Road to Ultra During a Pandemic

by Kristen Garzone

Running an ultramarathon has always been on my bucket list but never did I imagine I would accomplish this goal, let alone in a pandemic.

“Keep chasing the things in your heart, even in the midst of disappointment and uncertainty. It’s worth it!” — Sara Hall

How do you stay motivated without any races in sight? How do you keep structure in an uncertain world? How will I get through this? These were some of the questions I asked myself daily at the start of the COVID quarantine. I was still running (training for the NJ Marathon, which had already been cancelled) but I was struggling with the unknown ahead; drinking every night, sleeping in every morning – there was no structure and my depression and anxiety were suffering heavily because of it. At the end of April, I ran my “virtual” half marathon, with the support of close friends and family (socially distanced, of course) on the Mohawk Hudson Half Marathon course, but I knew I had to find a way to keep myself going. I felt lost.

In June, I did a virtual mileage challenge: run as miles as you can within a month. I had high hopes this would keep me moving but at that point, it turned into running too much with still, no structure. Some days I was even running twice a day to stay sane. I desperately latched on to running to keep my anxiety at bay and seek a daily feel of accomplishment. 180 miles and a pain-ridden Achilles tendon later (heavy weekly mileage has never been good on my body), a new month started and once again, I was looking for a way to keep going.

I was signed up for the Chicago Marathon (what would’ve been my 9th marathon), running for Every Mother Counts, and chasing my sub 4 goal once again. However, I knew there was a more than likely chance it would not go forward. That’s when I first thought, “how about 34 miles to celebrate 34 years of life?” I mentioned it to my coach, kept the goal in the back of my mind, and started base building for the marathon ahead. When the first day of “official” Chicago training hit on July 13th, I went out, got my miles in, and came back to the dreaded news I knew was coming: Chicago Marathon cancelled. At that point, I don’t think I was bummed because I was expecting it. I also think I had been secretly building myself up to that big goal and knew this was a sign to go for it: ultramarathon.

I spent the next 13 weeks training with the help of my Coach Toni, talked a good friend Stephanie  Wilkerson into running with me on “race day,” working hard on strength with the 6 a.m. crew in the Anatomie parking lot, running on tired legs, and found so much happiness in having a routine again. The difference with this training was it was no longer about fast paces or speed work. There was no time goal for this “race,” only to finish, and I think that was the shift I needed, especially in a world with so much stress, sadness, and bad news compounding each day. Training became the escape for the norm I needed and I found my much-needed structure again.

 (Cool race swag and a badass medal, of course!) Two weeks before the big day, I even decided to put my miles to good use and run for Every Mother Counts, in their “Race for Birth Justice.” The purpose of the virtual race was to raise awareness for EMC’s continued advocacy for/with communities of color, the funds going directly towards combating disparities that impact childbearing mothers, and to essentially, help achieve birth justice in the US. It felt good to have purpose behind the long mileage, as I’ve often done for past races, and even managed to raise $6,045 for EMC, an organization I’ve been an ambassador for since 2018 and hold very close to my heart. To make it even more amazing: October 10th was World Mental Health Day. I couldn’t think of a more wonderful way to celebrate mental health awareness, another cause very close to my heart.

When “race day” hit on October 10th, what would’ve been the 2020 Chicago Marathon weekend, I never have been SO happy (and relieved!) to have made it through a training cycle. And truth be told, the day ended up being one of the best (running) days I’ve ever had. Stephanie and I started in West Rotterdam, running through Schenectady, and onto the Mohawk Hudson River Marathon course, finishing at Corning Preserve in Albany. We had friends cheering us on all over the course, fellow runners who joined us for miles, and just so much love and support from near and far! There was no worry about pace or time, not stopping my watch and enjoying every “aid station”; being able to visit with amazing friends showing their support at different spots, laughing SO hard, and seriously running the happiest I ever have. We crossed the red and white streamer-made finish line as ultramarathoners, together in a pandemic, and regardless of any aches or pains, with the biggest smiles on our faces. Honestly, I felt stronger THAN EVER. [We had planned for 34 miles, but the course was a little longer and when we crossed the finish line at 34.88, I couldn’t resist turning around to get to 35. Runners get that :-)

About a week before that ultramarathon, Stephanie had mentioned piggybacking off our training and taking on a 50 miler. We had found the JFK 50 Miler and after crossing 35 miles off my list, I just KNEW I had to go for it. After chasing hard for that sub-4 marathon goal for the past 3 marathons (and almost 4 years postpartum), this was what my mind and body absolutely needed. It was refreshing to change my training perspective and not worry about pace for once. Plus, I had already come this far, had a strong base, and felt better than I had in a while so why not continue and keep going?

Kristen3Final.jpgAnd now here I am, 15 days until my first 50 miler!! Still training on tired, tired, tired (did I mention tired) legs, logging 5 strength workouts a week with amazing support from the crew at Anatomie, and running strong, long, and most importantly, proud. I know the mental/physical strength and stamina gained through all this will take me to that sub-4 marathon goal when the time is right.

I will be FOREVER grateful I took this summer and fall to take on this big goal and concentrate on getting stronger. It’s helped keep me sane; a constant through the madness. It truly feels meant to be. I had found solace and peace in the longer miles with no stress of time and I had found something to help give me purpose. I still can’t believe all the hard work I put in for the past 5 months and am grateful I took this time (and early mornings) to invest in myself and tackle such a big goal. Resilience has been a big part of being able to show up each day, but I’ve also felt more myself than I have in a while.

As David Goggins said in his amazing story Can’t Hurt Me: Master Your Mind and Defy the Odds, “It's a lot more than mind over matter. It takes relentless self-discipline to schedule suffering into your day, every day.” And that’s exactly what I found deep inside myself this year – the relentless pursuit, as I’ve often hash-tagged on my Instagram running posts, and the passion to work harder. At the end of the day, this road to ultra has been extremely therapeutic, helping me cope with my depression and anxiety. It has also been euphoric on some days while a complete disaster on others but this road to 50 miles, even though exhausting, has found ways to comfort me and truthfully, I’ve felt more myself lately than I have in a while.

“Be more than motivated, be more than driven, become literally obsessed to the point where people think you're f***ing nuts.”

At this point, I’m pretty sure people think I’m a little nuts, right? Going from 6 a.m. strength class to running 10 miles right after, all on a Tuesday, for example, but you know what? Taking on the ultramarathon has enabled me to tap back into that inner athlete, not having felt this physically good since playing soccer in college. And the title of “athlete” is something I’ve always clung tightly to. An athlete with that underdog mentality, built on hustle, heart and belief that you can overcome any type of adversity if you want something bad enough. And honestly, that’s how I’ve always viewed myself – the underdog.

I know my emotions will be all over the place on race day in Maryland (Saturday, November 21st, and my first official race day in exactly a year!), but that’s mostly because I will be looking back on the journey that has and will take me to that start line 2 weeks from now. I will remember all the beautiful mornings I got to watch the sun come up, the peace the open roads gave me during such uncertainty, the struggles that were overcome, the snowy/rainy/dark moments endured, the money and awareness raised, the people I shared this time with and grew closer to, all the amazing love and support from people in my life, the memories that will never be forgotten, daily efforts put in, becoming stronger than ever, all the growth as a runner AND a person, and most importantly: chasing one big goal, refusing to give up on myself.

Never did I imagine I would be running a 50-mile race but I really do believe I found the thing I needed most during this pandemic and that is ultrarunning. It has given me a sense of confidence I haven’t felt in over 10-15 years and reinforced an inner mantra I will hold on to for a long time to come: “you may see me struggle but you’ll never see me quit.”

Happy running, friends. I hope you’re finding your own ways to cope during these hard times, but I also hope you’re still dreaming big, thinking outside the box, and finding ways to push yourself out of your own comfort zone. Don’t ever quit on yourself and find a way to be relentless in your own pursuit. Find something that helps you jump out of the bed in the morning and keeps you going. Hopefully our beloved races and running communities can be closer and back sooner than later but until then, keep moving forward.

At 37, marathon runner Sara Hall is enjoying her sport more than ever


Masks were mandatory except when they were eating – at tables spaced 2 meters apart – or training. They also wore trackers around their neck using a technology called “Bump.”
“If you got within 6 feet of someone it would glow blue,” Hall said. “If you were there for longer than just passing, it would be red and start to beep. It kept you distancing, because the beeping was kind of annoying. Unfortunately, Ryan’s and mine also beeped when we were close to each other so it was challenging.”

Kristen Garzone Archive

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