If you go from the top of Delaware’s arc to the Mason-Dixon line at the southern edge of the state, Delaware is about 95 miles from north to south.
For Kelly Tyrrell, a former WDEL reporter, there would have still been about 8 miles left to go in her race this weekend.
Kelly ran in the 103.3-mile Superior Trail Race in the shadow of Lake Superior in Minnesota, an event that would culminate on her 36th birthday.
The roots of her race began soon after she left us in 2014 to take a job as a science writer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
A multiple-time Boston Marathon qualifier, Kelly said her decision to step into ultramarathoning, or the classification of races above 26.2 miles, began with the North Face Endurance Challenge in 2015.
“It wasn’t so much a decision, as it was peer pressure. A good friend of mine in Delaware, Liz Jones, bought me a book on ultramarathoning [Hal Koerner’s Field Guide to Ultramarathoning] and sent it to me saying, ‘let’s do one of these. I’ll come to Wisconsin and we can run one.’ That was the genesis of it. I had run a lot of marathons at that point and shorter races, and I was really interested in spending more time on trails, and doing more of the journey of running instead of the pursuit of the finish line. It came at a good time, I trained based on the book that she sent me, and I had a really good experience.”
Good experience? That would be an understatement.
“I’m going to say this, a little bit selfishly, that I actually won that first race [laughs]. It was a 50K [31.1 miles], it was a relatively easy trail, it wasn’t technical or with a lot of elevation. We just showed up anticipating my first event longer than a marathon, and I was very successful at it. I got to stand on a podium, and that was really rewarding. That was the kind of success I wasn’t really seeing in road races, so I’m sure there was an element of that competitive nature, and the reward of winning. But, I also realized I had been seeking more trail time and the feel of adventure, and I really did find that in that race. I had to say that 50K didn’t feel all that challenging coming from the marathoning background. It was only a little longer than a marathon, which I know sounds kind of ridiculous, but that was my personal experience. From there, it felt like a gateway into other ultramarathoning experiences. Once I had that under my belt, I decided I wanted to do a mountain race, so I found a 50-mile race in Colorado, and that was a totally different kind of challenge. It opened a new window into totally new experiences and new ways of challenging myself I hadn’t experienced before.”
After running 2 separate 50-milers two weeks apart in 2016, Kelly ran one each in 2017 and 2018. Despite suffering from stress fractures training for the New York City Marathon later in 2018, after getting back healthy, she decided this year's goal would be even bigger: 100 miles.
Putting all of these miles in requires intense training, and Kelly said it mandated extreme time-management.
“I had had to be pretty strict about my sleep, because that’s an easy thing to let slip by the wayside. I find myself getting to bed way too late and only getting 4-5 hours and then I get sick and start breaking down. I’ve had to be diligent about insuring I get 6-7 hours of sleep during the week, trying to get 8 hours on the weekends when I can. I’ve also really tried to make running part of my lifestyle. That might mean running to and from work. Using running as my commute, that saves me that amount of time during the day. I’m already spending it commuting by bike or by bus anyway, I might as well do it on my own two feet and get my training in. Sometimes that means doing two runs a day, whether that’s in the morning and lunch, or before and after work, or I combine a commute to, and a commute from. It means making running part of my social life. That’s where I catch up with a lot of my friends, we’ll run and catch up. I’ve really had to make running an integral part of my life, and not a separate piece of it. It does mean sometimes asking for understanding from friends when I can’t stay out as late, or I can’t be up as early. Or I have to get my run in before I meet them for something, so I can’t show up as early as others might be.”
Kelly’s training cycle began to reach its peak this July, when she ran the aptly named Never Summer 100K in the mountains of Colorado.
After finishing in the top 3rd of that race, all attention went to the Superior Trail Race.
On the eve of her birthday, Kelly felt as prepared as she could. There would be elevation changes, 21,000 feet of elevation gain, in fact. There would also be over 24 hours of running, but after just past an hour, Kelly was reminded that you can’t prepare for everything.
“We were at mile 7, and my shoelace came untied. I had been in a group of runners to that point, and I pulled aside to tie my shoe, and the group passed me. Soon after, I heard all of this hollering coming from the woods ahead of me, and I thought ‘oh, there must be an exciting part of the course coming up!’ Well, it turns out that excitement was ground-nesting bees. As runners had gone through before them, and as this group went through, they got riled up, and they swarmed. Of course, at this point I’m coming through solo, so I’m an easy target, and I got stung at least 5 times.”
Perhaps eating honey wasn’t a good idea after that, but Runner’s World estimates that a 100-mile runner burns in excess of 10,000 calories during the race, so you’ve got to eat on the run, literally.
“Some of my favorite foods include macaroni and cheese, avocados, Nutella, and salted watermelon. But for this race, I was eating a mix of pre-packaged energy food, your Cliff Bars and the like. I was eating energy chews, but after a while I got totally sick of them. I had packed a whole bunch on drop bags so I could pick up more along the course at the aid stations. But after a certain point, I said nope, no more of these. I left them in my bag. In aid stations in general, I would eat potatoes dipped in salt, watermelons, or quesadillas. I had half of a grilled cheese sandwich and some hashed browns at one aid station. I’m not a meat eater, but people were eating bacon, sausages, and brats. I was doing nut butters because that’s a good way to get enough salt along with some calories, along with some savory flavors. One of the problems with a lot of the packaged foods is they’re very sugary, and after a while, your body doesn’t want sugar, it wants fat, protein, and the things that aren’t easy to get.
“Beverage wise, I mostly stuck to water, although one of my favorite things to do during a race that I don’t do in real life is drink soda. Especially for a good caffeine boost, especially in the middle of the night.”
Yes, she said run, on a trail, in Minnesota, in the middle of the night.
“You need a headlamp, for one. You need to provide ambient light, but that creates shadows, and on a really rocky and rooty course like that one I was on, it makes footing tenuous at times. You’re also tired. Our bodies are set to rhythms called circadian cycles, we’re programmed to get sleepy at night, and then wake up with the son. That’s not something you can do when you’re moving forward. You have to make this consciously unconscious decision to keep going despite the signals your body is sending you to shut down and curl down and go to sleep.”
Kelly eventually saw the sun rise over Lake Superior, and made her way into the final 10K with the help of friends and her husband James pacing her along. 29 hours and 50 seconds into her race, Kelly’s beginning, ended.
“I crossed the finish line and just burst into tears. Full out ugly cry. I was overcome with all of the emotion of the shared experience, being overwhelmed, being exhausted, being relieved, and being proud of the journey that I took. One of the things of doing a race of that magnitude is you don’t know if you’re going to finish. You never have guarantees, but you’re relatively sure you can finish a 5K, even if you have to walk and it takes a little bit longer. With something like 100-miles, you just never know. Anything could happen at any time, and you go into the experience knowing that. That’s part of the appeal, right? There’s no certainty, so crossing that finish line meant that with all of the uncertainty for all of those hours, I’d made it happen, I’d arrived. “
So what does someone who just ran more than the length of Delaware do next? Not surprisingly, Kelly’s answer didn’t immediately involve Disney World.
“What’s next is I’m not running for a little while [laughs]. I’m enjoying some down time, and to the extent I can call myself lazy, being lazy. I don’t know, I think I have to evaluate. I think I would run 100 miles again, which I wasn’t sure of going in. I thought this could be my 1-and-done, I won’t ever need to do this again, and I don’t need to do it again. But, it might be fun to go back to that race and improve my time, now that I know the course a little bit better, and I’ve had some practice on it. But, I’m comfortable in the 50-mile range, so I’ll probably find some more 50-milers.
More than 100 miles, 21,000 feet of elevation gain, the fact Kelly can casually mention a 50-mile run is a level that precious few athletes on Earth can get to, and she is absolutely one of them.