“I look around and all I see is crazy people without their medication, all bug-eyed and excitable. Navy seals, army rangers and the bat-shit crazies all let out early for time-served. It was quite the moment when I realized I was one of them and our collective medical treatment would begin very…very…soon…”
Running an ultramarathon is like eating an elephant: you can only finish it with the right amount of patience and barbecue sauce. But mostly, it’s about the patience.
The North Face Bear Mountain 50K is a monster; one of the more challenging “short” ultramarathons on the east coast. From my previous attempt at the 21K distance, I was prepared for just how technical the trails would be. I was less prepared for how torrential rains a few days prior would shape the course into an unrecognizable minefield.
As this was my first ultramarathon, I only had a few KEY objectives:
(1) don’t get injured, (2) don’t DNF (“Did Not Finish”) (although a DFL was OK – i.e. “Dead Fucking Last” ) – i.e. make the cutoffs, and most importantly (3) eat/drink aggressively. As it turned out, the course was in such bad shape that balancing speed vs. injury was the main obstacle. I still can’t get my head around how the professionals just cruised over such horrible terrain. It just doesn’t make sense to me.
This sort of distance is a true measure of physical and mental toughness however when the elements are against you, at least for me, it turned into an exercise of survival.
31 miles. 5000 feet of elevation. 8 hours and 18 minutes of relentless forward progress.
Relentless Forward Progress
The key to running this distance is preparation. It’s not enough to have run a number of marathons. Running an ultramarathon, especially on trails, is a totally different animal. The time on your feet alone is something that most road runners cannot anticipate, let alone tolerate.
If I’m completely honest, my preparation was more mental than physical – as a keen listener & reader of all things ultra, I had enough sound advice under my belt to draw upon to make the day manageable. Sure, I increased my training volume – three 20 mile runs and one 23 mile run – a lot of strength training but all of this was small potatoes. Even the 500+ miles in training volume this year ( a lot of which, with a pack to harden my quads ) wasn’t the real preparation.
All of the nuggets of advice I took in from others – everything from “what to eat” to “how to run downhill” – all of these small pieces of advice pushed me to a strong finish. If I had to pick one piece of advice that was the most true it was this: “things will get better”. And it was true. Every bad patch was followed by a better patch somewhat later – the key was sticking it out. I simply had no measure or method to gague how hard to push the course or what pacing strategy I should emplore – there was just no comparison; no equivlaent race – even this course in previous years wouldn’t have felt the same – so mostly, I just went by feel; very conservative.
The North Face people really know how to put on a race. Everything you need is really there. It’s a far cry from the trail races I used to run in the UK, where you’d be impressed if you had a stick of gum at the aid station. Mile 20 deep in the forest had chicken broth and coca-cola – both of which I enjoyed. Some even had medical personnel to assist with blister repair ( I also took this in, given the backs of my achilles were bloodied by mile 15 ).
The Garmin GPS details really tell the whole story – I was ready to run, but the course had other plans. I probably only ran 15 miles, the rest either hiking uphill with my hands on my legs (taking the load) or gingerly trying not to trip on rocks littering both the river beds and the streams.
The best part of running it last year was that I KNEW when the bad terrain was over – around mile 28 – from there, it was super runnable downhill with a few modest hikes uphill. Even after that many miles on my feet, I was excited to be able to throw myself down the mountain again and finish feeling relatively strong. Given the distance it’s amazing to think that I felt better after 8 hours then I did when I red-lined my marathon last fall – think it really tells you something about how the distance isn’t as tricky as the intensity at which you do it. It was the perfect ending to a long day.
After over eight hours on the trails, there’s too many details to count. Here’s a quick snapshot of the highlights:
Journey – 4AM wake-up for a 7AM start. Of course, I didn’t sleep through the night.
Pre-Race – Fire to keep warm and fresh coffee. Didn’t stoke the bowels, but nice and toasty before the sun rose.
Cramps – I started the race with a horrible stitch that didn’t go away for five miles. Wonderful.
Elevation – 5k feet of elevation ascent/descent is fun – only when runnable. Not so runnable. Quads. Quads. Quads.
Mud – Tons of mud, ankle deep. Insane how thick and all encompassing. Never. Fucking. Ending.
Water – Deep streams and treacherous crossings. Cools the heals at least.
Bugs – They were everywhere. Not sure how I forgot about this one.
Leaves – Wet leaves were slippery. Dry leaves hide TONS of sharp rocks. Very hard to navigate.
Branches – Look at your feet, roots below. Look up quick, branch in the face!
Briars – Tons of sharp briars on the legs scraping as you go @ 21M. Sweet!
Rocks – Unrunnable rocks. Every rock on the east coast they found.
Scrambles – Getting to the top of the mountain required hands AND feet. Up and down.
Hallucinations – These were helpful; animated arrows on the ground showing me the way through the rock field. Still, a little unnerving. Especially because I didn’t realize they were hallucinations until the following day.
Blisters/Toe Jams – Amazing I didn’t break anything. I definitely kicked a few BIG rocks. Let’s see what’s different in a few days.
Blood/guts – I didn’t realize until the end of the race, but apparently I was bleeding at the achilles on both legs. Good thing I wasn’t stomping through malaria infested swamp water for 5 miles. Oh wait….
People – Trail races are just full of friendly people, all willing to assist, provides words of encouragement – it’s just a great sub-culture.
CARBO LOADING – Burritos. Rice. Repeat.
REST – I had a very light running week. Felt very fresh for the race if not a little over-carbo loaded. The wife was in charge of my nutrition plan and kept me stocked with quality rice, pasta, gummy bears, swedish fish – perfection.
Relentless forward progress – There were chairs at the aid stations but I knew if I stopped moving then my day was over. KEEP ON MOVING!
Hydration Bladder – Keeping hydrated was key. I was aggressive on drinking fluids but it still didn’t pee once in 8 hours (at some point, I did wonder if my kidneys were shutting down and I was going to die out there…)
Streams – Turns out that running through streams reduces swelling. Who knew?
Body Glide + Baby Oil – The anti-chafing combination saving the nation.
Flat Coke/Pepsi – Perfect to get in calories at the aid stations & settle the stomach. ULTRA STAPLE!
Potatoes dipped in salt – Amazing. Simply amazing. Aid Stations Glory.
SaltStick Capsules – Amazing. Effective. Will use in the future.
Strength Training – Squats. Push-ups. Crunches. Saved my legs.
Pearl Izumi N2 trail – Effective on road. Effective on trails.
iPod – Hate to run with music but it saved me this time. Preloaded trance and dance podcasts but wound up just listening to the customized playlist.
Wife @ The End – Wonderful seeing the wife at the end of the race – what a trooper waiting for me given how long it took. If you do not have one, I suggest you pick one up.
Burgers – Protein is a must after such an event. A day of eating fake food – all I wanted was something hot, dead, and dripping in blood.
Sharpy! – Next time, write the aid station distances on your forearm. Maybe even a mantra ( my mantra was “tough days don’t last – tough people do” )
Long Socks – Smartwool socks were fantastic, however they slipped down, ripping apart my achilles in the process.
Gaiters – They worked in the UK; now bring them to America on a wet day.
Bug Spray – How could you forget DEET? Definitely ate a bunch of bugs. Protein?
Make The next one Runnable – A great race, but I sure did miss running – next one should be more runnable.
Twenty-four hours post race and the main challenge was getting my digestive system moving again. Killer rosemary fries and burgers from Back-40 did the job nicely. My back/core was also incredible sore from all of the stabilization activities. Quads took a beating but I’d say no worse than a fast marathon.
Six days later and my quads have returned. I can now walk upright – it’s amazing. My achilles blister is still in bad shape – the burn was deep and although I have been able to run on it, the return to form will likely take another week I’m expecting.
I’m still unable to process the enormity of the undertaking. I’ve dreamed of running an ultramarathon for some time. Now that it’s finally in the can, I can’t wait to sign up for my next one – it’s going to be DRY, it’s going to be FLAT (relatively) and it’s going to be hopefully very, very LONG…
Reflections for NEXT TIME
Seven days of limping around NYC have made me think a few more things:
– I probably could have run with a handheld to improve agility
– I probably could have run faster on the flats
– I probably could have taken less time in the aid stations
– I probably should have taped my achilles at the 1st sign of hot spots
– I definitely should have strapped ICE to my quads post race to help with DOMS
– I definitely want to run another one – maybe a 50 miler before I ripen (age 40 coming quickly…)