Ever since running my first two ultramarathons, the Ice Age Trail 50-kilometer in May ’07 and the Kettle-Moraine 38-mile all-night “fun” run three weeks later, I have been dreaming about moving up into the real “ultra” distances. Even though the technical definition of an “ultramarathon” is any foot race over the traditional 26.2 miles of a traditional marathon; there are some ultra-purists out there who do not consider a “real” ultramarathon to be anything less than 50 miles. They look at the 50-kilometer race as only a stretched-out regular marathon.
Well, I don’t know what they are talking about, anything over 30 miles is still an ultramarathon to me!
Immediately after those two spring races, I wasn’t so sure that I would be ready to race again very soon, at least not until 2008. I was tired and sore; I needed a break. However, after several weeks of well-deserved rest, I started running again. I was surprised by how fresh and strong I felt.
So I decided to see if I could attempt another, perhaps a longer, ultramarathon this fall. 50 miles would only be 12 miles longer than my previously longest run of 38 miles. Although those 38 miles were very challenging, I thought to myself: “Really, how much tougher could 50 miles be?”
I chose the Glacial Trail 50-mile Ultramarathon as my goal. It is run every mid-October in the northern unit of the Kettle-Moraine State Forest in Greenbush, Wisconsin. Although the Glacial Trail 50 is run on the rocky and tree root strewn Ice Age hiking trail, it is only about thirty miles from our home so I thought that it would be a good choice for my first 50-miler. Possibly, it might even give me a “hometown” advantage.
I definitely wanted every advantage I could get!
I gradually increased the distance of my once a week long training runs up to the 25 to 30+ mile range, in addition to the more reasonable shorter distance runs that I did during the week. Once, I ran the Glacial Trail 50-kilometer (~31 miles) ultramarathon race course as a “training” run. On another occasion, I ran from our home in Chilton to Manitowoc which was about 26 miles away. Jeanne and Nathan met me for dinner, where else but at a local Italian restaurant, before driving me home. They have both been so supportive of me, I know there is no way that I could have pursued my passion without their support. I am very grateful for that.
What is most amazing to me is how the human body can adapt with training. Only four years ago when I rediscovered my long-forgotten love of running, I couldn’t even run ½ mile before I had to stop completely out-of-breath. I was gasping for air like a fish out of water. But with time and perseverance, I slowly built up my fitness and training mileage. I eventually lost 30 pounds. Even as recently as this past spring, before I ran my first two ultras, I wasn’t so sure that it would be physically possible for me to run over 30 miles. Now, only a few months later, here I was running such long distance runs almost every week in training and without a second thought!
An acquaintance of mine, who has done a triathlon or two in the past, but who is now essentially a non-runner, asked me: “Why don’t you just do a regular marathon?”
I replied: “Why would I do that? I run the marathon distance or more almost every weekend in the beauty and solitude of the forest. Why in the heck would I instead go to some noisy faraway city to run among thousands of strangers whom I do not know? To me, that wouldn’t make any sense.”
I began doing “double” days at least once a week to increase my weekly mileage but still avoid injury and also be able to have a semi-normal life. I would run 5 – 10 miles in the morning before work and then another 5 – 10 miles again in the evening. On the weekends, I did a few back-to-back long runs, that is I would run 25+ miles on Saturday and then another 10+ mile run on Sunday. The first few times I did this, I was very sore and tired. However, soon even the double-days and back-to-back weekend long days became routine and no big deal.
Because us slow ultramarathon runners have a very bad habit of losing our leg-turnover speed after all of our hours and hours of extremely long distance training, I also added some intense “speed” training once a week to my training program. For me, that turned out to be running ten 1 mile intervals back to back with ½ mile jogging rest breaks in between, plus a couple of extra miles before and after for warm up and cool down. Of course that turned out to be a total of 18 miles as my “speed” training, which is often close to the longest distance training run ever done by runners more sane than I am.
I love getting out on the hiking trails to do my long runs every weekend, as it is beautiful and relaxing to be out in the woods. (See my previous“catching a wild turkey by hand” post). I rationalize all of those hours spent running on the hiking trails as such: if I had instead hiked those 25 or 30 miles, that would have taken me much longer; running them actually turns out to be an efficient time-saver for me. I get the benefits of seeing as much country and scenery as I would in an all-weekend backpacking trip, but in only one afternoon.
Hey, that rationalization makes complete sense to me, even if it is crazy-logic!
However, I do admit that by the end of my months of training, I began looking forward to getting that dang ultra out of the way and being done with all training for a while. Though I love running, I certainly am not addicted to it. Some other runners that I know, however, are truly “running-addicts.” They even get withdrawal symptoms if they stop running for more than a day or two. Well, that is definitely not me. When it comes to physical activity, I can be as lazy as anyone else. It is as hard to drag myself out of bed at 4 AM for a run as for anyone. I never have a problem with, indeed I even look forward to, occasionally taking few days off to rest and recuperate, if needed. By the end of my training, those hours and hours of running were really beginning to become a daily chore, almost a second job for me. I really looked forward to getting the race over and even more to the off-season that would follow.
The Glacial Trail 50-mile Ultramarathon was scheduled to be on Sunday October 14th. After my taper (a few weeks of less training to rest and prepare before a big race), I felt I was ready. I was in the best physical shape of my life; I knew I was as prepared as I could ever be. As the day approached, however, I admit that I did become a bit apprehensive at the thought of attempting such an endeavor. I was both excited and frightened by the prospect of such a long distance; I tried my best to put it out of my mind.
My strategy for running fifty miles was simple and would be no different than running any other race- just keep putting one foot in front of the other until done.
Unfortunately, the morning before the race, I awoke with a runny nose, cough and sore throat. I hoped that they were just allergies but the symptoms got worse instead of better. I was really , really, bummed. Would all of my weeks and weeks of hard training go to waste just because I got a stupid cold?
Well, despite feeling bad, I wasn’t about to stay at home feeling sorry for myself. I decided to get out there and do my best. That is all anyone could do.
The day was cool and misty, a perfect day for running. Though parts of the trails were wet and slick, I never mind running in the rain, it certainly is better than in the heat. After the race began, I hung in the back of the pack just to see how I would feel. However, very early I knew that something was drastically wrong. My heart rate at only 5 miles was up into the 180s. I usually keep my heart rate in the 130s during my ultra-long distance runs. I knew that there would be no way for me to go the entire 50 miles. It was just not going to be my day. For “plan B” I decided to simply try to go as far as I could.
The other runners were extremely supportive. Several of them slowed their pace to run alongside for a while and provide encouragement as I struggled along. One of the best things about ultramarathon runners, unlike many of the other more competitive shorter races, is that we “run with” instead of “run against” each other. We all sincerely want the other runners to succeed and do our best to help them. We never know when the situation might be reversed and it might be us who is struggling. Some of the more experienced runners told me about some of their bad race experiences and “DNFs” but yet how they came back to do well the following year. A “DNF” is runner lingo for the dreaded “Did Not Finish.” Sometimes, not entirely-tongue-in-cheek, we also joke about how a “DNF” could sometimes stand for: “Did Nothing Fatal.”
The other runners also tried to console me by reminding me of a shared philosophy among ultramarathoners: you really can’t be considered a true ultrarunner until you have had at least one or more “DNFs” under your belt. I replied that I was well-familiar with that but I also told them that it didn’t make me any happier knowing that today was going to be my day!
A couple of guys came from behind and told us how they had just run a traditional 26.2 mile marathon in northern Wisconsin only the day before. I really felt like a wimp to be slowed down by a measly stupid cold. We chatted for a bit until they moved on and disappeared effortlessly over the next hill. Stupid cold!
I pressed on. Soon, my lungs were burning and my heart was pounding. Eventually, I slowed to a walk for 15 minutes to see if a slower pace would help but my pulse remained in the 160s. Although it might still be possible for me to walk the entire 50 miles, it would have taken me deep into the night and perhaps through to early the next morning. I thought to myself, “Now what would be the point of that?” So I made it as far as I could before dropping. It felt strange to voluntarily stop at the 25 mile half-way turnaround with so much strength left in my legs. However, without lung capacity, I knew that my legs could not take me anywhere.
Though 25 miles is nothing to be ashamed of, especially when running with an upper respiratory infection, still I was extremely disappointed. I had worked so hard to prepare for this race only to fall so short of my goal. 25 miles might be considered a long way to run by most folks’ standards, but for me it was not much more than a training run, and a pretty modest one at that.
From my previous ultramarathons, I learned how ultramarathoning is not so much about your actual time or place in the field but rather about self-discipline, “sticking-with-it-no-matter-how-bad-it-gets” and the overall “experience.” Undoubtedly, from this race I have additionally realized that sometimes not finishing is also part of that “experience.” There is much that can go wrong when you push your body to its limit; it is a wonder that anyone does these at all. If ultramarathons were easy, then everyone would be doing them instead of just us few crazy ultra-nuts out there on the fringe.