mountain miles is an apples-and-oranges situation. After all, I do take some pride in covering long distances on foot. But as with many runners who get into ultras, I find the reality to be this: The longer I’ve run, the slower I’ve gotten.

Last year, I decided it was time to awaken my fast-twitch muscle fibers from their long slumber.

Years ago, when I ran my first 100, I recruited a seasoned backpacker and through-hiker to pace me. He had no prior ultrarunning experience, so he was nervous, but said he’d hang with me as long as he could. Several miles into his pacing duties, he asked gingerly, “Is there usually this much walking involved?” (He had no trouble hanging for 60 more miles.)

With a few more years of ultras under my belt, I signed up for a road marathon—my first in years. Hardened, certainly, by all those mountain miles, I was confident I’d smash my PR. But apparently burrito jogging isn’t rewarded at road marathons. Gasping for air, I crossed the finish line with a different kind of PR—my slowest marathon ever, by an impressive 30 minutes.

Last year, I decided it was time to awaken my fast-twitch muscle fibers from their long slumber. My coach filled my training schedule with a panoply of novelties—intervals, hill sprints, burpees, agility-ladder drills, and workouts on a horrible machine called Jacobs Ladder. He informed me that the track would be my new best friend.

The new regimen was dreadful. I ran sprints so hard my eyes watered—equal parts wind and despair. At the gym, I worked my leg muscles until they shuddered. By the end of an hour of hard intervals, the rails of my treadmill were splattered like Jackson Pollock paintings made of sweat. I did time trials at the track, and any ego I’d gained from the occasional podium finish at an ultra retreated to a corner to whimper, like a dog that had been punished.

It worked. I broke my mile PR by 17 seconds. Getting anywhere near my middle-school track accomplishments had long seemed like a pipe dream. Still, racing a mile was the most miserable thing on earth. A different kind of suffering from running ultras.

I did learn that speed workouts were shockingly efficient—not only at making me faster (at all distances), but at furnishing many of the gifts I’d thought I needed to run all day and night to access. For example, in an ultra, it might take 20 hours for the trail to begin chipping away at my spirit in earnest. When I try to hold a three-minute plank, though, or run two laps hard at the track, the spirit smashing commences within 70 or 80 seconds. Another 20, and it shifts into a full-blown existential quandary. Why am I doing this? What am I made of? What in life really matters?

I’ve paid good money at ultras for that shit.

Pushing one’s physical limits grants access to secret internal troves of strength. The units are just different—impossibly long seconds instead of hours, meters instead of miles. Whether in speed or in endurance, the reckoning that happens when you confront those boundaries is the same. So is the elation.

Yitka Winn might try a road marathon again this year.

This article originally appeared in issue 130 of Trail Runner magazine. Subscribe here.