Dec 2019 / Jan 2020

This is a preview article from the Dec 2019 / Jan 2020 issue of UltraRunning Magazine. Not a subscriber? Please consider becoming one

Getting Through Ultra Obstacles

By: Sarah Lavender Smith

I looked at the tall barbedwire fence that blocked the route and thought, “Is this a joke?” 

I was running past midnight in southern Utah during the 53-mile portion of the week-long Grand to Grand Ultra, a self-supported stage race that throws all sorts of unforeseen challenges our way. This sharp, formidable barrier had no gate to pass through and no ladder to help climb over it, but the course markers clearly continued on the other side. Somehow, I had to get through it.

Not wanting to risk cutting my legs, I took off my pack, threw it on the other side, and got down on my belly to squeeze through an 18-inch gap between the ground and the first row of barbed wire. By getting down to eye level with the ants and beetles, along with sand in my face and down my shirt, I got through it.

That night, as with many tough ultramarathons, I performed maneuvers that involved using my whole body in varying planes of motion. With the help of my hands, I crawled up sand dunes, climbed over large boulders and clawed my way through prickly vegetation.

Do these movements count as “running”? In the context of ultras on a trail, I say yes!

To succeed as ultrarunners, we have to develop a gutsy mentality to get through it by whatever means necessary – whatever “it” may be. If, in the process, we slow to a hike or even a crawl, and twist or bend like a pretzel, so be it. That forward momentum still counts as running.

I learned this lesson – and broadened my definition of “running” – several years ago while attending an ultrarunning camp in Juneau, Alaska, hosted by former Western States 100 champ Geoff Roes. Roes urged us not to limit our concept of running to locomotion with one foot off the ground while moving at a pace of somewhere between, say, 6 to 12 minutes per mile.

Rather, he said, think of running as the most effective and efficient way to travel by foot through the land.

That means that on the trail, whether traversing high alpine scree or thick desert sand, or perhaps picking your way through downed trees, you gotta do whatever feels most effective and efficient to get through it.

His lesson helped me when I paced a runner at Hardrock for the first time. Nicknamed “Hardwalk,” ultrarunners in this graduate level 100-miler learn that power-hiking the majority of the course is the most efficient way to “run” it.

Midway through that Hardrock pacing gig, I fortified my resolve to maintain forward momentum when I encountered an obstacle I never imagined having to run through: a knee-high, storm-swollen river with a broken-up beaver dam floating in its midst.

“This can’t be the way,” I thought, until I spotted an orange course ribbon tied to a piece of wood in the beaver dam. Using trekking poles for added stability and crouching down to paw through the debris, I got through the flooded wood pile.

At that moment and ever since, when I encounter tough challenges on the trail that make me break my running stride, I get a refrain in my head from a classic children’s book that I used to read to my kids when they were toddlers. The book is called Going on a Bear Hunt by Helen Oxenbury, and the story portrays a family heading into the wilderness and repeatedly telling themselves, “We’re not scared!” Upon encountering long wavy grass, a deep cold river, thick mud, a big dark forest and a swirling whirling snowstorm, they repeat:

We can’t go over it,

We can’t go under it,

Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!

Silly as it sounds, this storybook stanza helps me mentally prepare to meet the challenge and move in whatever way is necessary to get through it.

I encourage you to use your body’s flexibility, your mind’s humor and resolve, and bust whatever move may be necessary to get through challenges you encounter on the trail.

And, as long as you move as efficiently and effectively as possible, you can claim you ran it.