Altitude and dehydration KICKED MY BUTT!
Last weekend I attempted to run the Greenland Trail 50-k in Colorado. It was only to be a "training" run in preparation for the upcoming Wyoming Double Marathon on Memorial Day weekend.
After living in the Black Hills for six weeks, I thought that I had acquired at least some acclimation to altitude. However, as I painfully discovered, my physiology still thinks it is in Wisconsin at 900 ft instead of the Black Hills at 3,500 ft.
I would have posted this race report sooner but last week I was under a deadline to peer review some articles and write up an editorial. I was invited to be a guest editor for a supplement on diabetes, cardiovascular disease risk and dyslipidemia that will be published next month in a medical journal. It will be sent to family physicians across the US for continuing medical education. After dealing with curt editors myself as a writer in the past, it is a very odd feeling to now be on the other side of the fence.
Anyway, back to the Greenland 50-k…
Saturday April 19th was a beautiful clear blue day. The type of day that we often get in the arid West and which I missed during my years living in Wisconsin. Words cannot describe the blue of these skies.
Snow-covered Pikes Peak was visible on the horizon. It is 14,110 feet (4,301 m) high. Since 1966, there has been an unbelievable footrace up and down the mountain every year: the Pikes Peak Marathon.
I gazed upon this mountain many times through out the day and wondered what kind of runner would choose to tackle such a mountain.
"One who is crazier and in better physical shape than I am!" I thought.
I was amazed by the turn out. Most ultra-races have 200 or fewer participants. There were 500 runners registered; of course most of them were running the 8-m and 25-k races and not the 50-k.
Still, for a dedicated ultramarathoner, it was wonderful to see so many trail runners in one place.
Maybe I am not as much of a crazy odd-ball on the fringe as so many of my non-running friends and acquaintances consider me to be?
Even if I am what most folks would consider a bit eccentric, at least I know that I am not alone.
I was glad to be running with Haliku, my very best friend… really he is a brother to me. After running traditional marathons and road races, I convinced him to try a trail ultra with me.
Haliku's little brother, Tim, who is also an accomplished runner, came along but had to stay on the sidelines instead of running because of an injury.
I was very grateful to have both of them along, even more so as I faced hardships later in the afternoon.
As we gathered at the starting line, Haliku observed that we were not wearing chips for our time.
"Road runner!" I grinned.
A majority of us ultrarunners are not concerned with our times; I have only worn a chip once during any of my prior races. Because every race is unique, it is difficult to compare performances by pace/time, unless you repeat a race in future years. What counts to us is how far we go and how our experience went.
"A difference of a few seconds or even a minute or two, really doesn't matter in an ultra," I observed.
I had no idea how ironic and prophetic that comment would be until the afternoon.
Then….. at 8AM…. the race started.
We were off!
I kept repeating to myself, "Go slow…go slow."
The 8-milers and 25-k'ers took off fast, as did some of the 50-k'ers who were racing.
"This is only a training run," I reminded myself, "it doesn't matter what your time is or even if you finish." It was very difficult to not get caught up in the crowd and instead hang back and let others pass me.
The Greenland Trail 50-k is run within the 3,000 acres of the Greenland Open Space. Part of the Colorado Front Range Trail, the Greenland Trail passes through native prairie grasslands, by ponds with croaking frogs, over rolling hills with Gamble oak and ponderosa pines. There are majestic views of Pikes Peak and the surrounding buttes in all directions.
From the starting line, the race travels south on the Old Territorial Road. At the first intersection, runners continue to head south towards Palmer Lake.
After 3.5 miles, the runners turn left, run up and over the saddle, which is the high point of the course at 7,400 feet, at five miles. The next three miles are all downhill.
At seven miles, there is a right on the Greenland Trail. The 50-k course follows the Greenland Trail back to the Old Territorial Road where it goes left and follows the above route again four times. There are two aid stations: at mile 3.5 and 7.5 of each loop.
After the fourth and final loop, the runners head to the finish back at the trailhead where the race started that morning.
The day started out bright but cool- a great day to run.
It was challenging to not get caught up with the other runners; I knew that I must run my own race and take planned walk breaks in the beginning of the race. From past experience, I learned that taking walk breaks early would be rewarded later in the day.
The first part of the race, Haliku and I ran together. Later, we parted ways. Haliku was having a great day and felt strong. This would be great training for the high altitude climbing expedition he and Tim have planned in Bolivia next month.
However, from my higher than usual heart rate, I knew the altitude was already having some effect. I understood that I must pace myself.
As we headed north towards the second aid station, the wind began to pick up. By the end of the day, it would be 30+ mph. The temperature increased to the mid 70s, higher than what I was used to. The wind was so dry, I could not feel myself sweat. Salt built up on my face and hat. I was losing moisture whether I was aware of it or not. Between the wind, the warm temperatures, the upward climb and the thin air- it made for slow going.
The aid stations were supplied with Hammer HEED sports drink and water. They also had potato chips, M&M's and orange slices. I always appreciate the volunteers at such events who spend all day in the hot sun and wind to offer sustenance and encouragement to the runners.
In hindsight, I wished that they had some more solid food, like bananas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, as many races do.
Lesson learned… next time I will make sure to find out exactly what will be offered and bring my own, if necessary.
Haliku was doing awesome, so we parted ways. I encouraged him to run on and have a great race. I didn't want him to be slowed down by me, the non-altitude-acclimated slow turtle. I kept moving on as my heart rate and respiratory rate allowed.
After we separated, a felt some waves of nausea. Odd, my stomach never bothered me on runs before. I ate a few pieces of crystallized ginger which seemed to help. I also took an extra electrolyte cap. Many swear by the antiemetic properties of ginger.
I don't know how true that is, but the spicy-sweetness of the ginger tasted good and I did feel better.
As I came over the high point, I spotted Tim. Not able to run today, he walked the course and offered encouragement to us and the other runners.
I took a walk break and we walked together for a bit.
I commented to him how high my heart rate was. Even with slow running… it would jump to the 170s, much too high for me to be able to complete the race. With walking, it refused to drop below 140… which is normally the high end of what I allow myself when running.
I was worried by the nausea. It was not severe enough yet to make me want to drop. However, I knew that needed to take in more fluids if I was to keep going.
What if the nausea got worse?
Tim advised me to try letting some snow melt in my mouth. That was great advice. After a few hundred yards, I was feeling somewhat better.
Nevertheless, my much higher than normal heart rate was concerning. Tim wisely observed that perhaps it would be smarter to drop at the next aid station. He was absolutely right; today was only a training run, it made no sense to punish myself and push beyond what my body was ready to do. What would the point of that be?
Nevertheless, I told him that unless I felt much worse, I would keep going. I could even walk the last ten miles if I had to.
Ultrarunners may be slow but we are not quitters.
We started heading down the hill, now the wind was at our backs. I started feeling better so I said goodbye and started running slowly again.
By the time I was at the aid station located nearest the finish line, I felt a great deal better. I was even craving a turkey sandwich with swiss cheese on white bread. Unfortunately all that was at the aid station was sports drink and potato chips.
After eating a few handfuls of chips, a mouthful of some energy gel and refilling my bottle, I decided to attempt the final loop.
I changed over from HEED to plain water because I was concerned about my state of hydration.
One of the greatest challenges of participating in extreme endurance sports is maintaining adequate hydration.
Too little fluids, and you become dehyrated. Symptoms might be thirst, lightheadedness and a desire to stop.
Too much fluid can be even more dangerous than dehyration. Those who go for many hours taking in only sports drink and who consume more than they need are at risk to develop dilutional hyponatremia. Blood levels of sodium drop to dangerous levels. Mild cases may have symptoms such as swelling, lethargy, headache and nausea. In worst case scenario, sodium levels drop low enough to cause mental status changes, seizure and even death. Most of the few case of death related to ultrarunning are due to hyponatremia.
When you are feeling bad, it can be difficult to decide whether your problem is dehydration and too little fluid versus too much fluid and too low sodium. Measuring your weight is one method. A significant decrease in weight suggests dehydration; a paradoxical increase in weight suggests overhydration and too much fluid. Many of the longer distance ultras (100-milers) require runners to weigh in at aid stations. If a runner has had too much of a weight change, they may be pulled from the race for safety reasons.
Another way to assess your state of hydration is how you feel.
Are you thirsty? If so, you are probably already significantly dehydrated.
Do have a craving for salty foods? Your sodium may be too low.
But when ultrarunning, symptoms are unreliable. By the end of most races, all you know is that you feel bad. It is impossible to sort out what might be the cause. Sometimes you don't feel thirsty at all despite being severly dehydrated. Nausea can be a sign of hyponatremia but also dehydration.
Finally, you can assess how you are doing in regards to hydration by the nature and frequency of your urine. Clear light-yellow urine every hour or two is normal. No urination or a trickle of dark urine suggests dehydration. Urine crystal-clear like water every 15 or 20 minutes suggests overhydration, perhaps with low sodium.
Contrary to the advertising in the popular running magazines, there is no sports drink which has adequate sodium for ultra-endurance events. If enough sodium were put into a drink, it would be completely unpalatable. Thus, to ensure that serum sodium levels do not drop too low, ultrarunners eat salty foods such as boiled potatoes rolled in table salt, potato chips and pretzels. Many of us also take in extra sodium as electrolyte capsules.
It is estimated that the average daily excess sodium intake in the US is about 8 grams. If you have an average loss of sodium of 1 to 3 gm per hour through perspiration, that means you have enough sodium to last about 4 hours. However, there is great variation between individuals depending on weather conditions, heat acclimation, sodium and fluid intake, physical fitness, and probably genetics.
Myself, I use SUCCEED! S!Caps about 1 or 2 per hour, depending on conditions and how I feel. They contain 341 mg sodium per cap.
If you are a running-physiology nerd like I am, I highly recommend reading Tim Noake's book: The Lore of Running.
I was already short of breath from the altitude and the incessant wind. I tipped the front of my hat forward to block the wind so I could breathe.
All of a sudden, I felt extremely ill. Much much worse than I had ever felt before in any race. I had a throbbing headache. The nausea returned suddenly with a vengeance. I took a few more pieces of crystallized ginger to no avail. They got stuck in my throat. I tried to drink some more water but almost gagged. I started walking; I could not run without feeling like I was going to throw up.
I tried to pee and only produced only a dark amber trickle. "If I can't start drinking soon… I am totally screwed!" I thought.
I arrived at the last aid station, with only five more miles to go until the finish line. I was no longer at the back of the pack- the pack had disappeared over the horizon and was long gone.
By this time, Haliku had already finished with a great time of 6:11:10.
The volunteers at the aid station offered words of encouragement: "There is still time for you to make it before the cut-off of 8 hours, if you push it." I cautiously drank some water and refilled my bottle.
"Run strong! You can do it!" they urged me as I slogged (slow-jogged) onward.
However, within only a few hundred yards, I was reduced again to walking as I headed up that 7,400 ft hill for the last time.
I was dizzy and at one point I thought I was going to pass out. The urge to quit was overwhelming. I looked down at the aid station I had just passed; it was down the hill only 3/4 mile away. I seriously contemplated walking back down and DNF'ing.
However, going backward is against everything we believe in as ultrarunners. "Every foot forward is one foot closer to the finish line," is the mantra of ultrarunning. If that aid station was in front of me instead of behind me, at that moment, I am sure I would have dropped.
But it was not in front of me, it was behind me. Bad as I felt, I just could not convince myself to go back down the hill I had just fought so hard to climb.
A little further up, I found a cool shady spot underneath a tree. Next to it was a gravestone surrounded by a metal wrought iron enclosure to keep the livestock away. Normally out of curiosity, I would look more closely at the grave and read the epitaph. Today, I did not. I was in survival mode.
I sat down, leaned against the cool metal bars and tried to sip some water. I contemplated what I should do next.
I was frustrated. When I was not moving, I felt absolutely fine. When I walked, I was a little queasy. But when I ran, I felt like throwing up.
"I guess this is what they mean by 'bonking," I thought. The headache, nausea and dizziness literally felt as if someone had "bonked" me on the head.
I found out later that I was not alone. Haliku told me that he saw several people vomiting and never saw them again.
I looked off into the distance at Pikes Peak. The sky was clear and the views were outstanding. I heard chickadees and magpies calling. This really was a beautiful day; I should feel fortunate to be here experiencing it.
Now if only I didn't feel so bad!
"How ironic would it be if I died right now and they found me lying next to this grave?" I thought, "At least it would be quick and I wouldn't feel so sick anymore."
But then I thought about how much I love my family and friends. I quickly realized how upset they would be if died right there under that tree. I immediately forced such morbid and non-productive thoughts out of my head.
"No one ever died from nausea and no one ever finished a race by sitting under a tree!" I chided myself, "Stop feeling so sorry for yourself!"
So after a few minutes I got up and started walking again. I found some snow and put a big ball of it under my hat.
That felt good!
I was able to moisten my mouth with another ball of melting snow I held in my hand.
"Dig deep….just keep putting one foot in front of the other… dig deep," I repeated this phrase to myself over and over.
Another runner who was out on a training run and not in the race came up behind me.
He stopped and walked beside me. I must have looked like crap, I certainly felt like it.
He asked how was I doing and kindly offered me some sports drink. I thanked him but declined. I carried enough fluid with me, my problem was that my stomach was simply refusing to cooperate.
After a few moments, he wished me well and ran on, promising to give word on my progress to Haliku and others at the finish line.
As the finish line approached, the altitude decreased, my nausea went away and I felt better.
Maybe I could even try running a little?
I looked at my GPS watch, the elapsed time was about 7:30- only a half hour until final cut off. Even if I completed the entire 31 miles, if I took more than 8 hours, I would receive a DNF (Did Not Finish) for my efforts.
I did some quick calculating in my mind. I was only about 3 miles from the finish. If I could run a 10 minute mile or less, I might just make it before the cut-off.
Now usually running a 9 or 10 minute mile, especially downhill, would be no big deal for me. However, after running 28 miles, the last ten of which I spent trying not to vomit, I assure you that it seemed completely impossible.
However, between running downhill and with a tailwind, maybe, just maybe, I could do it? I decided to go for it.
"Dig deep and just do it! Only three more miles of pain! You can do it!"
I picked up my pace and I swung my arms quickly to match the increased turnover of my legs. My lungs burned; my legs ached.
About half-way down the hill to the finish line I felt an unusual sensation. Suddenly, the tissue under my right heel moved and slipped. Uncomfortable but not exactly painful, I knew I would feel it as a blister the next day.
Then just as suddenly and only a few paces later, exactly same thing happened under my left heel.
I do not get blisters very often and when I do, I don't get them on my heels. Usually there is a hot spot warns me first. They say that dehydration can change skin turgor (flexibility and stretchability) predisposing to blister formation. Maybe that was what happened, I don't know.
In any case, I had more important things on my mind. I ignored my heels. I focused on the task at hand.
The runner who had met me up on the hill had informed everyone that I was at least 15 or 20 minutes out. Based on how I looked and what my pace was when he saw me, he was correct. No one expected me to finish by the cut-off. But no one, including myself, imagined that I would sprint in those last 3 miles.
Haliku came out a few hundred yards to meet me. I was spent, out of breath and ready to give up but Haliku ran along and shouted at me to keep going.
"You can make it! …. Just one more hill!….. This is your last hill!"
I came around the bend to see the finish line and time clock. The large orange block numbers on the time clock clicked:
7:59:21…..22…..23….. I pushed with all I had to get over the finish line.
How good it felt to stop and for the race to be over!
I did it! I had finished before cut off with only 35 seconds left on the clock! Haliku gave me a big hug.
One of the race directors said, "I don't believe it!" as she gave me my finisher's medal. I took it and smiled. At that moment, all I wanted to do was sit down and catch my breath.
Now that a week has passed, I have had some time to reflect back on my experience. My time was 7:59:25. There was one other runner behind me by a few minutes.
That morning, I observed, "in ultras seconds don't matter." Well, it turned out that seconds really do matter after all.
This was my slowest 50-k ever. Even so, it is my proudest performance to date. It was the most difficult race I have ever completed, even including my 50-mile races. It took everything I had to keep going. It would have been much easier and smarter to have dropped.
And yet… somehow I overcame what my mind and every ounce of body was telling me. I kept going. That is what ultrarunning is all about, simply putting one foot in front of the other. I am proud that I stuck with it and that I did not quit. This finish means more to me than if instead I had run a good race and finished two hours earlier.
Many road runners obsessed with times and personal bests would have been embarrassed by finishing in second to last place. Not me. Ultrarunning is all about the experience. It is about not giving in or giving up, no matter how tough, how hopeless it gets. Ultrarunners always try to see our water bottles as half-full instead of half-empty.
"To finish is to win," they say. I wholeheartedly believe that.
On a positive note, when they do eventually publish the race results in Ultrarunning Magazine, it will be very easy to find my name. It will be at the end of the list right at the bottom of the page. But at least my name will be there!
In the days following the race, the parts of my body that hurt the most were the two blisters on my heels and the sunburn on the back of my calves. My legs felt good, but that should not be a surprise. It was my stomach that let me down- not my legs.
I ran 12 miles yesterday and 10 miles today. I feel great and will be ready to tackle another race in a few weeks. They say that every ultra is training for other ultras. I have learned much from this experience. It certainly gave me a great training stimulus. My only hesitation is realizing that the Wyoming Double Marathon is at 8,000 to 8,700 feet, which is 1,300 ft higher than the Greenland 50k.
Will I have enough time to acclimate to altitude? I do not know. Fortunately, I still have a few weeks to run and consider my options.
On the other hand, what is the worst that could happen? A DNF? I've done that before, it is no big deal. I do not want to DNF but I am not afraid of one either. I came as close to DNF'ing this race as one possibly could but I persevered nonetheless.
This race has strongly reiterated the following to me: "Never EVER give up, no matter how tough it gets or how impossible it seems." That bit of advice has served me well in running but also in life. Only by pushing oneself to the edge of one's limits can one discover the true boundaries of one's ability. Often, maybe even most of the time, we are capable of accomplishing a whole lot more than we realize.
Until next time… I wish you all the very best.
I really need to start carrying a small digital camera with me when I run. No one is going to believe this story and I am sure that I will never get a chance to repeat it.
Last Saturday I went for a 12 mile run on the trails of the northern Kettle-Moraine State Forest near our home. It was beautiful sunny day and I enjoyed the sights and aroma of the lush green woods. There were numerous Red Admiral butterflies that flew up as I jogged through the meadows. We are having a ten year population explosion and there are hundreds more than usual this year. As long I kept my pace up, the cloud of mosquitoes following me never caught up. Yet another reason to run through the woods instead of walk/hike.
As I ran through one small opening in the forest, I spied a brown clump of feathers in the tall grass next to the trail. Then I saw it drop down and attempt to hide from me! I saw a bumpy featherless back of a neck but her eyes and head were hidden underneath a large burdock leaf.
It was a turkey!
She must’ve thought that because she couldn’t see me, I must not be able to see her!
Not taking even a split second to think about what I was doing, I jumped and grabbed her before she could get away. She struggled, made a fuss and was definitely NOT happy about this. A few other turkeys jumped up out of the grass and weeds and flew away. After several moments, she calmed down and was as quiet as a barnyard hen. I could have brought her home if I had wanted to though I am sure there are laws against that.
So after a few moments of gently stroking her feathers and telling her what a silly bird she was, I let her go so she could join the others. Hopefully, she has learned a valuable lesson and will be more cautious when avoiding predators in the future.
So what kind of nut runs through the woods and catches a wild turkey by hand?
Me, I do.
Like I said, I am sure that no one will believe this story. I promise that in the future I will draw the line and not try to catch skunks by hand.
I DID it! I DID it! I DID it! I successfully ran the all night 38 mile trail ultramarathon "fun run" on Saturday!
Even though the name seems to be something only a very sadistic ultra-running race director could dream up, it really was “fun!” It also was truly an amazing and remarkable experience.
Although I had run many of these hiking trails before during my 50-k (31 miles) ultra three weeks ago and during my training runs, everything changes when running through the dark forest on hiking trails lit only by a head lamp. I have run on trails in the woods at night many times before, but only for an hour or two and never have gone for so long or for so far.
When I first arrived at the race, I was not sure where we were supposed to check in. There was another 38-mile runner who happened to be there and who also was not sure, so we asked around. When we found out where registration was and both checked in at the same time, the organizer assumed we were both running together. We said no, that we had just met and it was coincidental that we arrived and signed in at the same time. Then later, we talked while waiting for the run to begin.
Several other runners came up to speak with us and also assumed we already knew each other and intended on running together. However, even though we didn’t plan on it, Steve and I ended up running the entire run together anyway, because it so happened that our pace was practically identical. It seems that everyone’s assumptions that we would run together were correct.
The 38 mile “fun run” is run during the latter half of the annual Kettle-Moraine 100 mile race. The organizers have set the 38 mile run up as a non-competitive run for those of us interested in experience running the trails at night with the support of aid stations, the opportunity to be around the 100 milers without all the pain and also to keep the trails more active at night while the 100 milers are out there shuffling along.
We started just before sun-down at 8 PM. The first dozen miles passed relatively quickly as we all found our race pace and warmed up. One runner commented that being out there all night running through the forest makes him feel like a kid again and especially like a kid who is doing something dangerous or forbidden and without the permission of adults. I couldn’t agree more.
As darkness fell, we passed several ponds and marshy areas and enjoyed the noisy symphony the frogs put on for us. The bullfrogs sang out with their deep bass”BRUM!…BRUM!…BRUM!” while the green frogs shattered the air with their sharp”Clack!…Clack!…Clack!” Hundreds of other frogs, species unknown, filled out the rest of that evening chorus with a variety of squawks and croaks.
The early part of the night was dark, humid and foggy. It had just rained heavily the day before and the extreme humidity made it challenging. We were worried that we might have a thunderstorm that night but fortunately we did not. My glasses steamed up so that I had trouble seeing the switchbacks down one hiking trail and asked Steve to let me know if I missed any of them. We took turns leading. The leader is always the first to see or find the rocks or branches on the trail, often only after tripping on them. We ran along with several other 38 mile fun runners, and also some of the 100 milers. After a while, we left all of them when it felt comfortable for us to carry on at a faster pace.
It was only $20 to register for this run, much cheaper than most ultras which range from $50 to $120 or more. After we saw all of the food and experienced the enthusiastic support from the volunteers at the aid stations, we all agreed that such an entry fee was a bargain. The aid stations were 5 or 7 miles apart. After running through the dark it was a relief to hear the hum of the generators and to see the Christmas lights glowing as we arrived at each station. As we jogged in, we were met with cheers and hollers by the volunteers. Each of us was made to feel as if we were kings and queens. Three or four volunteers waited on each of us asking if there was anything they could do, filling our water bottles and offering us food. One gal found some anti-fog spray for my glasses which was a great help. My hat is off to those folks, they made the run both enjoyable and possible. They were the best and we told them so repeatedly.
The amount and choices of food were amazing. There were the usual ultrarunner foods such as boiled potatoes sprinkled with salt, pretzels, potato chips, bananas, oranges slices and chicken noodle soup, plus cookies, gummy bears, M&Ms and other sweets. There were some unusual offerings also including, green olives, bratwurst (at one aid station that was playing polka music- this is Wisconsin after all), burritos with bacon and eggs and pancakes with a breakfast sausage rolled in it. At one of the stations, festive music was playing and I jokingly asked if they had any margaritas for us. They actually did have some in back for all of the volunteers to enjoy but cautioned us that we probably wouldn’t go much further if we partook, so we abstained.
Myself, I was hesitant to try anything unusual so I stuck with energy gel, chicken noodle soup and bananas mostly. My criteria for foods to consume during an ultrarun are those that would not taste so bad if they ended up coming up further down the trail. I don’t think having a chunk of green olive stuck in the back of my nose for the last twenty miles would be very pleasant.
As we headed south for the last 4 mile leg before hitting the 19 mile turnaround at Rice Lake, we entered some steep and rocky terrain. I was glad that I had seen these trails at least once before during daylight and knew what to expect. A few of the other runners were triathletes and traditional road marathoners would had never run an ultra, never been to this area before, never run on hiking trails and never even run at night before. Though they had started out strong, they were now having a great deal of trouble. I felt sorry for them, even if they were a bit foolish for taking on something such as this with so little experience.
I also felt bad for many of the hundred mile runners. A few of them were limping along and the pain on their faces was obvious. As we passed them, we offered them words of encouragement as best we could. “Keep on going!” “Run strong!” “Looking good!” “You’re almost to the next aid station!” “It’s not far to the turnaround!” “You can do it!” However, we knew that as slow as some of them we going, they would never make the 30 hour cut-off to finish the race and would “DNF” (runner lingo for “Did not finish”). Though it would have been easier (and smarter) for them to simply drop out now than later, many of them chose instead to keep moving ahead anyway, even though they must’ve known they had little chance of finishing before the cut-off. It was inspiring and made us 38 mile fun runners feel guilty for how tired we felt ourselves.
At one point, the trail became extremely muddy, almost the texture of slippery greasy butter. We ended up pulling ourselves along the sides of the trail by grabbing onto saplings and bushes and pulling ourselves up each step. I am glad for all of the upper body training I did the past few months which came in very handy. On the way back, I saw quite a few folks bite it while going down this section but somehow I was lucky to avoid a bad fall myself, though I had several close calls.
The lightning bugs began flashing and made our adventure seem almost surreal. As we ran we could see the head lamps of the other runners ahead and behind us sparkling through the trees. However, now there were hundreds of additional lights flashing. The lightning bugs made it seem as if there were hundreds of other runners out there along with us even though we knew we were very much alone. It is strange what fatigue and lack of sleep can do to your mind when you are out there shuffling along in the middle of the night. I have heard stories of 100 milers having hallucinations in the early morning hours and now can understand how this could easily happen.
Around 2 AM, a slight wind began which lowered the humidity and cleared the fog and mist. We were grateful for the cooler temperatures, clearing skies and that we had not had any thunderstorms. The moon had risen and we could also see Venus and stars shining in the sky. The moonlight allowed us to see beyond the beams of our headlights in the open areas but the pine forests were still the darkest deepest black you could imagine. With the cooler temperatures, the frogs and crickets became completely silent. There was not a sound, which added to the surreal feeling.
Although I have not been afraid of the dark since I was a child, I admit that I was very glad that I was running along with someone else and not entirely alone. We had a conversation almost the entire run, discussing all kinds of things: our families, our work, our previous experiences running, and our interests outside running- almost anything you might imagine. From my experience with the 50-k three weeks ago and this 38 mile run, good conversation along the trail seems to be the rule rather than the exception. It helps make the hours and hours float on by and takes your mind off the deep fatigue and growing pain. It also make you feel a little less strange to know that you are not the only eccentric out there who loves this type of crazy stuff. The conversation is one of the aspects of ultrarunning that I enjoy. When you are out there, it doesn’t matter who you are or what you do during the day, but rather what kind of person you are. Believe me; you really learn about what kind of person you are when out there running on the trail all night.
The woods were eerily silent and even our conversation faded by 3 AM. However, even though dawn was a couple of hours off, our moods lifted as we heard the first bird of the morning singing all by himself off in the darkness. It was a wood thrush, one of my favorite birds to hear singing out in the woods. His song was even more uplifting for us than usual. It signaled that we weren’t alone and that sunrise was finally on its way. For those of you who do not have any idea what a wood thrush sounds like, you can hear his song here: http://www.learnbirdsongs.com/birdsong.php?id=32 As dawn arrived and we began our final 8 mile jog in to the finish line, dozens of other birds began to serenade us. They included cardinals, chickadees, mourning doves, robins, warblers, flycatchers and a multitude of others whose songs I did not recognize. It was beautiful!
To my surprise and amazement, even though we passed many runners throughout the night, no one passed us; even despite how slow it felt we were moving at the end. For the last mile and knowing the end was near, we made a decision to sprint in. Well maybe not exactly sprint, it was only a 10 minute mile or so, but after 37 miles it sure felt like a sprint to us! Steve and I passed the finish line exactly neck and neck even though we didn’t verbally communicate such a plan to each other beforehand. We traded emails and I am sure we will meet at other ultras in the future.
Before we started our run, I overheard one woman say that you can always tell a traditional road marathoner from a trail ultramarathoner by what they ask you after your race. The traditional road marathoner will ask you: “How was your time?” where a trail ultramarathoner will ask you: “How was your race?” When asked: “How was your time?” by a traditional road marathoner, the trail ultramarathoner will usually reply: “My time? Oh I had a GREAT time!” Having a great experience and simply making it to the finish is the point, it is not about going fast or finishing before others.
According to the preliminary results, we finished 10th out of 25 finishers and 32 starters. It was 5:45 AM and the next runner behind us did not come in for another 20 minutes. We had been on the trail for 9 hours 45 minutes and broke the ten hour goal we had agreed upon around midnight that night. Considering that I had run a 50-k race only three weeks before and was unsure whether I had fully recovered or not, I am extremely pleased with my results. Before I started, I wasn’t even sure I would be able to finish such a long run so soon after another.
My answer to the question: “How was my time?”…. Yes, I had a GREAT time!
I am somewhat sore today as expected but not all that bad. I admit that I have been walking around like a ninety year old man today but I am a ninety year old man with a smile on his face. Actually, I feel better than I did after the 50-k; I had a massage today which was very helpful. My next goal will be to run 50 miles. This won’t be until this fall or next spring or perhaps even further in the future but I would like to try for it some day. I am now going to take off a few weeks from running completely to let everything heal before I think seriously about any other races.
I am sure that all of you non-runners out there, and many of the runners too, think I am totally crazy. I hope I have given you some slight insight to why and how anyone would choose to do something as insane as this. I also sincerely hope that all of you are able to pursue your passions and interests to the fullest extent as I have.
Run strong! *
*or walk, bike, fly-fish, horseback ride, golf, mountain climb, dance, swim, go bowling, knit, sing, play musical instruments, pet your dogs, hug your kids, hug your spouse and/or do anything else that you love to do, strong too!
Yesterday I completed the Ice Age Trail 50-k Ultramarathon (about 31 miles) in the Southern Kettle-Moraine State Forest of southern Wisconsin. It was the first organized running event I have run in 20+ years. I did it in 6:47:24 which exceeded my goal of less than 7 hours. It was mostly on hiking trails and there were literally hundreds of hills with a total elevation gain/loss of about + 7,558 ft. Although I was far from being up front, I certainly wasn’t last either.
Although some hard core enthusiasts don’t consider a run to be a true “ultramarathon” until it is 50 miles or more, technically an ultramarathon is any event that exceeds the traditional 26 mile 385 yard marathon distance. Thus, I suppose that even though I ran a 50-k which is only “baby ultra” as ultramarathons go, I can nevertheless claim to be an “ultramarathoner.”
During yesterday’s run I learned, confirmed and observed several things:
1. 31 miles is LONG way.
2. Walk up all hills, even the small ones. I found that I could easily pass many who were jogging up the hill by powerwalking past them. Later in the race, when there was nothing powerful in anything that was doing, I was still able to pass people by walking the uphills. Even the hard core racers out front walk up hills and take frequent walk breaks. Ultrarunners are a pretty crazy bunch, but we’re not stupid (OK, I admit it, we are stupid to some extent).
3. Gaiters are a great invention; they keep small sticks and pebbles out of your shoes.
4. Fresh dog poop can be slippery to step on when rapidly coming down a hill.
5. The thought of the ice cold beer waiting at the end of the trail can be a great motivator. For instance, during the race, I thought to myself: “Gosh, that cold beer is going taste good. It’s not too long now- only 28 more miles to go!” “OK, I’d better keep moving, there are only 24 miles to cover…golly, I can’t wait for that beer!”
6. Unlike other events, I found ultramarathoners to be a congenial, tight-knit and extremely supportive group. As the front runners were passing us slow turtles on the way back from a 13.7 mile out and back loop, they offered us encouraging words: ”Looking good!” “It’s not far now!” “You’re doin’ great!” That is unlikely to happen in shorter faster races.
7. To pass the time, it is very nice to find another group of folks going at about the same pace as you. Ultrarunners are very conversant, social and with a good sense of humor, probably because we do so much of our training alone. Good conversation can help you forget about how tired you feel and how much further you have to go.
8. When you see another runner bent over at the side of the trail- steer clear- unless you want to be sprayed by stomach contents. Nope, that was not his water bottle he was emptying.
9. One older gentleman told me that his wife doesn’t mind that he ultra-runs “because she knows that it is the only time I can chase fast women and not catch them.” He’s completely right; sometimes we even got left in the dust as by these women as they lapped us.
10. When you are doing your second lap on the trail, the hills always seem more numerous and twice in number than the first time around.
11. It is difficult to put into words the fatigue you feel. At first it can be ignored (by talking with other runners or thinking about ice-cold beer) but slowly and surely it progresses. The fatigue that you feel at 24 miles is only exceeded by that which you feel at 28 miles, which in turn is only exceeded by that felt at 30 miles and so on. I am told that it is even worse and continues to progress when running extreme distances or 50 or 100 miles.
12. Keep moving forward no matter what. Success in running longer distances is all about survival not speed. When you think that you just cannot go any more, it is possible to somehow find a way to keep going.
13. One lady told me that she feels the same way about ultrarunning as childbirth: “No matter how bad it gets, you can take comfort in knowing that eventually it will end.”
14. There were very few younger runners in their 20s; the majority were in their forties and older. Perhaps it is because running such long distances takes a certain amount of mental toughness and fortitude that the younger generation does not possess.
15. We passed one gentleman on the trail who was 84 years old. He wasn’t moving fast but he was moving. We stayed and talked with him as we took a walking rest break for a few minutes. He told us that he limits himself to “only” two ultramarathons a year but also runs 4 or 5 traditional marathons. When we asked how long he has been running, he said he started when he was much younger, when he was age 65. How inspiring!
16. To save time and avoid poison ivy, it is possible to pee while you are running. I haven’t tried this myself yet but learned how to do this from another runner up in front of me. I shouted: “Hey, I think you’ve got a leak in your water bottle!” We ended up running alongside each other for about nine miles or so. We had a nice conversation and he shared with me quite a few other “secrets” besides how to pee while running.
17. After the race it is important to rehydrate and replace carbs you burned (ie drink some beer).
You should also take anti-inflammatory medications such as Naproxen to reduce post-race muscle pain (but beer works quicker).
18. Ultramarathoners are an odd and eccentric bunch. I felt immediately that I fit right in with them- need I say more?
19. Oh yes, don’t forget: 31 miles is LONG way.
So you ask: why in the heck do I like to run so far?
If you need to ask, then I cannot explain. The closest I can come to explaining is to simply repeat the statement made by mountain climbers when asked why they like to climb mountains: “Because it is there…”
It is a pretty cool feeling to know that I can run more than 30 miles, even if I do it slowly. Not that one would ever have a need for such ability. You know that when I first rediscovered my love for running about 4 years ago, I was overweight and could hardly go a mile before I was completely out of breath.
Though I am tired and a bit sore today, I surprisingly don’t feel all that bad and I am already looking forward to my next event. There’s a 38 mile all-night “fun” run in three weeks, I’ll see how I feel this week before I make a decision. Many of the longer races give a commemorative buckle to all finishers.
Maybe someday I might be able to do a 50 miler and get a buckle?