After four thwarted attempts at racing an ultramarathon, Tina Muir ran the Bryce Canyon 50 Miler on May 20th. Bryce Canyon almost didn’t happen either; the race was on the same day as the funeral of her close friend, Patrick, whom she had lost just a few weeks earlier, and she struggled with whether or not to run. But Patrick’s widow knew that he would have wanted her to carry on and encouraged her to run the race to honor him.
Patrick must have been proud: Tina finished first female, third overall, and with the 4th-fastest women’s time in the race’s history.
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Tina’s first ultramarathon was supposed to be the Golden Gate Classic in 2021. She and her family went for their Covid tests the days before, and both of her daughters tested positive. She and her husband, Steve, debated whether she should go by herself, but decided against it, which proved to be the right decision – she got Covid too.
The following spring she signed up for the Bryce Canyon 50K. A few days before they were to leave for Utah, her daughter Bailey got a stomach flu. “I’m well aware that my race is coming, so I am sanitizing the heck out of everything, washing my hands a hundred times a day,” she recalls. It didn’t work; she wound up vomiting and unable to get out of bed for 24 hours. After pushing back their flight several days, they arrived in Utah, but Tina still wasn’t fully recovered. On top of that, Steve got sick as soon as they arrived. At that point, it seemed prudent to DNS.
Her third attempt was the Ultra-Trail Snowdonia in Wales. Her aunt lives only a couple of hours away, so the plan was to stay at her house and have her watch the girls while Tina and Steve went to the race. Her aunt is immunocompromised from having chemo a few years ago, and by the second day of their visit, the girls had developed a nasty cough. Clearly they couldn’t stay. “We toyed around with the idea of Steve staying home, but I’m going up to this really hard race,” Tina says. “What if I fall and I’ve driven there myself? What do I do? So that one’s not to be done.”
Deciding that perhaps the world was telling her to stop trying to go somewhere for a race, she set her sights on an ultra in Missouri. She was running out on the trails when she had a bad fall and “shredded my hands and knees like I had been on a cheese grater. And so that put that race out of the picture.”
She was a month out from Bryce Canyon when Patrick passed away. “It hit me like a kick in the gut. I really struggled. I was grieving a lot and I just didn’t feel like myself. For weeks, I was wrestling with what to do about this race, especially when I found out that his funeral was going to be on the day of my 50 miler.” Her initial reaction was, “Absolutely no way. I’m not doing this; I can’t do this; I’m not gonna do this. It was like, ‘End of conversation.’”
Friends questioned her decision, but to run “felt like I was betraying him. It felt like I was choosing running over him.” Most of her friends were circumspect in expressing their opinions, but Guy Winch, a psychologist, didn’t pull any punches. “Guy was very direct, quite harsh in some ways, with the directness of what he said. He told me he was not going to accept that it was selfish, that he knew me and I’d be going out of my way to do other things for people. And he talked about the grieving process and how it wasn’t about that one day and how that one day didn’t represent my friendship with him. And he asked me what Patrick would have wanted me to do. And I knew the answer was to go ahead. He was so full of life, so full of joy.”
Still, she couldn’t commit until she talked it over with Patrick’s wife, Monica. Monica believed that he would have wanted her to run, and so with her blessing and wearing the shirt that Monica gave her with photos of Patrick on it, so that she could take him with her, Tina crossed the starting line.
A few miles in she realized that there were only a few men in front of her, and no women. “I’m thinking, ‘I feel like I’m jogging and there’s only four men in front of me. Like, is this really how it’s gonna be or am I being dumb with my choices and going too fast?’ But I felt really good.” At around the fifth mile she caught up with two of them and they ran together, talking. She forgot to eat real food at the first two aid stations, but throughout the race she was good about taking gels or chews every half hour.
Her friend Brian Beckstead, the co-founder of Altra, had run the race before and told her that miles 25-30 were truly spectacular, “and so I was ready for that; I was excited for that.” The men dropped back and she went ahead on her own. “I stopped for up to a minute at a time, just taking it in, looking around, really forcing myself to stop for a minute.” During the entire race, she says, “I was making sure I touched the ground quite a lot. I bent down and just felt the gravel. I was touching trees all day, just to check in with them. I was talking to the trees, talking to the earth, and I really felt connected. It was a really special experience in that way.”
Around mile 30, she started to run out of water. “It was so hot at that point; the sun was baking down on my head and I was just looking forward to having water and also putting sunscreen on and Chapstick at the next station. I get to the next aid station. They’re like, ‘Sorry we don’t have any sunscreen,’ and I’m like, ‘No…!’ Ryan [Montgomery, who was crewing and pacing her] had put some on my nose earlier, but I didn’t have it on the rest of my body and I just felt like I was frying. Thankfully, a lady offered to give me her sunscreen, so I had some.” She ate a little bit and then carried on to the hardest part of the course.
Miles 33 to 38 were very steep hills, and she says, “I was really starting to feel it and the thoughts came through of like, ‘What am I doing?’ or ‘If I was doing the 50 K, I’d be finishing now.’” Ryan was waiting at the mile 38 aid station and he ran the rest of the way with her. “It was difficult; I was tired; but at the same time, I felt really strong. I knew that I was going to finish. I knew that I was going to keep powering on. I didn’t allow myself to think, ‘What if I win? What if I blow up? I’ve only got an hour left,’ because you never know with an ultra. And so I kept bringing myself back to the present and I was really proud of that.”
The final aid station was 2.5 miles from the finish. “I had some Coke; I had a pickle; I had some pickle juice, as well. And then we ran down and it was this dirt road, very smooth, not really anything to trip over. And now I was in my stride. I was able to go along and just feel strong. My last two miles were under a seven minute pace and I just felt powerful.”
At the finish, she says, “I got emotional thinking about Patrick, what I’d taken him on and I was surprised that I didn’t get emotional during the race, but it just felt right to do it, that we had done this together. I was so proud of myself and proud of the choice I had made. I was so thankful for my friend and we could celebrate and it was really a good moment.”
Now Tina is contemplating what might come next. She didn’t train as well as she could have and her nutrition wasn’t what it should have been. Yet she still ran well and finished feeling strong. “So now for the first time since I quit in 2017, I’m wondering, ‘Do I wanna try this?’ Do I want to maybe not step it up that much, but just commit a little bit more, learn a bit more, try and eat better and have one build up to a race to see what I can do? Because looking back on that race, doing it at that level of altitude, 7,000 to 8,500 feet, that many miles when I’ve never done it before, the minimal training that I’ve done with zero workouts and some long runs and loads of skipped things, I’ll be honest, it makes me wonder.”
Running for Real podcast episode with Guy Winch
Thank you to Becoming a Sustainable Runner, Athletic Greens, and Allbirds for sponsoring this episode.
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