Let me start by clearly stating, or perhaps confessing, that I do not have the experience in distance running, or the ability, to write about how to win an ultramarathon. Consequently, this is not an attempt to outline the missteps or errors in race strategy that can cost a legitimate contender a chance to cross the finish line ahead of the pack. As valuable as that information might to be to a very few select people that can run 7 minute miles for 30 or 50 straight miles, it doesn’t necessarily help someone who, let’s say, signed up for an ultra despite not having run anything longer than the Disney 15k over 10 years ago, whoever that may be. What I desire to share with you, however, is the preparation, execution, and overall mindset that helped me successfully, and thoroughly, lose two ultras this year, with more to come I’m sure.
It is difficult to explain exactly why I decided to attempt my first 50K trail run, but it undoubtedly started with the book, “Born to Run” and naturally descended from there into a labyrinth of ultra-running personalities, such as Scott Jurek, Dean Karnazes, Charlie Engle, and Rich Roll to name a few. Even this incredibly nice and hardworking guy that was part of the crew building my house turned out to be a world-class ultramarathon stud (I’m not making this up; his name is Mike Morton and he has records and wins at nearly all the top races in the US and around the world.) The underlying goal of mine, however, was simply to find remote trails that lead to unspoiled wilderness and be able to run them for as long as I am able: to push the perceived limits of my body while exploring nature in the manner that it was created. The races gave me something more tangible to work towards, and a schedule more rigid and demanding. I had three months to prepare for the first, then two months to recover and get ready for the second. The results, well, they speak for themselves.
I began training in October for a January 1st 50K trail run in Brooksville, Fl. I was able to carve out one day a week for a long trail run, usually between 8 and 12 miles, and another day to run at the track for about 30 minutes. I made progress but the miles were not enough to suddenly triple the distance my body could cover on race day. As I entered December, one month before my first ultra, desperation overtook common sense. I chose one day a week to run the 10 miles to work at five in the morning and 10 miles back home at three in the afternoon. After three weeks, I felt ready to tackle this beast of a race (and yes, I know it’s the shortest ultramarathon and it is relatively flat and simple.) My race strategy was to run the first 10-mile loop very conservatively, then try to pick it up to my normal running pace for the second loop, before finally gutting out the third loop at whatever I can muster. My goal was to finish without walking.
Everything went swimmingly until at mile one, I noticed I was actually in the lead group with the obvious contenders and quickly opening a large gap between us and the rest of the runners. I also reasoned, very logically, that since the first few miles were on pavement and sloped gently downward, it made sense to allow myself to open up and run fast. I had plenty of time to slow down later. Of course, once we hit the single-track trails, my competitive nature and pride pushed me further and faster than my pre-race strategy had planned. In fact, I was still in the top group, and passing a few people, as I blew through the aid station at the end of the first loop twelve miles into the race. I held my ground, just barely, as I fought through the second loop but at mile 22 my legs, my pace, and my position in the race took an unstoppable nosedive into the abyss of ultra-running. I quickly slowed from 8 minutes per mile to nearly double that, while shuffling through the sand and over roots for the last 10 miles.
Soon after that began the humbling and quite interesting parade of runners to pass me by, all politely telling me how great I was doing. First came the group of leapfrog runners that would fly by at double my pace, then slow to a walk after a few minutes or on the uphill sections, then take off again. It was equal parts frustrating and impressive to watch them disappear into the woods ahead of me using their run/walk strategy. Next to wish me luck on the way by was the slow and steady pacers that both started and finished the race with the same steady gait and relaxed demeanor. I envied their smiles while grimacing through cramping legs and heavy feet. In the end, however, I finished the race without walking, achieving my goal. I gained a feeling of perseverance, a humility beyond anything experienced in triathlons or shorter races, and a unique and valuable perspective on how to lose a 50k ultra.
As I prepared for the second race, another 50k through similar terrain in Ocala, Florida, I considered the three methods utilized by myself and the other non-elite racers. The leapfrog strategy seemed to offer the best chance for me to achieve my fastest time, but slow and steady pacing would probably be the most manageable. To my surprise, truly, I found myself two miles into the race and already passing a dozen people that would, in all likelihood, finish ahead of me again. I kept a nearly 8 minute per mile pace for 24 miles before crashing down to reality, but I was quite content with my sluggish finish. That is simply my way of losing an ultra. We can call it an unrealistic, or even foolish, way to approach a race and I would agree with you. But running hard, pushing the limits, and accepting the results, as humbling as they were, is worth more to me right now than a PR.
My mantra throughout both races proved prophetic and ultimately very useful. I repeated, over and over again, Philipians 4:13 saying, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” What struck me about this verse as I ran is that it is often used by many people, me included, to inspire confidence in achieving greatness. The preceding verses, however, make it abundantly clear that Paul was extolling God’s faithfulness in granting perseverance and endurance through life’s ups and downs. In life and in ultras, I can endure every challenge that comes my way by staying connected to my purpose in Christ Jesus. I can finish the race and be grateful for the beauty of the woods, the difficulty of the run, the accomplishment of reaching the limit of what my body can do. And in that, be content.