It’s 4 am, and I have been lying on a cot in the aid station for the last 90 minutes.
A thick wool blanket is pulled over my head for warmth, my right hand clutches a slice from a still-fresh French baguette, and my left holds a water bottle filled with what I can only describe as stomach-turningly sweet liquid.
I am 22 hours into this ultramarathon through Alps (53.5 miles, I remind myself for encouragement), and I calculate that the remaining 21 miles are likely to take me around 9 hours.
I don’t think that I have it in me.
Ultramarathons (or “ultras,” as we call them) are not for the faint of heart. Defined as any footrace longer than a marathon (which is 26.2 miles), ultras are everywhere these days—on roads, on trails, in the desert, and, in my case, through the mountains.
My race is part of a weeklong festival of races around Mont Blanc, all of which end in iconic Chamonix. Mine, called the Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (or TDS for short), starts in Courmayeur, Italy, traveling through the statuesque French Alps to finish at the foot of Mont Blanc. A 75-mile race, TDS also boasts 7300 meters of climbing (and 7300 meters of descending) over technical terrain, which have slowed me to a near crawl.
When I tell my work friends about the race, one of the most common replies is “75 miles?! I don’t even drive that far!” Quickly followed by, “why in the world would you want to do this?”
I usually chuckle. And then I start explaining about how I love the mountains and how I love that feeling of being part of them. I love the feeling of strength I get from the training, like I can tackle anything that comes before me. I love the silence in my mind and the space from my worries. I love the metronome of my late afternoon runs—slipping away from my perch on the 20th floor of the SickKids research tower and from my pursuit to decipher the intricate workings of the cell; sliding through the rush-hour crowds as I make my way north on Bay; cresting the final hill in the Brickworks to look back to downtown Toronto, alight with the setting sun. I love coming back to my lab on the dark, now-quiet streets, and how my thoughts, effervescent, now skip and dance beside me.
I love the humility races like this demand. I love the challenge. And I love that I have to prove myself each time, that nothing is guaranteed.
What I don’t tell my friends is that, however hard they think ultras are, it doesn’t come close to the reality. The drip, drip, drip of your thoughts betraying you. Your legs begging you to stop. The hours and miles stretching before you, seemingly endless. Each race, each time you push the body for this long, is a new struggle with your mind. Ultras can strip away all of those superficial reasons for running, penetrating to the very core of your being. With every mile,—and, later, with every tenth of a mile,—races like TDS demand the real answer to the question of why.
At some point, if you’re going to finish, you need to speak to the demons.
But, as I lie in my cot, if I’m entirely honest with myself, even with three years of ultra-running experience, even though I’ve finished TDS before, this is the very question I’m asking myself. Why should I keep going? The excuses start running again. It’s going to be hours until I finish. I’ve already done over 50 miles. I’m tired. My blister hurts. I’ve been nauseous for the entire night. I want to brush my teeth! I want my pyjamas! I would stamp my foot in frustration if I could. I have so far to go. So many more hours of pain. This is hard. I don’t want to.
That’s it, though, that’s the rub. I don’t want to, but I know that I can.
There are no fireworks in this thought, no epic narratives. It’s just the simple knowledge that I can still put one foot in front of the other. That there is still enough time to finish.
How can I meet the eyes of my husband, my mom, my friends if I stop when I could have kept going? How can I repay all of their support—their emails and texts and far-flung love—by just failing to get out of a warm cot? After all, isn’t running 75 miles in the Alps supposed to be hard? Isn’t that the point?
A half-hour has passed. Still foggy, I sit up and gingerly put on my pack. I stand. My legs ache.
“A bit,” I reply. I try to smile. “Enough.”
“Bravo, Olivia. Courage.”
I walk out the tent. The mountains behind me are silent, and their dark silhouettes mysterious against the star-filled sky.
Turning on my headlamp, I walk into the night.
Olivia S. Rissland is a Scientist at the SickKids Research Institute and Assistant Professor of Molecular Genetics at the University of Toronto. Her lab works on understanding how cells decode their genomes. A recent transplant to Canada, she enjoys exploring the ravines in Toronto and taking photos of her cat.