Here’s the irony of ultra running: When you are on an easy run, you have time to think about a lot of things. But when you are racing an ultra, you have a lot of time, but somehow can only manage to think about one thing: how uncomfortable it is. Or maybe it’s just me.
I ran my second 50 mile race on Saturday, the North Face 50 Mile Endurance Challenge. I ran the same race last year as my first serious ultra, and let’s just say things didn’t really go as planned. So i was determined to learn from the experience, and come back to do it right this year.
I focused more on the long runs in the months leading up to the event, and got to the point where clicking off hilly 25 milers on the weekend was relatively casual. I built recovery weeks into my training cycle, ensuring that i would not show up to this late season race burned out (like last year). And i got my nutrition dialed… namely by discovering that the best way to survive an ultra without bonking and getting sick is to drink the most un-nutritious beverage on the planet: Coke. Lots of Coke (Sorry Mrs Obama).
And all that stuff worked fantastic on race day. I showed up well rested, didn’t bonk, and ran like a champ… for 25 miles. I chatted quite a bit with Rickey during the early miles, agreeing that biding our time, running a consistent pace would be key to running a successful (or at least satisfying) race. I was feeling confident about this plan. Although i realized that the pace I was running for the first 25 miles (7:30 min/mi) would win the race most years, it felt comfortable and sustainable. But the last half of the race felt almost as tough as i remembered it from the year before: numb, battered legs that simply refuse to go any faster down the stretch.
And who can blame them?
47 miles, 9000+ feet of climbing, darkness, rain, and mud. Ultras are hard. Really hard. You have to be willing and able to run uncomfortably for a long time, which is as mentally taxing as it is physically. How the leaders manage to run sub 7 min/mile pace over that course is beyond my comprehension, but i suspect it is has much do to mental conditioning as physical training. I suddenly feel like an amateur in a pro sport.
In the end, i would finish in just under 6.5 hours for 21st place. Kristin and Autumn, who crewed for me the whole day in the rain, were waiting for me across the finish line. I could finally enjoy their company. Autumn gave me a thumbs up. You know you have a family that loves you when they are willing to embrace you even though you are sweaty, muddy and smell a bit like urine. I couldn’t talk for the first few minutes, because i just wanted to cry. Not out of disappointment, and not out of joy, but rather tears of relief, that i had persevered and gotten through it.
But i question if i have the ideal physiology to run ultras as hard as one needs to be competitive Maybe i’m not robust enough. My quads don’t look like the tree trunks. But most of all, i question if i have the desire to train and race such long distances. Running is more special to me when it is kept in balance with the rest of my life, and i think to be competitive at these ultras you need to train more than i do.
Remember when marathons used to be considered long distance? Well, they are sounding pretty good to me right now.
Congratulations to everyone who ran their heart out in such a challenging race. It was inspiring to be a part of it.