Eight hours and forty miles in, I was slumped over at a green plastic picnic table. The last five miles had been spent trying to run, nibbling on a stale Clif Bar, and dry heaving. My wife had been done with her 50k for over an hour already, I still had ten miles to go, and I felt like shit.
Our local ultra, Chautauqua Ultras [http://chautultras.webs.com/] offers a 6 hour race, 50k, and 50 miler. Back in the spring my wife and I ran the Black Mountain Monster with a group of friends from r/running. Two days after that race, still nursing blisters and sore feet, we were registering for this past weekend’s race. I would do the 50 miler and my wife wanted to run the 50k.
The race is run in a nearby town that relies almost solely on tourism. The village sits on the edge of Chautauqua Lake, is very close to the gated, artsy-fartsy, full-of-rich-people Chautauqua Institution, and is also directly on the local snowmobile paths. The course itself is run on a 5 mile loop using a rails-to-trails path, country roads, and a wide snowmobile trail back to the central pavilion. There’s not much elevation (one 80’ hill) and the trails are more like dirt roads than actual trail. The roughest terrain was the oversized stone that made up the shoulders of the roads. The whole thing is billed as a “beginner” ultra. It tends to be a very small race with an average of roughly twenty runners any given year.
The Race Prep
Training for this race overlapped with some ITBS and training for a late August duathlon. I did not follow a plan, but spent a lot of time foam rolling and stretching my IT bands. By August I had worked up to ~40mpw running with ~50mpw cycling. After the duathlon I dropped the cycling for the last few weeks before this ultra, but two weeks before the race I wasn’t feeling confident. I hadn’t gotten in as many long runs as I originally planned, so I scrapped the full taper and peaked my mileage instead. Race week became a truncated taper with just two very easy jogs, extra beer, and a bit more stretching than usual.
Hydration & fueling plans were for Tailwind until I got sick of its sweetness and then switching to water. I prefer food to gels for long races, so we loaded up on Larabars, Clif bars, Pringles, Slim Jims, Pickles, and PB&J sandwiches. I think we had almost as much food with us as the RD had brought.
Race “strategy” was to stick to 50-minute laps, sit down for 5 minutes at the central aid station while eating and refilling water, and then head back out. Repeat 10 times. Just run your race and ignore everyone else. There were also thunderstorms expected, so I had a change of shoes and socks ready to go when needed.
There was a girl I was chasing for most of the early race. Tall, blonde, and she was running fast for such a long race. I tried to keep her in my sights simply to have a pacer. By ten miles in I caught up to her at the aid station. We chatted and moved on. At mile 15 I caught her again at the aid station. She was dealing with lower leg pain and considering dropping. I tried to encourage her and went back out. At mile 20 she did drop. Apparently she came into the race with a stress fracture. I don’t know if she’ll read this, but that was pretty fucking stupid. I hope her recovery goes well, but she probably set herself back by months trying to run the race.
How is this relevant to my race? I didn’t want to be near an injured person talking about quitting, so I rushed those aid station stops only refilling my water and not getting any food. By mile 25 I was dizzy, nauseous, and slow. My pace had dropped from 9:30 miles to 11:00 miles. I took a longer break, picked at a nutritious lunch of “ultra food” including a Clif Bar, Slim Jims, and Pringles. My stomach settled, and my wife came in from one of her laps, so we were able to head back out together. I was half way through my race, and she had two laps to go. I also changed out of my rain-soaked socks and shoes. I could have wrung out my Brooks. Crisis averted.
Between miles 35 and 40 it happened all over again. I went from consistent miles and pacing to feeling week, taking walking breaks, and negative thoughts crept into my head. I started thinking about how my wife was done already and waiting for me. We could go home. I don’t have anywhere to put a trophy, and besides, forty miles is a long fucking way. Who needs 50 of them?
By the time I got close to finishing that loop I had gagged repeatedly on the leftover Clif Bar I had with me. Water squirted into my mouth was making me feel worse, and the repeated dry heaving left me even more disheartened. When I got back, I sat down and thought hard about quitting. I didn’t know what to do. I asked my wife to get me a salt tab from our gear bin, and I nibbled on some more chips. Twenty minutes passed before I got up and started to stubbornly walk my last two loops.
Walking? Who the fuck walks in a race? The salt tabs did the trick. Five minutes after I had been contemplating my impending death, I started running again. I only had ten miles left after all! I decided that 10 minutes of running would earn me 5 minutes of brisk walking. I repeated that sequence again and again. “10-5” gave me something to focus on. I finished lap 9 in 55 minutes. The RD told me I should be the next finisher as I was a lap ahead of everyone else. Giggling, I took another salt pill, grabbed more chips and headed off just as the days third thunderstorm rolled in. I felt like a totally different person from an hour earlier.
Lap ten, the final 5 mile loop, saw my 10-5 plan go to 11-4. It would all be over with soon. Damn soon. I spent the loop privately celebrating and daydreaming about what it would be like to finish: Would I break down? Would I flash some AR horns at the finish? Would a shaft of light shine down from the heavens?
None of that happened though.
I finished strong, my “kick” getting me down to a blazing fast 8:50 pace over the last half mile or so. Silly to have an ultra kick, but what the hell, it wouldn’t hurt. I finished with an official time of 10:20:20. That put me in 2nd place overall and first in the “39 and Under” age group. My wife had finished 3rd overall in the 50k and first in her “39 and Under” age group as well. We both got trophies.
For lack of better words: it was pretty fucking awesome.
The Lessons Learned
I need a better nutrition plan. Food had never been a problem to get down, so I expected it to work this time, too. After 35+ years of feeding myself, I thought I had that figured out. Apparently I still need help.
Salt tablets are gifts from the gods.
Those epic lows that ultrarunners talk about? I had one. I survived, didn’t quit, and it will make me stronger next time.
I can run fifty miles. Holy shit, that’s a long ways. I can’t wait to do it again. My next ultra will be a 12 hour race in May. I’ll be shooting for 100k that day.
100 milers must be fantastic to run. How much lower can I get and still pull myself up to finish?
Winter Beast of Burden at the end of January. I ran the 25 mile option last year and took second. I want to do better this year. As soon as I feel recovered from this past weekend I’m jumping into Pfitz’s 18/55 marathon plan to get me ready for it.