Our Journey to Becoming Ultra Runners

What does it take to become an ultra runner? How do you go from a leisurely 5k a few times a week to tackling a double marathon distance in one go? Well, the road to completing an ultra can look very different depending on who you ask, but our answer to the big “how” is far from “you need to be a super human”. We think ultra running could be for everyone, in other words, and will share here what our journeys there looked like. And even though we’ve gone through our fair share of ups and downs, one thing is certain: we’ve had so much fun along the way.

I, Sophia, have “always” been running to some extent. It was something I enjoyed doing in my teens, alongside equestrian sports which was my main activity, and back then, running meant heading out for 4-5k a couple of times a week. Then, in my late teens and early 20’s, running turned into a self-destructive tool as I developed anorexia. I upped the quantity of running and decreased the quantity of food, and it goes without saying that’s not a successful combination. It took me a bunch of years to end that chapter of my life, and when I moved to New York at 25, I was as ready as can be to start a new era. And ironically, what had been my primary destructive outlet – running – became my first and foremost tool in joyously discovering and getting to know this new home of mine.

“It was windy and cold and my long hair was going all wild with the gusts, and I’d literally never felt as alive in my whole life.”

I’ll never forget my very first run in New York, and how it made me feel. I lived in the East Village and ran straight west, towards the Hudson River. It was January and late in the afternoon, so it was getting dark. I criss-crossed through the streets, allowing the traffic lights to decide exactly which ones to go down, and eventually made my way across the West Side Highway and onto the walking path that runs the entirety of the west side of Manhattan. I looked to my left, and all of the skyscrapers of the Financial District were sparkling like a starlit sky, as they towered above me. I decided to run out and around one of the piers and as I got out to the very tip, I was greeted by the Statue of Liberty far off in the distance. It was windy and cold and my long hair was going all wild with the gusts, and I’d literally never felt as alive in my whole life. Right then and there did my love story with New York begin. In that moment, the city instilled in me a belief that I could do anything – and that belief stuck, and helped me overcome the many hurdles I’d run into in the years to come. When I stopped down there at the pier, I had been out running for about 45 min. I realized if I wanted to make it back home, it would turn into the longest run I’d ever done.

See, prior to New York, I’d been more of a “normal” runner than I am now (hehe). My runs had been the typical 5-10k loops most people do, so being out for 90 min felt like I had tapped into unexplored territory. And quickly, that became my new norm. Without going into too much detail, I essentially got to know New York and made it my home by running it. I would go further and further, find myself in front of new views and in new neighborhoods, and started wearing through running shoes like nothing else. I never wore a watch and didn’t quite know the distances I was covering, but 20-30k runs had definitely entered my universe as my new weekend fun.

Sophia running over the Brooklyn Bridge heading back towards Manhattan.

Around this time, Mike and I had starting dating for real. We didn’t talk too much running – he just thought I was nuts – but I remember telling him about where I liked to go and I felt so proud I knew what places were called and could describe routes in detail to him. Fast forward about a year, and we’re just about moved in together. I had spent the summer of 2013 in Sweden figuring out my visa and financial situation, then come back to America for six months, returned to Sweden for two months and then in April 2014, I made the definite move and this time, I unpacked in Mike’s apartment and started calling it mine as well. I had about 16 months of long distance running under my belt at this point, and I’d say I averaged about 60-70k per week. I thought it was SO much and felt so pleased with my training.

One of the first weekends back, Mike asked to join me for a run. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, but it made me so happy! Up until this point, Mike’s athletic background could be summarized like this: he played competitive soccer throughout high school and put many hours towards training and practicing during this time, but didn’t continue in college. Demanding studies and later a busy work life didn’t leave much room for sports or exercise, but he’d go for the occasional 5k run here and there and sometimes pop by the gym. Until he met me, that is, and was somehow very intrigued by all those hours I spent running out there. It seems, when he thinks back, that he was fascinated by the distances and thought it was mind blowing that I would go out and run a half marathon first thing in the morning on a Saturday (for all of us ultra runners today, it feels so funny to reminisce, doesn’t it?). Anyway, so we’re in April 2014 and we go for our first run together. We head east on Houston Street, make it down to the riverfront and start going south along the water. We don’t make it too far before Mike’s knee starts to hurt, so we’re forced to turn around. We repeat the same thing weekend after weekend (there was no time for Mike to run during the weeks because long work days and a ridiculous commute), and after troubleshooting the knee problems (drum roll: ITB syndrome) and putting those behind us, we slowly started to increase the distance. 5k became 10k, and eventually we got to the point of not going south on Manhattan to turn around, but instead continuing around the southern most tip – Battery Park – and up the west side, ending by cutting across along Houston Street from the other direction and making it back home that way.

On our typical loop around Manhattan, with the Williamsburg and Brooklyn Bridge in the background..

That loop measured almost exactly a half marathon (21k), and neither Mike nor I will ever forget the day he completed it for the first time – all thanks to the San Gennaro Food Festival down in Little Italy. Yep, that’s correct. Because after we made it back, Mike first spent some time in fetal position on the couch followed by what most people would call a massive breakfast/lunch. As dinner time approached, he had a big craving for pierogies, so we met up with his brother Max at our local Ukrainian eatery (Veselka, on 2nd Ave) where he first downed a bowl of vegetarian borscht followed by double servings of potato pierogies, which was in turn followed by a walk down to Little Italy, where San Gennaro was going on. There, we got a bag of zeppoles (basically fried dough balls tossed in confectioner’s sugar) and, well, let’s just say Mike had most of them. This is such a funny memory to think back on now, when a 20k run is an everyday kind of thing that happens without any fuss around it – and perhaps it can serve as inspiration for those of you out there longing to get into the longer distances but feeling as if it’s far off. It’s not. Everyone can do it! This “event” occurred when Mike had been running regularly for about five months.

For the next two years, our running looked about the same – I ran by myself during the weeks, and on the weekends, we’d do one or two long runs together. It didn’t take too long before those got closer to 25k and then 30k on average, and it was really funny to hear Mike’s best friend Neal complain about how Mike would beat him on Strava even though he often only ran once a week, while Neal – as a freelance graphic designer working from home – would run at least a few times (but obviously much shorter). There were actually quite a few people around us who raised their eyebrows at the sheer distance in itself (30k in one go), but also at the fact that Mike only ran far. How could he do it? Well, we built up to it. That’s the simple answer. We had lots of patience and were in no rush, and would add on a kilometer or so every week until we felt like we’d reached our long run goal (our training philosophy doesn’t call for weekly training runs over 30-35k. Those 40-50k runs we only do a few times in preparation for ultras). So, we got to 30k eventually and felt as if that was the most natural thing in the world after a while. It still is.

Come the spring of 2016, we started longing for more trails and nature. This meant Mike’s parents got to see a lot more of us, as we began escaping to their house about 45 min north of NYC on the weekends in search for some dirt. Rockefeller State Park Reserve turned into our new playground, and even though there was no technical terrain to be found, we could finally start logging some elevation – and we could do so surrounded by trees, creeks and open fields. We have so many fond memories of runs there, and make sure to go back every time we visit Mike’s (our) family.

“We’d take off early every Saturday morning to go to one of the parks nearby and would return completely famished but high on endorphins many hours later.”

The summer of 2016, we spent in Sweden. We had our wedding, decided we’d move there permanently and came back to New York knowing we had one year left in the big apple. Shortly after, sometime mid-fall, Mike expressed that he’d like to sign up for a race. He wanted a motivation boost and something to train for, and convinced a very skeptical me to agree to sign up for the North Face Endurance Challenge (half marathon distance) up in Bear Mountain State Park the following May. If you’d like to know more about my feelings about that and all the fears I used to struggle with regarding competition, I wrote a big piece on the subject for Trail Sisters a few years back: Confronting and Overcoming the Fear of Failure.

And because we were moving to Sweden and therefore wanted as much quality time with family as possible and we had a trail race to prepare for, Mike’s parents started seeing us practically every single weekend. We’d take off early every Saturday morning to go to one of the parks nearby and would return completely famished but high on endorphins many hours later. Around this time, Mike’s parents got an insight into how much a hungry runner can eat, too, which made for many funny memories around the dinner table (and late night trips to the nearest ice cream shop as well). I, Sophia, logged about 70-80k per week at this time, and Mike got up to 40-50k if we doubled up on the weekends. And through running away from the city, we could also add 500-600 meters of elevation gain every week, which we hadn’t even come close to prior (our 20-21k loop in Manhattan gave us about 4 meters…).

In order to keep my nerves in check when it was race time, we had lowered all expectations and placed ourselves in the very last starting group, aiming at a finishing time of 4 hrs. But when the gun went off, we took off at a pace much quicker than that, and passed hundreds of runners in the first 15 min. Boy, we had SO much fun. It was muddy, technical and beautifully sunny out. There were people cheering at the aid stations and we were moving much faster than we’d expected, filling us with extra energy as we navigated through the roots and rocks. We ended up finishing in 2 hrs 25 min and scored a women’s top 10, and while that’s not the important part of the story, it sure gave us a much welcome self-confidence boost and eagerness to continue both racing and training.

After finishing the Bear Mountain Half Marathon (left) and Vemdalen 25k (right).

A few months later, we moved to Sweden and started what was intended as a gap year but turned into a complete life change (read more about that in Thank you, life part 1 and Thank you, life part 2). We were all of a sudden finding ourselves with time to run as much as we wanted, and also able to do so together every day of the week. We also celebrated our move by racing our first mountain race, Vemdalen 25k, which only made us hungry for more. The vistas, the atmosphere, the swamps, the steep climbs and sweeping downhills… we had a terrific time. And if we had any doubts about our choice of new home country, those were washed away.

We found a pretty steady training regimen for a few months (basically the first half of the fall of 2017), logging about 5 runs/week and clocking in at about 80k, but now we’d do speed work once a week and run mostly on trails with varying elevation profiles. We were sidetracked for about a month by an injury (a pain in the butt, quite literally, as I had a gluteus muscle issue) and used that time to renovate the house instead, but were fresh and injury-free come the start of 2018. This marks the start of what we think of as our more serious running endeavor – we began fully embracing training, training plans, recovery, running science etc. and found so much joy in it. Quite quickly, we set a new standard of 80-100k per week – with some 120k weeks interspersed – and also signed up for what would be our first ultras: a 45k race in Stockholm in June, and the elusive Ultravasan 90k in Dalarna in August. Mike wasn’t totally on board with the 90k but was feeling very nervous and overwhelmed by it, but I had managed to convince him to give it a try (it’s possible I basically forced him to agree, using the argument that it could be my one and only chance, given the fact that we planned for a family down the road. This was obviously before I realized endless female runners come back even stronger after pregnancy).

To prepare for these races, we maintained the new volume of ~100k per week, but started playing around with even longer long runs (35-40k), back-to-back long runs (in other words, 25-35k two days in a row) and speed work and long runs back-to-back – the latter with the intention of teaching ourselves to run on tired legs. We were still very unsure of what it would feel like to run 90k, but for each long run we completed, it got easier and easier to believe it was possible.

If you’re curious about how those two races panned out in detail, please head straight to Ecotrail Stockholm 45 Race Report and Ultravasan 90 Race Report. For the sake of this piece, however, let’s just say the 45k ended not so well whereas the 90k still ranks as one of the coolest and most memorable days of our lives. Together, they managed to get us both completely hooked on ultras, and we returned to run the 90k race the following year (read more about that success here: Ultravasan 90 2019 Race Report).

Approaching the finish line at 2018 Ultravasan 90k.

Running ultras is… magical. There are just so many elements involved, each one unique in itself. The preparation requires dedication, passion, time and grit. My stepfather said to us, after our first Ultravasan 90k, that sure, he was impressed and proud of our race performance – but even more so, all the training that he had seen us carry out. And there’s something to that. You don’t wake up ready to run an ultra one day – you have to work to get there. But as long as you’re willing to do that, there are no limits to what you can accomplish. In addition to the preparation, there’s of course the attempt itself. Toeing the line with a crazy elusive goal in front of you. Accepting and making your way through the ups and downs that you know will come. Managing your nutritional intake. Keeping your mind in check. Dealing with aches and pains. And moving forwards, one step at a time, no matter what. It might be hard to understand to some, but we love it. Deeply and sincerely.

And now we’re at the end of the very odd year of 2020, when racing hasn’t been much of a thing for anyone but training has been possible for some of us – and especially here in Sweden, as we haven’t had any lockdowns or been limited when it comes to movement outside. I, Sophia, am returning to training post pregnancy and child birth, and am very happy to say things are progressing as planned. Mike has struggled with motivation from time to time throughout the year, but ran a virtual 50k race in April where he not only placed 4th, but also pulled an amazing 4 hrs 20 min in technical and hilly terrain here where we live. Being able to do that on his own was a testament to his abilities, even if he’d be reluctant to admit that himself. When 2020 turns into 2021, we’re planning on being synced when it comes to training again, and will plan for the spring together. With a baby in the picture, we’re still looking at running separately a lot more than we used to though, but we have a running stroller just waiting for Theo to be ready to hop on board – and once that day comes, we’ll be able to run more together again. And as far as goals to come, we want to continue pursuing mountain and ultra races. Getting ready for them with slightly less time for training at our hands will be a challenge, but a fun such.

“You don’t wake up ready to run an ultra one day – you have to work to get there. But as long as you’re willing to do that, there are no limits to what you can accomplish.”

If you’re interested in running an ultra, have any questions or would like to chat about anything else running related, please don’t hesitate reaching out – either through the comment section below or by shooting us an email. Until next time: run safe!

PS. To read more about our training and racing over the past couple years, head to 2018 Training Recap, Our Running Goals for 2019, 2019 Training Recap and Our Running Goals for 2020. You can also read about my (Sophia’s) stress fracture here: Everything I Wish I Knew: My Stress Fracture Story. And if you’re curious about how we eat as plant based athletes, you’ll find the answers in How to Be a Plant Based Athlete.

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– Sophia & Michael


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