A famous Chinese proverb often attributed to the ancient sage Lao Tzu states, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” In local ultrarunner Sarah Lavender Smith’s case, it was a journey of 179 miles and a whopping 58,684 feet of elevation gain over the course of a week, the equivalent of climbing Mt. Everest twice, in terms of elevation gain.
“I was reminded that the body can do more than we think it can, and if you break an enormous challenge into smaller tasks, you can achieve the big goal if you take it day by day, step by step,” said Lavender Smith, recalling the experience of the past week, during which she averaged over 8,000 feet of vertical gain per day and nearly a daily marathon in distance.
Lavender Smith’s weeklong running challenge was part of a virtual race from May 25 through 31 called the Limitless Vertical Challenge, during which participants aimed for as much vertical gain as they could get over the course of the week. Runners were free to set their own courses, and distance and speed did not factor into results: just gain. The virtual race featured six levels of vertical gain, starting with the “Empire State of Mind” level one, with 1,250 feet of gain equating one Empire State Building, and roughly doubling for each level up to the level six “Double Vision,” equal to two Mt. Everests.
Lavender Smith may be a lean, mean running machine capable of tackling multiple Everests in elevation gain in a single week, but the ultrarunner, author, and mother of two wasn’t always crushing mountains for breakfast. As a graduate student in her mid-20s, Lavender Smith began running to cope with the stress of being a student. Before long, she’d transformed from someone who’d thought she hated running to a competitive marathoner and eventually, to an ultrarunner competing in mountainous 100-mile races and even longer races run over multiple days.
Of course, 2020 has been a challenging year with most race events canceled, and Lavender Smith found herself with many of her anticipated races suddenly axed. When two of the races she’d been looking forward to got canceled — a 155-mile stage race in Hawaii and the 100-mile High Lonesome race in the Collegiate Peaks — she realized that the virtual Limitless Vertical Challenge was a fitting hybrid of the two canceled races.
“Psychologically, I wanted to take a week to be on the trail as if on retreat, using the time to reflect on a period of transition in my life and on a time of hardship worldwide,” she said. “I also wanted to take on a challenge that would make me feel stronger and more alive, because this past spring has been difficult and left me feeling worn out and depressed.”
Like any epic journey, the week of running up and down mountains had its highs and lows — in this case, both literally and figuratively. There were moments when the weariness kicked in, pouring rain turned the trails to a muddy slip ’n’ slide, and she struggled to reach her daily goal.
At other times, Lavender Smith felt full of verve, the creative juices flowing, inspired to tackle future projects. At one point on the fourth day, she reached her initial goal of achieving the benchmarks for the legendary Hardrock 100 race — 100 miles with approximately 33,000 feet of gain.
“When I ate my sack lunch on the edge of the San Miguel River in the early afternoon on Thursday, with my bare feet in the cool water, I asked myself, ‘Do I want to keep going? Do I want to go for the Double Everest?’” she recalled. “And I was hit with a feeling of a resounding ‘Yes!’ which felt like such a life-affirming feeling of determination. It felt so good to feel motivated and to want to fulfill a stretch goal.”
According to the race’s website, the challenge was designed as an “opportunity for runners, hikers, and athletes around the world to test the limits of their endurance and seek to surpass them,” a way to “unlock unknown potential with one more step, one more mile, or even one more mountain.” By pushing through an immense challenge step by step to achieve that extra mile, that massive goal that felt completely unattainable, runners realize that their preconceived notions of their own limits are illusory, a lesson that translates to areas of life beyond athleticism.
“I’ve gained confidence that I can tough out drawn-out situations or challenges on the trail and in real life,” Lavender Smith reflected. “When I face something physically tiring in real life, such as a major house project, I’m not intimidated by the fatiguing aspect of it; I know I can do physically hard work — and even like it — because of the level of fatigue and discomfort I’ve coped with during ultras.”
Plus, the race environment provides its own unique insights, Lavender Smith said.
“I’ve also discovered the upside to competition … that it’s fun and exciting to compete against others and against our own past performances, and in doing so, we help each other bring out the best in our performance. The race becomes like a game or a drama, trying to beat a goal time or surpass someone else, and that’s just plain fun and exciting. I was not athletic in high school or college, so it’s been a joy to discover my inner athlete as an adult.”