Howell — Michele Cox recently celebrated her 50th birthday by running 50 miles.

The milestone was also the 50th race in a year marking a half-century of life, according to the Livingston Daily Press & Argus.

"This was the gift only I could give myself," said Cox, a Howell resident. "I could buy anything I want, but this is something money can't buy — I'm accomplishing something I set out to do."

The night before the Chicago Lakefront 50/50 Ultramarathon, Cox didn't sleep well at her father's nearby home, afraid she wouldn't hear the alarm and miss the race — the one race she could not miss, with no others to make up for it before her birthday.

She made it to the starting line, joined by about 55 runners on the dark, cold, windy morning — with a temperature of 33 degrees, about 27 or 28 degrees with wind chill.

Cox was dressed for the weather with hat, gloves and socks and shirt made of "smart wool," but the real preparation for the race, an out and back course in which she would complete four loops of 12.5 miles each, came from all the miles she had logged leading up to this moment.

Her running, and the subsequent milestones that came along with that endeavor, commenced in 2008, not long after she celebrated her 40th birthday. She had no other goal than to simply lose weight. She accomplished that, shedding about 20 pounds, and soon, the woman who had never liked running had a new habit.

Cox didn't start racing until 2010 and from there it was a natural progression, going from 5Ks to 10Ks to 10 miles. She ran a half-marathon, then a marathon. While the 26.2 mile distance is the pinnacle of running for many in the sport, the goal-oriented Cox just kept going, completing a 50-mile ultra-marathon, and then a 100-mile ultramarathon last year.

"I'm not the fastest person out there, but I like to challenge myself," she said. "It's not that the shorter distances don't challenge me, but longer distances require more mental preparation."

While running the latest 50-miler, the longest distance she had run in this past year with a plethora of 5K races behind her, as well as a few longer distance races including a marathon, she was focused on the training that had gotten her to this point. She runs five to six days a week, 5-15 miles each time for a total of 30-40 miles, all outside, in every kind of weather and often with the Howell Underground Running Team (HURT).

Mostly, she said, what is needed for 50 miles is simply time on your feet.

"You want to run on tired legs— you want to know what your body will do," said Cox, who has run two half-marathons in a single weekend.

As she ran the Chicago Lakefront 50/50 with approximately 200 other runners, on a course that is not closed to the general public, she was conscious of keeping a consistent pace that would allow her to finish within the 11-hour time limit. Keeping that pace was occasionally difficult. Cox listens to music while she runs, occasionally inadvertently picking up the pace as she listens to tunes including "Crazy Train" and "Eye of the Tiger."

But between 20 and 25 miles, when standard marathoners are hitting the wall from exhaustion, Cox was thinking about the heat on her feet, still clad in winter socks and vortex shoes.

She didn't get blisters, but after her third loop, roughly at the 37-mile mark, her legs were "screaming."

Aid stations were every 2.5 miles in the ultramarathon, with runners offered refueling options including peanut M&Ms, olives, trail mix, chips, water and Gatorade. In other ultramarathons Cox has run, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and boiled potatoes were choices. In this one, she snacked on pickles and olives for the salt to avoid cramps. After the third loop, she took a salt tablet as well.

A runner she had spent some time chatting with had dropped back. Cox was tired. She wondered what she was doing out there, on a cold, cloudy, Chicago day, running 50 miles, sore and exhausted and wanting to simply stop. But she said she had other thoughts too— how she wanted to be a role model for her 23-year-old daughter. How her father would be waiting for her at the finish line. How she had worked to get to this point.

And she knew one thing without any doubt. She hadn't come all this way, run 49 races in the 12 months prior, spent all that time training, not to finish her 50th race of 50 miles commemorating 50 years of life.

Five miles from the finish line, she slowed to a walk momentarily.

"Then I thought, 'Why am I walking? This is ridiculous,'" said Cox, who wears a bracelet that reads, 'God's got this,' and occasionally looks down on it to remind herself that she's got this, too.

She started running again.

Volunteers at the final aid station 2.5 miles out asked what she wanted, but nothing sounded good.

"All I thought was 'Dad is at the finish line and I am gonna do this and be under 11 hours and it's gonna be awesome,'" said Cox, who crossed the finish line in a time of 10 hours and 45 minutes, welcomed by her father who held aloft a 50th birthday balloon. "It was nice to have somebody at the finish. He is one of my biggest supporters. He thinks I am crazy, but he's still one of my biggest supporters."

Cox acknowledges that "50 miles is another level of crazy" and she isn't going to continue increasing her ultramarathon distances or try to complete more than 50 races in a year. Instead, she has her sights set on another goal — qualifying for the Boston Marathon. She missed the mark by 2 minutes in a qualifying race this year.

Next year, she will be in a new age bracket and allowed an extra 5 minutes. Running may also take her to another goal too, reaching her 100th birthday in the great race of life.

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