In typical reckless running fashion, I signed up for a 100 mile race earlier this year after my ultra runner friend, Jeremy Alsop, said he was considering doing another one. Not just any 100 mile race, it’s a tough race that traverses the Colorado mountains with copious hill climbs and head spinning elevation changes. This 100 mile ultra is called Run Rabbit Run and it takes place in September each year. Keep in mind that I’m essentially a sea level middle distance runner. I have no access to significant mountains to practice on that are less than an hour away. I have no trail racing experience at all, and have less than a handful of 20 mile easy runs to my name. I run only fifty miles in a week let alone double that in one day.
Before jumping into the 100 mile distance, Jeremy encouraged me to try a 50k first. He was doing the Promise Land 50k++ at the end of April, and after some persistent texts from him in March, I decided to join him. He had run it eight times before and thought it would be a good simulation as to what we would experience in Colorado. It would give me the opportunity to see how my body and chronic injuries would respond to an ultra. So with little prep, I ran my first ultra marathon, the Promise Land 50K++ this past weekend.
The race was thirty four + miles of hill crushing, bush whacking, rock jumping, creek crossing, ankle twisting mountain climbing and despite that my ass is still standing. It was not only my first ultra, it was my first race over 13 miles, first run over 20 miles (which I've only done 2-3 times since 1999), and first marathon. I survived my first ultra run with pathetic preparation and several mistakes along the way. But mistakes are good and failure is growth.
So let’s talk about failure and success of my first ultra race:
Failures: My heart nearly exploded from being over caffeinated mid race. Dehydration and overheating had me parched to the likeness of a shrunken head. My quads were crushed to dust from inadequate preparation for 7655ft of climb and 7658ft of descent. To make things worse I badly strained my hamstring two weeks ago on one of only three mountain runs I was able to get in to prep for the race. So I was not surprised that I face planted hard just three miles from the finish line at Promised Land.
Successes: I ran hard, fast, slow, walked then ran fast again ending with a couple of 5:27 and 5:38 miles into the finish. I placed on the ‘podium’ with a top ten spot in my first ultra with 8 weeks of 55+ - miles per week. Yes, surprisingly top 10 is Podium in a David Horton ultra (Run one and you’ll know why). The attached elevation chart will give you a small idea of the ordeal. All said, here I am two days later struggling to walk from soreness, and I’m saying it was worth it. Oh, and the endocrinologist that said I had a thyroid problem back in 2012 can kiss my ass. He was wrong about me. I do not have a need for thyroid medication, I never have. I’m healthy and have been. And given that I have no cartilage in my right big toe anymore (just grinding bone-on-bone), my pain there is no greater than it was before I ran the race. If anything the pain of the race seems to have helped distract from my foot pain.
The Race Breakdown
FIRST 10 MILES
Camped in a tent the night before the race with the other runners (also a first). I slept only three hours and woke at 1:30am - rough night. Race starts at 5:30am, I get out slow. I hit 8:05 first mile on moderate hill yet I’m in the lead. Second mile 9:05 I’m still leading. I’m holding back on the next few miles of climb (10 minute mile) unsure where everyone else is at. We hit downhill and I start cruising miles in the six range on the downhill trying to hold back for the next impending climb. I make it to the 2nd aid station at ten miles in first place. I stop to fill my hydration pack with Tailwind. I fill about 50oz and lose a minute or more. I get passed by two runners who essentially skip the aid station other than to take a quick orange to go and fill their small handheld. I never see them again in the race. I drink 50oz of caffeinated Tailwind mixed with remnants of leftover Pedialyte.
I skip aid station three and drink my entire Nathan hydration pack bladder. I plan to refill at aid station four with about 20oz of Tailwind and the rest with ice, but the attendant is working fast to help me keep 3rd place and tops me off with 60+ oz of caffeinated Tailwind. I get passed at the aid station as I’m filling, so I decide to just grab and go. I don’t intend to drink it all, but the temperature gets hot, real hot. I keep getting thirstier so I keep sipping. Next thing I know I’ve burned through almost my entire fluid pack and have also eaten a caffeinated Huma gel. At this point I’m about four cups of coffee into caffeine when I hit aid station six just before the hardest climb of the course at 26 miles. I stop and say I need to get my heart rate down. We clear my pack and fill with only cold water and ice. I keep eating ice pops to cool off. The attendant tells me I need to get going I’m losing position and mercifully shoves two ice pops in my pocket to send me off.
I’m not ready to go as my heart rate is jacked, but it’s time to climb and climb hard. Each switchback and incline gets tougher, rockier and steeper. My heart rate keeps climbing from the effort to ascend coupled with a mega caffeine burst. Speculating from the nutrition info it looks like I had close to 400mg of unplanned caffeine. At this point in the race I have to pause frequently to bring my heart rate down. I stopped more than once to completely submerge in the surrounding waterfall to cool off and calm my heart. It is hard to describe how great that felt. I think we sometimes forget that the heart is a muscle no different than your quads or calves. Leg muscles can cramp and fail, but if your heart cramps...game over. I was justifiably extra cautious at this point. My mile split was over 20 minutes for 1 mile here. Weak quads from lack of pre-race prep coupled with an insane heart rate had me crippled until I finally met some downhill.
I hit aid station seven in 10th place. I took a deep breath and asked for ice pops. There were no ice pops. All I wanted in the world was a delicious ice pop. They had cold soda so I chugged a Mountain Dew then went to work. It took ¾ of a mile of flat running and deep nose breathing to get my heart rate back down enough to start pushing. I tried to do work to catch up to ninth place but I fell while descending the rocky technical trail too quickly. I got up and tried to close the distance in the last two miles running a quick 5:27 and a 5:38 last mile. In a bizarre turn of events I was nearly hit head on by a speeding motorcycle coming around a blind turn on the final mile. We missed by inches.
The day seemed out to get me, but I prevailed with my first ultra finish. My longest race previously was a 13.1 mile road half marathon, and my longest run was 2hrs and 20min. I was elated to know that I could cover such a distance and run for five hours at that effort. I did it on unforgiving terrain, in stifling heat and humidity as a clueless beginner. If I muster the will to try again soon, I'll be ready this time having earned real experience.
Famed Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki Roshi says, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” Over the years, I have become an expert in road and track racing, and that expertise limits me in some ways. The good news is that I’m a beginner as far as trail and ultra running go, and in my mind the possibilities are endless. I’m not afraid to learn by failing and diving in hard. That’s what made me a great runner to begin with. Fearlessness and the absence of doubt create great opportunities and great race performances…over time. Patience is the key there. But you must run with reckless abandon to get there. You have to shake off your own shit and the shit other people may throw at you to get to where you want.
Here is my quick take away for beginners who might want to try an ultra:
It is hard to know what you’re capable of handling until you throw yourself into the crucible. Running an ultra affords you a window into how far you really can push yourself. It offers an element of inward reflection unavailable by other means. It’s similar to what Jordan Heinline would call Grokking. To Grok is to fully drink an experience in and understand something so thoroughly that you merge with it and it merges with you. An ultra is a means to help you Grok running and the human experience deeply. It’s no different than a biblical trek of 40 days and 40 nights into the desert with only water (but much safer). It may not be a visionary experience, but it will probably be enough to shift perspective in your life. Including how you see and experience pain, effort and struggle everyday. So try one, plan to survive and go from there.
Run long, very steep hills often. When I say long hills I mean a mile long or more. This is the best thing you can do to train. This is the only way to get your quads strong enough not to give out on you mid race. The best runners simply trot slowly and continuously up the hills. You might want to consider doing heavy squats at the gym as well. Some of the best ultra runners do not look like typical runners at all. They are very quadsy and squatty with lots of leg power. Weight doesn’t matter so much as strength in this game.
Start on a moderate course for your first ultra to get adjusted to the distance and elapsed time first, then add more climbs. Maybe go for a scenic, technical course.
Keep it Cool
If you wear a hydration pack on a hot day make sure you get one that is insulated. The heat from your body will quickly make your fluid warm or even as hot as your body. Drinking warm fluid is not satisfying at all and in my case just made me want to drink more. And practice to determine which fluids, gels, foods work best for you and your stomach.
Train a pace rhythm into your body and mind. I've recently seen some runners call this being 'engaged'. It entails intuitively listing to your body and running without a watch or gps. I kept making big shifts in my 50k pace because I was unprepared for the climbs and tried to make up for lost time on downhill sections. If you can practice keeping steady, consistent 8:30 miles or slower on all terrain you’ll conserve energy and stay on point for a nice PR or finish time.
Avoid caffeine if possible, especially if it's hot or humid. I prefer a small cup of coffee before some races or workouts. Your body uptakes caffeine differently from coffee. It’s like nature's organic way of easing the edge. Artificially caffeinated beverages or chews usually have what I’d say is too much caffeine and your body might absorb that powdered caffeine differently. So 85mg of caffeine from a cup of coffee may be absorbed less than 85 mg of caffeine powder in a chew. Remember, your heart rate will already be high from so much up and down at elevation, especially carrying extra pack weight like me. Your race will also likely be on a hot day so you’re going to probably feel more dehydrated than in need of a caffeine burst. So opt to address the necessary hydration needs over the your energetic wants first.
Slow Your Roll
Take your time at aid stations. If you need something specific find it. Don’t let anyone else’s excitement or anticipation for you rush you from getting what might be best for you. That includes a quick rest if needed. I let my excitement and runners passing by affect my aid station selections. There is plenty of time to race. So be patient.
Most importantly get a lot of long run time under your feet now and then. My longest run was 2 hours and 20 minutes prior to my race. This 50k++ was more than double that time on my feet. Get yourself adjusted with hours of continuous moving. You’ve got to train the mind as well as the body.