Your Story : Liz Jones

May 27, 2021 Wellness, Faith, Your Story
"I hope that people learn that things are possible, even if you have times when you don’t think they are.
The process makes the reward THAT much more worth it." -- Liz Jones

Back in 2013 I told the story of my first marathon. As a quick little backstory, when I was 10 I had the majority of my right lung removed. I also have severe asthma. And somewhere along the line I decided to push myself to become a marathoner. In 2014 I was searching the internet to find some new and exciting races and I stumbled upon a race called “Run Woodstock.” It’s a three day festival full of camping, live music, and running. All of my favorite things!! It also offered more race distances than I had ever seen- everything from a 5k to 100 miles. Having read a little about ultra marathons (anything over 26.2 miles) I was intrigued. I reasoned a 50 kilometer (31 ish miles) would be perfect! It’s just 5 more miles than a marathon and then I could say I was an ultra marathoner!

As I started training I kept something in mind- this wasn’t a road race like I was used to. It was trail race -- meaning that I would be running on hilly, steep and uneven dirt hiking trails. I thought I was mentally/physically prepared at how different it would be. Let me tell you -- I was not. We set up our tent the Friday night before the race and cheered the 100k and 100 milers as they started their race that evening. We figured we would have a night to relax and eat carbs but that evening the heavens unleashed a storm of epic proportions. I remember desperately standing inside our tent to keep it up against these crazy winds. But eventually the storm piped down and we got some sleep before our race started Saturday morning! This is where some of those differences between a road and trail race began -- instead of just having to deal with wet pavement, we had to deal with mud and downed trees from the night before. Not to mention I was learning as I went to move quickly over rocks and roots. In a trail race there are no crowds of people lining the street and cheering you on -- you (for the most part) are alone in the woods following little flags that mark the race course. I also began to realize what an encouraging environment it was -- every runner that passed me or that I passed told me I was doing a great job. The aid stations are amazing and have all sorts of food and snacks and the most amazing volunteers that stand out there all night and all day taking care of runners.

To complete my 50k I had to do two loops of 15.5 miles. I remember completing the first loop just exhausted from all the additional elevation and environmental factors I wasn’t used to dealing with. I remember telling my sister that I wasn’t sure I could complete another loop. She told me she believed in me and that I had plenty of time and to just keep moving. So I did… and after 9 hours in the wet and dirty mud I finished my first 50k! I was an ultra marathoner!
I hobbled back to our tent with my feet destroyed from the mud and hurting in places I never knew could hurt from all the additional work my muscles had to do. After a little snack we took our lawn chairs down by the main stage and where the start/finish line was. The 50 milers and 100k and 100 milers were starting to come in. I was so tired but I couldn’t stop watching these people cross the finish line. Some ran across looking so fresh that you would have thought that they had just started, some cried, some collapsed as they finished and were whisked away by the medics team, some drank a beer as they finished, some ran across the finish line with their children and some just finished so nonchalantly like they just did it every day. All I could think was :

“I want to do what these people are doing -- I don’t know how I ever will, but I want to do that.”

The next day I started looking at training plans and I decided a 100k (62 miles) would be my next race -- it had a generous cut off (30 hours like the 100 mile) and since speed isn’t my strong point I liked the time cushion. Again, in my mind I started to prep how this would be different from anything I had done before and again, I had no idea how hard it would be. Some new things I had to contend with was staying up all night and running all night. The race starts at 4pm on Friday and you have until 9pm on Saturday to finish. I also had to learn how to take in enough calories to fuel my body for 62 miles and most likely over 20 hours of movement. As the race got closer I kept reading how important pacers were. I hadn’t originally planned on a pacer -- but the rules of the race stated I could have a pacer for the last two loops of the four I had to do. So I lovingly talked both of my sister in laws into doing one loop each. My sister in law Hillary agreed to wake up at 2am and trek through the woods with a headlamp and my sister in law Kim would take over in the morning.

Running in the woods in the night is terrifying/amazing. There is no light so you have to wear a head or waist light (always carry batteries or a backup light!!). Those small rocks and twigs that are waiting to trip you are virtually impossible to see! And at this point you are starting to fight fatigue because you have been up all night. I remember moving slowly but still feeling ok the first three loops. But in the morning when I picked up my sister in law, Kim, for my 4th and final loop the wheels were starting to come off the bus. When you do an endurance activity like this your body shifts to survival mode. Basically all it’s focused on is keeping your heart beating and getting blood to your brain. Things like digestion start to take a backseat -- this means eating or drinking anything makes you nauseous. I can certainly say I took in nowhere near the required calories that I should have for this race. I fueled like I did for marathons - not realizing how much more I should have eaten and drank to move my body almost three times the distance. I also wasn’t prepared for the beating and chaffing my feet and body would experience. But with gentle coaxing from Kim and her feeding me saltines the last 10 miles I finished my first 100 kilometers. Again, I hobbled down to watch the 100 milers finish and no matter how much I was hurting I still wanted to be like them and do 100 miles.
Although the reality of doing 38 more miles than I had just done was a little intimidating, putting caution to the wind when registration opened for "Run Woodstock", I signed up for my first 100 miler in 2016. I think it bears explaining that the finishing rate for these races usually sit around 40-60%. A lot can happen to the body in 30 hours -- especially when you are pushing it to its extremes. So I went into this knowing that there was a pretty decent possibility of failure. When I stood at the start line that September I was so full of hope -- and I was feeling amazing out there on the trails until about 10pm, when Mother Nature unleashed a storm just over Pinckney, Michigan (my husband told me he was watching the news that night and it rained nowhere else in Michigan). I remember an aid station volunteer asking if I wanted to see the radar and I politely declined -- ignorance was going to have to be bliss.

I just wanted to keep moving.

Being on rocky and rooty hiking trails they quickly turned to little running streams of mud there was no way to keep my feet (or anything else for that matter) dry. Frogs and snakes started to emerge from all of the rain flooding out their little hiding places. After doing two loops on my own, at 2am I got to pick up my sister in law Hillary who graciously agreed to pace me again. The rain was still pouring at this point. A few times we laughed at how hard it was raining and Mother Nature replied with it falling even harder. It was like a freight train coming through the forest! We stopped at an aid station around 42 miles. I knew something was going wrong with my feet. I was horrified when I took my socks off to discover several toe nails starting to come loose! Panicked I called Hillary over and she told me, “Lots of bad things have happened to my feet -- it’s fine” (she also happens to be a classically trained dancer and dance teacher). We continued on but I knew in those last miles something definitely wasn’t right with my feet. Making it to 50 miles I stopped at our camper and realized not only were toes nails lifting- the actual skin of my feet was starting to separate. I later found out this is called 'trench foot'. Knowing that the rain wasn’t stopping (I finally gave in and looked at the radar) and that my pace was significantly decreasing with the pain in my feet I reluctantly withdrew from the race at 50 miles. My first DNF (did not finish.) I wasn’t necessarily sad at first -- I knew I had made the right call. But when I again hobbled down to watch the finish line, I had to turn away with tears in my eyes and I knew I still had to find a way to be like those amazing people crossing the finish line.

In 2017 I got ready for another 100 attempt! This time armed with everything waterproof (rain wasn’t gonna get me this time!!). I felt unstoppable! Again, I got those first two loops done - and since it was becoming tradition - Hillary got up at 2am to head out for my 3rd loop. It had been a chilly but a comfortable evening. When I checked the weather it was never supposed to drop below 40 -- perfect running weather! We headed out and about an hour in I could feel it getting colder -- my asthma was starting to act up which slowed me down and made me even colder. When we got to the midpoint aid station my body felt like pins and needles and everything I did felt “slow.” I was getting hypothermia. We went in the warming tent and I put on every article of clothing I had in my drop bag -- not even caring none of it matched. After some broth and about an hour in the tent I felt warm enough to get back out there. But by the time we hit the next aid station I again was freezing and not doing well. They had a small warming tent were I sat and cried -- there was no way I could make up all the time I was losing. I wanted to quit right there and get a ride back to camp. But Hilary told me I wasn’t allowed to beat myself up and we were going to finish this loop. So with the sun rising, we did. And while I wanted desperately to be done at 50 miles I knew if I did just one more loop I could get a 100k finish and not a DNF. So my cousin Becky cheerfully pushed me through 15 more miles to at least get a finish. I later learned that the temps had dropped into the 30s -- far below what I thought they would. While at least I secured a finish I knew I wasn’t done with this goal yet.
In 2018 and 2019 I tried again and again. 2018 a bee sting and a rolled/sprained ankle did me in. And in 2019 severe foot pain and under training took me out. Both years I made it to a 100k finish but never was under the time limit where I could have gone for those last two loops to get 100 miles. Failing so many times was getting so discouraging -- when I fixed one issue another would arise. But for all these attempts and failures my family and friends came out every year to pace me and to crew me and to cheer for me. After 4 years of trying I didn’t know if I would ever get it. But in 2020 -- I still signed up again.
Then came along Covid.

In March of 2020, I got furloughed from my job. After not having more than 8 days off in a row in well over 10 years, furlough put me in a unique position where training became my job. I could train every day to my heart’s content and it was the perfect socially distant activity!! My pace was improving and I naively thought everything would be back to normal in a few weeks. But as my furlough continued and my races and events began to cancel and things began to close, I began to realize this was a much more serious situation than anyone could have ever imagined. For my birthday in May, I decided the perfect socially distant party/training run would be 38 miles for 38 years. It burned the calories for my birthday cake and it was a perfect training distance for my 100. I got up on my birthday and the trail had been decorated by my husband with happy birthday signs made by my family and it was just a great day. Until around mile 25. I sat down on a rock for a little break and to eat a few saltines. I opened my email and I saw the dreaded email that Run Woodstock and my 100 mile race was canceled. I thought about quitting my birthday run.

I mean why bother training if there’s no race?

I texted my sisters the bad news. My sisters suggested that I just do my own 100 miler. I started to think about it -- I had access to a 14.5 mile bike trail right by my house, I had a big back yard where people could camp -- why not? All I had to do was seven 14.5 mile loops. We decided to call it the 'Tacostock 100' -- an homage to Run Woodstock and the tacos we made every year when I was done running. So I got back up and finished that 38 mile training run. I had to get ready for the Tacostock 100!

On an early Saturday morning in September I started my 5th attempt at 100 miles. Being that it’s still dark at 5am my husband was insistent that he would start with me while it was dark. However, as he didn’t want to slow me down he instead followed me in his car meeting me at the various lots along the trail. Right around two miles in there’s a clearing in the trail that’s parallel to the driveway of the lot -- I noticed blinking lights and thought, “Is he blinking his headlights as encouragement?!”… No -- he was pulled over by a cop. As my head lamp light bobbed through the woods Randall explained that although indeed this did look sketchy -- he was following his wife as she tried to get her 100 miles in. And then he asked the cop if he could please keep an eye out overnight and I would be out here all night too. The cop seemed baffled but I mean there’s no way someone could make up a story this crazy so he let us continue on.

When I started that morning the weather looked perfect, 50-60 degrees with zero chance of rain. When I came in from loop 4 (around 48 miles) I noticed the sky beginning to cloud up and realized that the 0% chance was now 40%. I could also feel the familiar sting of blisters starting and fatigue beginning. Blisters are my nemesis -- no matter the shoes, no matter the socks, no matter the creative taping and band aids, no matter the copious amounts of Trail Toes and Desitin on my feet -- I will still blister. I got back to my house and removing my shoes began draining the immense blisters on my heels. I also never blister in the same spot making pretaping impossible. I treated myself to a fresh pair of shoes and taped up what I could. At this point (around 11 pm) I saw a thin line of rain on the radar -- so I donned a poncho and off my pacer Renee and I went. Within the hour that thin line of rain became a ridiculous storm with lightning alerts pinging in on my phone. “Ugh here we go,” I thought -- remembering back to my first 100 attempt where I got the dreaded trench foot. I was terrified what this would mean for my feet that already had some extensive blisters. We marched on through on and off rain -- the fatigue and pain in my feet increasing with each step. I was taking more frequent breaks at this point -- trying to get the waves of nausea that accompany ultra running to pass. Renee was breaking up the loop at this point -- just pushing me a section at a time.

At 68 miles, I had enough. I sat down in the middle of the wet trail. My feet were trashed, I was exhausted and I still had 32 miles and I was just done. There were parts of my body that I expected to hurt but, what I didn’t realize, was that EVERYTHING would hurt so much. My teeth were hurting from the sugar in the endurance fuel I was drinking, my shoulders were hurting from my hydration pack, and my hands were hurting from swelling. Renee pointed out that I had never quit on her watch and I wasn’t about to start. Through my tears I tried to mumble “find a way, find a way” -- the mantra Diana Nyad used swimming from Cuba to Florida. Renee pulled a magical fresh and dry pair of socks from her pack and took off one of her breast cancer walk pins from her pack. I used the pin to pop my blisters and I took off the now useless and waterlogged Band-Aids and tape on my feet. Amazingly the new socks worked for a few miles -- I pushed on through and then the rain started again -- harder than it had been before. But, other than a few breaks I moved along because I was about to be at 75 miles! I told myself less than a marathon left and I’ve done lots of marathons!!

I made it back to the house soaking wet. I knew my only hope to go on was to let my feet dry out for a while where I could at least get tape and Band-Aids to stick. It took about an hour to get my feet dry enough that I could do enough repair work to at least get moving again. Oddly at this point my legs didn’t really hurt -- but my feet felt like I was stepping on shards of glass with each step. But I had less than a marathon to go -- I was ready! Until I got to mile 82. At this point, I again announced I was done and I had had enough. My pacer Hilary said let’s pick a small goal and get there and you can decide then. And I kept moving. During this point I had so much fatigue that I would nod off while walking and talking -- I learned it is in fact possible to fall asleep while walking. Eventually the fatigue passed -- but the nausea and pain kept waving through. As I picked up my final pacer we laughed at incredible looks of sympathy and concern from people out on the trail for their daily strolls -- I wished I had a sign that said “I’m 95 miles deep here.” Those last 5 miles were the worst of my life -- but my final pacer was my hiking partner Melfi. And we have had some miserable hikes so we know how to push each other on the trail. He knew enough to slightly speed up and I managed to keep up the best I could. With 0.8 miles left I stopped my pacer -- I said I needed a moment -- not for pain or nausea... I just wanted to absorb the moment - that hoIy crap I was about to do this. Just over the hill and past the stop sign there was my house and my sisters had the tacos ready to celebrate!

In just under 36 hours, I finished my first 100 miles.

After 5 years of training and trying and failing and trying again, I finished with my sisters and niece and in laws and pacers and husband all waiting for me. It took me a few days to process that I actually did It -- it felt like a dream. An absolute dream come true.
{ Her crew & pacers for her completed 100 miles! }
{ Her Elevation Necklace showcasing the elevation profile recorded by her Garmin of her completed 100 mile run! }
I recently read a book called, “Broken Open: How Difficult Times can Help us Grow.” In it the author, Elizabeth Lesser, describes how the publishing company wanted her to change the title of the book to something more uplifting like, “The Light at the End of the Tunnel.” She also describes how she fought against that because the process, the pain, the rising and the result of being broken open was the most important part of her story.

"While finishing 100 miles on my first try would have been amazing,
this 5 year process changed me for the better and I can’t wait to continue trying to do hard things."

Speaking of which… after writing this part of my story, my newest chapter is about to begin! Starting on Memorial Day, I will begin my hike on The North Country Trail, which is a National Scenic Trail. It technically runs from Maine to North Dakota however I will be completing about 600 miles of it within Michigan. I have it estimated to take me about 7 weeks to hike. I will have my tent, backpack, sleeping bag, hydration (I have a water filter to be able to filter water from lakes & streams), lots of dehydrated food, an InReach Satellite Tracker on me – all of the things that will keep me prepared for the days ahead. Backpacking requires a lot of mental preparation because you don’t want to freak yourself out alone in the woods at night – the sounds that you hear (which most times are actually just squirrels but sound MUCH larger then that) can be frightening. I think I am most excited to see if my brain can really handle being alone that long & having to sit alone with my thoughts. On this new journey, I will mostly be alone which is very different than any of the races I have done before. I think for me, the biggest part of this is not just the physical & mental journey, but also the trust factor. I left my job in order to pursue this & I am fully trusting that at the end of this the Universe has something even better in store for me. If I don’t try, I’ll never know – and I need to try, because I need to know.

Want to know more about Liz? Here’s a quick snapshot :

What's one word the best describes you & why?
I thought about this a lot and tried really hard to come up with a creative word. But I kept coming back to “Determined.” It wasn’t my legs that got me 100 miles - it was my brain and my heart. What I want people to realize is that I am not an exceptionally gifted athlete. I am very consistently last place at many of the races that I do. I have asthma. I am missing a part of my right lung. I am a very average human being trying to do extraordinary things. And while I wasn’t genetically gifted to be a fast and efficient runner -- I used my mind to be determined enough to never stop trying.

What's one thing you do daily that you can't live without?
Being that I push my body to do some pretty extreme things, I try to evaluate daily where my body is and when I need to rest. It’s easy to keep pushing and pushing -- but rest and recovery are just as -- if not more - important than constantly pushing.

What's one habit you're working to improve & why are you motivated to do so?
The blessing and curse of social media is that you get to see so many people do amazing things. The blessing is that it can be an amazing inspiration. The curse is that you can compare your accomplishments with others. I love watching live results of some of the bigger and more famous ultra marathons on social media- in some ways I feel a kindred connection to what they are putting their bodies and minds through. Soon after my 100 I settled down to watch the elite field compete in the Moab 240 miler ( 240 miles through the mountains of Moab, Utah). At one point I mentioned to a friend that these athletes would laugh at my piddly little 100 miler on a bike trail. My friend reminded me that “No they would think it’s amazing - it’s 100 miles!!” The habit of comparing myself to others is hard not to do. Especially when you consider that even on a good day I’m slower than almost every runner I know. I shy away from sharing times. I shy away from people following me on Garmin because they will see how slow my pace is. Even at the start line of races I’ll realize that my body doesn’t look like a lot of the people around me. Or I’ll think how lucky they are to have two lungs and not have asthma. I’ll convince myself I don’t belong there. It’s been a long road to realize that everyone around me is on a journey too.

What does faith mean to you?
I’ve had my own journeys in in spirituality and a very special path with that. However, in the context of this story I think that faith is more in how others believed in me. I had the desire. I had the willingness to consistently train for five years. I had the willingness to invest thousands of dollars in gear and race entry fees and travel all over the Midwest to attempt races. I used all of my vacation time from work to do races or train (many thanks to the flexibility of my husband -- sorry babe, I know you just wanted to go and sit on the beach ). I typically did at least one other 50 mile or 100k race a year as “practice” for my 100 miler. I hung up my bibs of failed 100 mile race attempts so I could look at them every day and remind myself of my goal. I literally thought about 100 miles every single day.

But sometimes when it came to faith that I could finish... I was lacking. And to be fair, could you blame me?

I failed so many times and for a different reason every time. Many times I thought to myself that maybe even though I wanted this goal perhaps I just needed to accept that my body wouldn’t or wasn’t able to do it. This is where the faith of everyone else came in. My pacers and crew believed I could do this. Even when I had to drop 4 other times before, even when I had run toenails off my feet and blistered in every spot imaginable, even when my mind gave up and I sat in the middle of a bike trail waving a white flag, even when I thought I couldn’t do it -- my pacers and crew had faith that I COULD do it. The number of times their faith in me got me moving again is amazing. I never could have hit 100 miles without the faith of my sister Amanda, my sister Jenny & niece Felicity, my parents, my husband Randy, and my pacing family of Hillary, Renee, Becky, Melfi, Dee & Kimmy. Mother Teresa is quoted as saying, “The problem with the world is that we draw the circle of our family too small.” I 100% agree with this and I’m so eternally grateful for this family who made it their goal to make my dream come true!

What's brings you joy?
Obviously running and racing brings me joy! However, I do have a few other hobbies including hiking, backpacking and painting! Basically I love anything outdoors that takes me to some amazing places. Many people don’t know that Michigan has part of a national scenic trail that runs the entirety of the Upper and Lower Peninsula (the North Country Trail). So chances are if I have a few days off I’m going to be out hiking or backpacking a section of the trail.

Anything else you want to share?!
I thought a little Q&A about ultra running might be helpful!

1// What is an ultra marathon?
An ultra marathon is any distance over 26.2 miles (a marathon distance). Most commonly the distances are 50 kilometers (31 miles), 50 miles, 100 kilometers (62 miles) and 100 miles. There’s even a few 200 mile races out there!

2// Wait humans can run 100 miles?
Yes they can! And some do it amazingly well!!

3// Do you run the whole time?
Some do! However most people move based on the terrain. They move faster on the flat parts and downhills and walk the more technical hills. I personally prefer to move at a slower pace that I know I can sustain for hours.

4// Do you do all the miles at once?
Yes! A typical time limit for 100 miles is 30-36 hours (although this may go up or down depending on the difficulty of the course). Once the clock starts on a race the time limit is yours to do what you wish -- some faster people are able to take short breaks or naps. And you absolutely have to take time to eat, change clothes, deal with chaffing and blisters etc.

5// What’s a pacer and crew?
Your crew sets up your home space if the course is looped or may meet you in a car on the course if the race is point to point. They help you change, pop blisters, feed you, mix your endurance fuel, braid your hair, make you tacos etc. Your pacers run with you for a set amount of time (often getting up at an ungodly hour). My pacers know I move best when I’m distracted so they know to keep me talking. For both my pacers and crew they know under no circumstance do they tell me how close to death I look. Their most important job is to assure me that I’m doing great and look great- no matter how close to death I appear or how slow I’m shuffling.

6// Why do 100 mile races give belt buckles instead of medals?
Many 100 mile races started as horse races and the reward for finishing those races was a belt buckle -- so the tradition has carried on when humans started running them with belt buckles being the reward for a 100 mile finish.

{ To the left, the medal & belt buckle created for TacoStock 100
& to the right, the map of her next BIG adventure of hiking The North Country Trail in Michigan! }

Thank you, so much, for sharing YOUR STORY, Liz.
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