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An age-group triathlete recounts her ultra-run experience.
Have you ever considered an ultra run, or perhaps an ultra-distance triathlon? I sure have not. In fact, I can recall more than once stating aloud that anyone running a step over 26.2–or tacking extra miles onto the tail end of a really long swim and run–is out of their mind. I’m a huge fan of longer distances; I love marathons and I love Ironman, but I have zero desire to run any further. And I’ll admit I’ve kind of raised an eyebrow at those who do.
But as I’ve spent more and more time in the endurance sports community I’ve gotten to know several ultra athletes, and they’re not exactly nut jobs–at least no more so than you or me. Still, I was curious what would inspire someone to run that far. So on a recent trip to Carlsbad, Calif. I sat down with one of my close friends–Neily Mathias, Business Manager for muscle stimulator device company Compex and an accomplished age group triathlete with three Ironman finishes to her name–who recently tackled her first two ultra runs. In 2012 Mathias conquered two 50-kilometer courses, and despite a whole lot of chafing, she survived to share her story.
Triathlete.com: You were a swimmer first, then a triathlete and more recently you’ve taken on ultra running. Tell me about your evolution through these sports.
NM: I grew up swimming. I was on my first swim team when I was five, but I loved all sports. I played baseball, soccer and tennis, and actually throughout high school field hockey was my sport of choice. I was heavily recruited for college, but I didn’t see myself going back east and the programs were being cut in California. So I chose UC San Diego based on it being a really good school. Still, I knew sport had to be a part of my life–otherwise school wouldn’t be successful–so I was a walk-on on the swim team and swam for two years. I got into running after that because I was trying to lean out a little bit. My first running race was the La Jolla Half Marathon, and I was often the swimmer or runner on triathlon relay teams. Then I decided I no longer wanted to race as a relay person, so I got a bike. Triathlon came fully into my life in about 2000. I really love the sport, but I wanted to try something different, something new. Ultra running allured me–even though a 50K is the baby of ultra running!
Triathlete.com: So really, how did you decide to do a 50K run–not just once, but twice?
NM: I think I picked the hardest one for my first one! It’s actually called Mount Disappointment [mtdisappointment50k.com]. It’s so tough that the race director requires that you’ve finished another 50-k within twelve months of the race. I had never done one, so I asked if an Ironman finish would do. I raced Ironman Coeur D’Alene in June 2012, so I sent him the results and he let me in. I think he figured that since I could finish an Ironman, I could do the run. But it was ten times harder! We pretty much went straight up and straight down, up and down. We started at 6,500 feet, went down, went up, down and back up–and there was a heat wave. I was projectile vomiting at mile 20. And I decided to be all cute by wearing just my jog bra and run skirt, and my CamelBak rubbed my back raw. I had to be taped up at each aid station. The whole thing took me about nine hours [9:17:06.77]. I walked so much of it, covered in poison oak and completely chafed, and I couldn’t walk for a week afterward. And yet I wanted to do another one, because I wanted to actually run the whole thing. So I chose the OTHTC (Over The Hill Track Club) 50K Ultra [othtc.com/ultra] in Ridgecrest in December. I did it in just over five hours [05:10:24], so I dropped four hours off my time. I almost cut it in half!
Triathlete.com: What is it about ultra running that appeals to you?
NM: The best part was turning up to the start. It’s so simple. You just turn up, park, use the toilet, go outside, they do a little talk and then they say, “Ready, go.” And you just go.
Triathlon can be very frenetic and high energy and I find ultra running to be more spiritual. It’s less frenetic and more about running – just putting one foot in front of the other. I think when you’re just running and absorbing the environment and the elements–and at Ridgecrest there were 30-40 mile per hour winds that we were suffering through–you kind of just let yourself go. It’s like this is what it is. For me it’s totally different than triathlon. I actually feed off of that high energy when I do triathlon because it’s so invigorating, but I think running is more internal and you really have to rely on yourself. We were in the middle of the desert and there was no one there and nothing around. I mean you couldn’t even find a bush to hide behind to go pee–there were only shrubs!
I’m also kind of allured by the crowd. It’s just a different group. I mean I love triathlon–I really do–but there’s something special about this group. It’s an older crowd, I think because people turn to ultras after they’ve spent some time in other endurance sports. I went to Mt. Disappointment and I felt like I was 20! [Mathias is 45.]
Triathlete.com: What do you think about during such a long race, with so few distractions?
NM: I kind of fluctuate in what I think about. Sometimes I’m just in the now enjoying the view and soaking in the moment. Sometimes I start to drift into some negative thoughts, like how my body’s hurting, so I try to shift that. And sometimes some life stuff drifts in. I try not to dwell on that either, unless it’s something good. It’s like an ebb and flow. I actually like it because I think you get more internal. It’s hard sometimes for people to do that, because you start to look inside, versus just being what we always are, always focused outward. I think you get to know yourself, actually.
Triathlete.com: I imagine there are times when you just want to stop. Where do you find the inspiration to push onward when the going gets tough?
NM: Oh yeah. I kind of think about what others have done–people that have inspired me, whether they be runners or other athletes or people that have done amazing things and suffered along the way.
Triathlete.com: What was your favorite thing to eat over 50K?
NM: About every four miles there was an aid station, and I kept looking forward to these little potatoes with salt. They were awesome. I’d just stick them in my cheeks and run along with chipmunk cheeks! I was afraid to inhale, because sometimes I would choke a little bit.
Triathlete.com: What’s next on your bucket list?
NM: Definitely triathlon will always be in my life. But I’m really liking the running. You just run out the door and it feels good, whereas triathlon doesn’t always feel good! You’re trying to focus on three sports and you’re always tired. So I want to keep dabbling in ultra running. I don’t know that I’ll go up to the 100K, but I’d like to do another 50K and then a 50-miler. And to be honest–you’re going to laugh–[she lowers her voice and gets closer] I want a buckle! There are some races that give them out for finishing a 50-miler, so I want one of those belt buckles.