On February 1, 2014, I ran my first ultra-marathon. What is an ultra-marathon you ask? An ultra-marathon (or just “an ultra,” if you are part of the cult), is for the people who find a normal marathon of 26.2 miles (42.2k) too easy or mundane. Ultra marathon distances start at 50k, or 31 miles and can be as long as…. well, who knows.
One of the longest and most difficult races is called Bad Water. This ultra-marathon is 135 miles over two mountain summits, across Death Valley, and part way up Mount Whitney in California. The race is held in July (when it is 100 degrees out), has over 19,000 feet of climbing, and 14,000 feet of decent. It isn’t for the faint of heart. They say you need to run on the painted white line of the road, or the asphalt will melt your shoes. A lot of ultras are on trail, usually single track trail, and are grueling tests of endurance.
I wasn’t that ambitious. I started out with a 50k. It was the Jed Smith Ultra Marathon. The course was a 4.8 mile loop that was 70/30 asphalt/trail. The nice thing was that it wasn’t all that far from my house. I was actually able to run the loop during training. I was doing this race because I was asked to join an ultra-marathon running team, Pamakids, but I only had about 8 weeks notice before this race.
The biggest problem was that I was prepared to run long distance. My goals in 2013 included getting personal records (PR) for my half marathon and 10k. I had no intention of running anything over 13.1 miles. As I wrote about in my training for an ultra post, I had to ramp my mileage up quick. My longest runs after my last half marathon in mid October were as follows:
- 8 miles – November 1
- 9 miles – December 14
- 15.5 miles – December 20
- 21.1 miles – January 3
- 26.2 miles – January 15
Needless to say, I ramped up my mileage fast (I don’t recommend it). I have ran marathons before (but it had been 14 months before this race), and I paced a friend the last 6 miles of her race after I ran 24 miles, so I have put in close to 30 miles before. I knew I could cover the distance, I was just hoping to finish in a decent time. I figured with my run/walk method, trying to cover 2k every 12 minutes would result in a sub 5 hour finish. This would also be my first long run without the Dashing Dog.
The week before the race, I had some minor nagging injuries. My ankle, which I rolled in mid-November during a trail run, and my left groin muscle. Neither really bother me much during running, but walking around after runs is when they start to hurt. My guess is that running through the ankle pain caused my gait to change, straining my groin muscle. I was a little worried about that.
The morning of the race, I got to the race start super early. I was supposed to meet the rest of the Pamakids, but I only knew two people who were going to be there, and they are perpetually late. I also wanted to cheer on the folks running the 50 miler, who started an hour before us. I got my bib, shirt, and pint glass. It was super cold out, especially by the start line, which was right next to the (unbelievably low) American River.
About this time, I started seeing folks with Pamakids gear and introduced myself. I recognized some of the folks from pictures that Endorphin Dude posted on Facebook. About this time, the 50 miler folks lined up at the starting line. The first person out of the gate was a 49 year old woman, who ended up winning the 50 mile race, finishing in 6:15, or 7:30 min/miles. She ran a Boston qualifying time for 50 miles. And that was a BQ pace for a male. She passed me on my second lap (her fourth) like I was standing still.
As I was talking with the group, I got my official Pamakids shirt, which matched my yellow shorts, and yellow RoadID band, as well as my neon yellow running jacket. One of the guys said that he would chip in to buy me yellow shoes, cap, and glasses so I could completely match. The sun came out and things got warmer. I started stripping off layers before the start. The only warm weather gear I ended up wearing was my gloves, and those came off by mile 4.
Anyway, the Pamakids crowd set up a mini aid station at the start/finish area. Basically a staging area to keep all of our stuff. I got so caught up talking with the new group that I forgot to stretch my IT band and ankles. I did have time to hit the port-o-potties.
Now, if you have done the math, you would have realized that 4.8 miles does not go into 31 miles evenly (7.8km into 50km). We had to do six loops, which left 2.2 miles (3.2km) left to cover. When we started, we actually went backwards for 1.1 miles on gravel roads, then turned around and ran back to the start line. We actually didn’t have to cross a timing mat at the start line. With only 100 or so runners, with 31 miles to spread out, placing wasn’t going to come down to seconds.
Okay, so I ran the race by kilometers, not miles, so I am going to talk about the race in kilometers, because I don’t want to convert everything to miles.
My plan of running 2 km than walking about 2 minutes wasn’t going to work for this race. There were three aid stations space at 2km, 2.7km, and 3.2km (the last one was the start/finish area), and I figured I would try to run to each aid station and take walk breaks as I refueled. These breaks would last between one to three minutes depending on the distance and how I felt. As long as I finished the first loop in less than an hour, and the other loops in less than 48 minutes, I would be good.
The strategy worked pretty well, and I finished my first loop (11k with the out and back) in under an hour. The second loop went pretty well too, though I spent a bit too much time at the main aid station. I had some pressing matters to attend to. After a stop at the port-o-potty, that problem was solved. And I still finished the lap I less than 45 minutes.
I kept my pace up until the 5th loop. I was starting to hurt. I was also realizing that I wasn’t getting enough hydration. Up until this point I was not carrying anything other than some gels in my pocket. So I grabbed my water bottle and after my walk break after the aid station, I ran past the first aid station (which just had water anyway), over the little hill, and then down the next hill. I never waste a downhill. This got me about half way from the start to the second aid station, so I took a 3 minute break and then ran to that second aid station. At that second aid station, I asked the little girls if they could carry me the next mile. They wouldn’t. I took another 3 minute walk break as I enjoyed my cantaloupe wedge, then ran to the start/finish area.
Crossing the timing mat to start the sixth and final loop was a marathon distance. My Garmin said 42.6km (26.45 miles), which was about 1% farther than the mapped distance of the course. This is completely normal. I usually try to factor in 2% during races to hit my goal time. I am also a math dork, and factoring in these time percentages keeps my mind active.
Back to marathon distance, I hit that mark about 3 to 4 minutes faster than my best marathon time! I actually PR’ed my marathon during a 50k! I hope I can do that the next time I actually run a marathon.
So, now I am on my last loop. 7.9 km to go (with the extra 1%). My feet were hurting really bad by this point (by my next race, I am hoping to be using my Hokas), and my calves were starting to spasm. This isn’t all that uncommon for me. I just try to run through it. I actually found that they were worse after the stop and go after the main aid station, which had gels, Oreos, oranges, M&Ms, soda (Dr. Pepper!!!!), and other goodies. Anyway, I decide to do run five minutes and walk one. I figured, as long as I maintained my 6 min/km, I would finish before 4:39, which is sub 9 min/mile (5:36 per km). I ran a bit longer to get to that second aid station, took a 90 second walk break, and ran to the next hill. Now, these hills are just to climb up on top of the levee, but I figured this was a good place to walk. Also, the top of the hill was only 700 meters to the finish line. Just across the bridge, down the hill, and then 250 meters to the finish.
Knowing there was only seven football fields to go, I pushed it. I got across that bridge in about a minute. The hill was pretty steep, and I slowed down because I didn’t have the control going downhill that I usually do. Then I turned the corner, and I just had to get across that parking lot and I pushed myself to the end. I ran that last 450 meters (0.3 miles – my total distance was 50.45km), in 2:10.
I came in under the 9 min/mile pace, which was over 20 minutes faster than my goal. I also placed in the top third of all 50k runners. I was super excited about that. Of course, this race is touted as being the “fastest ultra in the west”, so that means I won’t be able to beat my time on any other course. But, on the flip side, there were about six other members of Pamakids that got PRs, and getting a PR is always awesome.
After my race, I hung out with the other Pamakids for about an hour, cheering other finishers as they crossed the finish line. The race also provided hot food, so I had a hot dog and some chicken soup, which was awesome. During this time, I was trying to figure out exactly what hurt. My feet were throbbing, my legs were sore, and even my hands had started to swell. My hands never swell during races, but the swelling went down immediately after I finished and got my arms up. I will need to remember to raise my arms up every so often to keep the swelling down. I also had some armpit chafing, but only my left armpit. And my left toe next to my big toe was killing me. I don’t think I am going to lose a toe nail, but I did get a blister on the tip of that toe. Once I removed my socks, I noticed about six ¼” blisters on my toes. All in all, not bad.
As I write this post, two days after finishing the race, my legs are still sore, as is that one toe. But the pain isn’t nearly as bad as it was after my first half marathon. Here are some things that I learned during my first ultra race.
1) I like fresh fruit while I am running. Oranges were okay, but cantaloupe was amazing. I had grapes once during a race, and those hit the spot. Pineapple is good too.
2) Don’t eat Oreos or other dry foods without having water handy.
3) I don’t drink soda anymore, though one of my exceptions (as I explain in my goals for 2014
post) was that I could have soda during or after any run more than 25 miles. The shots of Dr. Pepper were amazing during the race. I mean really, really good.
4) I like GU brand gel over Clif shots. The Clif shots gel was too thick, it was almost chewable. The flavor was okay, but it didn’t go down as easily as other gels do.
5) I like running in kilometers. When my Garmin shows 9.85 km, I know I only have 150 meters to reach 10k. But I have to do some complex math when it says 6.05 miles. (1/10 a mile is 528 feet, or 176 yards, so 0.15 miles would be 264 yards).
6) I like being part of a team. I usually don’t run with anybody, other than my dog. While I ran most of the race by myself, it was nice seeing other people in the same outfit, and having a cheering squad.
7) If you think you are too old to run ultras, think again. The winners of the 50k and the 50 miler were 49 years old, and both ran unbelievably fast. Most of faster folks are in their 40s. One guy on our team was in his 70s, and still finished the 50k in under 6 hours.
8) I want to thank all my Facebook fans. I got so many words of support and congratulations, it was super awesome. As I posted that I was hurting on my last lap, I saw the large number of likes and comments on my previous posts and that really gave me a boost to push through the pain on that last lap. Again, thank you all.
9) There are no medals for most ultra races, I am not sure how I feel about this.