*Note: This is a lengthy post – in order to fully describe the process underwent, it needed to be. If you want to skip to hear about the race itself, I recommend that too, read to what interests you*
The idea of paying money to run in a foot race, by my own free-will, hasn’t always been something that had much appeal to me. Even after having casually ran for some number of years, there was never any interest in waking up early on a Saturday morning and joining groups of over-energetic, chirpy, smiling runners bundled up before the sun rises, ready to take north of 50,000 steps for “fun”. While I was disinterested in most aspects of running any race, there was always one thing that did grab my attention though, and that was the immense challenges they presented. The challenge of training, scheduling, preparation and building new routines infatuated me.
Less than one year ago the longest run I had ever been on without a walking break was 6 miles. Anything further than that seemed like an impossible feat. Trying to comprehend that a marathon was over four times that distance terrified me. I hadn’t put any time or effort into understanding the process behind what motivates someone to run a marathon, nor did I even know what an ultra-marathon was – and frankly I didn’t care, it all sounded bad. Running for over 9 hours? Thanks, but no thanks. If it weren’t for curiosity, there would have never been any runs over 6 miles. But these races always made me wonder how good that feeling of finishing must be for hundreds of thousands of people to go out and put themselves through torture year after year. I’ve never at any point in my life considered myself a runner. I still don’t consider myself a runner, rather I am more interested in the rippling effects that taking up such a monotonous activity like running has on the rest of my life. Speaking for most who participated in sports growing up, until recently I only viewed running as the worst part of sports, the punishment for making a mistake or upsetting a coach. If it weren’t for one late night bar conversation a few drinks in, I doubt I would have ever signed up for a race.
Soon after that conversation, using curiosity as fuel, I decided to start a training schedule. During my first few weeks as I began to ramp up miles to the point where I was becoming sore every single day, I realized quickly that I was going to need help along the way. I had so many questions that were unanswered. What shoes will I wear? How much should I eat during training? What’s a lactate threshold and why are people talking about it? How does that help with running? How can I improve foot turnover? How do you stretch your psoas muscle? How much should I eat during a run? Do I need to lift heavy weights? Will my nipples bleed by the end of the race? Will I ever get to the point I can run four hours without stopping? How should I pace myself? What training program should I pick? Where should I track my runs? Is this even healthy? Why does my knee hurt? In order for me to begin to tackle the 20-30-40 mile weeks that were called for in training, I needed to rewire my brains perception of running. Not only that, but I needed to completely reteach myself how to run. I needed to look everywhere I could to try and mimic behaviors of those accomplishing similar goals.
What I started doing what seeking out the help of anyone who was running these crazy distances in order to normalize the action in my brain. I went to local running stores and made friends with the workers, I followed runners like Courtney Dauwalter, Zach Bitters, Cam Hanes and David Goggins on social media, I wanted to be as fully immersed as possible. I even had an accountability partner that had agreed to run my first marathon with me, and continued to challenge and push me up through my ultra-marathon training. Having these people around me, they effectively acted as my safety net. Anytime I was unsure of what I was doing, anytime I thought it might be too hard or I was too tired, they were there to keep me in check.
There was never a morning throughout three months of running where I woke up without any self doubt. Every single day I questioned whether or not it was even worth it, whether I was making any progress at all, and if I would even care a year from now. There were runs that weren’t as enjoyable as others, some days I would go out and feel winded within a mile or two, other days I would feel great for ten or more. While they differed greatly in that regard, where runs were always in agreement was the feeling of a accomplishment after finishing. Once I completed another day of training, checked another box off the schedule, I had another little win to smart my day. It was a euphoric feeling knowing I was fully committed to reaching a destination I had never been before. The act of running itself is still not the reason that I want to run a race, but rather to relearn things I thought I knew, to question my previously held beliefs, to learn how to plan and execute the steps necessary to cross a finish line, to push limits only I had set for myself and how I could apply these steps to everyday life. In that, it gave me enough reason to sign up for an ultra-marathon.
12 Week Schedule
In early December when I made the decision to run an ultra, the next steps were to began researching training programs and schedules recommended for a fifty mile race. Similar to the training for a marathon, training blocks were between 12-20 weeks, which could be tailored to anyones own ability depending on current level of training. Having just recently come off running a marathon, I had a solid running base established so I decided to opt for a relatively shorter time frame for my training. As compared to marathon programs, with an ultra the main difference was the drastic increase of the overall miles per week. Some of the longer training runs would be upwards of 20-28 miles which meant a much larger time commitment. In addition I was also adding in a frequent back-to-back days of long runs in order to get my legs ready to be able to move even while being incredibly sore.
As with most running programs, in the early phases there was heavy emphasis on interval and speed work which aimed to increase my anaerobic capacity. There are different names to these strategies (Lactate threshold training, heart rate zone training, VO2 max training) all which in general aim to improve the efficiency of the bodies ability to transport oxygen and process lactate (running faster for longer without “bonking”). I tried to stick to the schedule as best as I could everyday, but as we all know life gets in the way sometimes and I occasionally had to move some things around. Rather than fretting the small details and making sure I did exactly what my schedule said to do everyday, I was allowing for life to remain somewhat normal but still to be sure that I was getting in all of the miles each week in some form or another. Whether that meant splitting some long run days into a morning and night run, or moving a run back a day due to scheduling conflicts, there is no substitute for running the miles suggested in any program.
I personally found it most effective to track my runs and hold myself accountable by doing so both on my phone, and also on a sheet of notebook paper taped to the back of my bedroom door. I wanted to make sure it was the first thing I looked at in the morning and the last thing I looked at before going to bed. On top of the runs, I spent many days during the weeks of preparation doing strength work which was vital to keep my leg muscles strong enough to support the amount of pressure they were being constantly put under. Most of this work was light or body weight – high rep workouts, focused on specific muscle groups that improve running form and speed (box jumps/step ups, weighted lunges, and plenty of hip mobility work). But of all training, what may have helped me the most was one quote I had written at the top of my schedule “Self-confidence comes from the promises that you keep to yourself.”
The constant weekend long runs presented both mental and physical challenges, they were designed to prepare me for what I anticipated to come during the race. They also assisted in quickly reminding me in the midst of ramping physical exertion to a level I had never touched, I needed to put the utmost priority towards recovery. This included better sleep, dialed-in nutrition, religiously stretching, weekly yoga, daily sauna sessions, meditating, etc. Without mental clarity and focus waking up each morning with a why, completing a training block like this would have been impossible (there were a more than a few frosty 6:00am days where I had to get in an eight or ten mile run before work – where I was very much questioning my own sanity). As I allowed for more time and focus towards the goal of running 50 miles in under 10 hours, I had to cut out some things in my life that were subtracting from what I was aiming to accomplish. During the last 6-8 weeks of training, there was unfortunately much less time for Netflix or drinks on a Friday night. To be able to complete the longer training runs on a Saturday, there was no opportunity to nurse a hangover for most of the morning and afternoon. I had to be content knowing that I needed to cut back on some of the weekend activities I had become so accustomed to.
One incredible way I was able to measure fitness and recovery scores, with crazy amounts of data ,was with the wearable I’ve been using for the last year, called Whoop(<—highly highly recommend Whoop to anyone wanting to achieve any type of fitness or health goals). Whoop helped take some of the guesswork out of the training and assisted in making accurate decisions in accordance with my body, which unlocked a new way of thinking I had previously thought untouchable. Whoop helped throughout the entire process to keep track of many different data points including calories burned, training adaptation (tracked with heart-rate-variability as well as resting heart rate), but most importantly sleep and recovery. Whoop tracks data 24/7, then provides you with recommendations on training and sleep needs for the day, and most importantly aggregates all of this information into performance assessments that you can view by the week, month or year. This allows you to take a broad-scope view of how your body is physically adapting and responding to training. Not only that but it also allows for you to analyze how different activities throughout your day may impact your sleep and recovery, allowing you to try and set yourself for a better tomorrow. Whoop allows for you to take inputs such as meditation, supplementation, caffeine use, phone use, consistency of sleep, and many others and then spits out a summary as to how each input plays out for your overall health, fitness, and recovery capabilities.
In order to improve overall health and avoid any sickness that could wreck a week or more of training, maintaining a high quality diet was something that I needed to be unwavering in. While I generally eat a plant-based diet (70-80% of calories), for training I slightly tailored my usual eating habits to intake more carbohydrates (CHO) than I typically would. My diet rarely varied day-to-day (apart from cheat meals Saturday nights in which nothing was off-limits), and while I was not measuring or weighing out food everyday, I was periodically checking my macro-nutrients to ensure that I was getting everything my body required. On most days my goals were to get at least: 300-400g of carbohydrates (sweet potatoes, quinoa, oats…a lot of oats and fruit). I also was aiming for around 90-110g of protein (PRO) to help with the muscle breakdown I was experiencing on these runs (chicken, grass-fed beef, bison, beans, sardines, salmon, cod, garden of life protein powder). Along with eating whole foods and removing all added sugars or processed food, I was supplementing with a multi-vitamin to remove the likelihood of any deficiencies, and also adding in roughly 5g of creatine monohydrate/day (most studied, safe, and proven performance supplement – with many misconceptions <–here is a video explaining the process in which it works).
When the training began to taper down in the last couple weeks, I wanted to make sure I had a rock solid plan ready to go for the actual race. It was a given that there were going to be setbacks during the race, but I wanted to limit the number of setbacks that would arise with detailed preparation. While studies focusing on nutrition during ultra-endurance events are somewhat limited, I was able to gather enough to give myself framework to build out from in my plan. Based on my bodyweight, I wanted to make sure I was taking in at least 60g CHO/hour along with 5-6g PRO/hour (minimum of 2700 calories, at the end of the race I estimated I ended up somewhere around 4000 consumed) to try and maximize output for such a long race. Based off training run paces and looking at past years results for the race (muddy, water filled trail race), I was estimating to finish around 10 hours or less. Some insight that I had picked up on from talking to others who had run ultras before was the likelihood of gastrointestinal issues in the later phases of the race. In everyday life when we eat, our body shuttles blood towards or digestive system in order to process the food we have just eaten. With an ultra-marathon, there is no way around the inevitable stress you will experience due to the lack of resources available for digesting food. Knowing this information beforehand allowed me to plan to front load my eating during the race to hit the overall numbers I needed for the entirety of the event (~400g CHO, ~50g PRO, etc.). With this race in specific, there would be multiple aid stations along the routes we were running (3-12.33 mile loops, 2-6 mile loops), which I accounted for in planning what I needed to eat mid run, and what I would be able to eat in every rushed aid station break throughout.
Another tip I picked up from veteran runners was making sure to try out different running products before the race, to see how they would each react with my body. Everyones fueling strategy is different in races, goo’s vs gels vs gatorade vs carb drinks and many more. In a marathon you’ll see slight differences in these choices but generally they are all similar products, with an ultra-marathon every rule is thrown out the window and these differences are amplified. In an ultra you’ll not only see all the gels and goos that are in a marathon being consumed in larger quantities along with quite a bit of fruit, but there was also and entirely different group of runners that threw down anything from Chick-fil-a, PB&J’s, Coca-cola, cookies, pizza, you name it and someone eats it. Thankfully I’ve gained quite a bit of leeway with my stomach tolerating large amounts of food all at once from daily intermittent fasting, and this helped in taking in the crazy high nutritional demands that help produce a better time. Many of the people I talked to said that an ultra-marathon is 40% training, 40% eating and 90% mental (the joke speaks to the kind of people who run these races). My favorites that I had chosen from testing on some of my long training runs were GU’s Stroopwaffels, Maurten gels, SPRING Wolf oatmeal fruit mix, and Tailwind carbohydrate drink. From there I was able to from there look at the nutrition facts to determine how many of each I would need to eat and could set a timer on my watch to remind me when to eat them. My plan with these was to be certain I was hitting the bare minimum of what I needed to consume, and that every additional thing I ate or drank at an aid station was an added bonus (by the end of the race I couldn’t stomach anymore goo’s and I was operating exclusively on jelly beans and grapes).
The race started at 6:00am which meant I needed to wake up at 3:45am to get one last meal a couple hours out from race time and to give me adequate time to stretch out and get my mind ready for the day. Surprisingly enough with an event like this, I did not have any pre-race nerves or anxiety to fight off, as I knew that I was in for an all day mental battle. With running a trail race through water and mud, I needed to make sure that I had proper gear that wouldn’t break down in the elements. I wore Feetures Ultra Light Socks that were great for shedding water, along with the high mileage “waterproof” trail shoe HOKA Speedgoat 3 (after 6-7 hours they had taken on a decent amount of water and felt 3-4x heavier than the start of the race). I also wore a running vest capable of holding all of the products I needed to take with me for each loop to eat along the run.
Looking back now, the race day went by like a blur. I am able to remember some moments with incredibly vivid detail, and then there are other stretches that I must have been in complete auto-pilot, blank spots in my memory. The first hour of the race was amazing, running through a forest on a trail that was completely foreign to me, I was finally beginning what I had trained hundreds of hours for. I knew that there would be many ups-and-downs throughout the course and I needed to be mentally prepared for both the highs and the lows. Trying to stay even-keel was the only way to manage the emotions in a way that I could tolerate them for such a long time frame. What I wasn’t prepared for was the first emotional low hitting me like a brick wall early into the day. Doubt began the moment that I looked up and saw the marker for Mile 6, then looked down at my watch and saw that I had already been running for over an hour. I was barely 10% done with the race. As the next half dozen miles dragged on, I luckily was able to tail behind some guys that were happily conversating and blasting 80’s rock music to keep my mind off of the task at hand, which led to me finally making it back to the trailhead to complete the first loop in a little over 2 hours.
Having family there to support and talk to for a couple of minutes after completing each of the loops was a huge mental break for me and got me through some dark spots as I questioned my own sanity. My second go around on the loop was somehow much easier than the first, and felt like it flew by. I ran with and made a new friend in a triathlete who had completed hundreds of races over the course of her running career and we were able to clip off mile after mile with relative ease for the next couple hours. This made me aware very early into the race that accompaniment was going to be absolutely necessary to keep my sanity, and to stay out of my own head. After finishing the first two loops and going back out having already ran a marathon, self doubt again began to creep in, in a way I had never experienced before. I was no longer running near as effortlessly as before, and knew that I still had quite a ways to go. To make things even worse, at this point every runner in the race was extremely spread out and running at their own pace, which meant I went over one hour without seeing a single person (77 people entered the 50-mile race, 42 finished. After 30 or so miles it’s easy to imagine how spread out everyone is). At this point I was sick of listening to both music and podcasts so the only thing I could hear was the slight breeze high up in the trees and the thud of each additional step I took. I was doing everything I could to entertain myself, whistling, singing, reciting motivational videos I had watched, and at one point I was laughing hysterically out loud because at the time humor was the only thing that could lighten the mood (if anyone saw this they would have instantly considered me mentally insane).
After what felt like years of running, I again made it back to the trail head with roughly 12 miles left to go. Thinking the hardest part of the race was over and that I was on the homestretch was a foolish mistake on my part. In the span of the next 6 miles, which took almost an hour and half (Miles 39-44), I was mentally and physically broken. Everything I saw made me upset, I wasn’t able to lift my feet high enough to clear the tree roots and was constantly tripping, my legs were cut up from thorns and covered in mud, while my fingers were sticking together from constantly spilling Tailwind and Heed drink mixes as I was running. My only goal at this point was to finish, it didn’t matter if I had to walk or crawl to the end, I just wanted to finish. As I shuffled my way back to the trailhead yet again (44 miles in), I was certain that I was going to have to walk the final miles if I wanted any shot at finishing without going to the hospital. I spent a good chunk of time at this aid station mentally preparing myself for what was to come in the final miles (this stop included a bathroom break, four Advil, Vaseline, and a couple handfuls of candy). Taking off for the last lap I had a heavy leftward lean to my run and a chip on my shoulder from how hard I had worked to get to this moment. Knowing I had 6 miles left to go and couldn’t possibly hurt or feel any worse than I currently was, something inside me broke. Passing a fellow runner and seeing they looked just as defeated as I felt, there was a sense of camaraderie, togetherness in shared suffering. Somewhere in those last miles, it felt like I had unlocked an area of my mind I never knew existed. With a potent mix of adrenaline, Advil, and anger, I finished the race with strong running – shaving over 15 minutes off from my previous 6 mile loop.
While I did feel a strong sense of accomplishment and was proud of what I had done, the finish line wasn’t exactly like what I thought it would be. There weren’t feelings of relaxation or victory, and actually was more like the opposite. I knew that I had put myself through immense suffering, but I also was aware of how artificial my “suffering” was. What I experienced felt minuscule compared to what others have gone, and are currently going through. I was and am still aware that running 50 miles is an incredibly difficult task, but I knew that the race would eventually end. The end was always in sight. What kept coming to my mind as I stood near the finish were the millions of people battling things much more difficult, every waking moment of their lives. Cancer, famine, depression, corruption, abuse, there are too many to list. The pain and suffering of not being able to walk for another couple days pales in comparison. Running an ultra-marathon has afforded me a level gratitude I don’t believe I would have ever been able to experience without putting one foot in front of the other for well over 9 hours, and for that, I couldn’t be happier about making the decision to do so.
A few quotes I applied to running:
“Your body will argue there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic.” -Tim Noakes
“It’s very hard in the beginning to understand that the whole idea is not to beat the other runners. Eventually you learn that the competition is against the little voice inside you that wants you to quit.” -George A. Sheehan
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Teddy Roosevelt
On a lighter note: “Any idiot can run a marathon, it takes a special kind of idiot to run and ultramarathon” – Alan Cabelly