My First Ultra

I have completed from my one (and likely only) foray into the land of the ultramarathon. Spoiler alert: it’s boring.

Here are my conclusions:
  1. Timing and terrain are key.
  2. You may need to improvise.
  3. Be open to what comes.

For more, read on.

Frosty 50K, 2010

This past Saturday, I ran the farthest I’ve ever run before: 31.1 miles. In fourteen-degree weather. Around an icy lake. It was fun.

Honestly, that could suffice as a race report for the 2010 Frosty 50K at Salem Lake in my high-school hometown of Winston-Salem. But maybe I have some reflections or advice that will help you, should you choose to run that far, or farther, or even just farther than you’ve gone before.

While I’ve coached an ultrarunner (and a good one at that, with a string of top-ten finishes and sixteenth place in his first 100-miler), I hadn’t had the experience myself, and I figured this would be a good time to try it out. I ran the New York Marathon at the start of November (topping out my training with only two eighteen-mile long runs). Once that had settled in, I threw in a few more three-hour runs and called myself trained for 50K. This distance was, as I suspected, “Just a marathon plus an extra hour of running.” Better yet, it was on trail—smoothish, flattish, wideish fire-road trail, not singletrack. This was the best of both worlds: not hard like pavement, but not tricky or technical.

Hence, point 1: timing and terrain. Choose a race that gives you time to build a very big base (you may run through a marathon as a long run), and choose a course that suits you.

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Temperatures here have been cold, cold, cold, as in many places, and the race day started at fourteen degrees. Like any good mother, my mom insisted I needed to wear more clothes than I’d planned. My very cute Athleta outfit got covered by a pair of her old workout pants and her very nice down jacket. I wore two pairs of gloves, and two hats. As I was laying out my clothes at 8:15 on Friday evening, I realized I hadn’t brought a sports bra—a sine qua non for most female runners. Happily the Hanes Brands outlet is two miles from my parents’ house, so I was out and back with my favorite Champion Double Dry in a matter of minutes. Since it was new and unwashed, I took a gamble and wore it inside out, so the seams faced my shirt, instead of my skin. This worked wonderfully!

Point 2: You may need to improvise. While our standard marathoner’s motto is “Nothing new on race day,” sometimes you have to make do with what you have. You can always take clothes off, but you can’t add them if you don’t have them.

Two of my athletes had been generous enough to offer to run portions with me. It was hard to say no, but as I explained to them, I wanted to see what the unadulterated experience was like. No earphones (I was disappointed to see how many runners wore them), no pacers. But running with other participants is fair game, and I loved spending the first quarter with my friend Rob Moody, before he pulled ahead. Here we are both before and after the race.

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One of my favorite images from the day was watching a duck slip and waddle its way across the ice on the frozen lake. Rob and I got a great chuckle out of that. I met a few other nice folks along the way. I’ve never been around such a laid-back group of runners. They were wonderful, pleasantly free of bravado, and open to conversation. It helps to be running at a reasonable pace!

During the portions that I spent running alone, only about half the race (surprising for such a small event), I ruminated on a career decision. After a few miles, the answer was clear. If I’d had chatty friends along, or an iPod, I’d have lost that critical thinking time.

Point 3: Be open to what comes. Sure, many parts were boring, and I was grouchy for a few minutes here and there. If you stay alert, you’ll get what you need. And if you shut down, you’ll miss things like the eerie moaning sound the ice made as the wind blew across it. At times it sounded like a toilet bowl in distress; at times it sounded like a musical saw.

My friend Ashley had asked me if I’d be disheartened at 26.2, knowing I could be done in a shorter race. No, I said; that will be great, because every step will be into new terrain. Getting to 18 with my sanity was my goal. Beyond that, there was familiar intensity, and in the last few miles I felt a joy that had me exclaim aloud. In the last mile or so, I caught up with a man who said, “This is the furthest I’ve ever run—I feel terrible.” I smiled, as every thought I’d had for the last twenty minutes was one of gratitude, praise, and delight.

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Here I am approaching the finish. The event is so low-key that cars were coming in and out of the parking lot alongside finishing runners.

Taking this picture, Wes said to me, “It’s cold out here, and I’ve been waiting for you. What took you so long?” “I told you I’d do 5:10,” I teased back. And I had.P1000907

That capped the experience: it was just what I’d expected. Boring at times, ecstatic at times, happily understated, free of drama, and run in the 5:10 I’d put down on my race entry form.

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