Tale of the Ultramarathon: A 50 Mile Reflection on Grit, Mindset, and the Power of Human Connection.

Guest Post by Dr. David Martin

I am so excited to share this story with you. Dr. David Martin and his wife Julie are not only family and friends of mine but they’ve also been huge supporters of my business.  After following their journey as they trained for a 50 mile ultramarathon   I couldn’t wait to hear what the experience was like. When he shared this story with me I knew it had to be shared.  I am not a runner, but everything he talks about can be applied in so many ways within our lives.  This is just one example of what it means to live your life with meaning.  Please enjoy and be inspired!  ~Sarah


No tales are told of the mundane and the ordinary. This is something I hold close to my heart. I want to have incredible tales to tell my children and grandchildren. I want to leave a legacy to my family that inspires and motivates.

Frankly, working an 8-5 and bringing home a paycheck, repeatedly for years does not fill up the memory books.  It is why I began work as a traveling Physical Therapist and camped in a tent with 3 kids for 2 months while I worked at a local SNF.  It is why my wife and I decided to take a risk. We bought a plot of land and built a house we only dreamed of having, and now wake up every day in that home. That was all in the past and I felt like I needed something else, something that would challenge me physically and mentally. Something that my wife and I would work together and achieve. One Sunday, in the lobby of our church, when a friend asked if we were crazy enough to sign up for a 50 mile ultramarathon, we said yes.




That was 9 months ago.  At the time I had fallen into that mundane rut of working and living but not thriving.  A new job and some travel kept me feeling fresh but there was still that void.  I had stopped exercising as much as I had in past years and months and was beginning to put on the “Dad weight”. I bought new jeans and was disappointed when I had to go up a size to find some jeans that would fit. So that Sunday at church when asked to sign up for a 50 mile race, having never run anything longer than 6 miles (years ago) was scary. Could I really do it? I was in the worst shape I had been in physically. Yet my mouth immediately said, “Let’s do it!” before my brain had time to actually think about the work that would need to be done. And so the 9 months of training began.


I recall running around the lake we currently live on. It is about a 2.25 mile loop around the lake.  I think it took me around 38 minutes, nearly 20 minute miles.  I felt like a failure and the doubt began to sink into my thoughts. However, I pushed and reminded myself, this is only the start.  Just like in your personal life sometimes you just need to put the doubt away and START. So I kept running and training, working on my diet, and asking myself every day “Does this help me run 50 miles?” That leading question guided my focus and vision for what was going to happen in 9 months’ time.  Find your vision, find your goal, and make sure each decision falls in line with your vision.


Training for me looked very different for a long time. I just needed to make healthy decisions, spend time doing CrossFit which I have done for nearly 10 years and focus on improving strength and muscular endurance.  I wasn’t running as much as my wife who was on this journey with me.  She has incredible focus and grit, considering she has had 4 children with no pain meds ever and is able to focus any energy she has towards her goal.  She was 100% in, buying new gear and shoes, running in the snow and rain, reading and studying the course details, and fine tuning a training plan.


I started this journey at my heaviest, 220 lbs. on my 5’8’’ frame.  I knew I needed to drop some significant weight to reduce the physical stress on my legs as I needed to push them for 50 miles and be on my feet without sitting for probably nearly 15 hours.  So weight loss was my ultimate goal and by race day I wanted to be around 185. The week before race day I weighed myself and was 187.  I had made my goal of needing to drop nearly 35 lbs. and I did! Not only did I feel prepared, I felt healthy. During that time we did start running more and working in longer distance runs.  Nothing improved overnight and at times it is hard to see that any progress is being made. But slowly after 3-4 months of training and working on endurance I was able to run the loop around the lake in my fastest time of 17 minutes.  But how would that translate to a 50 mile loop? I was about to find out!


Race Day


The alarm was set in the hotel as the 4 of us (me and my wife, and our friends who challenged us 9 months earlier) needed to ensure we were to the start line by 5:15 that morning.  None of us needed the alarms really, they were just a safety net. We were all already awake, having not slept well due to the nervousness and anticipation of the task ahead. Some showered that morning, others slept in our race clothes.  We had so much running gear around the room it was pretty crazy. You may ask all you need is shoes and shorts and a t-shirt right? Essentially yes, but with such a long race we needed 2 sets of shoes, multiple pairs of socks, handheld water bottles, water supplements, salt and electrolyte tablets, sport tape for those little muscle aches, blister pads, cell phone, ear buds, a backpack water bladder or a waistband to hold all your gear, a little fist aid kit, some nutrition, your GPS watch, phone battery charging pack and cord, and I think that covers it. 

Get in the car and drive to the start. It was starting to feel very real, yet I felt prepared for the task at hand. I had been preparing for this for 9 months, I felt I was in the best shape I could have been in, my goal was to finish and I knew it would be a long day ahead, I had to run my race.



Lined up like horses behind a gate waiting for the gate to open to a green field ahead of us, the race director counted it down. Anxious chatter was about in the back of the pack with the elite runners in the front looking to take an early lead. A last minute kiss to my wife and a hug, word of encouragement, and we were off.  About 195 runners were embarking on 50 miles of trail.  I knew my competitive self would want to surge to the front, and I had to tell myself this is an all-day event so be patient. 


The Course


The course boasts thousands and thousands of stairs and nearly 12,000 feet of elevation climb/descent during the 50 miles. The first 3 miles alone we traversed up in elevation and encounters at least 200 steps at least that is when I stopped counting. The course follows beautiful waterfall gorges cut through the hillside with incredible stone staircases lining the paths.  At one point a bagpiper played and it energized you with the resounding acoustics from the gorge.  I only wish he had been there 13 hours from now as I would need that motivation.  The course took many twists and turns from nicely groomed trails wide enough to drive a 4 wheeler on to single track where you have to be single file and no room to pass, to jumping over trees covering the path.  One section was so steep you nearly had to use your hands to grab onto the few small trees growing on its path to pull yourself up.



I remember seeing my watch at 8:00am and thinking, I’ve been running for 2 hours. I had covered nearly 7-8 miles and was feeling incredible.  I guess maybe it was the runners high and thrill of the start.  I had not even stopped at the first aid station at mile 5. I had only been running for 5 miles what did I really need?


I got caught up in a group of mid pack guys for about 3 miles.  I was leading through a single track and was running pretty strong. We were around mile 11 and running at a pace of 8:40 minute miles.  My pace I should have been at was 11-12. I was going too fast.  I stopped and stepped aside and told them I needed to run my race not theirs.  They passed me and I slowed back down. I had to be patient. Reminded me of business and your career, run your race, carve your path. When others pass you by, don’t feel inadequate or disappointed.  I was happy for those guys, they were in incredible shape and doing really well. I knew my time would come, I had to be patient.


Nearly the same time I almost had a collision with someone coming the other way at an incredible rate.  Three of the lead runners were flying back up the trail.  I was already hours behind their pace and was awestruck that they were already nearing mile 17 for their race.  I would not see them again until later in the day.



I was around mile 18 at this point. The marathon had started nearly 2 hours ago and I was beginning my way back to the start to finish the first of 2 loops.  I had a friend running the marathon so I was anxiously waiting to see him.  Finally I did and it was such a moral boost.  I had been riding a low point after running for 4 hours and was behind the pace I wanted to be at for mile 18.  He had finished this race in the past and is an elite runner himself. He gave me one line as he passed and high fived me. “You’re doing great!!” he said with enthusiasm as is his nature.  Such an encourager.  I immediately felt good that he thought I was doing well.  As I passed more and more runners coming and going everyone said “great job” or something similar.


When you’re running with your own thoughts and for such a long time you have a lot of time to think and over analyze.  I began to think “How does he know I’m doing great?” “It is just empty praise” and a “compliment without substance”.  I was actually really struggling. Not physically, but the mental toughness to keep going was starting to wane.


12:00 pm

27 miles in and my first MARATHON! I was officially at the halfway point, back at the starting line.  I had done one full loop in just over 6 hours, covered 27 miles of tough terrain and incredible views and thousands of stairs. My quads were cramping, my feet ached but I did not care! I was back on a positive mindset as I just completed a marathon. Even in my training the longest run I had done was 20 miles.  It felt good, but almost too good.  Almost like I had achieved something great and now I just want to be done.  The aid station had food and music, lots of people around congratulating you on your first loop.  Now I had to convince myself to turn around… and DO IT AGAIN.


I had gotten the advice to not stay long at this aid station. The next station was only 3 miles away around mile 30.  I needed to leave and just start moving out again. The joy of seeing my wife for the first time in 6 hours and being able to check in with her motivated me to get back out on the trail!


I found my wife and she was almost done with her first marathon, but she was in pain. Significant pain on her neck and shoulders. She shed a few tears as we gave each other a hug and word of encouragement.  She was most likely going to finish the marathon and then drop out of the second loop.  I didn’t know what to do so I said “Do what you need to do… I’ll see you soon.” She ended up finishing her first ever trail marathon and decided she would not meet the cut off time for the next aid station she withdrew, got a massage, some food, and has no regrets!



For the next 2 hours I felt alone.  My wife and I had gone on this journey together, trained and supported each other for the past 9 months of training and now a team of 2 was down to 1.  It motivated me at times, to finish for US. It also discouraged me at times because I knew how much she wanted this and the work and sacrifices she made to get to this point.  I think I shed a few small tears thinking about seeing her at the finish line and telling her that my finish was a finish for both of us! (I had to pull back those emotions and get focused again.)



I had hoped to be done by 10 hours on the trail and yet, I still had about 13 miles to go.  I was at the 3/4 mark and staring at a 1.5 miles of stairs up the notorious buttermilk falls. My running had turning to adventure hiking at this time. My legs felt weak and cramped with every step.  I was sitting at the aid station and asked how much longer to the next aid station. Answer: 6 miles. Could I do it? Could I make it another 6 miles? I knew I had 12-13 total more miles to go. If I could do the next 6 miles I knew I could finish.  This was where I had to have that resolve.  I was now approaching mile 40 and was 80% done. My wife was at the finish waiting for me, probably worried. I knew friends had come to see me finish. If not for me, I needed to do this for them.  I grabbed a blackberry snow cone, an energy shot, some water and began the next 6 miles. They were the darkest 6 miles.


I say darkest because they were the loneliest. I hadn’t brought my cell phone because it weighs a lot and I didn’t want the weight around my waist all day long. Around mile 42 my watch died.  It sounds silly now but my watch was my life connection. It was tracking my pace, total time, total distance and I had been referencing this data to ensure I was above the cut off mark for the time caps, it had become my running partner for 42 miles.  Now I was truly in the dark. I didn’t know where I was or even what time of day it was. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. There were very few people for those 6 miles.  The park was getting quieter from the tourists hiking the trails.  Almost 50% of the people who had started the race had been pulled off course as they did not meet the time cut off or due to injury. I started to get emotional again, just wanting to be done, I wanted to sit down, wanting to see my wife and best friend, wanting to go get a shower and some food, I wanted to quit.  I couldn’t. I was in the middle of a remote section of these 6 miles and even if I wanted to quit I still had to make it to the support race crew at the next aid station, so I kept moving.  I knew my hiking pace was 22 minute miles and I needed to average around 18 minute miles to finish under the 15 hour time cap.  So I ran when I could and hiked the hills. I crossed the creek right before the next aid station and my feet felt SO good in the cold water.  I stayed there for what seemed like an eternity when you have been moving for 12 hours straight.  The aid station was .25 miles ahead.


Underpass Aid Station

Cow bells and cheering as I rounded the corner and heard the lookout person yell “RUNNER!!” Complimentary since I was walking and not running.  I’m not sure what I looked like but I had made it to mile 44. WATERMELON! I think I consumed at least half a watermelon, some M&M’s, downed some water and GU Brew (energy drink mix) and probably ate some other things but I don’t recall. It was just after 6:00pm. 12 hours. I had to ask how much longer to the next aid station. 4 miles.  I told myself I can do 4 miles.  So I took off and walked out of sight of the aid station. I wondered about the conversations they have with each other when they see someone come in and leave. Do they take bets about if that person will finish? Do they call the next aid station to let them know I was on my way?


I still did not know my pace or time.  Those 4 miles seemed long but my legs began to be fresh again. It was actually more comfortable to run than to walk so I ran. Still able to climb over a waist high log for the 4th time today there were hikers standing at the intersection. “Incredible!” they said as I passed by them.  Normally a chatty and optimistic person I wanted to say something but I don’t think I did.  I was focused on the end. I didn’t have energy to spare to summon a response.  I wish I could thank them for their encouragement now.



Old Mill Aid Station – 3.2 miles to finish

I rounded a trail corner and saw the old mill building.  The aid station around the corner.  I saw the aid station, once multiple tables full of food and supplies now consolidated to one table and a few people.  They asked what I needed. I needed the time and new legs.  I had one hour and 45 minutes to the cut off at the finish and 3 miles.  For some reason this felt impossible. One lady asked me who would be at the finish. I said my wife. I need to see her, embrace her, cry on her shoulder. This pushed me to leave the aid station. I was so close! As I took a few more minutes the woman there said, “You need to rely on that verse you have tattooed on you.” It’s ironic that you tattoo something so you always have it with you but often actually forget it is there.  It reads “My grace is sufficient for you. For power is perfected in weakness, for when I am weak, I am strong.” It is one of my life verses that has always rooted me in my faith and kept me through many lows in my lifetime. As I left the final aid station she said “You are so strong!” In life we need others who believe in each other more than you believe in yourself.


The next 3 miles are mostly downhill.  Up to this point I had been running 18-25 minute miles but I knew I could finish this, I began to run down steps and stairs counting over 200 steps down after running 48 miles.  The woods were getting dark as the sun began to set and time was running out. I had to still walk certain sections. I was passed again by a few more runners who were also just looking to finish.  I got to the final 0.5 mile and I could hear the cheers for those runners who were finishing just before me.  I longed for those cheers to be for me! I started to run again, downhill and it hurt but the endorphin rush blocked any pain at that time.  The final 400 meters was flat grass area.  Another runner was behind me and my competitiveness propelled me to not let him pass by me. I saw the finish banner and some of the aid station volunteers cheering.  I saw my wife through the finish and ran to her.  White as a ghost I had an emotional dump at the end and just embraced her with no regard for anything or anyone else.  I had done it. Not for me. For us. For a tale to tell. A tale of incredible resolve and grit, dedication, a tale of friendships and relationships far from mundane or ordinary.


14:07.59 – Cayuga Trails 50 Finisher 2018