A memoir of 200 miles — the good, the bad and the #@&%
The 200-mile ultra marathon has risen in popularity and curiosity in recent years. While only a select few runners — the craziest of the endurance breed of crazies — have attempted, much less completed, the feat
The third version of the Bigfoot 200 — the first point-to-point 200-mile race in the country — was held in August 2017. Ryan Chukuske (far left in photo at top) was among the participants who braved the starting line. Chukuske has authored an upcoming book, with input from his fellow Big Foot participants and his then-pregnant wife, Megan, who crewed for him. In the appropriately titled “Bigfoot 200: Because, You Know, Why the #@&% Not?” they take readers on a journey of isolation, mirages, thirst, hunger (where’s that #@&%ing aid station?), sleep deprivation, depression, excitement (aid station ahead!) and so much more.
The book is published by Koehler Books Publishing. It is expected to be available for pre-order this fall with a publication date of Nov. 24. A “vote for the cover” campaign is expected to launch this summer. Keep up with updates at https://www.ryanchukuske.com and https://www.journeyonmyfriends.com
Chukuske shared an early draft copy with me. We also connected for an interview about his experiences at the 200-mile race, the book and more. Here are excerpts:
Question: You write in the forward, “Life is not about the finish; life is not about the endgame. Life is about the journey.” What did the 200-mile journey mean to you? And do you think it would have a different meaning had you finished the 200 miles?
Answer: The 200-mile journey was so much more than just a footrace through the wild. Honestly, every time I thought about it prior to the race starting, it sent a level of energy coursing through my entire body. The idea of 200 miles just seemed so surreal, if not impossible, and yet it had already been done by a select group of people.
I live by the motto, “Success is only possible if failure is an option.” If the risk of failure is not there, then how can one call something successful? It just wouldn’t be the case. If I knew, without a doubt, that there was no way for me not to finish the Bigfoot 200, where would the sense of adventure be? The journey is what matters. At the end of the day, even if I would have been able to finish the race, the journey is what I would always remember. What’s great about that is the journey was still there despite me not being able to finish. So would it have a different meaning? Absolutely not, just a different version of the story with more adventure to share.
Question: Tell me about how you developed the concept of having multiple runners “write” the book, based on their personnel recollections and experiences.
Answer: This was a fun process that was actually not planned the way that it ended up turning out. So my other two books basically just featured my perspective on running a particular 100-mile race. For my third book, I wanted to tap into something a little more different. I had recently read a new book on the Superior 100 miler authored by a friend of mine, Kevin Langton. He wrote about a lot of different runners and how they have experienced the race. I really enjoyed that idea and at the time, I was really into The Game of Thrones, both books and TV series. I liked how the books just had character names for the chapters and that the story flipped through the cast as it progressed. So that was the original plan and I reached out to Candice Burt (race director) to see what her thoughts were. She was very supportive and offered to hook me up with some people who may be interested.
I contacted about five people and asked if they would be interested in being in the book. They agreed and I did a little bit of a get to know you interview/survey which then became the chapters leading up to the race and the Appendix of Cast of Characters at the end of the book. During the race, I ended up meeting more people that wanted to be in the book as well. So that’s how I ended up with the people that are featured.
What happened next was the unplanned version of the story. About a month or so after the race, as I was getting ready to start cracking down on the book, I sent out an email to all of the people who wanted to share their story. Basically, I was going to give them a call and interview them about their perspective. What I got was a majority of them sending me their own “race reports” that they put together and asked if that would work. Would it work? It was perfect. Some of them are professional writers, some just have enjoyment sharing their races with their friends, and others just try to write things down so that they can remember.
And that’s how the process came together and I couldn’t have been more excited. However, this actually ended up making WAY more work than originally planned. These were some amazing and lengthy race reports. After all, it was a 200-mile race. So initially, I had about 800 pages of material. The editing process took a long time as well as sorting out the chronological aspect of the race. Totally worth it in the end.
Question: The book is presented in more of a chronological way, rather than a series of recollections by the runners. Tell me about your reasoning for that approach and why you think it works well.
Answer: I think that presenting in this way allows for the reader to continue along the race, gathering information from each running about the same section of the course. It’s almost as if you are running next to each of them having them tell you what was going on at the exact same time. It shows how one runner may really be enjoying this particular section while another is experiencing hell. The reader gets those perspectives at the same time instead of reading about one person’s entire race experience and then going back to start another.
Question: Becca, another 200-mile participant, writes, “The mental and physical beatdown followed by complete moments of clarity and Zen is what makes me want to chase these long adventures.” Do you feel the same way? Explain to me why you would choose to endure such a beatdown? Isn’t there an easier, less taxing way, to find your Zen?
Answer: First, I have to say that Becca is simply amazing. I am so lucky to have met her and I continue to follow her adventures on social media every day. Now on the mental and physical beatdown. Sure, there are easier and less taxing ways to find your Zen, if you’re into that sort of thing. Becca and I find our peace through the process of the beatdown. I have written in my other books that my intention is for people to find what they love and share it with others. I explain that running hundreds of miles isn’t for everyone and what you love to do, I may have no interest. Lots of people enjoy meditation and yoga and use this to find their Zen. There is no way that I could see myself getting into that sort of thing. Nothing against it and I think it’s wonderful. But it doesn’t work for me.
I found the sport of ultra running. Believe me, during every single ultra that I’ve done at some point during the race, I say to myself, “What the #@&% are you doing? Why are you out here? This is hell and I’m never doing this again.” Typically, after every DNF (did not finish), I say to my wife, “Well, I’m never doing that again.” Then something magical happens. After a couple of days, your body is a wreck and you hurt almost everywhere. And what’s bizarre is that you love it. You found your Zen. It fuels you and creates this desire that is unlike anything you have ever experienced. A bottom of your stomach hunger develops and nothing can satisfy your craving. Nothing except registering for another dose of punishment and lacing up your shoes to hit training runs.
Question: How did you balance the need for long training weeks with not overdoing it, and getting injured before the race?
Answer: I would be lying if I said I was able to successfully balance my time. There were certainly times where I was not functioning as a human and would be so exhausted, that I would fall asleep in mid conversations with my wife, and then continue to babble on about some really bizarre things. The joke was that after 8 p.m., it was really up in the air as to how I would behave.
However, there were many times that I probably did things right. After all, I still had to work and take care of all of life’s wonderful responsibilities. A big part of my training was going to simply be time on my feet. I have an office job so there is quite a bit of sitting. I took care of that by setting up my desk so that not only could I stand, but I also have a little office elliptical that I could pedal on while doing my work. I also took use of my breaks to get in some runs as well. There is a nice trail close to my office that I could go to right after work and get some quality training in as well.
I wasn't too worried about getting injured because this training was going to be so much different than other races. Again, it was all about time on my feet. The types of training that usually have me getting injured from overdoing it are tempo and speed workouts. Those went out of the plan immediately because I certainly would not be needing to sprint. My wife runs as well so any chance of getting to have her run with me was good time that we could spend together. I also had to remember that our lives do not revolve entirely around running so reality checks were needed.
Question: Talk about the mental game preparation, how did you get your mind ready for the challenge? What would you have done differently?
Answer: Every time that I have had to DNF from a race, it takes a little more of a mental toll. I had a bad streak going for a while due to injuries and eventual surgery on my knee. Prior to a lot of that, I typically had a really good mental game but I was in some desperate need of a pick me up. I started reading up on a lot of material from Matt Fitzgerald. I started to visualize the journey and really had to put it in my head that regardless of anything, I was going out there and toeing that line. That was an amazing accomplishment in itself. I really just focused in on the beauty of what was going to take place and that this would likely be the greatest ultra adventure to date. So mentally, I went in strong and stayed strong throughout the entire time I was in the race. It really was as epic as I had planned.
Question: Let’s talk about Megan. She was certainly a trooper. Like the ultra runners, she also suffered bouts of loneliness, being lost, hungry and boredom. What was it like for her to relive her experience in not only writing her sections of the book and going public with yours and hers story?
Answer: Let’s talk about Megan indeed. Megan is hands down, the most amazing person I have ever had the pleasure of knowing and I am lucky enough that she actually wanted me to stick around so she married me. Then she had a baby with me. So yeah, there’s that about Megan.
Now Megan was originally planning on pacing me for parts of the race however, she got pregnant and decided to maybe take it easy with her own running. Regardless, she still came out to crew me and then told her tale in the book. Yes, she was a trooper. I think having her relive her experience through telling her story was probably therapeutic in a sense. She is definitely not the only person who has those thoughts as they are out supporting their runner.
Long-distance running is a selfish act because we spend so much time with ourselves while often leaving behind our loved ones. For her to be candid in with her thoughts is what allows for her to continue putting up with my antics. I love that she is a brave, witty, outspoken and intelligent person. I wouldn’t be with her if she weren’t. We don’t hide our thoughts and feelings from each other. Or from the public I guess either. And that’s great. She provides a part of the journey that is often unheard of because again, we most of the time just focus on ourselves.
Question: Will you attempt another 200-miler? If so, any timeline to share? If not, why not?
Answer: Even though the words, “I’m never doing this again,” did creep out of my mouth after I dropped, I will certainly be doing this again. I’m heading out to the Bigfoot 200 this year but not to run the big race. Instead, I’ll be running the 20-miler and I’m the aid station captain at RD 9327 which is 92 miles into the race. The plan will be to run the 200-mile race again in 2019.
Question: Anything else I should know about your race, the book or what’s next for you?
Answer: The book is definitely my number one priority right now. I’ve put a lot of time and energy into it and want it to be as successful as possible. The journeys that are featured are definitely amazing and the people in the book are the best. I thank them from the bottom of my heart for sharing their journeys with me and allowing me to share them with the world. The race was the most epic adventure of my life and I can’t wait to be back out there to experience with others again. I’m not going dormant on the ultra scene, just trying to balance my life right now with my new baby boy.