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August 16, 2019 Article

What My Trial Practice Taught Me about Ultramarathon Running

The skills I learned from trial and trial preparation taught what I needed to survive my race training and run.

By Ashley B. Campbell

Around mile 95, I stared at my feet through blurry eyes and dirty glasses. My brightly patterned running shoes were unrecognizable under the layers of mud. “You can’t sit down,” echoed the friend running 20 steps ahead of me. I panted, steadied myself, and directed my focus to each discrete step, each foothold in the slogging technical ascent. I knew that at the top of this portion, the course would merge onto a gentle logging trail that would provide a respite from the harsh terrain. There, I could stretch my legs and run to my cheering crew to start on the final leg of the race.

I am a litigator who officially became an ultramarathoner on June 1, 2019.

An ultramarathon (or “ultra”) is defined as any race longer than the standard marathon distance of 26.2 miles. This ultra, the Infinitus, extended over 100 miles and 14,000 vertical feet as it looped through the Vermont mountains. Fewer than half of the athletes who started the race would finish it within the 48 hours allotted.

You, dear reader, might have some questions. Why would anyone do this? Why is this in the American Bar Association news? What does it have to do with the practice of law?

Running an ultramarathon requires substantial time, physical investment, and flexibility. It also necessitates resilience, dedication, humor, creativity, and all the mental fortitude you can muster. Surprisingly, my experience as a trial attorney made me a better ultramarathon runner. The skills learned from trial and trial preparation taught me to embrace the very things needed to survive my training and the race: overcoming mistakes, planning ahead, breaking monumental tasks into small achievable steps, celebrating small victories and finished goals, relying on a team, and learning through trial and error. 

It all began when a friend (also a lawyer) texted me late one night after watching a documentary about an obscure and absurdly difficult 100-mile race. At the time, I was an avid hiker, not an ultra-runner. This friend had been among my many hiking companions (read: victims) through thunderstorms, down icy paths, and across raging rivers. She texted: “No woman has ever finished this race. If anyone who can do it, it’s you.” I asked some questions, not intending to watch the documentary. I did not want to psych myself out. To qualify to run the race featured in the documentary, I needed to complete a different 100-mile race first. So, to answer the question of why anyone would run 100 miles, it was to train for a harder race.

Initially, my “training” simply involved running more. I had no aim, no plan, which was—you guessed it—a huge mistake. I failed to finish my first 100-mile race. At mile 60, I could not even continue to walk. My feet were too sore, swollen, and tired. My mind had shut down. I was emotionally low and physically spent. I had undertrained, plain and simple. I could blame it on an ongoing trial and the time-consuming trial preparations, but the reality is that I underestimated the time commitment of training.

Not ready to forfeit my goals, I began taking my training more seriously. I went on to complete several 20- to 80-mile races that same season. While running, I focused on the things that had failed me before: my feet, my energy, and my mental state. I was hesitant to attempt the 100-mile race again, but then a friend (also a usual training partner) registered for that same race. He is strong and serious. He doesn’t worry about race variables or get too much in his head. His confidence gave me confidence, the way an experienced litigator can lend experience to encourage and boost the confidence of a less experienced lawyer.

Eventually, I felt ready to face the 100-miler again, but I did my research before signing up, the way any good attorney would vet a case. I needed to find a training plan tailored to this unique race. It was a mountainous trail race, and at 100 miles, there were few training plans from which to choose. As in especially challenging cases, there was no blueprint, and I needed to think creatively and critically to develop my own.

In the same way that your support is available during trial to do quick research, pull the right exhibit at the right time, or help proof a memorandum overnight, my crew was there for me.

I meticulously planned my long runs. The plan required three long runs per month. On the long-run weeks, social events were difficult to attend. Planning required a shocking amount of acceptance from my friends and professional colleagues when I repeatedly sent my regrets rather than attending events. This rigid organization is no different than setting a case structuring order or discovery plan in federal court. Once you have chosen your deadlines, you need to make the work fit within those deadlines, which means planning ahead and avoiding distractions. Training as much as required would not have been possible without the remote work policy implemented by my firm’s management several years ago, which allowed me to fit in up to 75 training miles per week.

Next, I selected my team. In the same way you prepare a trial team based on skill and availability, I chose a few especially strong candidates. First up was my significant other. He is a former ultra-athlete (though he now describes himself as a “reluctant runner”) who had already run the races I was running. He also joined me for my long runs, jumping in at mile 20 to keep me going on my last 10. He knew my running style and where I struggled during my training, so he would be in charge of me and my crew.

Next was my brother, a Boston-fast marathoner. Whether he ran 5 miles or 50 with me, he would push my pace. Having him at the race was also important for my psyche because we had run together for many years.

Rightly recognizing that this madness was entirely her fault, the friend who had texted me late that night about the documentary also committed to helping with my general survival. Along with her annoyingly optimistic husband and another close friend who is also an attorney, I had a team devoted to my physical and mental well-being.

After months of training with my team, it came time for the “taper”—the period leading up to race day when you stop going on long runs and begin actively resting in anticipation of the ultimate run. I would describe these weeks as the weekend before a big trial. You’ve done all the preparing you can, and now you just need to rest and focus on the final details. I started having stress nightmares, as many attorneys do before trial, so I pre-packed. I got all my gear together, laid it out, washed it, packed it, and then I did all the non-running activities I could to prepare. The stress dreams stopped.

On race day, I was ready. I had the same confidence walking up to the starting line as I do walking into court for jury selection. I knew the first lap of the race would be similar. It would set the tone, and it would be the most important part.

The race consists of two loops that connect in the middle (picture an infinity symbol with one side bigger than the other). Where the loops intersect, the competitors camp in a field at a wonderful cross-country ski area attached to a bed and breakfast in rural Vermont. One loop is 7 miles long, the other a little over 20 miles long, with both together equating to roughly 4,000 feet of elevation gain and loss. Competitors complete 3 of the 7-mile loops and 4 of the 20-mile loops. (If you are doing math in your head, you should stop: It is not a 100-mile race. It is slightly longer.) There are three places where a crew can meet a competitor for support. These were critical lifelines where my crew was ever present. In the same way that your support is available during trial to do quick research, pull the right exhibit at the right time, or help proof a memorandum overnight, my crew was there for me. I have wondered whether my team was so good because half of them were also trial lawyers and were, therefore, acclimated to high intensity on a grueling schedule. It is also just as likely because they are close friends who know me well, but I will push this a bit further to say that whether you are friends with your co-counsel or not, you do get to know them and what they need. I have learned the habits of my co-counsel during trial preparation and trial, and great trial attorneys do not alter these rituals because it is what has made them successful in the past, so as a new associate, you learn these habits and try to adapt. My team did this for me.

Trial will always throw you something you’re not expecting . . . . Being able to adjust without being thrown takes practice and resilience.

I won’t leave you in suspense. I finished the race. I ran for 32 hours to finish sixth overall and second among the women. Seventy-five runners started the race, and only 30-some finished.

The race went smoothly. I did the first laps with my training friend, managing a chronic ankle injury within the first 20 miles. My brother arrived to run the second 20-mile loop with me. My brother finished by adding another horrific mountain jaunt with me on the 7-mile loop in the middle of the night. We got back to the tents around 1:00 a.m., with roughly 60 miles under my belt. My stomach was sour, and the weather forecast was predicting rain the next day. My significant other broke the news to me: I wouldn’t be sleeping, both to avoid a second overnight and the rain and to attempt to catch the first-place female, who was only minutes ahead of me.

I adjusted to a realigned schedule that did not provide for the sleep I had expected. I changed my clothes, put on dry socks, laid down for 5 minutes to see if my stomach would settle. I ate some ramen and potato chips, and I left for the next loop at 2:00 a.m. with my significant other. Trial will always throw you something you’re not expecting: a witness who changes his or her testimony or doesn’t present as well as in practice, timing that gets thrown because of a juror’s schedule, or a snow storm. Being able to adjust without being thrown takes practice and resilience. Trial involves planning, but sometimes it involves the flexibility of being able to adjust to grab opportunities when they present themselves. The overnight loop was my opportunity.

At 2:00 a.m., I was literally sleepwalking. I remember falling asleep mid-sentence but remaining on my feet somehow. At the first checkpoint, which was at the 8-mile mark, one of my race crew shared sport beans with caffeine and salt. They were miraculous. This crew member had the exact right resource at the exact right time, even though that meant that she was awake at 3:30 a.m. She then met us again another hour or so later with more food, clothing layers, and batteries, always having exactly what I needed right on time.

Ultimately, I returned back to camp around 9:00 a.m. I prepared to go out for my last 20-mile loop, and I knew I could finish. I felt good. My team had decided that they would divide up my final lap and run it with me. In the end, I did not run a mile alone. I remain grateful for that and am not sure I could have finished without them. I would have wasted precious time floundering to find food, fill my water pouches. I likely would not have fed or watered myself when necessary, and I would have found moments of loneliness. Instead, the race was a delight. It was one of the best weekends all year. Like trial, the race would have been exponentially harder without the work of an entire team.

Running for hours and hours requires convincing yourself that you like it even on the days that you do not want to put shoes on your sore feet: acting and smiling after 60 miles because studies show that smiling can create the feeling of happiness where none exists. It also requires a particular attitude. Before my first 100-mile race, I would have called it determination, but I think it is resilience. I was able to keep going because I had trained myself to believe that I would finish. I had completed all my long runs, managed every injury, fed myself appropriately, assembled the right support—and so I would face all of the challenges and finish.

In the last 1 to 2 miles, I would say it really struck me just how like trial the race really was. I had support in the exact form I needed it at the exact time I needed it, and I was never without resources. I needed to be prepared enough to ask for help and to have a team who could provide that help, but I had set my schedule correctly, I had followed the pattern laid out for me in the training plan, and I had tested all the variables I could. I knew I would finish because of the fortitude I had inside of me before I ever started training for the race.

Ashley B. Campbell is an associate at McLane Middleton in Manchester, New Hampshire.

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).