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An Elite Athlete’s Real-Life Training Plan

Mention to people you’re training for a 50- or 60-mile ultramarathon and the list of questions they’ll ask will be nearly as long as the race itself. “What do you think about when you run?” they wonder. “Where do you pee? When do you sleep? How do you do it all?”

They assume that you have to be hyper-organized and methodical to juggle long-distance running, work and family life. I’m here to tell you that this is a fallacy.

I don’t do it all, not even close. I don’t keep spreadsheets or a digital calendar; I don’t tabulate my weekly miles. Important forms frequently go missing, wadded up at the bottom of the ratty backpack I carry everywhere. I forget a lot of stuff. I’m always late getting home from a run. When I tell my husband, Steve, that I’ll be gone for an hour, he replies, “Great, see you in 90 minutes.”

So when I signed up for my first 100-mile race, the Leadville Trail 100, last year, I knew it would be tricky to keep training from taking over my life.

Frankly, the entire endeavor seemed improbable, delusional even. I had two young daughters at home, a book to finish writing, and a metal plate the size of a spatula in my knee from breaking my leg two years earlier in a white water rafting accident. Before operating, the orthopedist had looked me up and down through disdainful eyes and said, “If I were you, I’d never run again.”

Did I mention I was in my mid-40s?

If I was going to have any hope of finishing Leadville, I’d have to figure out a way to turn my challenges into strengths. I didn’t have a coach, and the longest distance I’d run to date was 62 miles. What I needed was a plan. I decided to use the best one I could find, custom-made just for me: my life.

The most important metric in training for a hundred-mile race isn’t pace or mileage but time on your feet. Unless you’re superhuman, at some point over the course of 20 or 30 hours, your body will feel as if it’s been run over by a train, your stomach will rebel, your brain will go fuzzy, and you will hate yourself and possibly everyone around you for indulging you in this absurd undertaking.

You don’t necessarily have to train long for this, just smart. This is true for nearly any endurance event, whether it’s a 5K or 100 miles or everyday life. You have to be creative. You have to steal time from the edges of your day, teach yourself to eat on the fly, learn to function on suboptimal sleep, and keep going even when you want to lie down and cry. In other words, just like parenthood.

ImageThe author coaching her daughters’ lacrosse team at a tournament in Durango, Colo., in May.CreditSteve Barrett

My strategy for Leadville was simple, if unconventional: Everything counted. Walking with my daughters, Pippa and Maisy, to school, riding my bike to the grocery store, taking the dog out after dinner. Afternoons spent on the lacrosse field, coaching the girls’ team in our Santa Fe community league? Yup, training.

My secret to endurance was no secret at all, but a basic, if underrated, human impulse: staying in motion.

When I ran, I deliberately sought out the low points. I ran in the middle of the day when it was hot, and I ran early and late when I’d rather be sleeping. (In 100-mile races there are many moments — maybe all of them? — when you’d rather be sleeping.) I’d eat a piece of pizza and beg a few bites of my daughter’s ice cream cone for dinner, and then get up and go for a run. I made suffering my friend, consoling myself that a tough day of running is a great day of mental training.

Longer distances were harder to fit in, so sometimes I had to split them in two. One day last spring, I needed to get in 30 miles, but Maisy’s second-grade class was having a party, so I decided to run 18, swing by the barbecue for a quick lunch, then head out for another 12. When I arrived at school, I was sweaty and my ankles were caked in dirt, but there was meat on the grill and a cooler filled with Gatorade. My very own aid station! I wolfed down a burger and a brownie, refilled my bottle, kissed Maisy goodbye and kept running.

I let the rhythm of our family life dictate my training schedule, not the other way around. Steve and I prioritize time with our girls in the backcountry, so I thought of our frequent hiking and river trips as enforced recovery days and cross-training — neither of which are my strong suits. (A multiday white water rafting expedition in wilderness canyons where there are no trails makes for a great pre-race taper or post-race rest!) We got to hang out with each other, unplugged from screens and deadlines, school and news, and I got to come home with fresh legs. Win, win.

ImageKatie Arnold at about the 32-mile mark in Leadville.CreditKelsey Conine

Some weeks, though, my approach felt shoddy and haphazard. Most of my competitors were younger and speedier than I. They had proper coaches, fancy gadgets to track their fitness, systematic training plans and, I imagined, far fewer entanglements. They could run for hours, all day every day if they wanted to.

But I had my own advantage: kids. Everyone knows they make you tough. And at least I didn’t have to worry about overtraining. Motherhood was my superpower.

A few days before I left for Leadville, I went to visit my friend Natalie, who is Buddhist.

“You seem very ordinary about the race,” she said. She didn’t mean this in a dismissive way, but in a Zen way: I’d absorbed the running and training into my life so that was part of my life, nothing special. It wasn’t the center of anything, it was just one thing, connected to all the others.

The Leadville course traverses forests and fields, passes alpine lakes and crosses jagged peaks, much of it above 10,000 feet. Every couple of hours, I arrived at an aid station, where my husband, friends and daughters were waiting to cheer me on. Sometimes the girls were dressed in disco outfits, other times a pink felt Whoopee cushion costume.

I was in fifth place, then second place, then first. Was I hallucinating? No, my mind had never been clearer. I’d suspected for years that running made me a better mother, but as I crossed the finish line to win my first hundred-mile race, I knew that being a mother made me a better runner.

For nearly 20 hours, I’d done what I’d taught myself to do: Put one foot in front of the other, over and over and over again. It was so ordinary, it was extraordinary.

Katie Arnold is the author of “Running Home: A Memoir” and a contributing editor at Outside Magazine.

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