It’s been a while since I’ve written anything solely for myself, let alone by hand. Feels strange to put pencil to paper, and awkwardly slow. My brain thinks these sentences faster than my hand can scrawl them down. On the computer, my typing can keep up. Still, somehow this feels better.
I ran my first ultramarathon on Sunday, October 5 over at Blue Marsh Lake, about 5 minutes from my dad’s house, the house I grew up in, outside Reading. The ‘Blues Cruise Ultra 50K’ put on by the Pagoda Pacers Athletic Club.
Saturday night had been later and involved more red wine that I’d have preferred. Mia and I drove home to dad’s house from Lancaster to ‘stage’ there before the race. Kaitie joined us so we could go through some of my Mom’s stuff. Lots of kitchen utensils, old jewelry and a ton of books. I took many about Native American Culture, a side of my mom I knew about – it was a big part of who she was – but never explored much on my own. That evening, after a salmon and vegetable cookout on the very windy deck, we drank wine and my mom’s stuff brought back fond, fond memories of things I thought were long forgotten.
I realize that my pre-race routine may not exactly have been so performance oriented. Aside from the wonderful, large meal, I probably had 2 too many glasses of wine (I’d previously started a routine of drinking 2 glasses of red wine the night before any endurance event) went to bed an hour too late and hadn’t trained enough in the three weeks since my marathon in Helsingborg, Sweden. But here’s the point – I’m not out there to win. Exercise is a lifestyle for me, and in order to maintain it, there’s got to be a balance. I burned out of golf early in my career and decided I can’t fully dedicate myself to just one thing. But I love to train. I love the endurance sports especially – it’s not how fast I can go, but how far – pushing that limit is what excites and motivates me.
On to the race! The morning dawned clear and very cool. Perfect running conditions, about 50º F at the start. I wore cheap Puma socks, New Balance Minimus 10 shoes, calf compression socks, Helly Hansen running shorts, my Garage Strength singlet and a long-sleeve running shirt to keep my arms warm at the beginning. I brough a 2-liter ‘Nathan’ brand water backpack, with two tablets of ‘Resorb’ (basically Pedialyte) dissolved into it, and carried several Gu gels and a Larabar. I wore a visor to keep the sun out of my eyes.
The atmosphere around the starting area was distinctly different from a standard marathon. Very low-key and non-commericial. Something like 330 runners took the start, so it was decidedly un-crowded. An older guy with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent was making announcements over the PA system in between loud German oompa music, which I effin’ loved.
We gathered in the grass behind the start/finish line and set off with the gun at 8:35am (there was a 5-minute delay due to the long line of people at the port-o-pots who needed that one last poop, myself included. It’s amazing how your nerves will empty out your gut before a long endurance race.)
The start of a long event is always mentally daunting. Knowing that you won’t be back to the same place for over 5 hours is difficult to comprehend. That’s a very slow round of golf! Jeeze. But we were off at last.
It’s difficult to describe how hard it is to pace yourself on a long run (anything more than 13 miles, really). Especially in a race. Your blood is pumping, and with days of tapering and rest, your body (hopefully) feels amazing. You’ve got to squash the urges to go out fast at the start. In fact you’ve got to deliberately try and run slower than you think is possible. 31 miles is a long way, and any extreme effort at the start will be paid for in pain and suffering hours later.
In Helsingborg, the marathon I ran three weeks before the ultra, I went out very fast, trying to set a new PR – under 3:40:00 – and blew up with still 10 miles to go. 1 mile at the end of a marathon feels like eternity when your body hurts like mine did. 10 feels next to impossible – but then that’s why I run these long events. The impossible becomes possible.
The trails at Blue Marsh are mostly single- and double-track mountain bike trails. No super elevation changes, but not many flat sections either. And the hills, though never too long, are very steep and the terrain is a mix of packed dirt, loose shale, rocks and roots. Most of the time your vision is concentrated on each step (and I passed several people who didn’t lift their feet enough and tumbled). Several times I ran onto a stone or root directly under the ball of my foot. With the minimus shoes on, this is no fun. Might as well be barefoot.
The course was run clockwise around the lake (it alternates each year). This was a boon to me mentally, because even as a id, we always biked in that direction. The landmarks are more familiar and it’s easier for me to gauge distances. In an ultra (or even a standard marathon), it’s the mental side that gets you through the end. It was nice to have that small edge.
So, how’d it go? After the summer spent training on the small, flat islands in the Stockholm archipelago (I managed only 6 runs over 20km, 2 over 30), I was not ready for the hills. But neither, apparently, was anyone else. From the first rise heading up to the steep slope from the parking lot at the stilling basin, folks were walking. I took this as a sign of experience – these guys must know that in an ultra, you simply walk the steeper hills from the get-go to save energy, to save your legs for the miles yet to come. So I reluctantly followed suit (at times there was no choice as there were simply no passing lanes on the narrow trails).
The pack of runners very quickly strung out. I wound up chatting with an experienced looking guy wearing black shorts, a black t-shirt, a sweet headband and the minimalist running sandals called huarachas that the Tarahumara Indians wear in Mexico, and which got so much attention in the book Born to Run. I decided then and there that if I stayed with him, I’d be okay – he kept a similar pace and had done the race before, and simply looked like he knew what he was doing.
When you’re properly trained, the first half or so of any endurance event is basically ‘free.’ Meaning, you set the pace early on and just go on autopilot. The rhythm of your footsteps and breathing patterns become hypnotic. Make sure to keep eating and drinking at regular intervals (whether you feel you need it or not) and try to hold yourself back a bit. They say a marathon doesn’t start until mile 20 – those last 6.2 feel vastly longer than the first 20 (which I experienced in Helsingborg). An ultra then, really starts once you pass the marathon mark. That’s uncharted territory.
After the debacle in Sweden (my first half split was 1:52:00, right on pace for a 3:45:00 race. My second half? 2:15:00…), I decided to just run the ultra with the goal to finish in one piece. At about mile 14 (I only had a simple wristwatch, so wasn’t tracking my distance aside from watching the trail markers go by) I was still with the sandals guy. There was a steep hill up to the road where the 2nd aid station was situated. ‘You look strong!’ shouted Mia, cheering with her small cowbell on the side of the trail. ‘Too strong!’
I felt strong. I powered up the hull, running this time, stopped briefly at the aid station to fill my water backpack, scarfed a few boiled potatoes dipped in salt (my new favorite endurance snack) and got the heck out of there. It was the last time I’d see the sandals guy (who was by then behind me).
My next target was a gorgeous girl in short running shorts and a long brown pony tail. From behind, she was stunning – her long legs were tanned and fit. These are the small pleasures you get running such a long race. She was slightly faster, but I kept pace maybe ten yards behind and admired her legs for the next several miles, my rthymic breathing and strides ticking along like a metronome. I wasn’t floating effortlessly anymoe, but I felt I could keep up the pace without any issues and with just a little more concentration.
At another aid station I was still even with the leggy girl, but left her behind after my short potato break. That was a shame – those legs were really something. By mile 20, I felt I was still racing for ‘free.’ The pain and suffering hadn’t begun. Perhaps the three weeks of rest after the miserable marathon was actually needed (I trained 2-3 times, running only one longish run of 17km, and lifted weights at the gym three days before the ultra).
Mia was there at every turn it seemed with her little cowbell. It’s hard to stress how much energy you can get from cheering fans along an endurance course, especially your loved ones. But it wasn’t just me she was cheering for – Mia cheered on everyone around me, and you could just feel the energy. Others commented on it. Mia being a distance runner herself knows firsthand how much the fans help, so she made sure to keep it up.
The the final aid station, I was starting to feel it. I’d by then run more than a marathon, farthest ever. My stomach didn’t feel like eating anymore, and my legs were starting to get ‘wooden.’
‘Come on you pussy,’ I kept saying to myself over the small uphills. I’d made a point to keep running now, hills be damned. That late in the game, everyone was walking even the slightest incline, so I got some mental energy knowing I could run by them. I also knew that they’d be slightly deflated by getting passed. It’s still a competition after all, even in the middle of the pack.
I knew the trail, and I knew that with just 1 mile to go, there was one more major hil 0 not too steep, but very rutted and rocky and very long. I kept it up, and made a point to run that effin’ hill, passing maybe half a dozen people on the way. Mentally I was inspired, and physically I felt surprisingly good. Back on the road round the corner towards the finish I started sprinting, and crossed the line at full speed, 5:47:04 showing on the clock. They handed me not a medal for finishing, but rather a chair. I sat, and Mia fed me hummus and potato pancakes that the PA Dutch folks were preparing on the nearby griddle.
I was on the moon having finished. My first ultra! 31 effin’ miles! At that point, 50 miles seemed actually feasible. I was physically drained after 31, but could suddenly understand, not feeling totally broken, how 50 or even 100 was possible with the proper training. And that’s the point – keep pushing your limits, and you’ll realize that there are no limits.
Endurance sports greatly appeal to me because it doesn’t matter how fast you are, but how far you can keep going, how long you’re willing to suffer physically but stay mentally focused. Endurance sports are a lifetime endeavor – I was to be doing this when I’m 80.
I finished 99th of the men, out of 230-something, so in the top half of the pack. The winner ran an insanely fast 3:32:00, but there were only 35 of so people under 5 hours. I was a little disappointed that I didn’t feel more tired at the end – I felt maybe I had left a little too much in the tank, maybe could have run 15 or 20 minutes faster. But then I’ve got that for next time. It wasn’t worth blowing up and ruining the experience.
Who’s joining me next year?