By Lyndee Johns
Assistant teaching professor Dr. Michael Thomas will run 50 miles and he will run 50 more, just to be the man who ran 100 miles.
All under 48 hours.
On February 14–15, 2020, Thomas participated in the Jackpot Ultrarunning Festival in Las Vegas. The Festival offers timed races (runners run/walk as far as they can during their selected time of six, 12, 24, or 48 hours) and the 100-mile race. Runners for the timed races compete on a 2.5-mile looped track.
“This [was] my third time competing in the event,” says Thomas. “Prior to this, I’ve done the 12-hour race in 2019 and 2018 . . . In 2018, I did like 52.5 miles over 12 hours. In 2019, I increased that to 58.5. I really didn’t think I’d want to go further than that, but this year, I just realized that if I was ever going to run 100 miles, then this was the best time.”
Rather than compete in the 100-mile race and run on Sunday, Thomas chose to run 100 miles in the 48-hour race, which started on Friday rather than Saturday. The pressure was on: to avoid running on Sunday, Thomas had to finish 100 miles in 40 hours.
Not exactly an easy feat.
Preparing for the race took months of training. Thomas ran between 40–50 miles per week in October/November, and kicked it up to 50 miles a week for December/January, eventually peaking at 70 miles a week.
However, Thomas refused to train at the expense of his family, waking up at five in the morning to run. “My family and work take priority over running,” he says.
Thomas arrived at the race feeling great. “I was definitely intimidated by the distance, but felt comfortable that I did my best to prepare. I was hoping to complete the 100 miles in 24 hours . . . I had a plan of where I was going to walk and run on each 2.5-mile lap and had an eating and hydration plan in place that I felt good about.”
The positivity continued for the first 45 miles of the race. Thomas even met fellow runner Tammy about five miles into the race, and they enjoyed talking with each other as they completed the next 35 miles together. After Tammy left for the night, Thomas’s brother Patrick acted as a pacer.
Thomas has a saying that he teaches the students that take his psych and wellness classes: “one mile at a time.” By mile 55, 13 hours into the race, that philosophy was difficult to keep in mind.
“I was just in this really kind of low, dark place mentally. Most of this ultra-running and distance running is really, really mental. It’s all about trying to stay in the moment,” says Thomas. “Though I was trying to focus on just one lap at a time, my mind started obsessing on the fact that I had 50 miles to go.”
When the going gets tough, the tough get napping.
“I ended up taking a four-hour nap at that point,” says Thomas. “Four hours later, I woke up and felt a lot better! My legs felt much better and I gained some mental resolve.”
Taking the break meant that he could no longer complete the race in 24 hours, so Thomas had a new goal: to finish the race. “I was like, ‘Even if it takes me forty hours, I’m going to do this.’”
Thomas returned to running at 1 a.m. Saturday morning, completing another twenty miles before tight leg muscles and aching feet forced him to return to a walking pace. After an hour break, he was determined to finish the race without any more breaks.
“The next seven hours were pretty brutal,” says Thomas. “I was using hiking poles at this point, and just walked and walked and walked and walked.”
The slow pace was difficult for Thomas, but he focused on moving forward. “Each lap takes so much longer when you’re walking, but it was just like, ‘Okay, this is what I can do. I ‘m just going to focus on what I can do and take it step by step.”
To resist the urge to quit, Thomas reached out to other runners to cheer them on. “Other people that were just struggling along as I was struggling along, we’d just talk and talk about how we were feeling, and somehow knowing that you weren’t just going through your struggle alone made it a little easier.”
Thomas took inspiration from his fellow runners, one of the most notable being an eighty-year-old man who completed 100 miles within 30 hours. “I started out faster than him, but he was so steady . . . He was definitely somebody that was super inspiring.”
Thomas also focused on feelings of positivity and gratitude to help him get through the race. “I was grateful for my wife’s support, and my brother Patrick’s willingness to pace me. I also thought about my oldest brother Sean, who passed away from brain cancer when I was 13. While I can never fully empathize with his experience, I have always been inspired by the strength and resilience he demonstrated during the last few years of his life. I wanted to honor his life by trying to emulate his strength during the final miles of this race.”
Two hundred yards from the finish line, Thomas was able to run to complete his 100 miles—all of which he did within 32 hours.
“As I crossed the finish line, I felt an incredible sense of relief and gratitude. It was wonderful to have finally completed my goal, even though I finished in 32 hours, rather than my goal of 24 hours.”
Running has taught Thomas important lessons about resilience and learning how to be comfortable with discomfort—specifically the social anxiety he experiences while teaching. “While increased time and experience helped me adjust to the stresses of working in academia, I feel that running helped with this too. I have learned to embrace my anxiety when I teach or present in front of large groups and appreciate the opportunity to learn from failures in my life.
Thomas has taken the name of the company that organizes the Jackpot Ultrarunning Festival to heart: Beyond Limits. “I think it’s important to never limit ourselves or the people around us. We are often more capable than we think and can benefit from trying things that we don’t think are possible. When I finished my first half-marathon five years ago, the thought of running a marathon, let alone 100 miles, seemed impossible. Thankfully I kept on running, pushed myself past my perceived limits, and gained the courage to not limit myself during my life journey.”