Outside magazine recently compiled a list of the 13 toughest of the “most dangerous races” in the world, ranging from a 150-mile jog through the jungle to a 350-mile race over the Arctic circle to a 3,100-mile race run by circling a single city block in New York City (fittingly it’s called Self-Transcendence because that’s what you have to do to not lose your mind).
Most of us wonder what would make someone want to do that, much less pay money for the privilege but Colleen Smith knows exactly why, because she’s done it.
The petite 31-year-old mom from Massachusetts wasn’t always into fitness. Several years ago she decided she needed to lose weight and took up running as a way to help the scale go down. She eventually dropped an impressive 120 pounds and in the process realized she truly loved running. After completing a 5K, she discovered running was not just exercise but a passion. Exactly one year later she ran her first marathon. One year after that found her crossing the finish line of her first 50-miler.
So naturally she signed up for the Tarc 100, a 100-mile race on densely wooded trails on which only about 30 percent of people who start it, finish. “I like being able to push my body to do something that most people cannot even understand,” Colleen says. “For me running is therapeutic and I really just enjoy it.”
The race started at 7 p.m. and it quickly became apparent that the muddy conditions combined with the darkness were going to make things even tougher than she’d anticipated. Both she and her running partner twisted their ankles trying to navigate streams with just the light from their headlamps. In fact, the injury forced her partner to drop out of the race just halfway through leaving her to finish on her own. The worst part, she says, were those long, lonely miles in the middle of the night.
“You are fighting fatigue from being 50-60 miles into your race and the darkness and your body naturally wants to quit and take a nap. At that point it becomes a sheer battle of pure will to want to finish,” she says.
By mile 70, thanks to a pain in her leg, Colleen thought she was done but a volunteer at the aid station and her husband Damian encouraged her to keep going even though she would have to go beyond her goal finishing time of 24 hours. That’s right, Colleen had been running outside through the woods for an entire day and was heading back into nighttime again. But she was determined not to quit so close and pushed through the pain. By mile 95, she calls it a “death march” but at just under 28 hours, she finally crossed the finish line — a feeling she says she’ll never forget.
“Nothing will ever take away the feeling of accomplishment I had as I jogged across that finish line, nothing will ever take that glory away. For me this experience was one of the hardest things I have ever done, similar to giving birth to my daughter,” she says. A fitting analogy since she adds that this race “was the birth of me really recognizing myself as an endurance athlete.”
Since then she’s gone on to run more ultras, including one just four months after her last baby was born — a feat made even more difficult because she had to stop every few hours to pump milk for her newborn. And she has no plans to stop. “I hope this is just the beginning of many more 100s to come!”