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An Ultra Runner Runs With Grace And Gratitude

April 12, 2022 5 min read

An Ultra Runner Runs With Grace And Gratitude

This story is for Geezer Jocks who are feeling ambitious. Do some careful calculations before you take up a new sport, or a variation of a sport. And then run as a lifestyle, not just for medals. 

Meghan Canfield, 61, calls it My First And Last Ultra. It was an experience similar to the feeling that can come over the possum who decided at the wrong time to cross the road. Why did I run this race? 

It was 1996, and Canfield entered a 50k trail race, in her hometown of Corvallis, Oregon. She was 35 years old and a marathoner, a very good one at that. 

What could be so hard? Marathon runners know how to push limits; they can reach outer limits. When they need mental energy, they find it. 

Canfield was humbled. It was a less runnable course than she was accustomed to, that’s for sure. It required hiking, not jogging, up hills and that was daunting because she tried to jog up the hills.

“I was a mess, I hated it,” Canfield said. “I finished well, but I suffered the second half because I went out too fast. It wasn’t fun. I said to myself, ‘I’m never doing this again’.” 

“Never” lasted seven years.

Canfield, who first ran in the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon in 2000, wanted to go at ultra again. She entered a 50k in 2003. This time there was more careful calculation.

“I loved it,” she said. “I was ready. I learned to not approach the distance as a marathon and run it more conservatively.”

Canfield owns two world ultra records, and five American ultra records (three road, two track), and mark is still on the books from 2008. She has made the 100k national team nine times. She is going to try and qualify for a 10th national team in the Mad City 100 in Madison, Wisc., April 23. Yes, at 61 she is going to try and run a qualifying time of 8:40.

Canfield can look back on her career, which also included four trips to the U.S. Olympic Team Marathon trials, and authoritatively advise runners she coaches about ultra race psyche. She learned lessons from her “First and Last Ultra”, and the many races since then.

 

Have some resilience and finish what you start. Embrace training as a lifestyle. Train correctly. Study nutrition. Lose the macho-man attitude and stay in your own head. Be patient. Reject FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and don’t enter too many events.

This Geezer Jock story is for the women who have a Bucket List with an ultra run on it, or maybe just a marathon.

“Look at me, I’m in my 60s,” says Canfield, who did not run in college at Oregon State University. “It’s doable.”

This story is also about how to run with moral agency. Talk to Canfield for more than 15 minutes and she champions the grinders, the dutiful, the gracious. That’s because she is all those things, as well.

This story is also for those men who may still need some lessons in how to compete. If you want some coaching here is her website.

The women can dunk on men all day in ultra when it comes to race calculations. Something about testosterone, I think.

The women are typically more rational runners who do not take the bait in a long run. They cruise into the aid station and ask “Where is the woman ahead of me?” The do not set off again in a fury to run down the transgressor and show her who is boss of this thing.

“For most women it’s just information at the aid station, not license to chase someone down 30 miles into a race,” Canfield said. “It’s just information and information can help you stay on task. You have to keep doing what you’re doing. Don’t try to do something different at this point.”

Surely, the men have learned after all these centuries to cool it.

Canfield chuckled.

“ I don’t know if they’re learning,” she said. “You often hear both men and women say women are more patient and women are better at running their own race and staying in their own head, versus being caught up with who’s ahead of them, racing too soon, racing too hard, and blowing up.

“That’s a difference that is pretty accepted. Women know how to pace themselves better.”

Boldness gets you nowhere.

What works is planning and building yourself up to 50k and 100k. The way Canfield describes it, running ultra is like acquiring hours to get a pilot’s license.

“It takes a lot of time to get to be able to do a certain distance and to do it well and stay healthy and not get injured and to not be broken for two months afterwards,” she said. “So, basically, this is a lifestyle and it’s just not going to culminate with each race. The races are fun, but the training is what this is really all about.

“Focus on the training and when you are fit that is a good time to pick out a race.”

Canfield said some runners simply have a visceral willpower to overpower their bodies and run 100 miles. It is instinctive, which means that if it is for some people, it is not for others.

There has been a surge of women into ultra running and they have other factors that separate themselves from men besides aerobic capacity. Motherhood takes up a huge chunk of time, Canfield said. She still remembers her friend Liza Howard stopping during a race to breast feed her baby and take a nap.

“She still finished second,” Canfield said.

The other issue with women are hormones later in life. Canfield said she had to ask herself last year, “When did this get so hard?”

The rigor of races meant she was having to deal with motivational issues, those mental mountains that come with the hills in ultra.

Pay attention to this.

“My motivation was sliding a little bit because I’m getting slower,” said Canfield, who wants to run into her 80s. “For a while I was trying too hard and not enjoying the training. The last month or so I started trying to enjoy myself and not fight so hard.”

Not coincidentally, Canfield started hormone replacement therapy in December, 2021.

“It’s been huge for me,” said Canfield, who recommends the book Estrogen Matters, which addresses the threat of breast cancer.

In the end, what matters for both men and women is the grace you show in running and competing.

There are runners who enter an event and don’t finish and they usually feel as much shame as the Netflix password-sharing crowd, which is no shame at all. They should be shamed. Finish, says Canfield. She has failed to finish just two races in her career, one because of severe anemia and the other with a knee injury.

“People put in a lot of time to put on these races, it’s just not the athletes out there, somebody sacrificed for them to be there,” she said. “Think about somebody else in those races, like people out there crewing for you. The race director wanted you to come and have a good time, so finish.

“Feeling crappy is not a reason to drop out.”

Canfield has these optimistic tendencies to her personality. Just look at her websitewhere she offers coaching, for men and women. She styles running as a culture, not competitive drama to be played out six times a year. It is a decidedly blue collar approach, which figures because her mother and father, a researcher and educator, respectively, worked all their lives.

“No one else really cares about your times,” Canfield said. “We are curious about ourselves. What can I do? Can I do it faster? That’s what matters. What people will remember is were you fun to be with on the trail, were you gracious. I am always impressed when I’m feeling ok and somebody passes me.” 

That’s the lesson here. Run with grace.

 


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