Maureen Ferry: Reflections from a 50-Mile Run

Shared by Audrey Lin:

Last Sunday, we had the good fortune of having Maureen Ferry join us for an Empty Hands gathering with the Center for Spiritual Living DC. A full-of-heart teacher and leader in the education movement, we had met Maureen during her three years with the Teach For India family. It was a joy to see and share space with her on this side of the globe-- and then learn that she just completed a 50-mile race! Below are Maureen's learnings and reflections from her ultra-marathon journey.


In the three weeks leading up to my 50-mile race, I found out that my cousin and running partner wouldn’t be able to run the race because of an injury AND I fell three times. By the third fall, when I slammed the same spot on my knee into the ground as the first two falls, cut up my hand, smashed my sunglasses (which I was carrying in my hand) into the ground and skidded across the pavement (falls are the worst!), I burst into tears and began doubting myself and questioning why I was even running this silly race in the first place.  I was having a hard time picturing myself running 50 miles. The longest distance I had run to date was 26.2 miles (marathons) and my longest training run for this race was 20.5(!).

The day before the race, after a 6-hour conference call, I met my sister in Georgetown to pick up my t-shirt and race packet. While walking around Georgetown, I started experiencing excruciating pain in my lower back and legs like I had never experienced before. Forget 50 miles. I started doubting that I could even run one mile. I was picturing myself quitting early in the race. I was also thinking about the possibility of telling people in my life that I failed, that I didn’t make it, that I had to stop. I was thinking of what I would think of myself if I stopped.

Then, three things happened.

1. My cousin started sending me “first ultra tips” and I took them to heart. A few of my favorites are below:

  • You can do anything for half a day. If it hurts to walk and [and it also hurts to] run, run. –Martha Schoppe
  • Be patient. Be patient. Be patient. It's fun when over 1/2 the people leave you at the start then slowly you pick them off. I like around 200 calories per hour. And have fun. Don't overthink things. Enjoy your time in the woods. –Lanier Greenhaw

  •  Tell everybody you know so you can’t back out. Then anytime you question why you run, just put more sugar in. Oh, and lubricate your feet and your delicates. A LOT. –Lee Shane

  • Settle into your forever pace and go slower—ideally within the first five miles of the race. Chances are you will start out way too hard. It’s easy to feed off the energy of the spectators, the other runners, and your own adrenaline, and that will hurt you. If you don’t find the pace that is right for you soon, you will not make it to the finish line.

  • Have fun—that’s what it is all about. There will be pain and suffering, but in the end, it is a shared experience with people from all walks of life, challenging themselves and overcoming something that few even attempt to achieve. Be grateful that you can be a part of this.

  • My favorite of all: Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic.

2. The second thing was hearing from so many people in my life who were rooting for me and sending positive energy and love. It made such a difference! Two highlights: During the day I received a card from my team at Teach For America with 50 reasons to keep going and in the evening I heard from another colleague, Rachel, who had compiled notes from many of the teacher coaches who I work with- and it was such an incredible gift!!

3. The third was my sister and knowing she would be there the whole race. Emily is one of the most generous, loving, positive people I know and I knew having her there would make me feel like I could do anything.

I had, at this point, a LOT of people in my life who knew I was running and had a lot of love and positive energy coming from people and I starting thinking about what a gift it was to even have the means and the courage to attempt this. I also thought of the consequences of stopping if it got too tough- and there were NONE! Literally none. I needed to stop taking myself so seriously. I decided to change my mindset and go into it in a really positive way- and enjoy it, stay present and have as much fun as possible- oh and call on my spirit when I needed it!  This changed everything.

On my way to the race in the morning, I wrote down the names of 50 people who inspire me on arm so I could keep them with me throughout the race.

As I began, I took it really slowly. The first few miles were a little shaky, literally shaky. We were running through the muddy woods at 5 am and the only light was from our headlamps and a sliver of rising sun. While most people tip-toed, pranced even, so swiftly about the muddy paths and puddles, I felt like I was wearing skis! I was slipping all over the place, yelping uncontrollably (“whoa!”) and at different points, was up to my ankles in mud. After a few miles and sloshing through a knee-deep creek, I found my footing. Around mile 3ish (?), I met a 50-yr old mother of 4 exercise physiologist named Jackie who I overheard telling fun stories so I started running near her. She was running suuuper slowly in the beginning and I did the same. We ran together for almost 40 miles! Meeting and connecting with Jackie was such a gift! 

Miles 15-36 of the course included three 7-mile loops through and around Great Falls Park which was stunning with massive hills-and fun! There were a bunch of out-and-backs which meant we saw almost everyone running the race, from the fastest people to the slowest, multiple times. My new buddy and I were like the race cheerleaders, yelling for everyone we saw, encouraging people who started off too fast and were losing steam (which was a lot of people). This whole 21-mile section was incredible. At times, in the thick of the woods, all you could hear was the pounding of people’s feet on the trail, heavy breathing, and me and my friend Jackie cheering.

In case you were wondering, my sister not only supported me at the stations but jumped in and ran the last 7-mile loop of the park with us from 29-36 which was a blast! She and Jackie chatted it up the whole time and Em joined us in cheering for all the other runners.

Miles 36-50 were probably the most grueling but because of our slow miles at the beginning, they were still ok. I wasn't planning on listening to music because it was strongly discouraged and the trails were really tricky (and I had a history of falling!) so I didn't have a lot of music with me. Around mile 38 though, when a lot people around me were losing steam, I decided to play music from my iPhone...I put the song happy on repeat for over an hour and stuck it in my little running belt so anyone I ran by heard it. It was fun and people seemed to enjoy it J 

The last few miles were sort of tough, especially because almost everyone around me was walking and by that time, it was after 2 pm, and the sun was hot and we were out of the woods. Still, I had enough steam to finish the race in a sprint, more like a cheerful gallop into the finish shoot where I saw my sister. After the race, a number of people pulled me aside and asked me how I did it- how I maintained my energy and cheered the whole time. One man told me he saw me five times during the race and I cheered for him every time. 

Post-race reflections?

Saying I ran 50 miles is fun and hasn’t gotten old yet. :) But the lessons I learned about myself are far more powerful than the actual race itself.

My ego is powerful and hard to tame. People ask me what the hardest part was. 45? 49? No. 1-20 were absolutely the hardest. Reminding and convincing myself that I was ONLY doing this race for me and it didn’t matter that nearly everyone in the race passed me, was really hard. When I started running with 50-yr-old buddy who forced me to walk every 20 minutes, I remember wanting to ask her, “are you sure we need to walk right now?” I actually recognized the feeling inside of me of my ego creeping up when people would pass us. Taming it took a lot of strength but was really empowering.

Our minds are so powerful. Sure, my training helped. But I didn't run as much as any training plan recommended. Making the conscious decision to approach the experience positively and I realizing that I was lucky as hell to even be taking on this challenge changed everything.

I am deeply energized by giving energy to others. Naturally, I have a lot of energy. I was a cheerleader for 8 years. I can run on very little sleep. When I was teaching 7th and 9th graders, my classroom was like a fricken' fun house. It was a blast. I used to work as a “party motivator” and Teach For India Institute leader. I have a lot of energy! But the thing that makes me soar is giving energy to others.          

Learning more about myself is going to help me be better for others.

That’s all!

Oh yeah, and my actual physical tips were: start reeeally slowly, eat and drink a ton (I ate mostly caffeinated Gu and some other random snacks), stop to take in the views and stuff your clothes with ice!