A Trail Runner’s Guide to Yosemite

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For decades, climbers have gravitated towards Yosemite Valley to live out adventures, and to push the boundaries of what is deemed climbable. Great walls like El Capitan rise over 3,000ft from the Valley floor, captivating the attention of anyone who passes by it, and tempting intrepid climbers to ascend it. I had always been intrigued by the stories of Lynn Hill- who made the first free ascent (with ropes but without aid) of The Nose of El Cap in 1993, or Alex Honnold’s free solo (no ropes or aid whatsoever) of in 2017. But beyond the astonishing climbing feats, perhaps the best part of Yosemite National Park is the fact that everyone- from skilled climbers, to skilled couch potatoes- can have the chance to live a different style of life and explore the unknown. Sometimes the mountians call, and answering that call- as I’m sure anyone who has answered would agree- is something you’ll never regret. My friend Leah and I answered the mountain’s call and drove to Yosemite for a weekend full of trail-running, exhilarating climbs and friendship- all fueled by a healthy dose of Sufferfest beer, of course. Follow along for some trail recommendations, adventure anecdotes, and a bit of mountain- inspired wisdom.

Day 1: The Half Dome

Run, climb, run. That was the plan. Leah and I stuffed our climbing shoes, harnesses, slings, prusiks and quickdraws into our backpacks as we prepared to run to the Half Dome, climb up and down it, and run back to our rental van. I was certainly testing the limits of how much gear a Solomon Sense Ultra backpack could hold and would soon test my own limits as I had never done anything quite like climbing the Half Dome before. During the off-season, the cables going up the Half Dome that are usually raised above the rock face are lowered so that they are lying flat on the rock. Leah and I had heard that you can still clip onto the lowered cables to assist yourself up the Half Dome, but since we hadn’t seen it done we weren’t sure exactly how it was going to work. With our gear packed, we headed off to the trail-head and decided to assess the cable situation once we got to the Half Dome. Starting on the Happy Isle Loop trail we made our way to the Mist Trail. Luckily it was a warm day because we were drenched from the waterfall by the time we made it up the aptly named trail. IMG_1200.JPG

We dried off from the Mist Trail as we ran along the John Muir Trail, to the Half Dome Trail. This gradual uphill trail was much less trafficked that day than the Mist Trail. It seemed like the stunning waterfall view was a great turn-around point for people wanting a shorter day hike than the Half Dome. About 8 miles up from the start we had arrived at the base of the Half Dome. Although climbing up the cables looked a little sketchy at first, there were about ten other people who seemed to be of a variety of skillsets climbing it at the time Leah and I got there, which assured me that it couldn’t be too bad. A quote from a TED Radio Hour podcast that I had listened to on the drive to Yosemite popped into my head as I gazed up at the wall. In the podcast, Tim Ferris- author, entrepreneur, and dooer-of-all-things-challenging, said that when he is thinking about stepping out of his comfort zone he asks himself “if anyone else in the history of time, less driven, has figured out how to accept the challenge”. In most cases, and in this case involving the Half Dome, the answer is yes.

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Since Leah and I only had one prusik loop to tie onto the cable, I attached myself to Leah by linking two slings together and Leah tied herself onto the wall. The prusik knot would act a source of friction, so that if Leah and I leaned back on the knot, the loop would pull tight against the cable and would prevent us from sliding down. As we climbed up the wall in unison, we slid the prusik knot along with us. By the top of the wall, the grade was gentle enough that we could unclip and walk the last 50 meters to the summit.

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We reached the top of Half Dome, marveled at the expansive views, ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches then slid our way down the rock similar to the way we came up. To my surprise, the climb was not nearly as scary as I though it would be. The prusik knot on the cables seemed to be a safe way to go.

Leah and I descended the same trail that we came up for a total of 24 miles and 5,910ft of vertical gain that day- according to Strava. Since we tacked on a few extra miles at the beginning of the day while looking for the trailhead, it was a higher mileage total than we had expected. In my opinion the best kind of day is one spent running around on trails with friends. With the added element of climbing, this trail run was certainly one for the books. I highly recommend the route, especially during the park’s off-season when you don’t need a permit to climb Half Dome.

At this point it was time to relax, so we kicked back in the parking lot near Camp 4 with a post-run brew. Few things in life taste better after a hard effort than my personal favorite, the Sufferfest Shakeout. I only wish I had planned better and brought a cooler. Cheers to all-day runs, the simplicity of car-camping, and the opportunity every day to step out of your comfort zone. IMG_1158 2.jpg

Day 2: Eagle Peak and El Capitan

The feeling that making pour-over coffee outside with the anticipation of a full day of adventure ahead of you is unparalleled. The goal of the day was to run/hike up Eagle Peak, a 13 mile total out-and-back, and save time to hike up the approach trail of El Capitan before having to drive back to San Francisco. We took the Lower to Upper Yosemite Falls trails, which at almost 4,000ft of vertical gain in the first 6 miles was no joke. More vert, more fun was true in this case. The summit of Eagle Peak overlooked Yosemite Valley from one side, and the part of the National Park that is much less charted from the other side. We did a quick touch-and-go at the summit, before bombing down the technical trail as fast as we could, just for the fun of it.

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Next, we ran to the approach trail of El Capitan, which was about a half mile in from the road. Looking up at El Cap, with it’s unimaginable height and exposure, was awe inspiring. It made me think about human potential in anything- not just climbing- and how challenges, like the wall, shape the trajectory of our lives. Either we can rise to the occasion of creating something grand out of a challenge, or we can succumb to the grandiosity of the obstacle and deem it too big, too powerful and ultimately immobilizing. The walls, like tremendous goals, remind me to not be immobilized, paralyzed by fear of the unknown and to accept goals as exciting opportunities to push beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking in order to achieve the most grand accomplishment that you can ever imagine. And then, once that goal is accomplished, celebrate with a Sufferfest beer!

 

 

 

 

 

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The Run-Commute: One of Life’s Greatest Teachers

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It’s 8:37 on a Monday morning in Boston. The sky had just finished spreading a fresh coat of snow over the countless existing layers that had formed on the footpath snaking along the Charles River. I’ve got exactly 23 minutes to make it off of the footpath, across the Boston Common Park, through China Town, the Financial District, to school, up 13 flights in the escalator, and finally to my seat in the front row of classroom 3 at General Assembly all before 9am. Oh and I need to save time to quickly change in the tiny bathroom stall into a outfit more presentable than my damp running clothes. You see, all of these details need to be carefully planned out when you run-commute. I turn my music up a notch, and this time, the song “Choices(Yup)” fills my ears. “Everybody got chooooices….”  wraps E-40, as I think, he’s absolutely right! Everybody does have a choice about how to spend every single second of the day. The choices that stem from questions such as “how will I get to work on time?” or “how will I have time to train, or furthermore, to do what I love?” shape the trajectory of our lives. I would argue that choosing to run-commute is one of the best choices that I make each day, and something that I highly recommend that everyone tries- especially if you live in a city. By striding to and from school with a backpack strapped to my shoulders I realized that the concrete jungle is my playground, that my body is am amazing machine and the most reliable form of transit, and that time limitations are actually opportunities for creativity. The following are some lessons that the great teacher- the run commute- has taught me.

“Toughness Training”

Finding a way to deal with challenges calmly as they come is what I call toughness training. Run-commuting presents many excellent opportunities for toughness training because no one run is the same and you never know what challenges might be around the block. Maybe your backpack- stuffed with your laptop, clothes and plenty of snacks- will lurch side to side as your feet hit the pavement. The added weight isn’t always comfortable, but carrying your belongings certainly is toughness training. Or, it rains, and you lack the comfort of showing up to work warm and dry. You might even be running- literally- a few minutes late and are forced to push the pace while weaving through unassuming pedestrians on the sidewalk. Either you can think of these scenarios as obstacles- maybe even as reasons not to run-commute- or you can embrace the toughness training.

Methodical Planning

Admittedly, I am not a natural type-A, list-maker, extremely detail oriented thinker. However, run commuting definitely helped strengthen my planning-in-advance skills. When you are carrying your belongings on your back for a few miles, you are forced to think methodically about what you really need for the day.  When you are limited to what will fit in your backpack, and how much weight you are willing to cary you adopt a minimalist approach to packing. Once the checklist of items in your backpack becomes small you become less likely to forget things, because everything you are carrying is essential. That being said- I did forget to bring a change of shoes, a hair-brush, and even a dress that I planned on wearing to a meeting once or twice amongst the countless run-commutes. I found that leaving a spare pare of shoes and an emergency outfit at work saved the day in those situations.

Life Training

Perhaps the most obvious gain of run-commuting is the fitness gain. Instead of allotting time each day to “training” run-commuting has taught me that I am constantly training. Training my body to adapt to being frequently in motion, training my mind to accept the fact that my body is my main mode of transit, and training on a personal level so that the best version of myself shows up each day. There is no better time to train than now. While run-commuting you may have to accept running at a slower pace than you normally might. But even so, consistently logging miles while carrying weight on your back will certainly help to build a base.

One of my favorite memories from run commuting in Boston was crossing the MIT bridge on my way home from school at around 7 or 8pm each night. It was pitch black at this time during the winter months and on most nights there was a strong side-wind blowing across the bridge. After a long day of learning to code I would unleash my competitive energy out onto this bridge by envisioning myself crossing the Golden Gate Bridge at the end of the North Face Endurance Challenge, or powering steadily through a flat section of Leadville 100, or even out-striding any competitor in a imaginary race I’d make up in my mind. I don’t doubt that when I compete in those races in the future I will draw upon my run-commuting experiences.

Finding Hidden Trails

If I had to choose to run on either trails or the road, nine times out of ten I would choose trails. So, on my way to school I would try to seek out the hidden trails that the city of Boston had to offer. By “secret trails” I mean the single-track dirt path along the Charles River that is much less frequented than the main pedestrian path parallel to it. Or the loose rock/grassy area in-between the curb and the sidewalk. Every city has hidden trails if you really search. When you don’t have the luxury of a plethora of trails in a wooded area on your run commute route, these less-than-ideal trails suffice. I made it a game on my commute to run across as many different terrains as possible, whether it was wood-chips, grass, playground-rubber, or concrete.

Extra Boost of Energy

By run commuting in the morning, I felt energized by the sense that I had already accomplished something before work. While some automobile commuters may still be groggy at the start of a work day, getting some energy out while run commuting made me feel focused and able to accept the fact that I would be sitting down for most of the day.

Heightened Awareness of Environmental Impact

During my run-commute through Boston, I would often pass cars stuck in bumper to bumper traffic. Seeing so many cars lined up day after day made me think of what I am bringing into the city as I crossed the river from Cambridge. Instead of bringing air pollution, and a need to take up valuable street space- as automobiles do- I focused on bringing an energy of positivity and low-impact with me.

To sum it all up, the benefits of run commuting always outweighed the challenge that choosing to run commute sometimes was. Run commuting is an opportunity to put in the work while traveling to work, that enables you to not have to sacrifice your race goals because of a lack of time to train. If you are debating whether or not to run commute, try it out! It’s a life changing decision that I don’t think you’ll regret.

 

The Group Project

I was about halfway through General Assembly’s three month Web Development Immersive bootcamp when the day I had been waiting for arrived- group project assignments. After a lot of bungling around on StackOverflow, my class’ issue queue, and a slew of other JS documents I had successfully created a SPA Tic-Tac-Toe game. Then, after gaining some experience with Rails, I built a “Run Tracker” app- what do you expect when running is my favorite thing ever? Finally, the third of the four projects was assigned- the group project. Now, you may think “why so much anticipation for the group project?”, but to understand my excitement you must know a certain fact about me. I thrive in team environments. Simply put, working on teams, for me, is funner than working by myself. Yes, I am somewhat of a hedonist, but who doesn’t like to have a little fun amidst a lot of hard work?

The Dream Team

Through random selection, Sophia, Brian and I ended up working together, on that we aptly named “Team-Best-Team”. Sophia, who is known for her elegant web app layouts, Brian- a fellow rock-climber, who genuinely gets excited about problem solving- and myself, were an ideal team from the start. Team-Best-Team’s challenge was to build an app where users could create an account, make  a “Bucket List” and be able to delete and edit items on their list. Only users should be able to see their lists, and, as a stretch goal, our team aimed to add a feature where users could directly post their bucket list items to Twitter.

The Foundation

What really set Team-Best-Team up for success was our pre-work planning session. It was a rainy Sunday afternoon in Cambridge, MA when the team assembled around a table in Brian’s kitchen to set some groundwork. We drew out a preliminary wireframe using InVision (shown below) that included the buttons and user flow that we wanted our app to have.

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To plan what would happen on the backend, our team created this entity relationship diagram. In short, one user would have one list that could have many items.

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Additionally, we established a culture code, to make sure that everyone was on the same page in terms of what we expected from each-other. One of my favorite parts of the code was to “recognize and leverage each-other’s strengths to create the best possible product”- this really embodied the approach that Team-Best-Team took throughout the project.

Game Time

On Monday, the clock was started and Team-Best-Team had five full days to reach our goals. First, we set out to CRUD on an item. In other words, we wanted each item in a list to be able to be created, read (or “shown”), updated and destroyed by a user. We were able to set up these actions fairly smoothly, within a day.  However, one problem we ran into was ensuring that that the item’s “show” method worked for authenticated users only. At first, items created on a list by one user were able to be viewed by all users. To solve this problem we assigned “forUser: true” to the item model in the “before” action.  This way, only items that belonged to a user could be seen to that user, and no other user. Our code for the “show” method is shown below, as it written in our items.js file.

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In our code, the index, create, update and destroy methods are written in the items.js method following the show method. The following lines of code are written at the bottom of our file, after the CRUD actions.

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After testing the methods we set up on the backend by running the CURL scripts in Terminal, Sophia, Brian and I began working on the frontend. We created events for creating, showing, deleting and updating an item. These events run “on click” and are linked to buttons. For example, when a user clicks a “submit” button to update an item, a PATCH request gets sent to the API, where the item is identified and updated. Then, depending on whether the request to the API is a success or failure, the user will either see their updated item on the page, or a user message displaying that the item failed to update. The sequence of writing an event linked to a submit button or form, then sending that request to the API in a POST, GET, PATCH, or DELETE method, then writing the user interface display was fundamentally the same for the each of the functions: create, update, delete and destroy.

Once we had written the API, events, and UI, the next step was to write how the actions would be visually displayed. To do this, we created one html file with the rudimentary structure of the app. Then we built separate handlebar templates for each page view. For example, we had a “main” handlebars file for the main page that loads when a user first opens the app. Then, when a user signs in, the page changes in appearance due to a separate “signin” handlebars file. The benefit of creating separate handlebars templates for each view is that you don’t end up with one long html file handling every view on your page. I had not used handlebars templates before this project, but I found that separating the code of each page view made it really easy to narrow in on one area that I wanted to edit, as opposed to scrolling through a lengthy html document looking for a specific line of code.

Here’s an example of our “main” handlebars file.

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Our minimalistic approach to an html file.

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The End Result

At the end of the week, Team-Best-Team had reached our goal of an MVP where a user can create and edit their own bucket list. We also added a bonus feature where a user could post a bucket list item to Twitter.

Here’s a sample of how the Bucket List app turned out.

The opening page:

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The Sign Up or Sign In form opens depending on which option the user decides.

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When a user signs in, the “Profile” page is displayed, and a user is prompted to create an item. If a user has created items previously then those items are automatically shown on this page.

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An item in the user’s list is shown in a “card” display, as featured below.

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If a user wants to edit an item, clicking “edit” will re-open the form fiends, which are auto-populated with the information that the user had previously entered.

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With the “Tweet” button, a user can share their item to Twitter through the link shown below that is shown on click.

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Takeaways

Five days after we started the Bucket List app, my team mates and I were standing in front of our class presenting our work. I love presentations, and get so excited to talk about my team’s work with others. Aside from the new technical takeaways of working on this app -handlebars templates, user authentication, etc.- here are some of the equally as important soft skill takeaways:

  • Pair programming: One team member would code, and the others would watch. Luckily we had a conference room with a big screen to do this, which was way easier than having three people hover around one computer screen.
  • Regrouping at the end of the day to summarize what we did, where we ran into problems,  and what our next steps were was key to our success.
  • Team problem-solving: Instead of me banging my head against a wall- figuratively, of course, for hours trying to work through a bug, I loved bouncing ideas off of my team mates who often had different perspectives and ways to problem solve. A fresh set of eyes was always helpful for this purpose
  • The feeling of sharing a success of a finished product with others was 100x more rewarding, and exciting than a personal success.

 

 

 

 

Igniting the Fire

This is a story about one of the most fantastic 24 hours of my life. It involved a lot miles ran, even more Sour-Patch Watermelon consumed, and, most importantly, marked the day where a seemingly insatiable fire was ignited inside of me. Those three details will come into play soon, but first let’s set the scene to where it all began: Catawaba, VA.

 

After a 22 mile day on the Appalachian Trail my dad and I blew into our inflatable sleeping mats and laid them out on the floor of an old garage next to a dog-hair covered couch, a collection of rusty tools, and a man named Puddle Jumper. It was my fourth night on the AT and my first in a hiker hostel. The distinct smell that dances through the air right before it is going to rain was strong, so my dad and I were thankful to have a roof over our heads for the night and intrigued by the eclectic group of hikers that was assembled at Four Pines Hostel. Soon after we settled in, Puddle Jumper revealed that he was carrying an extensive collection of nail polish and that he would gladly paint the grubby nails of any hiker who obliged. Let’s pause the story for a minute and touch upon some seemingly odd details. First, “Puddle Jumper” is a trail name. Every hiker on the AT gains a trail name, usually given to one hiker from another based on a silly-yet-noteworthy occurrence, or a consistent personality trait. A trail name encapsulates a hiker’s identity on the trail and leaves birth names obsolete. My trail name is Weasel and my dad’s is Plow- the names to which we will be referred for the rest of this story. Second, the fact that Puddle Jumper carried over 10 bottles of nail polish is almost insane. When you carry all your belongings on your back each day ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain. Jumping back into the story, the nail polish was certainly a luxury item to see on the trail, and for that matter I was excited to have each nail painted a different color by my new friend.

About halfway through the manicure a group of 6 or so hikers including Plow had congregated on the concrete floor. The conversation amongst us soon evolved into trail folklore- and stories of what to expect in the upcoming miles- as most hiker-talk does. We might have discussed the lack of town crossings in the upcoming miles, animal sightings in the shelters, or what creative ramen concoctions we had cooked up with our ultra-light stoves, but really the only thing that stood out in my mind was talk of the “4 State Challenge”. The challenge, as Puddle Jumper described, is to cover ground in four states- Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania- in under 24 hours. In total, the 4 State Challenge is 45 miles of hiking. It is safe to say that all hikers who cover that 45 mile stretch of the AT know of the challenge, but few actually attempt it. Even to those hiking a 2,190 mile trail, 45 miles in one day seems absurd. The hikers in the manicure chat laughed off the topic of the 4 State Challenge, deeming it too unreasonable to even consider attempting. To me however, a seed had been planted in my mind. I was going to complete the 4 State Challenge. No, not complete, crush it. It was then that I decided there was no point thinking it over, the decision had been made and there was no going back.

Flash forward about 2 weeks, 280 miles down the trail from Catawaba to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. It is June 8th, 4:15am and one of the best days of my life has just begun. I am in a red Ford pick-up truck, complete with a coat of rust and a bench-style front seat- just the kind of truck I can see myself owning. A man whom I met at a cafe in Harpers Ferry the day before had so kindly offered to drive me to the trail-head before the crack of dawn, and drop my 30 pound backpack at an inn 50 miles down the road where I would be ending the day. I sipped some luke-warm green tea from a Poland Springs water bottle as we drove down the winding back road to the trail. Even today, I can still feel the same potential energy boiling in my chest, that I felt that morning. Seemingly everything about that day was uncertain at the time, but one thing that was certain was the fact that I was about to do something that I had never even come close to doing before. The unknown brought me this sense of excitement, anticipation and a hint of discomfort; which is just the state that I thrive in.

I was dropped off at a trail-head just outside of Harpers Ferry. From there I had to back-track two miles uphill to the Virginia/West Virginia border where the challenge officially began. The pitch black woods and rocky terrain paired with my sub-par navigation skills made the trail tricky to follow, but at 5am exactly, I made it to the border, snapped a quick selfie for proof, and began bombing down the trail as the sun began to rise. I remember running across the bridge in Harpers Ferry that saddles the Potomac river with a smile on my face, a cinnamon roll in my hand and the Electric Light Orchestra’s “Don’t Bring Me Down” playing from my iPhone. In that moment- in every moment of that 45 mile run for that matter- I was in a state of pure bliss. What could be better than immersing yourself in the experience of running through the woods all day, eating candy and listening to music, your own thoughts, and the sounds of nature?

I kept a steady cadence throughout the technical single-track trail, weaving through the trees, with only one objective- to keep moving. I had a GPS tracked map of the trail on my phone, but I decided not to look at it that day because the thought of checking the map and seeing that I had thirty-something more miles to cover just seemed like it wouldn’t be in line with the carefree nature of my journey. So, what seemed to me like 7 miles of running ended up being 21 when I ran into a fellow hiker at what was the only public restroom along the trail that day. My longest run before that day had been 12 miles, so all I could do when I found out I had ran 21 seemingly effortless miles was laugh, eat more Sour-Patch, and feel thankful for the fact that my body and mind were capable of bringing me such happiness through an athletic pursuit. “Go Weasel, go!” cheered Rabbit, my hiker friend, as I departed from the rest stop for the miles ahead.

Now, it may seem like my entire day was filled with rainbows and unicorns, but the truth is, there were a few dark moments. Around what I’d estimate were miles 31-34 was a particularly rocky section. I could hardly run these miles mostly because the rocks were so large that I had to maneuver around them on what didn’t look like a very defined trail. In addition to the challenging terrain, I felt like if I were to stop, sit down and close my eyes I would surely fall asleep right then and there. I had been moving for over 8 hours, and had only taken one break for a few minutes, so my body was rightfully screaming for me to stop and rest. My mind however prevailed, and really, the hero of the day- Sour Patch Watermelons- helped another gear kick in and get me through the rocky slog.

The last mile of the trial was a wide, well-marked (finally), downhill path that would spit me out right at the Pennsylvania/Maryland border. At this point I was feeling good, too good for having just ran 44 miles. I thought about how the human body is an amazing machine that flows so well with the rhythm of a trail, if you let it. I thought about what I was going to have for dinner, as I was ravenously hungry. But most importantly, I thought about what completing a 45 mile run meant for me as a runner, and furthermore, as an individual.

Just before I started hiking the Appalachian Trail in May I graduated from Columbia University, where I competed as a middle-distance runner on the Division 1 track team. I had been running track at a highly competitive level for over 8 years and at that point I felt what some might call “burnt-out” from the sport. I loved running for its most fundamental purpose- the simplicity of movement, and the joy in which exploring new places by foot brought me. Now, freed from the bounds of competitive running which oozed into nearly every aspect of my life I was left to define running’s role in my personal trajectory.

I had heard of ultra-running as my time as a collegiate athlete was coming to a close, and was equally as intrigued as I was impressed by the idea of running distances longer than a marathon on typically rough but scenic terrain. I began to follow pro ultra runners on Instagram, tracked their results, and read their blogs. A slight obsession soon gave birth to a goal of mine, to become an ultra-runner myself. As I neared the end of the 4 State Challenge I realized that running such a long distance brought me even more joy than I could have imagined. I was honestly surprised by the fact that my body held up for 12 hours of running, and was feeling even more durable by the end of the day than it did at the start. Striding down the path to the finish, my arms pumping, legs cranking under me, feet carefully striking the ground, time stood still. On that day I had become an ultra-runner.