The scariest part of taking a risk is letting go of control.
By nature, taking a risk means going off into the unknown, and forcing yourself to accept the result.
Sometimes everything works out perfectly, and sometimes your risky adventure will end in complete disaster.
Other times, the result isn’t what you expected, but turns out to be just as magical.
Today I’m going to share the story of Brooke LaGrasso, a runner, member of the Trail Runner’s System and mother of two from Columbus Ohio.
Back in January she reached out to me out of the blue. The message started off as emails to a running blogger and coach often do, by explaining her running resume — 5 casual marathons, more for fun than competition — but ended asking for help:
I have my heart set on a 50 mile race in August. The Marquette 50 in northern Michigan. I understand it is a large jump but I have deep personal reasons for choosing this race … where do I start?
When Passion Takes Over
Having been awhile since her last serious marathon training cycle, and having never run a 50k before, I would tell most people they should start their ultramarathon journey working solely towards a 50k goal. There will always be 50 milers.
But Brooke was determined, and I could feel that when I followed up the email with a Skype call. She was nervous, sure, and maybe a little unsure of what she was getting herself into, but Brooke had the passion.
When you put yourself out there and take a risk, passion and determination are two of your biggest allies.
So we went for it … or I guess Brooke went for it, since she did all the hard work.
I’ve asked Brooke to share her journey through the interview below. Her story takes lots of twists and turns, requires a major pivot, and didn’t end up exactly the way we had planned.
But she achieved something great, and discovered a lot about herself, and what she’s capable of in the process.
Making the Transition from Road Marathons to Trail Ultramarathons
Brooke’s story starts where many of you are now, or were not that long ago. Interested in trail or ultra running, but unsure where to start.
Doug: So you come into this with experience with a road half and full marathon background. What made you want to give trail and ultra running a try?
Brooke: At the bike path where I usually did my runs, I noticed a few spots with short trail turn offs. I found myself looking forward to those sections more than any other. I ran a trail 10k a few years back and really enjoyed it. I felt like it was time for a change and new adventure.
Doug: What were some of your biggest fears going into training for an ultramarathon?
Brooke: Mostly that I wasn’t ready. I felt like I didn’t have enough experience and I was getting in over my head.
Doug: That’s such a common concern with anything new and big. How do you know if you’re ready? Most people stop there and never give it a shot. But you didn’t!
Alright, you picked your race, and start working with me. Share a little about your experience training. Was it as bad as you might have thought?
Brooke: I’m so thankful I had a coach to guide me. Beyond the schedule it was nice to have someone to be accountable to. I also had NO clue about fuel and gear for that distance. It was also pretty sweet to have someone recognize my hard work!
I had no idea how far I would come. I remember running easy trails and huffing and puffing up the climbs. I was surprised how “slow” I was on the trail. After awhile I really found a way to get myself in an easy zone and complete most of my runs. I recovered faster and felt less burned out.
I will say that I was not prepared for how lonely it is out there on the trails. Sometimes I wouldn’t see anyone! Eventually I got really good at talking to myself.
Doug: Ha! I’ve been there. The other day I realized I had been singing out loud to myself for miles.
Dealing with Injury and Setbacks
Brooke knew that a few lingering injuries could become a problem once she ramped back up her mileage. To proactively address those issues, we incorporated additional strength training, drills, and exercises.
But even then, you can’t always foresee what might turn into an issue.
Doug: You had a few setbacks leading up to your first 50k. Talk to me about those, and how you bounced back.
Brooke: I started the training with an ankle injury that carried over from a previous full. I underestimated how far it would set me back, and ended up having to cut way back on my miles. At one point running 1 mile pain free was a victory. Slowly I was able to catch up to where I should have been.
The weather was also a beast! This winter was insane! Running in -20 degrees is not something I would recommend. I skipped several runs due to weather alone.
I like to think of training plans as written on an Etch A Sketch, not stone. After all, shit happens, and there’s often nothing you can do about it. Weather, old injuries, life, they can all get in the way. So you have to adjust and reevaluate.
Running Your First Ultramarathon
The first real test of her progress was to be a 50k training race, one month before the Marquette 50, her main goal.
Doug: Your first 50k was planned as a training run for the next race, but boy did it look tough. You sent me a few photos of the mud and trails, and they were nasty. But you did it!
Brooke: I was prepared for a 31 mile training run and what I got was something totally different. At points in the course I was knee deep in mud. The rest of the course was ankle deep super slippery nonsense. It felt nothing like a training run and instead felt like survival!
Doug: Ah the uncertainty of trail running. You never know what the trail will throw your way. Were you dealing with a lot of mental challenges?
Brooke: For sure! I watched other runners pass me over and over and it really shook my confidence. How on earth could everyone be so cheerful!?
Doug: You had struggled with nutrition a little early on in training, but we worked together on a plan that would keep you energized. What kind of nutrition strategy did you have on race day?
Brooke: I did. I was fueling for the road which was far far too little. I was also burning myself out running too hard and needed more sugar to keep me going on the trail. Fueling on a regular basis was a great way to learn how my body reacted. Now I can sense what I need before I need it. For race day I relied heavily on the stations. I brought a handheld and kept it full with HEED the entire time.
I had gels I carried with me and took them about every 45 minutes-1 hour. I also took several salt tabs each stations because it hit almost 90 degree that day. I had oranges, PB&J and coke at the stations.
Maybe her confidence did shake because of the mud, but she nailed everything in her control. And you know what she sent me a few days after finishing that race? A long list of things to celebrate that went well.
Accepting Changes: “No Shame in my Game!”
After taking a few days off to recover and reflect before jumping back into training, Brooke had a decision to make. Should she stick to the original 50 mile plan, or drop down to the 50k option instead?
The past few months had it’s setbacks, with injury and then a tougher than expected training race.
Doug: After that first race, you quickly bounce back and start planning for the next. It’s here that you decide to drop down from the 50 miler to the 50k. What went into that decision?
Brooke: I’m so happy I went with the 50k! I wanted to enjoy my experience and not feel the pressure of time like I had in the last. I knew I would have better opportunities in the future on easier courses. No shame in my game!
Doing More Than You Thought Possible
Doug: Race day comes around again and I know you’re feeling a little nervous. How did it feel once you got out there and started running this dream race you’ve been working so hard at for so long?
Brooke: I felt fantastic! It was dark, cool and had a huge waterfall within 2 miles. I felt strong and ready to go. I was also blessed to have my sisters cheer me on. Everything felt right.
Doug: How did your legs and mind feel during this race? Any different than the first?
Brooke: With the previous one the mud was something I had no experience dealing with.
The Marquette 50 was a whole new ball game. There was lots of scrambling which I had no opportunity to practice. It was scary up there! The course was similar technical wise to my trail but the constant rocky cliff climbing left me exhausted. I found myself walking in runable parts simply because I was tired from climbing. On all fours! Yikes!
At the last peak, the hardest one, I cried like a baby at the summit. How was I going to get down? How did I get there? It was for sure an intense moment. I had no idea I was capable of that.
Doug: But you overcame those fears and beat those climbs! How did it feel crossing that finish line?
Brooke: Relief! I was so overwhelmed with the challenge of the course. It was such an incredible experience and everything I was looking for. Climbs, cliffs, views….it FELT like a true ultra. Couldn’t wait to have a Coke (I don’t drink…wha whaaa)
Doug: Well congrats again, Brooke! What’s next?
Brooke: I’m planning on a 50k this December (brrr) at a course near my house. Excited to be on my turf.
What You Can Learn From Brooke’s Story
This is the first time I’ve shared a story from a coaching client like this.
Out of the dozens of runners I’ve worked with, there are plenty of success stories from people who nailed their race goals, but Brooke’s is the one I felt compelled to share today. Not because everything went exactly as planned, but precisely because it didn’t.
And you know what? She still got everything she was looking for, and more.
Expecting the Unexpected
I recently saw this graphic on Facebook:
As someone trying to help people run their first ultramarathons, this is a tough reality. But it’s still reality.
No matter how strong you feel during training, chances are something unexpected will happen. Whether it’s mud or rocky climbs like Brooke, or any number of other potential issues.
Expect the unexpected. Roll with it. Grow from it.
The beauty is that when you keep pushing, the unexpected is a realization that you’re capable of more than you ever thought.
Even with those setbacks, Brooke came out more excited than ever, and I for one can’t wait to see what she does next.
Ready to take a chance and set out on your own trail or ultra running adventure? Get started with the Trail Runner’s System.