How to run 20 miles

At the outset of a 20 mile run. Welcome back to the world of the active! Photo from Bradbury Mountain Snowshoe Series

I’m back. At least, I think I am. It has been a rough seven months for me, but I am ready to start thinking about things other than national politics. Ready to stop just going through the motions of paying attention to the world immediately around me, ready to actually tune into my all too human, sun craving body as it moves through this damp cold spring.

Back in October, I’d just run the MDI Marathon as a 2 person relay (a yearly tradition). 13.1 miles was becoming my standard long distance run. A friend asked if I would join a 5 person relay team to complete the first annual Riverlands 100, Maine’s first 100 mile race, in May of 2017. I said sure. I like a goal, and I like a challenge, and it had been years since I did much running longer than 13.1 miles. A 20 mile relay leg sounded just right, not quite the daunting distance of a marathon, yet, longer than a half.

Fast forward to January. After running MDI my work life generally takes over, and hunting season starts in earnest, driving me out of the woods. Typically I take November off from running, and the break creeps into December through the holiday season, the short days, the poor weather…Then the weather can stay bad in January, and the new semester starts, bringing a new schedule to get on top of and then I caught that nasty cold that was going around and…well, you know where this is going. I got behind on my training. Really behind. March came around and I counted the weeks left until May 13th and realized I didn’t have much time to build up the mileage I needed to safely and happily complete a 20 mile run. A couple of my fellow team mates felt the same and dropped out of the event (luckily there are enough strange people around who run enough distance all winter to be ready to step in and fill our spots on short notice). The same thing happened to me last year, as I tried and failed to prepare for a mountain marathon in Quebec, and had to drop down to the half marathon length in the weeks before the event. This year, that wasn’t an option. The only length to run was 20 miles. People were relying on me, we even had a name (Team Turtle Tracks, in honor of a fellow runner’s brother—trail name Turtle), we were getting shirts! I realized it was time to step it up.

My training plan was unconventional. I would run during the week if I could (which was not often as the end of the semester bore down), and I would get a long run in on the weekend, building up my mileage each week as Riverlands approached. After each long run, I focused on recovering well. That was it. There was no taper (I built up mileage to a 15.6 mile carriage road run the week before the race), there were no back to back long runs, there was no speed work, no cross training (besides walking my dogs, and some skiing during March), no strength training. Nothing. Just, in the last five to six weeks before the race, a single long run a week.

Before and After. People commented that I don’t look that different after running 20 miles. I think that means I am doing something right.

As I grow older, I find that I have to focus less on performance and more on recovering well. The reality is that I am not an athlete, and putting pressure on myself to perform relative to the standard of anyone else is absurd. It isn’t my job to be a runner, I don’t use my body professionally, so any physical training I get to do is bonus. Yes, I have a responsibility to my body to keep it functioning well, and I reap the benefits of taking care of myself in the form of feeling good, but when I stopped caring about how fast (or not) I was going, really stopped caring, the running got so much better. And beyond the running, the thing that makes me feel good is to feel good afterwards. And to do that, at age 44 means you have to pay attention after you ask your body to run 13, 14, 15, 20 miles. You have to treat it well, give it what it needs. For me that means finishing the run and immediately having a recovery smoothie (consisting of whatever frozen berries are on hand, some green powder, some protein powder, some turmeric and pepper, maybe a banana, or avocado, or both, maybe some chia seeds… whatever is on hand that is full of antioxidants, electrolytes, anti inflammatory compounds and protein). I follow that with some fish oil, some meat, maybe some fruit later on, big green salad, olive oil, walnuts….no sugar (the big soft serve ice cream cone I had after running Bridge the Gap in Bucksport not withstanding), no booze (Soapbox alert: Trail running and artisan beer go together like chocolate and peanut butter apparently, if you pay attention to trail running media, but I would like to buck this trend. Can we have a race that doesn’t end with beer? Don’t get me wrong, I like beer, but I worry about that we may be coming to the point where you aren’t a real trail runner if you don’t relish a small batch local brew at the end of your latest bad ass trail run). Yes, you may feel like rewarding yourself for your long run with a big piece of german chocolate cake and a pint of ale, but I would advise against it (from experience). That sh*t worked when I was 20. Not now.

So that is how I went into this past weekend’s event. I’d run 15.6 miles as my long distance this season. I had a bag full of excellent post run food. I had a small trail pack with water and more than enough calories to see me through the race. I was nervous, but excited. In the weeks leading up to the race I had come to look forward to, rather than dread, my weekly long run, and I figured that was a good head space to be in. I was doing something right.

The run itself was relatively uneventful. I was running the second leg, and I was ready when the first runner on my team returned to the checkpoint. The out and back course was a mix of dirt road, ATV trail and single track along the Androscoggin River. The weather was good, partly sunny, with a breeze blowing up the river. Spring is proceeding slowly this year, so the beech leaves were just starting emerge, but I swear that they got visibly bigger between the time I started my run and the time I finished. Blackflies were only a problem at the middle aid station. When you stopped there to refuel you got swarmed, and the volunteers who were staffing the station were all decked out in rain coats and bug nets trying to protect against the unexpected hatch.

As I ran I focused on staying in what I came to call the O zone, O being short for oxygen. I knew that the only way to complete the distance was to not work too hard, which meant keeping my cells supplied with enough oxygen to continue to respire aerobically. Our muscle cells can temporarily function without oxygen (called anaerobic), but at a much less efficient rate and not for very long. For me to run for 4+ hours as a relatively under trained runner, I had to stay aerobic. And that means, walking up hills, and being disciplined about it. It was my rule. If it was a hill, if it was an incline at all, I power walked it. That means I could breathe through my nose the whole time (well most of the time), which is one way I used to assess whether or not I was working too hard (yes, I know you can do this more accurately with a heart rate monitor, but when I tried training with one last fall I got so angry during my runs that I hated running, which pretty much defeats the purpose. I find sticking to nasal breathing a good compromise).

Here is my friend Charlotte, heading out on one of the FIVE laps she did on this 20 mile course. For her troubles she earned a sweet brass belt buckle, the standard 100 miler finishing medal. Photo from Bradbury Mountain Snowshoe Series

All around me on the trail were people who were NOT on relay teams. People who were running the entire 100 miles ON THEIR OWN. People who would stay moving all night, and into the next morning when the rain started. People for whom the race lasted 16 to 30 hours (my measly 4 seemed ridiculous in comparison). People who had done orders of magnitude more in terms of preparation, and sacrificed huge chunks of their personal lives in order to be ready to successfully complete the full distance. To them, I bow down. I can say with certainty, that will never be me. I have more miles in me for sure, but not that many. (For more on how and why to run 100 miles, check out my friend’s post here).

At the time I passed my longest distance point at 15.6 miles, I was starting to fatigue. My legs hurt, my pinky toe blisters hurt (the blister problem stemmed from wearing new sneakers on my long run the week before, and made me remember that the first rule of running distance is to have your foot game ON). At mile 17 I got a genuine second wind (I sadly never get a “runners high” but this second wind was pretty cool)—my legs suddenly felt amazing and energetic. The second wind carried me through the last couple of miles, and then I was at the top of the hill that led back to the starting line, where a recovery smoothie, some salty chips, and a luxurious camp chair awaited me.

It feels good to be back in the game. The alternative, ears to the news, eyes to the screen, back sore for sitting, shoulders sore from crouching, that didn’t work for me, any more than giving it all up to train for a 100 mile race would. That is what the last seven months have taught me, there’s no longevity freaking out about the news you read on the internet, losing sleep about all the bad things in the world. There’s no sustainability in stress so high it is paralyzing. No, the longevity comes from taking care of yourself (keeping that oxygen flowing and your body moving) and giving yourself to the problems in your community you have the power to help solve. And make no doubt about it, this is a long game. We’ve got to be in it for the duration.

Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.