My First Ultra

The end of 2016 was filled with many of the common retrospective exercises. Lots of self, career, family, and running thoughts raced through my head. I ran five marathons in 2016, including Pike’s Peak which was one of my most humbling running experiences to date. In brief, I hammered 13 miles up the mountain and then tripped, stumbled, and rolled 13 miles down the mountain on not just my first trail race but my first time running on trails (in road shoes, sigh)! Anyway, I wasn’t quite satisfied with 2016 and wrestled what many marathoners have faced, go faster or longer or maybe both. I always wondered about running longer distances but feared all the normal things. I finally decided to face those fears and set my 2017 sights on a 50 miler.

I didn’t quite realize at the time but I picked one of the harder 50’s in the country, San Juan Solstice, with much of the race spent above the tree line. To be clear, I never claimed to be smart as my wife is quick to call out many examples to properly illustrate this point. I wanted a challenge, I wanted mountains, I wanted stunning views, and SJS50 generally checked those boxes and many more. For the first time since early 2016, I was truly excited and laser focused to conquer the San Juan mountains in late June. I had five months to level up from marathons to ultras and put together a plan. The first stop was Black Mountain, a near 40 mile race up Mount Mitchell, the highest peak on the east coast.

Jay Curwen and his team put on a phenomenal race. The start and finish are in a wonderful town outside of Asheville. Roughly 20 miles up to the summit of Mount Mitchell and then 20 miles back down to finish where the community comes out to watch folks suffer across the finish line. The course itself is a wonderful mix of trails, parkway, and neighborhoods. Aside from my self inflicted struggles and limited climbing experience, this was a great and painful intro into distances beyond 26.2.

Some non trivial lessons from my first ultra:

  • It never always get worse. I’ve heard this from others since this race. It’s a very true statement and applies to all aspects of life. My legs started cramping as I approached the summit. I was 15 miles into the race and immediately panicked knowing I had 25 to go. One of the many joys in distance running is the real time problem solving that is required. This was a wonderful example, taking inventory of how my body was feeling and quickly realizing I only had water and some light food for the past few hours. I needed electrolytes! I started pounding Tailwind, Gatorade, and eating salty foods. My body responded within a few miles and I was back to running a respectable pace. I’ve since used this mantra several times to ride out rough patches in races and the reality is, things never always get worse. I also learned a valuable lesson in how to hydrate early and not be stupid.
  • If this is your first time at something, maybe not go faster than folks far more experienced and likely faster than you. This was humbling. I hadn’t quite mastered the walk/shuffle/run strategy that smart runners will institute to ensure a successful race. I met some folks that were clearly stronger and far more experienced runners. I pushed ahead of them around mile 8 and was eventually passed later in the race where some of them finished a full hour ahead of me. So the lesson learned is to be conservative, stay within yourself, and pay attention to the field. I generally assume that if everyone is walking a particular section then maybe I should too.
  • Ultra runners are super humans. I’m amazed how fast some of these runners fly down technical trails. I’m even more amazed at how runners trade stories about 100 milers like most folks talk about 5k’s. It’s truly inspirational to hear about the races folks did the weekend before and are quickly back out doing more races. I keep telling myself that they don’t have kids, or 9-5 jobs, or maybe friends. None of these are true, they are just super humans.
  • Some of these super humans are a-holes. That might be a bit harsh but the person that wants to tell me about their race being a fun training run can kindly shut their trap. It happens a lot. Most of the races I’ve run have been first time distances for me and I hear a lot of folks humble bragging about their 50 mile tune up for their real goal race. I will not be rude to these folks but also might not hold in my gas should I happen to run in front.
  • Some doors can be opened. Doors are meant to be opened. I shared this story with a few folks and many experienced runners were amazed. So much that I won’t share specifics. But just because you were waitlisted for a race doesn’t mean you can’t run the race. I drove to Asheville prepared to run the 26 mile race and was able to run the 40 miler. Point is, some doors can be opened if you are willing to knock or ask. Don’t be a weenie.
  • Not all races run true to their distance. This blew my mind and I learned again for Bull Run Run 50 and Mountain Masochist. The 40 mile Black Mountain race was really closer to 38. It sounds stupid but this still amazed me for months after the race. I’ve since learned that races will be a few miles less, more, or spot on. I have my sights set on a 100 mile race that is actually 112! Most of all, I’ve learned to figure this out early so you’re not cursing the RD at the end when you’re on mile 53 of a 50 mile race.

Many of these lessons learned are small things that many folks will not think twice about. For first timers, I hope this helps prepare you for your miles ahead.