Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Things I learned from running an ultramarathon (in which I admit my hubris)

On Saturday, I ran 50 miles in the woods at Millican Reserve; first a 10K loop followed by three 25K loops. This was the inaugural ultramarathon put on by the folks at the BCS Marathon Series benefitting Mercy Project. The almost-thirteen hours I spent running, and the time I’ve spent hobbling around since, have given me the opportunity to reflect on several lessons this experience has taught me.

1.      Give yourself time/training is good
2.      Trail races are very different from street races
3.      Running is a team sport
4.      Dill pickles taste great

1. Give yourself time/training is good – I had been sort-of contemplating registering for this race since its announcement several months ago. Several personal reasons had kept me from registering until about two weeks ago at the weekly Brazos Valley Whisker Club social, a friend announced that he would be running the 25k race with mutual friend of ours. I immediately opened up my phone browser and registered for the 50 mile. Why not?

It did not occur to me in that moment that these friends had gratis registration since their employer,   New Republic Brewing Company, is a race sponsor. Time is your friend when race registration costs get higher the closer you get to race day. My consolation is that the race proceeds fund a charity that I care about deeply.

Registering for a long race two weeks ahead of time also does not give you much time to train. I have good friends that have trained relentlessly for ultramarathons and given the race and themselves that each deserve. I feel like a dilettante because I had two double-digit runs between my December marathon and this race. I’m truly lucky to have finished, and without (permanent) injury.

 2. Trail races are very different from road races – I have previously run the BCS Marathon Series Night Time Trail run twice, and the Honored Hero run, which had some off-pavement portions. Neither were true technical trails and could not have prepared me for the terrain and how this would affect my pace. The Night Time trail run was on a wide, fairly flat, path that (while dusty) was like running on a cushion. Similarly, the trail portion of the Honored Hero Run is on a flat gravel path along the Trinity River. 

   A true technical trail has significant elevation changes, sometimes in very short distance (at one point in this race we pulled ourselves up a steep creek bank on a knotted rope) and many trip hazards. Technical trail races are especially unkind to minimalist runners since you’ll feel every twig, stump, and rock in the path. This can be an advantage to those behind you.
My rationalization when signing up for the race was that the 15-hour course limit was plenty sufficient for me to take it easy on the course. I estimated that my typical long-distance pace is between 10-12 minutes per mile, which meant I might expect a 10ish hour race. My normal walking pace is 18 minutes per mile, and I figured that even if I walked the course I could finish 50 miles in 15 hours. These estimates were based on my experience running on road races, however. Trail running means significantly slowing down your pace for obstacles and taking more time at aid stations.

While I made it through about half the race in fairly good shape, my lack of training started to show by the end of our second 25k loop. My hip flexors threatened to give out with every up- or down-hill step and my left foot felt so swollen that it might burst the seams of my Vibram Fivefingers. This might have been the case even in a road race, but my feeling is that the terrain played a large part in how beat up I felt. On the bright side, the scenery was gorgeous!

3. Running is a team sport – I usually run alone. As I’ve described before, I began running because my spouse was running, then I kept it up because of the charities being supported, and in order to be healthy enough to keep up with my kids. As I’ve continued to run, I have found that it is my contemplative time—the time I get alone with my thoughts. I often use the time to say my daily prayers. As a personal meditative exercise, running is a solitary activity for me.

As an athlete, though, I am a team player. I find motivation in encouraging others. This is especially true in long races, where my encouraging someone else is also keeping me going (however annoying I may be—apologies N. & E.!). I was fortunate to find someone to train with and have shared contemplative time with for my marathon this year, but did not plan for this kind of companionship for the ultramarathon (see #2 above). Fortunately, a friend was running the ultra, too, and had come to the race with similar naïveté. He was better trained than I was, however, and I encouraged him to go on ahead in our final 25K loop and not be dragged down by my slowing pace. That final lap, in which the sun finally set and I was making my way through pitch dark and finding the trip hazards that were hard to see even in the sunlight, I was finally mentally beat.

As I made it through the stretch of woods just before the final aid station, I was playing through my options mentally. I rationalized that 46 miles was still something to be proud of, and that I shouldn’t expect to be able to finish without proper training and preparation. I emerged from the woods to find the race director and one of his staff at the table. They had sent the volunteers home; I was the last runner through. They took my water bottle from me, asked if I needed any food, and said I could rest—but only for a couple of minutes. Chris, the race director, asked me what my motivation was. In the moment, I couldn’t think of anything except to just finish. He then reminded me of something he had said at the previous BCS trail run (and which we had discussed briefly since then): that we are very fortunate to have the freedom and means to pay money to run. Chris reminded me that I wasn’t running just for myself, and he also reminded me why running is a team—really a family—sport. You need perspective, and sometimes that perspective has to be loving but firm.

Chris told me there were just 3.5 miles left, and that if I pushed myself I could catch up with the rest of the group. I don’t know where it came from, but I did run most of the rest of the way, passing a couple of guys who were part of the 50 States Marathon Club (and who were headed to Lafayette, LA the next day for a marathon) and finishing about 15 minutes behind my friend.

4. Dill pickles taste great – Besides the encouragement of others, the other thing that truly sustained me on the race was the food. I typically cannot eat before running; I get bad indigestion. However, in order to keep up this kind of activity, you have to keep fueling yourself. The first aid station we came up to had things you might expect: water, electrolytes, pretzels, cookies. But what I was immediately drawn to was the pickles. Tiny kosher dill pickles must have been exactly the salt source I needed. I picked up some M&Ms, too, but it was the pickles that I really wanted (I even drank pickle juice later when the pickles were all gone). Other sources of food included peanut butter & jelly sandwiches (to which I added potato chips) and quesadillas. The beer proffered by New Republic as we finished each lap was heartening, too!

Against what seems to be incredible odds, I was able to finish this race with nothing worse than some chafing and serious stiffness the following couple of days. I went out for a 3 mile recovery run (in the rain) yesterday. I commented to a friend that I couldn’t bear the thought of rolling my muscles as I knew I should, but I wanted to go for a run. That is a kind of sickness, I guess.
Another friend sent an email to congratulate me and see how I feel. I’m still not sure how to answer. It feels kind of like finishing another marathon. Not much has changed, except that my legs have carried me 50 miles in about half a day. And I survived.

Part of my desire to run this race in the first place is that I’m planning to apply to the Unogwaja Challenge for 2016, which includes the 56-mile Comrades Ultramarathon. Since I’d never run anything close to that distance, I wanted to test myself to see what is possible. My friend John, who started the Unogwaja Foundation as an homage to the indomitable power of the human spirit, did a nice job with that teachable moment. He said, “if the heart is in the right place it won’t matter what surface or how long.”