I had never heard of the word “Ultramarathon” until I started trying to become a runner. Hell – I didn’t even know the distance of a marathon until my brother did his first Ironman distance race, which ends in a marathon. But the word Ultramarathon was something I didn’t hear about until I started becoming part of the local running community and listening to them talk about their upcoming Ultras.
An ultramarathon (also called ultra distance) is any sporting event involving running and walking longer than the traditional marathon length of 42.195 kilometres (26.2188 mi).
People who run ultramarathons call themselves Ultra Runners. As of yesterday around 2:30pm? I am officially an Ultra Runner.
The race I ran is local one called Dizzy Fifties. It’s a 50K on the trails on our local mountain – Monte Sano. I run these trails often and ran the course specifically dozens of times. I had to postpone my 50-mile attempt in early November because of my miscarriage, so this race ended up being my first Ultra. It turns out that this may have been the best thing to come out of that sad loss.
The race is small, just about 110 runners or so. It loops back at a pavilion 6 times so you can have your own aid and access to a bathroom. There’s tons of support waiting around the pavilion and it’s a great spectator race as people just hang out on the mountain waiting to see their runners. The course isn’t too technical, with only one steep decline and one steep incline. (Unfortunately, you do those each 3 times.) To tell you how “untechnical” it is – my 25K from last year? Had me at a slower average pace than my 50K from yesterday. The 25K was that much more technical. Also – the time limit is very doable as they allow for a 40-mile and 50-mile option as well. You basically have 10+ hours to do the 50K if you need.
Basically? The perfect first-time 50K. If you’re local and ever consider doing one? This is the one to do. I hope it becomes a regular annual challenge of mine!
All of that said? IT WAS HELL.
My Ultra Experience – In the beginning…I was happy
I started out the course slow and steady. It’s basically 2 different loops (North and South) that you do 3 times each. The North loop is the first one you do and it’s the harder of the two. It has a lot of technical (difficult to run) parts and one very steep downhill and one steep uphill. I did the first North and South loop no problem. I was tired, but feeling good.
OH! Funny story: At the end of the first South loop I was going to spit (like I always do) and I tripped at the perfect moment in time so that the spit somehow ended up back on my face. It was HYSTERICAL. I had to stop running and squat because I was laughing so hard I thought I was going to pee in my pants. It was – by far – my finest moment of the race.
When things started to go downhill. And not in a good way.
When we started the second North loop things when downhill fast for me. Quite literally. I’m prone to turning ankles and tripping several times a mile when I run trails. But I rarely fall or come close to falling. (I say “rarely” because the super-fast guys hit the ground regularly.) But on that North loop I hit the ground once early on and just kept tripping, stumbling, and turning my ankles. It was like I was stuck in some sort or repetitive cycle. I tried to “reset” my body a few times by holding my arms up and just realigning things, but the cycle just wouldn’t break.
The last mile of the North loop is a steep uphill climb that I always walk, so I was hoping that would help get me out of my ass-busting rut. Because my body was ACHING. All of that tripping and flailing had every muscle tense. We got to the top of the trail for the last semi-flat stretch to the pavilion when I fell the worst of the day and hit my knee on a rock and pulled a muscle in my upper back trying to catch myself.
My dark miles of darkness and dark.
I saw Donnie at the pavilion which was a nice treat, he was a loop ahead of me at that point. We started down the road for our second South loop when I had my worst ankle-turn of the day. I’ve mentioned before that I was taught to just run out an ankle turn and that has always worked, so that’s what I did. BUT – it was a bad one and took me a bit to loosen it out. One of Donnie’s Tri friends was behind me when it happened and told Donnie later she thought for sure I had broken my ankle.
So that had me starting my favorite of the two loops in a very bad place. The ankle loosened up and the pain subsided, but that was basically the straw that broke the camel’s back after the last North loop. I love the South loop, it contains my favorite pieces of trails and it’s easy and soft and lovely. But I was not in a good place. So I just let my running buddy get ahead of me while I kinda started getting really depressed. We were about mile 17 or 18 when I started thinking about quitting. We were on zig-zag trails so I couldn’t see my running buddy so I thought she must be miles ahead of me. I was alone and thinking, I have to come back and do this entire loop ONE MORE TIME before I’m done. I was playing a very tough mental game. I thought about quitting. I thought about walking. I thought that I must be the stupidest person in the world to believe it was possible to run an ultra.
IT WAS BAD.
The trail straightens and I see hope
When I got off the zig-zag part of the trail I realized that my running buddy was actually within sight. As were a couple of runners in between. This gave me hope because it helped me see I wasn’t the last person out there and that, even if I was, I wasn’t that far from other runners.
I started to perk up and held a steady pace and slowly started catching up with people. I ran with one guy for awhile who was struggling too, and it was his birthday! We talked for a bit but I had to leave him behind and I finally caught up with my friend before about the last mile of that loop. We made it to the pavilion and suddenly started considering the fact that…Hey…we might actually do this after all!
The joy of running buddies
I’m not sure if I would have continued if I didn’t have a friend to run with. There’s something about communal misery that makes you be able to suffer through something easier. We started the last North loop (the hard loop) and just knew we were going to walk whenever the ground even trended uphill. We were laughing about how slow we were going and how we couldn’t run faster if we were being chased by dinosaurs. We tested out different sounds of agony. We discussed what parts of our bodies were hurting us most in those moments.
I don’t think I would have finished those last 9.5 miles without her.
We actually ended up doing them quite well! We didn’t walk a whole lot more than we did the first two times we did those loops, but our running was a bit slower. I popped a blister on my last North loop that hurt for a bit, but eventually that pain subsided to make way for the lower back pain I felt the entire last South loop.
But mentally? I was doing SO MUCH BETTER. Physically I was in hell, but mentally? I knew I could do it. There was no option but to FINISH and I was going to try to do it as fast as my feeble little legs could carry me.
The moment where I lose my Wife Of The Year award
The last stretch to the finish-line is on road and right before I got to the road I saw Donnie running towards me. I yelled at him. SERIOUSLY. I DID. I was like, “GO AWAY! I DON’T NEED YOU!”
But – here’s the thing. He had already run the 50K. He was done. If he hadn’t run it and was just spectating? I would have begged him to run me into the finish line, but because he had already done what I was trying to do? I was embarrassed. I’m very self-conscious about being slow and I didn’t want our running friends to think I needed Donnie to get me across the finish-line. Not after he had already finished. So I got upset. It wasn’t my finest moment, but he understood.
(His defense: I WAS BORED! Which he admits was the WORST THING TO SAY, EVER.)
The Finish Line
So…he ran BACK to the pavilion and let me push my way to the finish-line alone. And I crossed that line trying my best not to cry because…HOLY HELLFIRE! I just ran an ultramarathon! I think I finished in around 7:45, but they haven’t posted the official results yet so I may be off by 10 minutes or so.
They gave me my finisher’s award – which was a journal! How hilarious is that? It’s like they thought of the gift perfect for me (they give something different every year). If there’s one thing I can’t resist – it’s a journal – so I was thrilled. It has a metal cover embossed with the race name/logo. It’s great. I was simply happy.
And in that moment, even though I was in pain and had gone through some desperately dark times, I knew I’d be back next year if my life allowed for the training schedule again.
Every goal achieved leads you to life lessons. It’s funny, though. This race simply reaffirmed what I learned during my trail marathon in May. It is so hard to fathom that – if you’re feeling crappy during a race – that it can actually get better. Logic says that the more miles you run, you should feel worse. But yesterday worked the same way Scenic City did, I hit my lowest point far away from the finish line. And I felt better towards the end of the race.
I don’t think everyone does that, but the only thing getting me through those dark miles yesterday was remembering how I eventually felt better at Scenic City. 99% of that is mental. The mental game is so tough and you can get so down and so dark. Which is why I’m so glad I had a friend to run with. I would never ask someone to run with me, but luckily we both were in the same physical shape so we were able to stick together without one person feeling like they were being held back.
It’s just an amazing thing to realize that things don’t get harder with each mile. You will have a lowest point during your race, but for me? It’s not usually near the end. In Scenic City it was around mile 8, yesterday it was around mile 18. But getting past those moments and pushing through the mind games, is what makes every mile worth it.
One final note. Part of the South loops runs along these commonly-hiked trails that all connect. Because it can get confusing they will put these posts up periodically to tell you the shortest way back to your car. The entire time I was training for this race I laughed at these posts thinking, I WISH. But yesterday, on the last South loop when I was about 3 miles from the finish-line I thought this time, it’s true! So I took this picture. I was finally on the shortest route back to my car, after 28.5 miles.
All in all…If you can take a silly picture of yourself 28+ miles into a 31 miles race? You’re in a good place. Especially if you know that you’re on the quickest route back to your ride home.