Ron Marinucci: May, 2015 Column - Megan Stewart
by Ron Marinucci, May. 6, 2015
Megan Stewart is completing her third year as a PhD candidate at the University of Michigan in medicinal chemistry, after receiving a BS in biochemistry at the Honors College at Oakland University. “I spend 60 to 80 hours a week doing chemistry things,” she said. That’s understandable.
What is a little tougher to fathom is her running schedule. For Stewart, “A typical training week is [running] 50 to 100 miles, usually,” she added, “70 or more.” That’s because she has also become an ultrarunner, completing 50K and 50-mile races and a “unique” 68-mile point-to-point distance in Georgia.
Stewart didn’t begin running until she was an undergrad at Oakland U. She ran “just a few miles here and there to be healthy.” But then, she explained, “From there running progressed into something I never expected. The more I ran the happier I was. So it just seemed a natural progression to keep going.”
There were many reasons to continue to run. “Running turned into my escape from the everyday. It helps me to face the day a little bit stronger. It’s gotten me through some tough times.’ She also came to discover “I love a good challenge and what my mind and body are capable of.”
That Stewart now completes ultras includes more than just a bit of irony. “Up until a couple years ago, I was utterly naïve to the fact that people ran further than a marathon.” In addition to the ultras, she’s run several half and full marathons, “mainly trail races. There’s something magical about moving through the woods for a few hours.”
But, she enthused, “Once I got wind of it [that people run distances longer than marathons], I cannonballed right in and never thought twice.”
As noted, Stewart has run 50K and 50-mile distances. But she singled out the 68 miles of the Georgia Death Race as “the most outstanding race I’ve done. It was a beautifully organized and managed event. The volunteers and aid stations were exceptional. The course was simply fantastic.” That said, she admitted, “As a newbie [to ultras] with a lot to learn, I was intimidated and excited to tackle the GDR.” It was not only her longest effort to date, but included close to 40,000 feet of elevation change—ups and downs. Yet, intimidation notwithstanding, she entered the GDR. “It is a dream of mine to relocate and run and play in the mountains once I’m done with grad school. So I just couldn’t help myself when I saw the race.”
On the eve of the race, organizers held a safety meeting. She met a few runners who had completed the GDR the previous year. At the race start the next “rainy morning,” they all met again, “chatted a bit, matched a comfortable pace, and continued for the rest of the race. It was fantastic. We had a great time.”
As if the distance and course weren’t enough of a challenge, half of the race was run in the dark, at night. Plus, “It had been raining all day. The trails had become slick.” Fog developed, too, making it hard to see. But the new running friends “stayed in excellent spirits.” They alternated silly and deeper conversations and, she chuckled, “even some questionable, yet entertaining singing. We enjoyed the North Georgia mountains and finished with both big smiles and gas in the tank. I couldn’t have asked for a better experience,” finishing in 20:04:45, “and I feel so blessed to have run with such wonderful people.”
Her “50 to 100 miles” of training each week include a few long weekend runs, now with a group, and some hill work. “I really enjoy running up and down hills and do that as much as possible.” She also does some “speed play,” often with Helios. Four days a week involve strength training.
Stewart used to run “solely alone. But after a couple unsettling encounters in the woods, I adopted a Siberian husky,” Helios, “to be my companion and running buddy.” Now three years old, Helios “is one of the best things to come into my life in a long time. His mileage is increasing, currently running 20 to 30 miles a week with me. We have the most wonderful time together. He is the best partner for speed work and has the most kissable, sweet face.”
She would run alone when without Helios, but hoped to locate others to train with, for safety. She got more than she bargained for. In January, she hooked up with a group for long weekend runs. The group includes Tony Hanks, Ellen Rowe, and Fritz Kramp. “They are wonderful people,” she said, “some of the kindest, most down-to-earth, and sincere people I have had the pleasure to meet. They have years of experience and knowledge running ultras that they are sharing with me. Each one brings something special and unique.” She added that Kramp volunteered “to be my safety runner and pace at the Mohican 100 [mile]” and that they have registered to run this fall’s Woodstock 100K in Pinckney in September.
Stewart knows that ultra running requires more than physical effort and preparation. There is a mental aspect, too. “While physical capability,” that is, fitness, “is essential, the mental component to continue putting one foot in front of the other for 5 to 20 hours introduces a new element to the experience,” which she called “fun.” Perhaps reflecting the scientist in her, she added, “I’m fascinated by it [the mental component].”
Helping with that “mental component’ is Sally Stewart, “my mom and best friend, who comes to most of my races. She meets me at checkpoints when she can and gives me a hug for encouragement. She is so wonderfully positive and is really just an amazing woman. I look forward to those hugs and her sweet smile!”
Mom said, “It amazes me, that she can run so far. I don’t know what drives her, but I get the biggest thrill! I enjoy it as much as she does.” It’s Sally who can be heard as runners close in on the finish. “I bring a cowbell. I guess I’m like a cheerleader.” At the GDR, she remember, “I was so nervous. And when Meg opened her back pack, the bear whistle really thrilled me.” Not!
“She’s met some really good people. They look after each other. They fuel each other.” Sally laughed as she told a story about the GDR. Two experienced runners had their head lamps go out during the night leg of the run. “Meg reached in her back pack” and found two head lamps to give them, the “newbie” helping the veterans.
She cautioned, though. “I love to watch her run, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to go out there and run, too.”
If Mom isn’t at a checkpoint, Stewart approaches it analytically. “I just plan to drop my bags carefully and monitor myself,” refueling and rehydrating. “The aid station volunteers have always been fantastic” and, she quipped, “I look forward to their boiled salted potatoes.”
And, to give back, she has volunteered herself at races. She worked aid stations before running her own race. “It was a fantastic experience!”
The rest of Stewart’s 2015 calendar has more races. She’s planning to return to Georgia for the Cruel Jewel 50-Mile and the Sky to Summit 50K, as well as doing the Mohican 100-mile in Ohio. The Hungerford Trail Marathon in Michigan beckons, too, along with Woodstock. And she added, “Hopefully more!”
She recognizes, “I’m still very new to this sport and have a lot to learn. Right now, I just love to run and wish I could spend all of my hours moving through the trails.” And, she noted, “I haven’t wanted to quit a race yet and have finished all of my races with a smile.”
But she also said, “Someday I’d like to actually race and really push myself at an event just to see what I’m capable of. That experience looks beautiful and scary at the same time.”
Megan Stewart is an ultra runner. She’s not scared off very easily.