Run 100 Miles? How One West Michigan Woman Goes the “Ultra” Distance

Many people new to running start with a 5K race goal, a manageable yet challenging 3.1 miles.

East Grand Rapids resident Carolynn Nauta set her sights on finishing a half-marathon, or 13.1 miles. It didn’t go exactly as planned.

“Everything that could go wrong, did go wrong,” she said.

Despite getting stuck on a ferry due to high winds as she made her way to compete in the Mackinac Island Great Turtle race in 2009, Nauta was hooked on running and signed up for the full Bayshore Marathon in Traverse City shortly after.

The 34-year-old preschool teacher hasn’t slowed down since during her seven years of running. She’s competed in a range of distances, including some 5Ks, but her initial instinct to go long has served her well. In fact, Nauta is part of a growing ultramarathon movement, which counts races longer than a traditional marathon of 26.2 miles. So far, she’s completed seven 100-mile races.

She prefers looped courses and her finishing times have ranged from less than 24 hours to a particularly tough race that took longer than 30 hours.

Photo credit: Ellie Brownridge
Photo credit: Ellie Brownridge

“It depends on how I’m feeling, it depends on the actual terrain of the run and then it also depends on my mental state,” she said.

A self-described daydreamer, Nauta said she can usually keep her head in a race that keeps her up all night. Friends sometimes come along to her races and serve as pacers, running with her through final loops to keep her focused and talking on the task at hand.

She often chooses competitions based on their location. If it’s a destination she wants to explore and there’s a race there, Nauta considers it a win-win. She counts the Woodstock, Mohican, Kettle, and Ozark Trail, 100-mile events and the Barkley 50K as favorites.

The jump from marathon to ultramarathon started with the North Country Trail Marathon. It was Nauta’s first time running on trails and she really liked it. From there, she decided to try the Woodstock 50K in 2012.

“I think that’s where I really fell in love with ultra-running,” she said.

Her approach to training is unusual. Unlike many long-distance runners, Nauta doesn’t wear a watch when she runs. She doesn’t keep track of her mileage or pace and estimates that she runs quite a bit less than some of her competitors when training for 100-mile events. She works in hill repeat sessions and boot camp classes.

“I just do what my body wants me to do,” she said.

Cheering on friends. Nauta doesn't wear tutus during her 100-mile pursuits, but is known to don them during shorter races or to provide spirit to her fellow runners. "Tutus are good, but chafing is bad," she joked.
Cheering on friends. Nauta doesn’t wear tutus during her 100-mile pursuits, but is known to don them during shorter races or to provide spirit to her fellow runners. “Tutus are good, but chafing is bad,” she joked.

By taking a relaxed approach, Nauta said she’s been able to avoid the perils that can come from overtraining, such as injuries and burnout. Plus, she can maintain a social life, important to the fun-loving Nauta, who’s been known to cheer on friends from the sidelines wearing her signature tutus and costumes.

“Running is awesome, but you want it to add to your social life, not take away,” she said.

Despite her unconventional training, Nauta has turned in 4th and 5th-place overall finishes at some of the 100-mile races she’s competed in and has won a 50K, 52.4-mile run and a 12-hour race. This summer she’s focusing on fun, spending time backpacking, hiking and vacationing, although she’s not ruling out races.

“If it looks fun, I usually sign up,” she said.

Carolynn Nauta making the tough call to not finish.
Carolynn Nauta making the tough call to not finish.

One of her toughest races was Burning River in Ohio. With one loop left to go, Nauta became aware of a health issue and made the difficult decision to not finish, sacrificing completion of a series of races she’d taken part in. It was hard, but fell in line with her overall attitude to listen to her body.

“I think it really made me stronger overall, because I don’t want to just run for a couple years. I want to run until I’m 70 or 80, God-willing,” she said.

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Unless credited, photos courtesy of Carolynn Nauta.

 

 

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