Going the Distance

Feature

When it comes to pushing physical limits, few sports can compare to ultramarathon running. An ultramarathon is a race that covers any distance beyond the standard marathon length of 26.2 miles – often into the triple digits. Here, we asked local ultramarathon runners to tell us all about the uniquely challenging experience, from prepping for their first race to falling in love with the sport and looking forward to the next one.

Lance

Callie Lance

Photo by Trevor Long

Q. How did you get into long-distance
running?

A. I got into it at the end of 2022 after completing my first full Ironman. I have always been an athlete and over the past five years, since moving to Chattanooga, I have slowly been increasing my distances and challenges.

Q. Tell us about the first ultramarathon you ran.

A. Not having much experience with long- distance running, I wasn’t completely sure how my body and especially my mental game would hold on. But the race directors, East Coast Adventures, were absolutely amazing and big encouragers. Plus, I had a few friends that were racing with me, and I was able to see them out on the course which helped pass the time. Endurance sports are a funny thing – you willingly put yourself into tough, painful, and uncomfortable situations and then figure out how to preserve and push your limits. Completing an ultramarathon was something I never thought I was capable of doing, but when you practice discipline and consistency, you can do anything you put your mind to.

Q. How does the experience of running an ultramarathon differ from other races?

A. Ultras are different in that there is more of a laid-back vibe to the experience. It is competitive, but everyone is willing to support one another to take on this wild adventure.

Q. Have you developed any relationships with other runners over the years?

A. Most certainly. It is a fantastic community that really supports you and your goals all while pushing you to be the best version of yourself. Be ready to discuss anything and everything under the sun since you spend a lot of time together and tend to endure tough times together.

Q. Do you have any advice for people who may be interested in running an ultramarathon?

A. “Embrace the Suck,” and you can do hard things. Challenge yourself to expand outside of your comfort zone. Endurance sports teach you a lot of life lessons that give you a different perspective on life as well as teach you a lot about yourself. They can lead to a lot of mental and spiritual growth in addition to the physical changes you’ll experience. The mental and spiritual growth can absolutely be addicting as you see how much you can improve and learn.

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Lucas

Daniel Lucas

Photo by Leah Sullivan

Q. Tell us about the first ultramarathon you ran.

A. The Georgia Jewel in Dalton. I think it was 35 miles. I was in third place until the last few miles but had done a poor job of pacing myself and paid the price in the last few hours of the race.

Q. Did you do anything special to prepare/train for that first ultra?

A. I recall doing a few repeats from the bottom to the top of Lookout Mountain.

Q. Did anything surprise you during that first ultra?

A. The biggest surprise was a day or two after the race when I had returned to my regular work week. Pushing my body and mind to the brink of failure left me with a sense of clarity that felt pure, primal, and positive.

Q. Have you developed any relationships with other runners over the years?

A. Absolutely. If you want to really, really get to know someone, go do a 12+ hour run or hike with them. You will form a deep bond that would have taken much, much longer to form over lunches or coffee.

Q. Which race would you say has been the most memorable for you?

A. Thunder Rock 100. It was a culmination of training, preparation, and support from a few key friends.
I forced myself to go super easy the first 50 miles, which was exceptionally humbling. The course ended up being 102 miles that day, but I felt like I was floating for at least half of the remaining miles. It was a true experience of what psychologists refer to as experiencing “flow.”

Q. How do you decide which races you want to participate in?

A. I’m a sucker for any friend who asks me to join them on an adventure. On occasion I will register for a race just because I like the city or ambience in a given area.

Q. Do you have any advice for people who may be interested in running an ultramarathon?

A. Don’t overthink it. Treat it as “A day in the woods.”

Q. Anything else you’d like to add?

A. Most people focus on their limitations in life, e.g. “I can’t do the thing (that I say I want to do) because of X, Y, or Z.”  My advice is to put your back against the wall and do it of your own free will – don’t wait for an invitation. This is the recipe for a surplus of fulfillment in your life.

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Cates

Mary Cates

Photo by Trevor Long

Q. Tell us about the first ultramarathon you ran.

A. The first ultramarathon I finished was the North Country 50-miler in Michigan. It was a wild experience because you don’t know what you don’t know. I treated that race like a marathon, which worked out great until it didn’t. 

Q. How does the experience of running an ultramarathon differ from other races?

A. Ultra running is a beautiful mix of physical and mental training.  It’s very hard to prepare for the emotional toll the races can take on you if you’re not in the right head space, but they can also be incredibly cathartic if you’re trying to let go of some of the weight of the world. There’s something about spending hours, or even a full day, solving problems alone in the woods. It can be pretty magical.

Q. How many ultramarathons have you taken on altogether?

A. I honestly couldn’t even count, but it’s probably 30 or 40. 

Q. Have you developed any relationships with other runners over the years? Can you tell me a bit about what that’s like?

A. The ultra running community is what keeps people in the sport. It’s really unique to this sport. I’ve been a part of the running community in general most of my life, but the trail and ultra folks are just different. It feels unconditional. There’s no judgment, just love and respect.

Q. Which race would you say has been the most memorable for you? What makes it stand out from the others?

A. My recent 100-miler in the beautiful mountains of Southwest Virginia, the Yeti 100-miler. I’d raced it a few times before, including the previous year when I was unfortunately knocked unconscious after a limb fell on me during a storm. This year I wanted to go back and win the race as a bit of redemption. I finished first place female and second place overall, with a time of 17 hours. As a 43-year-old woman, I’m most proud of that. Women are really incredible, and I’m excited to push boundaries and show what we can do.

Q. How do you decide which races you want to participate in?

A. I typically choose my races based on the locations because life is too short to run somewhere that isn’t just absolutely stunning.

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Halsey Richardson

Wendy Halsey-Richardson

Photo by Hacker Medias

Q. How did you get into long-distance running?

A. I started trail running in 2016 as a fun way to stay in shape and meet new folks. I made new friends and really found a whole community. 

Q. Did anything surprise you during that first ultra?

A. I learned that I can do hard things – really hard things. I learned that your body can keep moving even when fatigue has set in. I also got a taste of what it is like to bond with the folks you go through things and suffer with. We stayed at the finish line, ate, and celebrated for several hours. I’ll always remember it.

Q. How does the experience of running an ultramarathon differ from other races?

A. For me it comes down to the amount of time you are out on a trail. It’s magical. You experience nature, eat all the snacks, feel highs and lows, forget about the world and stresses of every day. You learn to be self-sufficient but to also rely on others, sometimes strangers. You encourage other runners and receive positive feelings in return. It really hits you when another runner or aid station worker is kind to you when you are feeling low. It’s pretty awesome.

Q. Have you developed any relationships with other runners over the years?

A. When you are running in the woods with others for hours, you end up sharing your life story, your hopes and dreams. You really get to know folks and listen without the noise of the outside world. I have friends from that first trail group I ran with in 2016 that are part of my everyday life. 

Q. Which race would you say has been the most memorable for you?

A. My first ultra was in Cloudland Canyon. It started out below freezing. It was a beautiful, hard day that taught me I could run for eight hours. I learned to just keep moving forward. But my favorite was my last one in April of 2023. The race went through the Big South Fork area. I love our trails in the Southeast – gnarly roots, non-stop creeks and rocks, longish climbs, fun down hills, and a canopy overhead that is so green and thick that you are shaded from the hot sun and sometimes the rain. We are lucky.

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Holland

Nathan Davis Holland

Photo by Ryan Long

Q. How did you get into long-distance running?

A. A buddy of mine, Josh Cole, had asked me to run a road half-marathon with him in 2009. I did, it was terrible, and I pretty much hated every step of that race. However, the next year Josh asked me to run the Stump Jump 50k with him and assured me that a trail race would be much more enjoyable because it was in the mountains. I told him I would run with him and have been hooked ever since!

Q. Tell us about the first ultramarathon you ran.

A. I was naive thinking that because I’d played soccer for 20 years, climbed, biked, etc. that I could just jump right into a 50k and do just fine. I assumed I could easily run a 5-hour or better Stump Jump… that did not happen! God dealt me a big slice of humble pie, and I am extremely thankful for that lesson.

Q. Which race would you say has been the most memorable for you?

A. My single most memorable trail race would probably be Wasatch 100 in 2015. That was the fourth race in a series of four 100-mile races over a 12-week span, and I had learned a lot about 100s that summer, with the biggest lesson being that I was not strong enough to do these on my own and I needed the support of my family, friends, volunteers, and God to help me get through all of these races. At Wasatch, I had made it to the Mile 50 aid station and felt terrible. I had been puking for the last 20 miles, felt like death warmed over, and had no idea how I was going to get through to the finish. Thanks to the prayers of so many and the support from my family and crew, I completed that race.

Q. Do you have any advice for people who may be interested in running an ultramarathon?

A. Enjoy the highs and endure the lows. You are much more capable than you could ever imagine.  Be okay with the “failures.” You’ll learn much more from those experiences than you will from the successes.

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Jensen

Wendy Jensen

Photo by Trevor Long

Q. Tell us about the first ultramarathon you ran.

A. My first ultramarathon was in 2010, and I had never run a marathon. Although it was a small race, I was surprised at how amazing the accomplishment felt.

Q: Did anything surprise you during that first ultra?

A. I was surprised to have so much alone time on the trail in the middle of a race. Thankfully, I had plenty of experience running alone behind faster friends in my training.

Q: How many ultramarathons have you taken on altogether?

A. I think 14 official ultras, and maybe five on my own while training for a 50+ miler.

Q: Have you developed any relationships with other runners over the years? Can you tell me a bit about what that’s like?

A. Running introduced me to many great people over the years that I talk to regularly. Also, I met my husband when I sold him a hydration pack while I was working at Rock/Creek. We had gone to high school together but didn’t really know each other then. I invited him to some group runs, and the rest was history – we are coming up on 10 years of marriage.

Q: Which race would you say has been
the most memorable for you? What makes it stand out from the others?

A. I would say the Gone Loco 33-miler in Athens, TN. It’s so easy to celebrate the top three runners in the male and female categories, but these guys celebrate all the way to the last finisher. I think it is incredibly gracious to celebrate all the effort put forth into finishing a long-distance race, and to me, this is how you get more people moving.

Q: Do you have any advice for people who may be interested in running an ultramarathon?

A. I was 37 when I first laced up running shoes. I had never been a runner. I think my advice would be that it’s never too late to start working towards a goal.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

A. It’s hard not to have imposter syndrome in a town like Chattanooga with so many gifted runners. We are incredibly fortunate to have so many miles of trails. I am thankful for the leaders who prioritize trail building and maintenance as this ensures that we have so many playgrounds to choose from.

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