My First Ultra
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?