For Tiffany Fischer, 2020 was supposed to be more than just the year of the comeback; it was also supposed to be the year of big breakthroughs.
Fischer found out in September 2018 that she was pregnant with her third child. It was the day before her third ultra, the TARC Fall Classic 50K. Her race went well and she turned her focus to the following month’s Ghost Train Rail Trail Race where she hoped to complete 100K before taking a hiatus for the remainder of her pregnancy.
“Unfortunately,” Fischer recalled, “by that point the nausea had set in and I couldn’t eat or drink much and got so dehydrated that my leg cramped up around mile 39 and I literally had to hobble and drag it for the final 6 miles, sometimes at less than 2 miles per hour.”
Her Ghost Train adventure ended after 45 miles, a personal-best for distance at the time and a fourth ultramarathon result on her resume, but she wasn’t satisfied.
“I was super frustrated to have trained hard and not met my goal,” she said. “So I knew 2020 was going to be my big year!”
New Baby, New Goals
Fischer spent much of 2019 on the sidelines of the sport while enduring the challenges that pregnancy threw at her during the second and third trimesters. She had completed two ultras, a marathon and a half marathon early in her pregnancy, but by the end she had trouble moving.
“Midway through the second trimester things went downhill for me, and for the final few months I was barely able to walk a mile without being in pain for the rest of the day,” she recalled. “I also got bronchitis for the final month-plus, so needless to say there wasn’t any training going on.”
Baby Zoe arrived three weeks early in May 2019, and Fischer was cleared by her doctor to exercise in early July. She had to start from scratch to regain her fitness and endurance, but Fischer had goals to accomplish so she was ready to put in the work.
“Couch-to-25K was my plan for November with the TARCkey Trot as my first post-baby goal,” Fischer said. “But couch-to-100 miles was my real motivation — I had exactly 12 months to train for the 2020 Notchview 72-hour race. I dreamed about running a 100-mile race my whole pregnancy. Regardless of starting all over, I was determined to make it happen!”
Fischer’s TARCkey Trot 25K was a success, as was her mid-January trip to Maryland where she opened 2020 with the Phunt 25K Trail Race. With her fitness foundation fully re-established, she was ready for the lineup of races that awaited her: the TARC Spring Classic 50K in April, Wapack and Back 21.5-miler in May, and Drummer Hill 50K in June, followed by her 100-mile attempt at the Notchview 72-Hour Ultra in July.
“Notchview was the perfect opportunity because it wouldn’t matter how slow I was or if I needed to sleep a bit overnight, I had three days to get it done and was pretty confident I could do it in less than two,” Fischer said. “It was the perfect first 100-miler opportunity; 2020 was going to be awesome!”
The Wrath of a Pandemic
Rejuvenated and motivated, Fischer returned from her Maryland race and volunteered two weeks later at the Trail Animals Running Club’s TARCtic Frozen Yeti 30-Hour Ultra on Feb. 1-2.It was an opportunity to bond with her community, draw inspiration from the runners, and “pay it forward” as she would soon be counting on volunteers to take care of her during her slate of spring and summer races. At least that was the idea at the time.
Six weeks later the ultrarunning world – and the world as a whole – were turned upside down as the novel coronavirus and the disease it causes, COVID-19, turned into a global pandemic.
“I volunteered at the Frozen Yeti in February and we were all blissfully unaware that it would be the last TARC race of the year,” she said. “When the pandemic slowly started expanding and becoming a bigger issue on the East Coast, none of us thought it would last this long or clear our race schedules.
“I remember thinking it was a little crazy that To Hale and Back cancelled, but I figured they were being cautious to keep everyone safe and it was a good idea in the end. Then the Spring Classic went down, then Wapack and Back. That one was hard to take. I LOVE Wapack and Back even though I have the slowest time in the history of the race – I love mountains and was so bummed to have to miss out on that one this year. We figured summer races would be fine, so I kept training for Drummer Hill and especially Notchview.”
Ultimately, those races joined the ranks of the canceled, too. After missing almost all of the 2019 season, it looked like Fischer’s 2020 season would be lost.
Finding Opportunity in Virtual Races
Her in-person races were canceled, but Fischer refused to let her plans for a big 2020 running season be deterred. When some race directors creatively transitioned to virtual events, Fischer saw opportunities to pursue her goals, albeit in an atypical format.
Her first virtual foray was the Trail Racing Over Texas (TROT) Possum’s Revenge virtual 69-mile race in May. It took a little more than 20 hours, but she got it done and set a personal record for longest distance run.
“It had an amazing buckle with a possum riding a unicorn over a rainbow with flames below,” Fischer said, describing the finisher’s award that captured her attention. “I’d heard about TROT and the awesome work they do in their community and running community and decided I could support a struggling race company with one virtual race, especially for a crazy buckle like that!”
Her virtual adventures were just beginning. For Mother’s Day, she received a four-pack of 50K entries into TROT’s virtual summer series. Additionally, following the cancellation of the Berkshire Ultra Running Community for Service’s (BURCS) Notchview Ultra, BURCS Race Director Benn Griffin created a new event — the Circadian Challenge — which required runners to log a half marathon between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. and another half marathon between 8 p.m. and 8 a.m., all during a 24-hour window. Runners also had the option of logging as many miles as they wanted during that time frame. Fischer saw it as an opportunity to run another 100K, so she signed up.
“Even though my summer schedule was packed thanks to TROT virtuals, when Benn came up with the Circadian Challenge I knew I had to sign up,” Fischer said. “A half marathon at night and a half marathon during the day fit perfectly into my crazy ‘try new things’ mentality of summer training. It involved a sweet two-part medal — I mentioned I’m a sucker for swag — but more importantly it benefited one of the charities that were impacted by BURCS races needing to cancel and I really wanted to support that work.”
“It wasn’t a distance PR for me since I’d already done the 69-miler, but I was planning to do it better and faster than the last one,” Fischer added. “I also decided I would start at 8 p.m. and do the night portion of Circadian first, as a way to try something new with this 100K. During my Possum’s Revenge virtual I got super tired and delirious the further past midnight I ran, so I hoped that maybe by taking a nap and starting the overnight portion first, I could avoid that exhaustion and have better results.”
Fischer enlisted three friends to pace her during the overnight hours, as well as a friend who logged some of the daytime trail miles with her. She battled stomach issues during much of the first night and later endured IT band pain that forced her to walk for the last few hours. Heat during the day contributed to more stomach issues later in her race, but she persevered through it, ultimately finished 62.2 miles in 22 hours, and even secured an award for second-place female for total mileage.
“I’d had lofty goals of going further, maybe even surpassing the 69 miles I had done in May, but those last two hours of the 24-hour Circadian Challenge just weren’t meant to be and I was just really grateful my friends got me to my 100K finish,” Fischer said. “Thanks to the Circadian Challenge I know my 69-miler wasn’t a fluke, I have what it takes to do 100K and beyond. Proving it to myself a second time, amidst all those issues, definitely bolstered my mental strength which I know I can draw upon in future events.”
Longing for Community
While virtual races have been able to fill part of the running void for Fischer and so many other runners this year, she noted one glaring area that simply can’t be recreated in a virtual format.
“It was pretty anticlimactic to shuffle into my parking lot around 4 a.m. when I finished the 69-miler and just go upstairs to bed,” Fischer noted. “My husband waited up for me and cheered me into the finish but it was just not the same. It felt the same way finishing the 100K for Circadian – I was glad I had pushed myself and persevered, especially when it sucked and hurt a lot, but without the race-day atmosphere it felt a little empty. I feel like that was something to be learned from the adventure though – celebrating our successes without anyone else around to care. Now that some time has passed from both of those big finishes I am really proud of myself for going so far and hitting distance PRs, but it definitely was lacking that race-day feel of accomplishment and I’ll probably always feel that way.”
As someone who is a frequent volunteer at races as well as a gracious participant and an upbeat spirit on the course when racing, Fischer misses being with her trail community.
“I miss the random conversations with strangers for a few minutes or a few miles on the trails,” she said. “I miss seeing the faster runners fly by on looped courses and watching with envy as they float along the course, while still taking a moment to say hi and good job to those they are lapping! I miss the volunteers at the aid stations making us laugh even when we’re doing the zombie march and attacking the aid station like rabid dogs. A trail race, especially a TARC or BURCS race, is a big crazy family party and I missed out on so much of that while I was pregnant and so sad to not get to enjoy it all in 2020 as I had planned. And even though I’m typically dead last or close to it, I always end up with a couple TARC friends sticking around and cheering for me at the finish line, and that just fills my cup with love from our awesome trail community.”
One More Chance for 100 Miles
After so many miles and virtual races this summer, Fischer is taking a break from virtual racing in August to focus on section-hiking the Massachusetts portion of the Appalachian Trail. She has a few more TROT virtual events in the fall (Trails from the Deep 50K in October) and winter (Slo Ho Ho 100K in December), but she’s also holding out hope that she can earn that elusive 100-mile finish in 2020 — at an in-person event.
The Hamsterwheel 30-Hour Ultra is on track to take place on Nov. 7-8 in New Boston, N.H., and if all goes well then Fischer will be there running her heart out and chasing her dream in the most unusual of years for ultrarunning.
“I don’t know if Hamsterwheel will happen, no one knows how much worse this pandemic may get in the continuing months, and that has really been messing with my head,” Fischer said. “Signing up for the Slo Ho Ho 100K in December is my way of keeping myself training so that I don’t attach a lot of anxiety and stress to Hamsterwheel’s fate. I want that 100-mile finish, I want to do an in-person race, but having something certain on the horizon took a lot of pressure off trying to predict the future so now all I have to do is train … a lot. Whether it is in November at Hamsterwheel or December on my own, I’m going to finish off this race year with a good strong ultra I can be proud of.”