Listen to and download the Podcast with Ana
Ana Braga-Levaggi’s family knows the drill. Getting up at an ungodly hour, watching her disappear into the darkness and then spending the next 30 hours making sure she gets enough fuel and water to finish the race.
Not any old race – Ana’s run some of America’s toughest 100 milers, including Leadville, Wasatch and four times Western States. These aren’t stage races. Runners have to keep moving day and night through harsh terrain, with cut-offs between 30 hours and 36 hours, depending on the event.
Born in Brazil, the 55-year old has lived in California’s Mill Valley for 30 years and discovered a love for ultrarunning after the birth of her second daughter. She’d been running shorter distances during pregnancy, even winning a 5k race, and felt it was time to increase her mileage.
“After I had my second daughter in 1999, I thought I needed to get in shape. By then I’d just run two marathons and thought, okay, lets take it to the next level.”
Her first 50k race was a fabulous experience. “I walked the uphills and I ran the downhills and flats and I finished the race, so I was totally hooked.” By now, she runs her 50 kilometer and 50 mile races mainly in training for 100 milers, of which she’s run and finished eight.
So, how does she do it? Ana thinks having the right mental attitude is just as important as physical training.
“Try to get into every single station with a smile,” she said. .”
“You are here because you want it. If you’re going through a bad patch, you can always think it’s going to pass, and you’re going to get through and it’s you’re going to be just fine.”
And high pain threshold, I suspect. Ana had both of her children without anaesthesia, which should tell you a bit about what she can tolerate. Of course she goes through all sorts of pains after pounding her feet, knees and quads over 100 miles across tough and often mountainous terrain, but it’s something she expects and, unless she’s injured, doesn’t spend time worrying about.
“It’s just pain,” she said. “It’s going to go away when I stop and feel better.”
Her calorie intake is meticulous and she sticks to 200 calories an hour, even counting the number of biscuits she carries to ensure her intake is adequate. She’s sewn extra pockets onto her skort (a mixture between shorts and a skirt for women runners) to store food and things she needs. But sometimes, after hours and hours of intense exercise, runners can have trouble keeping anything solid down. This was a particular problem at the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run across Utah’s Wasatch mountain range and which advertises itself as “100 miles of heaven and hell”. Cumulative elevation gain is nearly 8,000 metres (25,763 feet) and much of the race is at altitude – the highest point is at to over 3,000 meters (10,480 feet).
“At Wasatch, my stomach shut down at night and I couldn’t eat anything, but food is what keeps you going in an ultra, so if you can’t eat, you can’t move forward.”
Gels kept her moving – 48 of them. I don’t even want to think about that. But they got her to the finish – with seven minutes to spare.
Training leading up to a 100 mile run usually includes spinning and weight training in addition to 100 miles of running a week. Working as a fitness trainer makes it easier – she can do some of her training together with her clients.
Her enthusiasm for the sport doesn’t stop at racing herself. Ana also works as a volunteer coach for kids in 4th grade to 8th grade to promote being active and foster a positive body image.
And she’s dedicated to helping others achieve their goals by often manning aid stations at runs. “It’s wonderful to give back to the community. If I’m not running a race and I’m available, why not come and help.”
Her husband Chris, a keen biker, is very supportive of her passion.
“My husband is very involved and hands on, whether he paces me or in giving me what I need.”
And her daughters don’t know it any other way – they time her breaks and encourage her on, which sounds like a tiring job, but they’ve found a lot of inspiration in their mother’s achievements.
Her younger daughter Annika also loves to run, doing well in cross-country and track. Her older daughter Bella is a freshman in college – and she recently wrote an essay about the role her mum’s sport played in her life.
It’s a really special tribute and as Ana started reading, she had trouble holding back the tears.
I’ve copied it below with permission from the author, Ana’s daughter Bella Levaggi. And listen to the audio above for the full interview with Ana!
Describe the world you come from – for example, you family, community or school – and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations
The world I come from is bleary-eyed, mud-splattered, and tastes like Gatorade. It’s thirty-hour periods of intense stress, unfamiliar states, and five hours naps in a Volkswagen camper van parked next to a trail. It’s the life of an Ultra Runner’s daughter.
If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Ultra Runners are uniquely inspirational basket cases who enjoy running one hundred mile footraces. They put themselves through excruciating blisters, dehydration, and fatigue… only to come out smiling.
My mom joined this cult of crazies when I was seven. She’s appointed my dad, sister, and me to spearhead her crew teams, and has dragged us across the West, all in the pursuit of adventure. But you know what they say about adventure: it’s pure horror enjoyed from the comfort of retrospect.
The starting gun always goes off at four in the morning, and the next thirty hours are gruelling for everyone. Obviously, my mom gets it the worst, with the actual running, but crewing for her comes with its own stresses.
It’s my responsibility to keep my mom on schedule when she stops at various checkpoints scattered along the racecourses. I’ve become an expert at proclaiming the time and then obnoxiously prodding my exhausted mother up out of her camping chair once her allocated period of rest spills into overtime. On paper, the job sounds easy, but in reality it’s a handful of heart-thumping minutes of crushing responsibility that carries the weight of eternity. If I mess up, my mom runs the risk of falling behind and suffering a disqualification. What heightens the intensity and reward of these races is that they require us to band around our runner in a rightly oiled machine of energy and focus.
Amidst the blood, sweat, and Power Bars, though, there’s something satisfying about the end, when the four of us supportively huddle within the medical tent. Ultra running brings us together at an epic level where my perception of my mom transcends from “personal chauffeur/macaroni maker” into hero.
The interesting thing about the word “crazy” is that it can denote insanity or passion. What my mom does is imbued with a dose of both. I grew up reading stories about people who are just like her. So it’s with her courage that I write my often condemnatory columns about social problems in my school newspaper. It’s with her zeal that I spent hours interning for a publishing agency in the hopes of cracking the code to discover the qualities of a strong editor. And it’s her spirit – and the knowledge that I contribute to its preservation – that pushes me to pursue my passions, even when they seem a hundred miles out of reach. (Essay by Bella Levaggi)
– get into every aid station with a smile, you’re there because you want to be!
– if you are a skort wearer, sew some extra pockets onto your skirt for food, salt etc.