For a guy who values each and every one of his morning Zs, I had an eventful start to my day.

At 5:30 a.m., Carie and I pulled into the Lake Johnson parking lot where a dozen runners were preparing to join champion ultrarunner Lisa Smith-Batchen on her Running Hope Through America project. North Carolina is the 14th stop on her quest to run 50 miles in each of the 50 states over 62 days. As she attempts to raise $1 million to help orphans in the U.S. and abroad, she’s inviting anyone to join her for all or portions of her run.

After awaking at 4:45, I was already out of my element. As we pulled into the parking lot, the thought of running with ultrarunners threw me further out of my comfort zone. The first bad sign: ours was the only car not adorned with a 26.1 sticker. Lately, I’ve been running 8 miles a week, at best, and here I was about to jaunt off with a group accustomed to running 8 miles before I eat breakfast.

But before I could devise an excuse to back out, my fears were eased by Smith-Batchen herself.

Emerging from her RV holding a coffee thermos and sporting a pair of Crocs, she greeted each member in this group of strangers with a hug, as if we were all part of some extended family of ultrarunners. That was followed by a blessing from Sister Mary-Beth Lloyd, a 61-year-old nun who’s a friend of Smith-Batchen and has been running 20 miles a day with her.

Still, all these friendly welcomes weren’t going to make me any faster. And as we all began walking through the dark to the trailhead, I couldn’t stop thinking about the first time I heard about Smith-Batchen in Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. In a passage about conquering fatigue, McDougall introduces her.

Lisa Smith-Batchen, the amazingly sunny and pixie-tailed ultrarunner from Idaho who trained through blizzards to win a six-day race in the Sahara, talks about exhaustion as if it’s a playful pet. “I love the Beast,” she says. “I actually look forward to the Beast showing up, because every time he does, I handle him better. I get him more under control.” Once the Beast arrives, Lisa knows what she has to deal with and can get down to work. And isn’t that the reason she’s running through the desert in the first place—to put her training to work? To have a friendly little tussle with the Beast and show it who’s boss? You can’t hate the Beast and expect to beat it; the only way to truly conquer something, as every great philosopher and geneticist will tell you, is to love it.

Surely, as Smith-Batchen chased this Beast, I would soon be lost in the dark, with no chance of catching up to the pack.

But we just kept walking. And walking. And Smith-Batchen soon informed us that she’s starting each day with about 10 miles of walking. Granted, she’s not trying to set a Guinness World Record, but this seemed like cheating to me. It’s called the RUNNING Hope Through America tour, after all, not the Running (But Sometimes Walking At First) Hope Through America tour.

But here’s the thing about walking with an ultrarunner, it’s more like sprinting with an average person. From our spot in the back of the pack, we often had to jog a few steps just to keep up. In the moonlight, less than halfway around the lake, I was sweating while Smith-Batchen was professing her affinity for everything about the morning, especially the rush of energy she receives when the sun finally rises.

Two miles into it, I worked my way to the front of the pack and managed to chat with Smith-Batchen. First, I wanted to know what’s been her favorite part of this process. She said the fact that it’s actually happening is the best part. But the part of our short conversation that really stuck with me came when I asked her how far she’s been walking before running.

“There have been days when I’ve really been suffering and even crying,” she said. “But then I think about the kids. They can’t control the fact that they’re suffering. I’m not really suffering. I just look at it as taking a bite from a sandwich. Each loop around is a bite from a sandwich, one little bite.”